Google in Genealogy Searches
Interactive Step by Step Instructions for Creating Better Genealogy Google Search Engine Queries
Try these Google search tips step by step as you read along. Each step builds upon the previous step.
First, remember you won't find data from every website using Google, Yahoo, or any internet search engine. Google can't search inside databases such as the Castle Garden, SSDI, LDS Family Search. For these databases searches (also known as deep web searches) you will have to go directly to each website since you cannot search a database using Google.
Step 1 - Set Google Preferences
Before you begin, be sure to set your google preferences. Click on the link "Preferences" to the right of the google search box or go to Google preferences.
- Safe Search Filter. The first thing you may want to check is "safe search filtering" to filter explicit text and explicit images from search engine results. I've been surprised more than once by things I wasn't expecting, so I'm glad Google offers this option. (Also very useful if you share your computer with children.)
- 100 Results per Page. The second preference, for those on broadband or high speed connections, is to change the number of results on a page to 100. With so many webpages in existence today, you may not always find what you are looking for in the 1st page of 10 Google search results. It is so much easier to search when you can glance at 100 results at a time rather than 10. If you find you rarely click beyond the first few pages of results (thus missing a lot of good results), you can easily check out hundreds of results instead of just tens by seeing 100 results per page. Google returns 1000 results for one query so I like to make sure I check out as many as possible.
Step 2 - Download Google Toolbar
For easier Google searching as you go through the tips below, consider downloading the free Google Toolbar
When the Google Toolbar is installed, it automatically appears along with the Internet Explorer toolbar. Here are some of the things on the toolbar I use all the time and can't imagine searching without it.
- Use Google to search without returning to the Google home page.
- Use the Google Search Site to search an individual website. This is particularly useful if a web site doesn't have its own search.
- Use the Highlight pen to mark in color all occurrences of the searched keyword on the page. No more hunting to find your search terms on the long pages on websites.
- Click on the search term on the toolbar to go to the next occurrence of the word on the web page. Another way to quickly find a word on a web page.
- Use the drag and drop function to drag any text or URL from the current page you are viewing to the Google Toolbar in order to run a search. This eliminates typos and it is quicker and easier than doing a "cut and paste" or retyping. And the search results are returned without having to click.
- Do a Google search by highlighting text on a web page and right-clicking on your mouse.
- Use the up one level button to move from a secondary page of a site and up towards the main home page. Very useful if you find a dead page to get to a higher level directory.
- Use the Popup Blocker to stop annoying pop-ups.
- Use the AutoFill to automatically fill in a form with the click of a button. No need to retype name and address over and over.
Step 3 - Recent Google Search Changes
- 32 Words Per Query. One change Google recently made is that now it will accept 32 words in a query now instead of just 10. This gives a lot more options and flexibility when trying to get accurate search results.
- All Query Words Now Count. Another change is that Google no longer ignores words to speed up its search results. Google used to ignore words such as it, is, in, of, who, where, will, and other common words.
Previously, if you searched for will of patrick powers, Google would give a message "The following words are very common and were not included in your search": will of. This meant that genealogists who were searching for wills and last testaments had to add a + before the word will so that Google would not ignore the word. Happily, this is no longer necessary. It appears now that every word counts in a search query. You will actually get slightly different results if you use some of the formerly ignored words , such as in, the, etc, in your query. Note: caps do not matter when searching Google.
Step 4 - Google + operator
Use a plus sign + before words that you want to appear in your search results without change, substitution or alternatives. Note that there is no space between the plus sign and the search word.
Google's + operator has been discontinued and its function has been replaced with double quotes.
Use double quotes around a word " when you want an exact match for your keyword and Google gives a result that has the same stem but is not an exact match to your keyword. Google now uses stemming in its searches which means it will search for your keywords but also for words that are based on the keyword stem.
Sometimes stemming can be helpful as it will give singular and plural results for a single query. Search for church and now you will get results for church and churches. However, if you only want an exact keyword match, you must force Google to do this by placing the + before the keyword. Google has replaced the + operator with the " operator.
One of my surnames is Powers, and I was surprised this year when Google started returning results of Powers, Power, and powered when I searched for Powers.
If you want an exact match with no stemming substitution, to force Google only to search for the exact keyword, add the quotes before and after the keyword with no space between. To force Google to search for Powers, and not give results such as Power or any other alternatives, use
Click on the search button to view the results. Try it with the " and without to see the difference results. You may use this surname or substitute one of your own to test the example
Using double quotes " is not necessary for all surnames or keywords. Try the search first without the ", and only add a " to words if you get results with unwanted stemming.
