Googling Genealogy Style
Twelve Google Search Tips for Genealogists
by Kimberly Powell About.com
In just three short years, Google has become the search engine of choice for millions of savvy Internet searchers.
It is a special favorite among many of the genealogists due to its ability to return relevant search results
for genealogy and surname queries. Google is much more than just a tool for finding Web sites, however, and
most people surfing for information on their ancestors barely scratch the surface of its full potential. If
you know what you are doing, you can use Google to search within Web sites, locate photos of your ancestors,
bring back dead sites, and track down missing relatives.
Learn how to Google as you've never Googled before:
Google has four important ground rules that you need to know for focused results:
1) Search With a Focus
Google has four important ground rules that you need to know for focused results:
Use a plus sign before words which are absolutely critical to your search.
Use a minus sign before words that you want to be excluded from the search. This is especially useful when
searching for a surname with a common usage such as rice or one which is shared with a famous celebrity such
as Harrison Ford (i.e. you would enter your search as ford -harrison to exclude results with the word
Use quotation marks around any two word or greater phrase to find results where the words appear together
exactly as you have entered them. This is especially useful when searching for proper names (i.e. a search
for thomas jefferson will bring up pages with thomas smith and bill jefferson, while searching for "thomas
jefferson" will only bring up pages with the name thomas jefferson included as a phrase.
Use OR to retrieve search results that match any one of a number of words.
The default operation for Google
is to return results that match ALL search terms, so by linking your terms with OR you can achieve a bit more
flexibility (ie smith genealogy OR geneology OR cemetery)
To get really fancy you can combine these options together to achieve truly focused search results. For
example, crisp +surname -apple genealogy OR geneology OR +will OR "family tree" will return sites with the
terms smith AND surname, combined with either genealogy, geneology, will, or the phrase family tree. Plus
you won't retrieve any pages talking about "apple crisp!" I only recommend limiting your searches to this
extent for common surnames, however. Otherwise you may just find yourself missing some good sites!
2) Search Without Stops
Stop words are small, common words that many search engines ignore, or don't stop for, when searching for
documents that match your query. This is because these words are either too common to generate meaningful
results (i.e. where, how, about... or are parts of speech like conjunctions, prepositions and adverbs (i.e.
and, if, be, the...). Google tells you when it's ignoring a stop word by displaying details on the results
page below the search box (i.e. "about" is a very common word and was not included in your search).
There are times when searching that you will not want Google to exclude these stop words.
For example, will
is considered a stop word by Google, which can mess up your search results if you are searching for the will
of a specific ancestor. To get around this you can either force Google to include a stop word in your search
by putting a "+" sign in front of it or by enclosing your phrase of two or more words in quotation marks
(i.e. "about genealogy" or "will rogers").
3) Search Suggested Alternate Spellings
Google has become one smart cookie and now suggests alternate spellings for search terms which appear to be
misspelled. The search engine's self-learning algorithm automatically detects misspellings and suggests
corrections based on the most popular spelling of the word. You can get a basic idea of how it works by
typing in 'geneology' as a search term. While Google will return search results for pages on geneology, it
will also ask you "Did you mean genealogy?" Click on the suggested alternate spelling for a whole new list
of sites to browse! This feature comes in particularly handy when searching for cities and towns for which
you aren't sure of the correct spelling. Type in Bremehaven and Google will ask you if you meant Bremerhaven.
Or type in Napels Italy, and Google will ask you if you meant Naples Italy.
4) Bring Sites Back From the Dead
How many times have you found what looks to be a very promising Web site, only to get a "File Not Found"
error when clicking on the link? Genealogical Web sites seem to come and go every day as webmasters change
file names, switch ISPs, or just decide to remove the site because they can no longer afford to maintain it.
This doesn't mean the information is always gone forever, however. Hit the Back button and look for a link
to a "cached" copy at the end of the Google description and page URL. Clicking on the "cached" link should
bring up a copy of the page as it appeared at the time that Google indexed that page, with your search terms
highlighted in yellow. You can also return Google's cached copy of a page, by preceding the page's URL with
'cache:'. If you follow the URL with a space separated list of search words, they will be highlighted on the
returned page. For example: cache:genealogy.about.com surname will return the cached version of this site's
homepage with the term surname highlighted in yellow.
5) Find Related Sites
Found a site that you really like and want more? GoogleScout can help you find sites with similar content.
Hit the Back button to return to your Google search results page and then click on the Similar Pages link.
