Get a Leg Up

By Diane Haddad Premium

We know – a genealogy Web site can have all the data in the world, but it’s no good to you if you can’t find your ancestor in it. When perusing our 101 Best Web Sites, you can ease your climb to the height of genealogical success with these search tips:

• Of course you want to start searching right away, but first take a minute to read the search instructions. You’ll learn whether you can employ tricks such as omitting a given name or including wildcards. In’s Exact Matches census searches, for instance, an * after three or more letters of a name represents up to six characters. (Click the Search Tips link in the top right corner of the search box to pick up this tidbit.)

• Use Boolean operators to focus your Google <> and other search-engine queries: tom +clancy -hunt would help weed out results for the author of The Hunt for Red October, who doesn’t happen to be your great-uncle Tom. A Web site’s search instructions will tell you whether Boolean operators are allowed; for example, WeRelate’s genealogy-focused search engine lets you use the minus sign, but only in the advanced search Keywords box.

• Similarly, you can use Google, WeRelate and other search engines to find pages on a single Web site. So to locate’s advice on researching riverboat passengers, you could go to Google and type in riverboat Keep in mind this technique won’t find people in genealogy databases.

• Database searches call up your ancestor’s record only if an indexer entered the same information you’re searching on. That’s why it’s important to try different approaches. Start with a narrow search by entering all you know about an ancestor – name, birth date and place, spouse’s name and so on. If you don’t get results, repeat the search with fewer terms and different combinations of terms (such as the person’s name and residence, or his name and birthplace).

• Seek alternate spellings of your ancestors’ names. Check those trusty search tips to see whether a search automatically looks for similar names (a Soundex search, for example, will find people who share your ancestral surname’s Soundex code). Even if it does, try odd spellings: A census taker or an indexer might’ve interpreted the name so outlandishly that even a “sounds like” search wouldn’t pick up on it.

• On Web sites with multiple databases, such as FamilySearch, search individual databases one at a time. Those customized search engines often include fields you won’t get with the site’s global search, giving you more-targeted results.

From the September 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.