As you can see, a surname by itself is not a very good query. The following steps will further define this query.
Step 5 - Google Minus Sign - operator
Use a minus sign before words that you don't want to appear in your search results. Note that there is no space between the minus sign and the search word. Try to eliminate false results by telling Google NOT to give results when a particular unwanted word appears in your search results. If I search for Powers, and get results that include the movie Austin Powers, I can use "powers" -austin
This search will not return any webpages that include the word austin This helps to eliminates irrelevant results, in this case, all mention of the movie Austin Powers
I am sure you all have names in your family tree like Powers. Some surnames have many meanings besides being a surname and these surnames can give some pretty extraneous results.
How do you know which keywords to minus? First do your search and examine the results for things that have nothing to do with your query.
Now when I search for "powers" , I get
- Powers of persuasion
- Emergency powers
- Power of attorney
- War Powers of Pennsylvania Ave
So I would change my search to "powers" -persuasion -emergency -attorney -war to eliminate all irrelevant search results to my query
Step 6 - Google Synonym ~ operator
Use the tilde sign before words for search results that include synonyms. The tilde ~ is Google's newest operator. Now you can search not only for a particular keyword, but also for its synonyms (words having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word). Indicate a search for both by placing the tilde sign ("~") immediately in front of the keyword. Using ~genealogy is another way to eliminate some of the false results, so it is no longer necessary in this query to -austin et al. In your queries, it may still be necessary. Since we are looking for genealogy websites, adding ~genealogy to your query will help us focus on genealogy sites.
To search for genealogy as well as family history, family tree, and ancestry, search for
To search for obituaries as well as obits, death notices, and funerals, search
"powers" pennsylvania ~obituaries
Step 7 - Google Abbreviations
This query needs to be further defined by location, but when using Google, be careful about using abbreviations! If you search Google for a location name, it searches for webpages that contain that word. If in your search query, you use the location abbreviation, Google doesn't convert the abbreviation to the whole name, but rather searches for web pages that only use the location abbreviation. You will really be unnecessarily limiting your search results. For example, Google does not consider Pennsylvania and PA to be the same word or stem. If you type in PA, Google will search for those pages with that use PA only, and your search will miss all the web pages that only use the word Pennsylvania. The following queries will give completely and vastly different search results:
Remember if searching for transcriptions of old documents, the current 2 letter US state abbreviations didn't yet exist when the old documents were written. Most likely, the location name is spelled out completely on old documents, so it makes more sense to search for the location name as it would be on the old documents.
It is also possible that historical documents contain an old-fashioned abbreviation. Here's a list of the old style US state abbreviations.
Using the current abbreviation location name to search for current addresses such as a historical society can sometimes be successful, but if it doesn't bring results, be sure to try the full spelled out location name.
"powers" pennsylvania ~genealogy
Step 8 - Google OR operator
Use the OR operator to receive results that contain one or both of the query words or phrases. There is no need to use the operator *and* between keywords since Google already makes this assumption. But the operator *OR* can be a very useful Google tool. OR must be both uppercase letters or it will not work as an operator.
You can use OR to search for any of your surnames for which you have found multiple spellings. For example, if you are looking for the Myers/Meyers family, you can search for myers OR meyers
You can use OR to search for a surname in different states, especially if you are not sure where the person was living. "powers" pennsylvania OR ohio
Use OR to search for the different ways a state or country may be listed on a webpage. To Google, remember that an abbreviation of a state name and the spelled-out state name are NOT the same. Try PA OR pennsylvania OR penna to cover all the possibilities when searching for a state or location.
"powers" PA OR pennsylvania OR penna ~genealogy
If you have been following the search results for each of the above examples, you can see how much better our search results have become with each example.
Step 9 - Google Quote operator " "
" " Place a name between double quotes to search for exact occurrences of the name. If you type Patrick Powers in Google you may receive search results with every occurrence of Patrick and every occurrence of Powers but not necessarily Patrick Powers together. To force exact and more accurate search results:
- Put a name "Patrick Powers" in quotes so that Google will search for that exact phrase.
- Put two (or more) word locations "New York" in quotes for Google to find that exact phrase.
- Put two (or more) word phrases "American Civil War" in quotes so that Google will find that exact phrase.
Be careful with the use of quotes as you may miss valid matches if the name is listed on the web page as:
Powers, Patrick, Patrick J. Powers , or Patrick and Ellen Powers
If you search with the name in quotes, Google will not return web pages with the surname written in one of these alternate manners in its search results. To find these, you may want to expand your search to:
"Patrick Powers" OR "Powers, Patrick" OR "Patrick J. Powers" OR "Patrick and Ellen Powers" PA OR Pennsylvania OR Penna
Note that the + operator is not necessary for words in quotes as the quotes will also only give an exact match.
Another option is to use the Google wildcard * between first and last name in quotes as this will match any words in between. "patrick * powers" will match patrick j. powers as well as patrick and ellen powers
"Patrick Powers" OR "Powers, Patrick" OR "Patrick * Powers" PA OR Pennsylvania OR Penna ~genealogy
See why now having 32 words in a query is a good and useful new Google feature?
Step 10 - Number Range
With Google, you can search using a range of years. If you are not sure of the year, but you have an approximate idea, do a number range search. Or if searching for a person, you can use the number range for his birth and death date. You can conduct a number range search by specifying two numbers, separated by three periods, with no spaces.
patrick "powers" 1798...1855 pennsylvania OR PA OR penna ~genealogy
- nicholas "powers" ~obituary 1920...1925
- "Patrick Powers" OR "Powers, Patrick" OR "Patrick * Powers" 1789...1855 PA OR Pennsylvania OR Penna ~genealogy
The results will give any occurrence of your keywords that matches one of the years in the range.
Step 11 - Google intitle
Use the intitle operator to search for surname webpages - those webpages that use a surname in the title This is a great hint for finding webpages buried deep in Google results or for a surname that is also a common word that has other meanings. The format is intitle followed immediately by a colon. There is no space between the colon and the surname keyword.
Step 12 - Google Spell Check
Google will give search results for the EXACT word (stemming excepted) you type into the Google search box. If you type a keyword incorrectly, that is what Google will search for, and your results will be limited to webpages that also have misspelled the word.
However, if Google thinks you have spelled a word incorrectly, it will offer you the option to chose search results for the correctly spelled word.
Google will ask you "Did you mean ... ? "
Click on Google's suggestion to get the search results for the correctly spelled word. For example, if you are looking for Cyndi's List, but type Cindy's List into Google, it will ask Did you mean Cyndi's List? and you can choose to search results with the correct spelling by clicking on the link.
If you use genealogy as a keyword, but mistakenly type in geneaolgy, Google will ask Did you mean genealogy? Click on it. See for yourself in the example below. Notice all the results also have the word genealogy misspelled.
Because Google's spell check is based on occurrences of all words on the Internet, it is able to suggest common spellings for proper nouns (names and places) that might not appear in a standard spell check program or dictionary. By clicking on Google's Did you mean...?, another avenue may be opened to search for your surname.
Watch your search results to see if Google asks "Did you mean ... ? " It is usually worth checking out.
Step 13 - Google's Calculator
Google's Calculator can perform anything from simple arithmetic to extremely complex mathematical functions, but genealogists will probably be most interested in subtraction (to determine ages) and conversions.
For example: If you know someone's age from a census, use Google's calculator to determine an approximate year of birth. Enter 1910-75 into the regular Google searchbox. Click and Google will do the subtraction.
Or when reading an old deed that gives the dimensions of a farm as 209 rods by 275 rods, you can use Google's calculator to convert rods to yards or miles so you can visualize the size of the farm.
Or convert metric to decimal and vice-versa.
- " addition
- - subtraction
- * multiplication
- / division
- in unit conversions
Sample calculator entries:
- 119 rods in yards
- 119 rods in miles
- 100 miles in kilometers
- 3 furlongs in miles
- 3 ml in teaspoons
Step 14 - Google Alert
Google Alert lets you automate your Google genealogy queries, sending you an email whenever any new content about your query is added to the Google database.
This makes it easy to keep up with your Google genealogy searches. Simply create a set of keywords, and Google Alert will run a search each day or as-it-happens, and will automatically send you an email alert when the query produces new results. You can search the web, google groups and the news. You can use quotes, math signs, tilde, the OR operator, as you would in a regular Google genealogy query. Go to www.google.com/alerts
Search the news for family obituaries or search the web for newly indexed webpages about your surnames.
Step 15 - Google Search by location
Now you can search google by location to find all features in one area. If you want to know where all the cemeteries are in a particular town, search google by location. Enter cemetery into the search terms box, and the town and state into the location box. Not only do you get a list of all the cemeteries along with addresses and websites, they are plotted on a Google map.
