Think your ancestors are a lost cause? Not with our 41 strategies for finding your family history online.
Searching for family history gems buried in online databases and websites can feel like searching for underwater treasure. Rich caches don’t often come to the surface with simple searches. More commonly, chests of genealogical gold will elude you unless you employ some special search-and-recover techniques of your own.
Cast off for some deep-web diving with these 41 strategies for finding your family history online. Many of these shortcuts and hacks apply to any search engine or site, while others are specific to Google or popular genealogy websites. As you narrow your research grids and dive into search results, you’ll likely find yourself combining and re-using these tips in creative ways—and bringing up those treasures you just knew were there.
1. Use advanced search.
For sites that offer it, choose advanced search options. You can still find Google’s Advanced Search page, which no longer gets a link on the main page, at <google.com/advanced_search>. Go advanced at genealogy sites, too: At Ancestry.com, for example, selecting Show More Options expands your search options from basic name, place and birth year to include other life events, family members, keywords, race/ethnicity and gender. Note that here, as in most sites with advanced options, the choices vary by category; immigration and travel searches, for instance, can include arrival and departure data.
2. Enclose phrases in quotation marks.
This works on many genealogy-specific sites as well as search engines such as Google and Bing. The most obvious application of this trick is in searching for names (George Clough). But don’t forget to also search for instances when an ancestor’s surname comes first (Clough, George).
3. Add keywords to name searches.
Target your ancestors—especially those with common names—by adding a spouse’s name or a location. Try combining the previous quotation-marks trick with a similarly handled spouse’s name (“George Clough” “Mary Phillips”) or with a place where your ancestor lived (“George Clough” Virginia).
4. Try proximity searching.
Avoid the uncertainty of name order by taking advantage of the operator NEAR. Searching Google or Bing for George NEAR Clough would find “George Albert Clough” as well as “Clough, George Albert.” You can even specify the maximum number of words by which these terms may be separated. For example, between two keywords that should appear no more than three words apart, use NEAR:3 in Bing and AROUND(3) or w/3 in Google. (Even without these tricks, Google will give priority to pages that have your search terms closer to each other.)