There are a variety of search techniques that can benefit family history researchers.
If you want a quick reference for conducting a specific type of Internet search, the following list provides the most common searches to use as a genealogist:
Search Google for ancestral villages. Be as specific as possible about location. Be sure to try Google for the country as well — for example, google.ca for Canada and google.sk for Slovakia. See Google Language Tools or Google Translate, which is an application that will let users translate between different languages. Simply type in your text in any language and then hit the "Translate" button. Google Language Tools offers translation services between 149 different languages.
Search Google Books. Looking for a book? Try searching Google Books at books.google.com. This amazing resource contains thousands of entire digitized books that are in the public domain and selected pages of many books that are still under copyright.
Search in lower case. Google doesn't care, but some search engines are case-sensitive: The search terms "ed james" gives results such as the following:
. Ed JAMES . ED JAMES
Don't sweat the punctuation. Google mostly ignores punctuation (commas, semicolons, periods and hyphens). Your search for "tampa, florida" (with the comma) and your search for "tampa florida" (without the coma) produce the same results. One exception: Google includes punctuation when searching for an exact phrase using quotation marks.
View "cached" images of pages no longer available. Have you ever received an "Error 404 — This Page Not Found" message? Click the "Back" button to return to Google's search results list. Then click on the unavailable item's cached link to view Google's archived snapshot of the page. Then copy and paste any useful content to a file on your computer.
Quickly search whole web pages. Stop manually reading through long web pages trying to find where the surnames you are looking for are hiding. Use your Web browser's "Find" function — Crtl+f (Cmd+f for Mac users) — to efficiently search an entire page by jumping from occurrence to occurrence of the term you want to select. PDF documents also have a find feature, generally denoted with the binocular icon.
Search for genealogy surname websites. Google can provide a list of genealogy websites whose titles include your surname by using the "All in Title" phrase: allintitle.genealogy "Isaac Winston" finds sites with the word genealogy in the title (across the website's top band) and in which the name Isaac Winston appears on any page.
Quickly search entire websites. If a promising website lacks a search box on its home page, you don't have to manually search each page for ancestors. Google can look at all the pages of a website in a single search. For example, a search for "Maxcey Ewell site:rootsweb.com" will search RootsWeb.com for any page that references Maxcey Ewell. This kind of search only works for the visible Web.
Search phrases, not just words. Search for a phrase using quotation marks (" "). Quotation marks are used in searches to denote that you are looking for these words in a specific order. For example, if you are searching for "ebenezer jones," you will have results of pages containing the exact quoted phrase "ebenezer jones."
Search synonyms. Search synonyms using the tilde character (~). For example, ~ tombstone gets the same results as searching tombstone, gravestone, headstone, monument or marker.
Other helpful search terms for genealogy research include the following:
~ surname Search for missing text strings.
Searching for Payson ~ut produces results with any number of missing words, including the following:
Payson, Utah, UT
Payson, UT Co., UT,
Payson, Utah County, UT
Target timeframes. Set a date range for your searches to exclude recent events. Example: 1750.1899 produces a list of websites that include years (numbers, actually) between 1750 and 1899, inclusive, but omits sites mentioning only the 1900s.
Search for names — both forward and backward. Search names as phrases; search them "forward" (given name first) and "backward" (surname first) to also find reverse name listings. Example: Search "mary sims" and also "sims, mary" to find additional relevant results.
Force Google to include "ignored" words within results. For speed, Google automatically ignores many common words like "a," "the," "he," "she," "how," "when," " where" and "if." Ordinarily this is OK, but "I" and "will" can be meaningful to genealogists. The solution: enclose "I" in quotes: "arthur darrah I" or precede will with a plus sign (+): "dunning +will."
Search for all likely aliases. Don't stop with a search for "ora w. jones" He may have been indexed as
O. W. Goode
Ora William Jones
Ora W. Jones
For common surnames, add geographic or time restrictions.
For example, search using this single long search string of all the variations at once: "ira smith " OR "ira a. smith " OR "i. a. smith " OR "i.aaron smith" OR "aaron smith" chicago 1874..1938
Use minus sign to exclude unwanted results (same as "NOT"). Exclude irrelevant results that crowd out desired results by using the minus sign (-). For example, adding -ulysses to a search for grant removes most of the original results. Be careful, though: -texas will exclude all sites with the word Texas, including sites that elsewhere contain your ancestors.
Try the marriage "combo plate." Search husband and wife surnames together to increase relevant results. For example, search "ora jones" AND Dearing. Understand that "ora jones" alone retreives thousands of hits, but by adding Dearing, you eliminate 99.7 percent of the initial results; the remaining 0.3 percent of results emphasize the Jones marriage and family that you are specifically searching for.
Use genealogical key words in your searches. Add genealogical terms to your surname search string and search repeatedly with different emphases. The following is a list of suggested key terms to include in your searches:
Surname . Will
The order of search terms is important. Search engines apply priority to early words in your search string. Example: "smith tombstone rock New Jersey" produces somewhat different results than "rock tombstone New Jersey smith."
Don't forget the invisible Internet. Search engines can see only the "visible Internet." Most websites that require you to use their own search box (ancestry.com, familysearch.org and rootsweb.com, for example) are considered the "invisible Internet" and must be searched individually.
Repeat your searches using variations of your search terms. This is important: Searching the Web is hard work; missing ancestors are often inaccessible, buried on page 200 of your search results. So continuously revise and refine your search terms and re-search with the aim of fewer than 200 hits with highly relevant sites in the top 10 to 20 results.
Repeat your searches using different search engines. No search engine has a complete index of the Internet. It pays to use more than one search engine. In addition to Google, consider trying altavista.com, alltheweb.com, ask.com and vivisimo.com.
Try searching with a meta-search engine. These are like search engines on steroids — they automate the simultaneous search of multiple search engines. The advantage of using a meta-search engine is breadth of results, but the downside is their inability to manage complex searches, because different search engines use different syntax and punctuation rules. Try yippy.com or dogpile.com.
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Find links to a relevant site. Often, a productive site will have other valuable sites linked to it. Use Google to find a list of sites that link to a good site. Example: danishgenealogy.com.
Target ancestors hiding in (.GED) files. Most genealogy programs for computers export files as GEDCOMs (.ged file format), so ask Google to look for ancestors inside highly relevant .ged files. For example: "Maxcey ewell" filetype:ged.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering Your Family History" and founder of mygenshare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.