This will take you to a new page of search results with links to pages which contain similar content. The
more specialized pages (such as a page for a specific surname) may not turn up many relevant results, but if
you are researching a particular topic (i.e. adoption or immigration), GoogleScout can help you find a large
number of resources very quickly, without having to worry about selecting the right keywords. You can also
access this feature directly by using the related command with the URL of the site that you like
6) Follow the Trail
Once you've found a valuable site, chances are that some of the sites which link to it may also be beneficial
to you. Use the link command along with a URL to find pages which contain links pointing to that URL. Enter
link:genealogy.about.com and you'll find about 3,200 pages which link to the homepage of genealogy.about.com.
You can also use this technique to find out who, if anyone, has linked to your personal genealogy site.
7) Search Within a Site
While many major sites have search boxes, this isn't always true of smaller, personal genealogy sites. Google
comes to the rescue again, however, by allowing you to restrict search results to a specific site. Just enter
your search term followed by the site command and the main URL for the site you wish to search in the
Google search box on the main Google page. For example, military site:www.familytreemagazine.com pulls up
150+ pages with the search term 'military' on the Family Tree Magazine Web site. This trick is especially
useful for quickly finding surname information on genealogy sites without indexes or search capabilities.
8) Cover Your Bases
When you really want to make sure you haven't missed a good genealogy site, enter allinurl:genealogy to
return a list of sites with genealogy as part of their URL (can you believe that Google found more than 10
million?). As you can tell from this example, this is a better option to use for more focused searches, such
as surnames or locality searches. You can combine multiple search terms, or use other operators such as OR
to help focus your search (i.e. allinurl:genealogy france OR french). A similar command is also available to
search for terms contained within a title (i.e. allintitle:genealogy france OR french).
9) Find People, Maps and More
If you're searching for U.S. information, Google can do so much more than just search Web pages. The lookup
information they provide through their search box has been expanded to include street maps, street addresses,
and phone numbers. Enter a first and last name, city, and state to find a phone number. You can also do a
reverse lookup by entering a phone number to find a street address. To use Google to find street maps, just
enter a street address, city, and state (i.e. 8601 Adelphi Road College Park MD), in the Google search box.
You can also find business listings by entering the name of a business and its location or zip code (i.e.
10) Pictures from the Past
Google's image search feature makes it easy to locate photos on the Web. Just click on the Images tab on
Google's home page and type in a keyword or two to view a results page full of image thumbnails. To find
photos of specific people try putting their first and last names within quotes (i.e. "laura ingalls wilder").
If you've got a bit more time or a more unusual surname, then just entering the surname should be enough.
This feature is also a great way to find photos of old buildings, tombstones, and even your ancestor's
hometown. Because Google doesn't crawl for images as often as it does for Web pages, you may find many
pages/images have moved. If the page doesn't come up when you click on the thumbnail, then you may be able
to find it by copying the URL from below the feature, pasting it into the Google search box, and using the
11) Glancing Through Google Groups
If you've got a bit of time on your hands, then check out the Google Groups search tab available from the
Google home page. Find info on your surname, or learn from the questions of others by searching through an
archive of over 700 million Usenet newsgroup messages going back as far as 1981. If you've got even more
time on your hands, then check out this historical Usenet timeline for a fascinating diversion.
12) Narrow Your Search by File Type
Typically when you search the Web for information you expect to pull up traditional Web pages in the form of
HTML files. Google offers results in a variety of different formats, however, including .PDF (Adobe Portable
Document Format), .DOC (Microsoft Word), .PS (Adobe Postscript), and .XLS (Microsoft Excel). These files
appear among your regular search results listings where you can either view them in their original format,
or use the View as HTML link (good for when you don't have the application that is needed for that particular
file type, or for when computer viruses are a concern). You can also use the filetype command to narrow
your search to find documents in particular formats (i.e. filetype:xls genealogy forms). You aren't likely
to use this Google feature often, but I have used it to find genealogy brochures in PDF format and family
group sheets and other genealogy forms in Microsoft Excel format.
If you're someone like me who uses Google quite a bit, then you may want to consider downloading and using
the Google Toolbar (requires Internet Explorer Version 5 or later and Microsoft Windows 95 or later). When
the Google Toolbar is installed, it automatically appears along with the Internet Explorer toolbar and makes
it easy to use Google to search from any Web site location, without returning to the Google home page to
begin another search. A variety of buttons and a drop-down menu make it easy to perform all of the searches
described in this article with just a click or two.
If you still aren't successful in your search after trying these tips, Google provides one more option - a
new service known as Google Answers which allows you to ask a question and set the price you are willing to
pay for an answer. A Google Answers Researcher will search for the answer and send you the information you're
seeking, as well as useful links to Web pages on the topic. If you're satisfied with that answer, you pay
the amount you specified. If not, then you may petition for a full refund.
Best wishes for a successful search!