You can search for all Methodist Churches in a town, or Catholic cemeteries, or newspapers, libraries, and historical societies, etc. Google search by location might be useful to help locate the nearest church to where your ancestors lived.
The caveat for genealogists is that the current churches, cemeteries, newspapers you will get from the search results may not be in the same names or location as 100 years ago. So far it only works for US addresses.
Step 16 - Google Dictionary
There are now two ways to find word definitions using Google.
To use Google's dictionary, type a word into the Google search box. Click search, then click on the word "definition" on the blue bar on the Google results page.. Google will give the definition using Answers.com.
Use this to find the meanings of words you come accross in your genealogy searches and document. Google has always had a dictionary, but now you can type in the word define followed by a colon, and then the word or phrase you want defined. For example:
Google will give the web definition at the top of the search results.
Step 17 - Google Images
Now you can search for your ancestor's portrait and other images relating to your genealogy. Search for keyword, then click on the word "images" above the Google search box.
Try searching for:
- Photos of ancestors.
- Photos of tombstones or churches.
- Photographs of your ancestral hometown or its landmarks.
- Images of original documents concerning your ancestor; i.e. wills, military papers.
- Images of the actual ship or type of ship on which your ancestor immigrated; i.e. brigantine, brig, snow. (To get images of the ship type "snow" and not the weather variety, search for [ ship snow ].
- Images of your ancestor's tools of trade, such as blacksmith tools.
Step 18 - Easy Google Genealogy Searcher
It isn't necessary to remember all the above Google search engines techniques. The Easy Google Genealogy Search has preset search boxes and suggestions and makes it easy to use all the Google features.
Easy Google Genealogy Searcher
Step 19 - Build your own genealogy query
Build your own genealogy query by mixing and matching the techniques learned above. Be sure to include name, location and date in your query.
Step 20 - Google vs. Yahoo vs. MSN
When Google was first introduced, there was no other search engine quite like it. It was lightning fast and gave great results. But, the other search engines took notice, and spent a lot of time and a lot of money to catch up. I think they have done a very good job and now produce results that are just as good as Google, in my mind. There is no advantage to using only Google anymore.
To know when to use which search engine, it is helpful to know how the different search engines work. There are hundreds of variables that go into a search engine algorithm and each different search engine places a slightly different emphasis on the variables.
Yahoo and MSN place the most emphasis on the words on the webpage matching the words in the query. Pretty obvious, right?
You might be surprised to find that Google places a large emphasis on how many other sites link to the webpage. Of course, the webpage also has to match words in the query, but Google wants the best webpages at the top of the results, and they consider a link to a webpage as a vote that it is a good site. This tends to put the biggest and best sites at the top of Google results and it is why many times RootsWeb and other large sites are at the top of the results.
Yahoo and MSN also consider how many other websites link to a site, but they put more emphasis on matching words on a page.
Sometimes you are not looking for the biggest and best genealogy sites. You may be trying to find a unknown relative who has a little, unknown genealogy site where he has put all of his 30 years of research. The site may not have too many links from other webpages as it will only be of interest to a limited number of people. It is impossible to tell which search engine would do best to find a site like this, but it would probably not be at the top of the search engine results for any search engine, especially Google. Be sure to dig past the first 10 results. Note: see change Google preferences to 100 results per page above.
Why not try using the techniques on this page to see if you can find any webpages about your family. Maybe you really have an unknown relative who has a website with 30 years of genealogy research posted.
Today, if I can't find something on Google, I head over to Yahoo. You can use most of the Google hints for all the search engines.
Another factor to consider when looking for a little known site that may hold the key to your genealogy brick wall is how many genealogy webpages have been indexed by the big search engines. Here is the number of pages (as of January 13, 2007) each search engine has indexed for the search query "genealogy"
- Google genealogy results 24,800,000
- Yahoo genealogy results 82,400,000
- MSN genealogy results 13,900,000
Genealogy Google Search Ideas
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- " "
Use a plus sign before a keyword so that it appears in your search results without stemming.
- Use a minus sign before a keyword that you do not want to appear in your search results.
~ Use the tilde sign before words for search results that include synonyms. (genealogy, ancestry, family tree).
" Place a first name and last name between double quotes to search for exact occurence of the name. Place location names of 2 or more words in quotes; i.e. "new york".
OR Use the OR operator to receive results that contain one of the query words or phrases.
* Use the asterisk as a wild card; ie. for a middle name.
... Use a number range search to match any one year in a range of years, i.e. 1700...1750
Google operator Examples
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