Tip sheet
tracing website owners
by Paul Myers
 
Many sites have a "contact us" section accessible from their front page. Often, it is not that easy to trace the perpetrators of a website. However, by using technical tools and imaginative searching you will be surprised how much information you can find.

Although tracing techniques vary according to the kind of web host being used, some methods are universal.

Once you know the nature of the host you can set about tracing the owner of the site. You can often discern this by editing the web address down. For example for http://members.aol.com/johndoe123/blahblah.html visit http://members.aol.com or simply http://aol.com. From here you could easily see that John Doe's site is hosted on AOL's server. AOL is an Internet Service Provider and this site is hosted on web space given to their member John Doe.

Generally speaking, pages are found four kinds of websites: owned domain name, university servers, ISP hosted and free webspace. 

Owned Domain Name
The person or people behind a website have bought their own domain name. 

This usually makes tracing them reasonably easy. Every domain name owner must supply contact details to the authorities and, in many countries, you can access these details by doing a "whois" search.
A whois search for bbc.com can be seen at http://www.whois.sc/bbc.com
This search will usually reveal the name of the person responsible for the site or its upkeep. Their address, phone number and email address.
These details may be entered into Google for further research. You will often find webpages that mention the email address gleaned from the whois search. You might find linked organisations sharing the same phone number as the one you found in the whois details. Every scrap of personal information is useful when trying to trace people. Don't forget to look in Google Groups as well.

Aside from the wonderful whois.sc you can also perform a whois search at http://www.easywhois.com and http://www.allwhois.com, http://www.coolwhois.com and many other sites.
 
University Websites
You will often find personal webpages hosted on sites owned by universities. A whois search will only get you the details of the university - not the creator of the pages you've found. However, the creator's name usually appears in the web address somewhere - often preceded by a symbol called a tilde which looks like this ~

Let's say you've found a site with this address: http://www.harvard.edu/~johndoe/snow.html

If you edit the webaddress back to http://www.harvard.edu/~johndoe you will probably find yourself at John's home page (hopefully with biographical and contact details). If you edit the address back further, to http://www.harvard.edu/ you will find yourself at the home page of the university. You can then go to the staff directory section and see if there are contact details for John Doe. If not, then John Doe might be a student. Either way, you may still find extra details by doing a keyword search for "john doe" harvard

The same methods often work for personal pages hosted on web sites owned by other organisations (eg. companies, charities etc.)
 
Free ISP space
Internet service providers give free web space to their subscribers. A whois search will only find you the contact details of the ISP and it is extremely unlikely that they will divulge the real name, address and phone number of one of their customers. 

However you can often derive the email address of the website creator by looking at their web address. For example, the email address of the owner of http://members.aol.com/johndoe is johndoe@aol.com, the email address of the owner of www.randomname.freeserve.co.uk is info@randomname.freeserve.com and the email address of the owner of http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/johndoe is johndoe@tiscali.com.

From here you can do a keyword search for the email address or look in the newsgroups.
 
Free Web space
The "Hotmail" of web space - convenient, free and possibly anonymous. Various companies offer free web space, the most popular being Geocities, Fortune City, Angel Fire and Tripod. The people behind these sites are often harder to trace than the owners of ISP web space sites.

Edit the web address to get to the front page of the site you are investigating and glean as many searchable details as possible.

Grab a line of text from the front page and search for that on Google - often a domain name is bought and linked to a free webspace site - if this is the case it will show up on a search engine and be "whois" searchable.

Grab the address of the site and do an advanced Google or Altavista search to see who links to the site (often websites owned by the same person).

Yahoo own Geocities.com and use it to give their members free web space. The web address http://www.geocities.com/johndoe will be owned by someone with the Yahoo user name "johndoe". This will appear in his email address as johndoe@yahoo.com - of course this is generally searchable, but you may be able to find out more information about him by searching for his user profile at http://members.yahoo.com