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Tips for using Google in Genealogy Searches

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Home > Free Genealogy Search Help > Using Google in Genealogy Searches

Using Google in Genealogy Searches

-by Kathi Reid

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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.

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

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 ] NOT [ free genealogy site ].

    Surprisingly, sometimes the words in your search query may not appear on the websites that appear in your search results. Google 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.

  • Don't phrase your query as a question; instead, just use the specific keywords you think will be on the website you want. Instead of the query [ Where can I find York county Pennsylvania genealogy records? ], you will get better results with the keywords [ York County Pennsylvania genealogy ] , words that are likely to appear on a web page that has York County historical records.

  • 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 that you want to appear in your search results exactly.
  • Use a minus sign [ - ] before words that you do NOT want to appear in your search results.

Use double quotations [ " ]when you want an exact match around your keyword and don't want a synonym or a word that has the same stem but is not an exact match. If you only want an exact keyword match, you must force Google to do this by placing the " before and after the keyword.

One of my surnames is Powers, and I was surprised when Google started returning results of Powers, Power, and powered. This is because Google uses stemming in its searches which means it will search for your keywords but also for words that are based on the keyword stem. Another one of my surnames is Meyer, and Google will return surname variations of Mayer, Meier, Mayers, and Myers.

Sometimes stemming can be helpful as it will give singular and plural results in a single query. But when you only want an exact match for the words with no substitution, add double quotes around the keyword.



Using quotes is certainly not necessary for all surnames or keywords. Try your search first without them and use quotes only if you are getting unwanted results.

Use a minus sign [ - ] before words that you do NOT want to appear in your search results. Try to eliminate false results by telling Google NOT to give results when a particular unwanted word appears in your search results.

"powers" -austin

This search will not return any web pages 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. It has many meanings besides being a surname which 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.

If I search for powers, I get

  • Power of persuasion
  • Emergency powers
  • Powers of attorney

So I would change my search to

+Powers -persuasion –emergency –attorney

Note: There are spaces between keywords, but not between the operators.

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:" operand 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 operand [ and ] between keywords since Google already makes this assumption. But the operand [ OR ] can be a very useful Google tool . [ OR ] must all uppercase letters or Google will ignore it.

  • Use [ OR ] to search for mulitple 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
  • 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:

  • 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.

Spelling Counts.

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. Or, 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 the correct spelling.

  • Google does not do soundex searches (searches for names that sound alike, but not spelled alike). To Google, [ Smith ] and [ Smyth ] is NOT a match. You will have to search for each spelling variation.

Watch those Abbreviations.

Google doesn't convert abbreviations to the whole word. Instead it looks for pages with that use that exact abbreviation. Google will search for the keyword and its abbreviation or vice versa. Enter a state abbreviation and Google will search for pages that have both the abbreviation and the full name. Conversely, search for the full name, and Google will again search for both the abbreviation and the full name. This also works if you use old fashioned abbreviations.

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. Thus, when appropriate, it will search not only for your search terms, but also for words that are similar to some or all of those terms. If you search for [ Philadelphia churches ], Google will also search for [ Philadelphia church ], and other related variations of your terms. If you search for any variants of your terms that were searched for will be highlighted in the snippet of text accompanying each result. Now that Google uses algorithms which will give search results for web pages with variations of the base word, you will get the same search results whether you enter the singular or plural version of a word.

Stemming may cause a Google search to find matches for surnames with the same stem. If you find you are getting results for surnames variations and you only want a match for the exact spelling of the surname, use double quotes around the name [ " ].

  • [ "Powers" ] will give only results for Powers and not Power

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 has become unnecessary.

But if you want to search for web pages that contain the word genealogy, family history, family tree, or ancestry, search for ~genealogy because not every genealogy web page actually uses the word genealogy.

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 arrows to open the "instant preview" and click on the word cached .

Sprechen Sie Deutsches? Parlez-vous français?

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 link for more at the top of every Google page. From there, click on even more, then, click on 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 Groups

Google Groups are the archives of newsgroups where you can search for old surname queries. Click on the [ Groups ] hyperlink on any Google page with your ancestor's name in the search box. Since Google Groups archive ALL newsgroup archives and not just genealogy, add the word genealogy to the search box after your ancestor's name to limit your searches to genealogy newsgroups.

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