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Google is the search engine of choice for most genealogists I know, due to its ability to return relevant search results for genealogy and surname queries and its huge index. 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.
Begin With the Basics
1. All Terms Count - Google automatically assumes an implied AND between each of your search terms. In other words, a basic search will only return pages that include all of your search terms.
2. Use Lower Case - Google is case insensitive, with the exception of the search operators AND and OR. All other search terms will return the same results, regardless of the combination of upper and lower case letters used in your search query. Google also ignores most common punctuation such as commas and periods. Thus a search for Archibald Powell Bristol, England will return the same results as archibald powell bristol england.
3. Search Order Matters - Google will return results that contain all of your search terms, but will give higher priority to the earlier terms in your query. Thus, a search for power wisconsin cemetery will return pages in a different ranked order than wisconsin power cemetery. Put your most important term first, and group your search terms in a way that makes sense.
Search With a Focus
4. Search for a Phrase - 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.
5. Exclude Unwanted Results - 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. Search for ford -harrison to exclude results with the word 'harrison'. It also works well for cities that exist in more than one area such as shealy lexington "south carolina" OR sc -massachusetts -kentucky -virginia. You have to be careful when eliminating terms (especially place names), however, because this will exclude pages that have results including both your preferred location and the ones you eliminated.
6. Use OR to Combine Searches - Use the term OR between search terms 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 (note that you have to type OR in ALL CAPS) you can achieve a bit more flexibility (e.g. smith cemetery OR "gravestone will return results for smith cemetery and smith gravestone).
7. Exactly What You Want - Google employs a number of algorithms to ensure accurate search results, including automatically considering searches for words that are common synonyms to be identical, or suggesting an alternate, more common spellings. A similar algorithm, called stemming, returns not only results with your keyword, but also with terms based on the keyword stem - such as "powers," "power" and "powered." Sometimes Google can be a little too helpful, however, and will return results for a synonym or word that you may not want. In these cases, use "quotation marks" around your search term to ensure that it is used exactly as you typed it (e.g. "power" surname genealogy)
8. Force Additional Synonyms - Although Google search automatically displays results for certain synonyms, the tilde symbol (~) will force Google to show additional synonyms (and related words) for your query. For example, a search for schellenberger ~vital records leads Google to return results including "vital records," "birth records," "marriage records," and more. Similarly, ~obituaries will also include "obits," "death notices," "newspaper obituaries," "funeral," etc. Even a search for schellenberger ~genealogy will yield different search results than schellenberger genealogy. Search terms (including synonyms) are bolded in Google search results, so you can easily see what terms were found on each page.
9. Fill in the Blanks - Including an *, or wildcard, in your search query tells Google to treat the star as a placeholder for any unknown term(s) and then find the best matches. Use the wildcard (*) operator to end a question or phrase such as william crisp was born in * or as a proximity search to find terms located within two words of each other such as david * norton (good for middle names and initials). Note that the * operator works only on whole words, not parts of words. You can't, for example, search for owen* in Google to return results for Owen and Owens.
10. Use Google's Advanced Search Form - If the search options above are more than you want to know, try using Google's Advanced Search Form which simplifies most of the search options previously mentioned, such as using search phrases, as well as removing words you don't want included in your search results.
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. Watch out, however! Sometimes Google chooses to display the search results for the alternate spelling and you'll need to select the correct spelling to find what you are really looking for.
Bring Back Sites 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.
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 ( related:genealogy.about.com).
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:familysearch.org and you'll find about 3,340 pages which link to the homepage of familysearch.org. You can also use this technique to find out who, if anyone, has linked to your personal genealogy site.
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 1600+ 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.
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).
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. tgn.com utah).
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 "cache" feature.
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 homepage. 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.
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.
Best wishes for a successful search!