Genealogy Case Study: Researching Common Surnames Online

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Unless you’re searching for unique surnames like Axelquist or Birtwistle, you’re going to get millions of irrelevant hits in your online genealogy searches. Pity the Smith and Jones, as well as the people whose names also are colors (White), geographical formations (Hill), buildings (Church), or weather (Snow). Search for John Snow, and you’ll get every weather report on the internet.
Fortunately, using search operators to customize your searches can help you overcome the common surname problem. For this example, I’m trying to discover as much as possible about an ancestor named John Bishop, born about 1823 in Somerset, England. He immigrated to Australia in 1855. I particularly want to know where in Somerset he was born.
1. At Google, I typed in John’s name and got 114 million results. This type of “raw” search (without operators) returns pages that include either the word John or the word Bishop—not necessarily the full name John Bishop.
2. I added quotation marks around the name to find only web pages with the exact phrase “John Bishop.” This time, the top matches are about the same John Bishop, a comedian, but the results narrowed from 114 million to 415,000—still too many hits.
3. Adding the minus search operator removed hits about the comedian: “john bishop” -comedian. This actually gave me more results—2.25 million—but they didn’t include the word comedian (except for the featured result on the right side of the page). They still weren’t what I was looking for, though.
4. To refine my results, I used the plus sign to specify terms, such as John’s estimated year and place of birth, that must appear on matching pages. Searching for “john bishop” “1823” ”somerset england” yielded 1,573 results. The first bunch looked promising. Because this search appeared to yield Bishops in Somerset at about the right time period, I noted promising sites to check for clues.
5. I don’t know for sure that John Bishop was born in 1823. What if he was born a year or two earlier or later? I tried the wildcard search operator to include all those possibilities in one search. The search “john bishop” “182*” “somerset england” resulted in pages with any dates beginning in 182. I got about 5,670 hits, with many promising possibilities for finding the right John Bishop among the top results.

From the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine