Using Google in Genealogy Searches

Since the Google search engine went live in September 1999, it has changed the way people search the web. Today, many genealogists use Google for their genealogy internet and surname queries, and for good reason. Not only does Google produce accurate and relevant search results, Google is extraordinarily fast and flexible.

However, Google has evolved over the years and the tips and tricks have changed and evolved also. Below are some tips for genealogy searches to get the most from all that Google has to offer. (Many of these ideas apply to all search engines)

Word for Word

  • Every word counts in your search query and generally all words in your query will be used for the search. Choose search keywords that are likely to appear on the web page you want to find, since this is one of the ways Google chooses relevant search results. For best results, use a few very precise keywords. Begin your genealogy search by:
    • Searching for a name and location
    • Searching for databases where the name may be located

    Use [ Delaware death records ] or [ John Smith Delaware death records ]

Exact Search

Surprisingly, sometimes the words in your search query may not appear on the websites that appear in your search results. Goggle may replace some words with synonyms of your original query or Google may do language analysis to see if they believe that a page is relevant to your search query. Google may also use stemming; for example, a search for obituaries may use the stem "obit" and serve results for obit, obits, obituary and obituaries, all from the stem obit.

To get an exact search, where ALL the words of your search query appear in your search results and that NO stemming and NO synonyms are used, you can do one of two methods:

  • Use Double Quotes [“ ” ] around one keyword or multiple keywords when you want an exact match. The results will be the exact words in the exact order.

    • "Delaware" - The word Delaware has to appear on the search result. Double quotes around a single keyword takes the place of the previous boolean operator, the plus sign which Google no longer uses.

    • "Delaware death records" - The words [ Delaware death records ] have to appear on the webpage result in that exact order. If the webpage has [ death records of Delaware ], it will not be considered a match.

  • Verbatim Search - the verbatim search is similar to but not the same as the double quotes search

    • To find Verbatim Search, go to the Google results page (not the Google page that just has the search box), look under Search Tools at the top, and then under All Results.

    • Verbatim Search disables Google spelling corrections, Google stemming, personalization, and Google synonym substitute

    • Verbatim Search prevents Google from ignoring keywords and requires all words to be on results page, but do not have to be in exact order.

    Double Quotes Search and Verbatim Search give different results. A Double Quotes search is more exact because the words have to appear in exact order.

Don't phrase your query as a question


Google has many "stop words" that it ignores. Who, what, where, when and why are all stop words that Google will filter out of your search query. Other stop words are a, the, the, them, then, there, their, my, your and so on. Asking a question doesn't hurt your query, but the question word is just ignored. A better search would be for precise words that would likely appear on the page you want to find. Use important words only.

What if we want a stop word

Some words that Google considers a stop word are important to genealogists. While [ will ] can be the beginning of a question and a word Google typically ignores, [ will ] can also mean a legal document. To force Google to include a stop word in a search, put the word in quotations. Search for [ "will" ]. It also helps to include words that might be related to a will to give Google the context of your search. Search for [ "will" death of John Jones ] or [ probate of "will" John Jones ]..

Don't phrase your query as a command

Asking Google to [ find census ] or [ look for census ] will unnecessarily eliminate all census sites that also don't happen to have the word [ find ] or [ look ] somewhere on the page, thus giving incomplete search results. A better search would be for precise words that would likely appear on the page you want to find such as [ New York 1910 census ].

Google Math

Use the power of Google's advanced search:

  • Use a plus sign [ + ] before words that you want to appear in your search results exactly. Google has replaced the + search operator with double quotation marks [“ ” ] for single word exact search. Use quotes on either side of a word or phrase force Google to have your keyword appear in your search results exactly.

What if my surname is also a common word?

If you are searching for a surname that is also a noun, such as Church, Street, Day, Park or Fox, you probably have found that most of your searches bring up unwanted web pages about churches, streets, days, parks, and foxes that have nothing to do with the surname. To find genealogy pages with these common noun surnames:

  • Try searching for [ church family ] or [ church surname ] or [ church born ]. The keywords [ family ] or [ surname ] or [ born ] are likely keywords that will appear on a genealogy web page and will help limit your search results to web pages about the surname. In this case the word family or surname or born will have to appear on the web page to appear in your search results greatly increasing the chances that the web page will be genealogy related. This works rather well for all surname searches, not just those that are common nouns.

  • Add specifics to your query by adding a first name or another surname or location. For example, if John Church married Ethel Quackenbush in Kalamazoo, you could try [ church quackenbush kalamazoo ].

  • Try to eliminate false results by telling Google NOT to give results when a particular word appears on a web page. For example, [ fox -animal ] will eliminate all web pages on which the word animal appears. You can do more than one subtraction in a search. If you have eliminated all the pages about the animal fox, but find you are now getting search results about Fox News, you can add another subtracter [ fox -animal -news ] which will eliminate all web page on which the word animal or news appears. You can combine quotess and minuses in the same query [ "fox" -animal -news surname ].

  • Another technique is "allintitle:" operator which will search for the word in the title of the web page. This may capture some additional genealogy web pages about the surname usually buried deep in the search results. [allintitle: fox genealogy ]

  • Sometimes, a surname specific search engine is the only way to get results. Try the Surname Finder if you cannot find results with Google.

No Ifs, Ands OR Buts

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 all uppercase letters or Google will ignore it. Lowercase [or[ is a stop word ignored by Google

  • Use [ OR ] to search for multiple locations if you are not exactly sure where the family lived [ Pennsylvania OR Delaware ]

Don't Know the Exact Year?

With Google, you can search for a range of years. If you are not sure of the year, but you have an approximate idea, do a number range search. You can also use a number range using birth and death years so that results will only fall during the lifetime of the individual.

Some examples are:

  • ship passenger list 1850...1860
  • Joseph Jones obituary 1920...1925
  • John Smith Pennsylvania 1901...1980

The results will give any occurrence of your keywords that matches one of the years within the range.

Too Much of A Good Thing

By default, Google only returns pages that include all of your search terms or their synonyms. When too much information in included in a search, the chances for relevant results may be reduced if all the query words don't appear on a web page.

If at first you don't get good results, your search may be too narrow. Start with one keyword and then gradually add more.

  • Try searching for just the surname. Sometimes a person may be listed by his nickname, his middle name, or an abbreviated first name and this will keep you from getting a match. If you search for Joseph Smith, it will not match Jo. Smith or J. Hiram Smith if that is how he is listed on a the database or web page. A web page may have a name abbreviated, misspelled, or partially missing.

  • If you are using a search with location, try the search without the location. The database or web page may have missing or incorrect geographic information, or the location may not be where you think it is.


If Google thinks you have spelled a word incorrectly, it will instead give you search results for word it thinks you want. Many times this is helpful.

  • Accidentally type a misspelled word into the Google search box, and Google will tell you: "Showing results for genealogy, Search instead for geneology. " Click on Google's suggestion to get the search results for the correctly spelled word.

  • Google does ask if you want to search for what it considers a misspelled word. In genealogy, a lot of words that Google considers misspelled are exactly what we are looking for, especially surnames. Google asks Search instead for

Put your Name in Quotes.

If you type [ John Smith ] in Google you may receive search results with every occurrence of John and every occurrence of Smith but not necessarily John Smith together. For example if John Guggenheim and Hiram Smith are on the same page, that will count as a hit for the search phrase [ John Smith ] because both John and Smith were found (but not necessarily together). Try this trick to force exact and more accurate search results:

  • Put a name [ "John Smith" ] in quotes so that Google will search for that exact phrase.
  • Put a name in quotes and add a wildcard for a middle name. [ "john * smith" ] This will find John A. Smith, John Allen Smith, John B. Smith, etc., but not John Smith.
  • Put two word locations [ "New York" ] in quotes for Google to 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 [ Smith, John ] or [ John and Mary Smith ]. If you search with the name in quotes, Google will not return web pages with the surname written in an alternate manner in its search results.

Upper or Lower Case?

Google searches are not case sensitive. Searching for Smith, SMITH, smith, and SmItH will all give the same Google search results.

Singular or Plural?

Google now uses stemming technology. which in this case means that you don't have to search for both the singular and the plural. Google will give results for both.

Google Adds, Subtracts & Converts

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.

