Consulting the Phonebook

Google makes an excellent phonebook, even to the extent of doing reverse lookups.

Google combines residential and business phone number information and its own excellent interface to offer a phonebook lookup that provides listings for businesses and residences in the United States. However, the search offers three different syntaxes, different levels of information provide different results, the syntaxes are finicky, and Google doesn’t provide any documentation.

The Three Syntaxes

Google offers three ways to search its phonebook:

phonebook

Searches the entire Google phonebook

rphonebook

Searches residential listings only

bphonebook

Searches business listings only

Tip

The result page for phonebook: lookups lists only five results, residential and business combined. The more specific rphonebook: and bphonebook: searches provide up to 30 results per page. For more chance of finding what you’re looking for, use the appropriate targetted lookup.

Using the Syntaxes

Using a standard phonebook requires knowing quite a bit of information about what you’re looking for: first name, last name, city, and state. Google’s phonebook requires no more than last name and state to get it started. Casting a wide net for all the Smiths in California is as simple as:

phonebook:smith ca

Try giving 411 a whirl with that request! Figure 1-11 shows the results of the query.

phonebook: result page

Figure 1-11. phonebook: result page

Notice that, while intuition might tell you there are thousands of Smiths in California, the Google phonebook says there are only 600. Just as Google’s regular search engine maxes out at 1000 results, its phonebook maxes out at 600. Fair enough. Try narrowing down your search by adding a first name, city, or both:

phonebook:john smith los angeles ca

At the time of this writing, the Google phonebook found 3 business and 22 residential listings for John Smith in Los Angeles, California.

Caveats

The phonebook syntaxes are powerful and useful, but they can be difficult to use if you don’t remember a few things about how they work.

  • The syntaxes are case-sensitive. Searching for phonebook:john doe ca works, while Phonebook:john doe ca (notice the capital P) doesn’t.

  • Wildcards don’t work. Then again, they’re not needed; the Google phonebook does all the wildcarding for you. For example, if you want to find shops in New York with “Coffee” in the title, don’t bother trying to envision every permutation of “Coffee Shop,” “Coffee House,” and so on. Just search for bphonebook:coffee new york ny and you’ll get a list of any business in New York whose name contains the word “coffee.”

  • Exclusions don’t work. Perhaps you want to find coffee shops that aren’t Starbucks. You might think phonebook:coffee -starbucks new york ny would do the trick. After all, you’re searching for coffee and not Starbucks, right? Unfortunately not; Google thinks you’re looking for both the words “coffee” and “starbucks,” yielding just the opposite of what you were hoping for: everything Starbucks in NYC.

  • OR doesn’t always work. You might start wondering if Google’s phonebook accepts OR lookups. You then might experiment, trying to find all the coffee shops in Rhode Island or Hawaii: bphonebook:coffee (ri | hi). Unfortunately that doesn’t work; the only listings you’ll get are for coffee shops in Hawaii. That’s because Google doesn’t appear to see the (ri | hi) as a state code, but rather as another element of the search. So if you reversed your search above, and searched for coffee (hi | ri), Google would find listings that contained the string “coffee” and either the strings “hi” or “ri.” So you’ll find Hi-Tide Coffee (in Massachusetts) and several coffee shops in Rhode Island. It’s neater to use OR in the middle of your query, and then specify your state at the end. For example, if you want to find coffee shops that sell either donuts or bagels, this query works fine: bphonebook:coffee (donuts | bagels) ma. That finds stores that contain the word coffee and either the word donuts or the word bagels in Massachusetts. The bottom line: you can use an OR query on the store or resident name, but not on the location.

Reverse phonebook lookup

All three phonebook syntaxes support reverse lookup, though its probably best to use the general phonebook: syntax to avoid not finding what you’re looking for due to its residential or business classification.

To do a reverse search, just enter the phone number with area code. Lookups without area code won’t work.

phonebook:(707) 829-0515

Note that reverse lookups on Google are a hit-and-miss proposition and don’t always produce results. If you’re not having any luck, you may wish to use a more dedicated phonebook site like WhitePages.com (http://www.whitepages.com/).

Finding phonebooks using Google

While Google’s phonebook is a good starting point, its usefulness is limited. If you’re looking for a phone number at a university or other large institution, while you won’t find the number in Google, you certainly can find the appropriate phonebook, if it’s online.

If you’re looking for a university phonebook, try this simple search first: inurl:phone site: university.edu, replacing university.edu with the domain of the university you’re looking for. For example, to find the online phonebook of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you’d search for:

inurl:phone site:unc.edu

If that doesn’t work, there are several variations you can try, again substituting your preferred university’s domain for unc.edu:

title:"phone book" site:unc.edu
(phonebook | "phone book") lookup faculty staff site:unc.edu
inurl:help (phonebook | "phone book")  site:unc.edu

If you’re looking for several university phonebooks, try the same search with the more generic site:edu rather than a specific university’s domain. There are also a couple of web sites that list university phonebooks:

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