If you know someone's age from the 1930 census, use Google's calculator to determine an approximate year of birth. Enter [ 1930 - 75 ]

Or when reading great-grandpa's will who left a farm of 119 rods by 27 rods, you can use Google's calculator to convert rods to yards or miles so you can visualize just how big (or small) the farm really was. Enter [ 119 rods in yards ].

Sample calculator entries:
1930 - 75
119 rods in yards
119 rods in miles
100 miles in kilometers
3 furlongs in miles
2 ml in teaspoons


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. While this operator is still functional, Google has started doing synonym searches automatically, and so the tilde search has become unnecessary.

Google's Dictionary

It's actually quicker to find a word definition using the Google search box than looking the word up in the dictionary.

  1. Type the word "define," then a colon, and then the word or phrase you want defined. Google will serve the definition in the Google Knowlege Box. For the word or phrase on the Web, it will retrieve that information and display it at the top of your search results. For example, enter [ define apoplexy ] to retrieve the definition for this antiquated disease name

In one click, you will have the definition of the word. It actually takes longer to describe the process than to do it.

Use Google as a dictionary to look up meanings for:

  • Old-fashioned disease names, such as apoplexy, dropsy, phthisis, or quinsy.
  • Acronyms found on old documents or obituaries such as IOOF or AOH.
  • Names for old-fashioned occupations such as cordwainer or wheelwright.
  • Latin terms such as ab nepos.
  • Terms found in old documents such as perch or rod.

Cache a Missing Page.

Google keeps the text of the many documents it crawls available in a backed-up format known as "cache." A cached version of a web page can be retrieved if the original page is temporarily unavailable, moved or permanently removed from the internet. The cached page appears as it looked when the Google last crawled it. To retrieve a cached page, click on the gray down arrows in the search results. Choose cached .

Sprechen Sie Deutsches? Parlez-vous fran├žais?

If not, and you find a web page in a language that you cannot read, Google will do the translation for you. Click on the block of nine squaresquares in upper right corner, scroll down to Translate. Or you can go directly to Google Translate. You can enter an URL or text to translate. Although the Google translator isn't very good at idioms and translates rather literally, it is usually good enough to give a general gist of a web page contents. Languages that Google will translate are German, Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese.

Google Address Locator

Google search results now give current street maps with street addresses. Find a street map by entering address number, street, city, and state into the Google search box. Use this to map an address found on an old census.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

After searching for text about your ancestor on the web, try searching for his photograph by using Google's image search. Click on the [ Images ] hyperlink on any Google page with your ancestor's name in the search box and you will get a results page of image thumbnails. Before you begin, you can set your Google preferences to filter explicit sexual images from appearing in search results.

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 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.

Click on the thumbnail for a larger view of the photograph and the URL where the photo can be found. Be sure to visit the web page from which the image originated to find more information.

Google Makes Searching Even Easier with its Toolbar

For more convenience, consider 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 you can do with the Google Toolbar:

  • 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. The Google "search site" is sometimes even better than a site's own search engine because you can use google math, quotes, and the [ OR ] operator, all of which may not available on a site search engine.
  • Use the Page Info Button to:
    • Translate a website into English without returning to Google.
    • Deliver the cached version of a dead web page without returning to Google.
    • Find similar web sites to the current web page without returning to Google.
  • Use the "Highlight" pen to mark in color all occurrences of the searched word on the page. No more hunting to find your search terms on the website.
  • Click on the search term on the toolbar to go to the next occurrence of the word on the web page. Another time saver to quickly find a name 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". And the search results are returned without clicking.
  • "Google Search" by highlighting text on a web page and right-clicking on your mouse.
  • Use the Popup Blocker to make surfing the web easier by stopping annoying popups.
  • Use the AutoFill to automatically fill in a form with the click of a button.
  • Use the BlogThis to create a weblog post pointing to the page you are visiting.
  • Customize the toolbar looks by adding or removing buttons.

If you try the Google Toolbar, and don't like it, it is easily uninstalled.

Step by Step Google Genealogy
Step by Step interactive instructions to creating your own Google genealogy queries

Related Page: Easy Google Genealogy Searcher

Search Google using all the features useful to genealogists from one page. Google Searcher has a next to each search box, and also suggests the type of keyword to enter. It's easy to become a Google expert. Google operator Examples