Genealogy Guide to Smarter Online Searching

Genealogy Guide to Smarter Online Searching

Genealogists, start your search engines and speed to the online ancestor information you need.

Few people had heard of the phenomenon called “the internet” when I first logged onto CompuServe in May of 1986. Back then, family tree information was scarce, unorganized and hard to find.

Since then, millions of genealogy websites have sprung up. Some are well-known sites such as and MyHeritage; others are smaller sites built by everyday genealogy enthusiasts who have a deep desire to share their family history with other seekers. In truth, most of my breakthroughs have been the result of finding personal websites created by people researching the same relatives.

Thanks to networking with other online researchers, I’ve made tremendous strides in discovering my family history. Online research can help you achieve similar success, whether you’re facing a “Smith” challenge or delving into the mysteries of pre-1850 censuses. It’ll help you discover names and dates, and enhance those names and dates with maps, photos, stories, news of the day and more.

The search techniques here, which come from my book Discover Your Family History Online (Family Tree Books), will help you use search engines to find family history information on websites big and small. You’ll learn how to construct simple and complex online searches that weed out irrelevant matches to home in on the information you need. Let’s get started.

Starting off simple

Although genealogists rely on large, data-based sites such as, and Ellis Island, sometimes breakthrough results can come from using a simple search engine. Type a search phrase into one and you get instantaneous results. But what’s happening behind the scenes? Search engines send “spiders” out onto the web that seek pages to add to the search engines’ indexes. Once a page is found, the spider follows the links from one page to the next. Then the spiders follow those links to even more pages. Before you know it, billions of web pages have been found and indexed.

When you type in a search word or phrase, a search engine uses its algorithm (mathematical criteria) to determine which pages in its index are most relevant to your search. Criteria can includes things such as:

• how many times the search phrase appears on a web page
• if the search phrase was included in the page title
• whether the phrase was part of the URL (website address), for example,
• if the page contained synonyms matching your search

The search engine rates the quality of the page based on links coming to the page from other sites. If there are a lot of links from spam-type sites, a page is considered low quality; links from quality sites yield a higher ranking. After all of the calculations have been made, the search engine serves up your results.

Search engines have developed different ways to find and index information, but all of them use a basic search box. You can often find exactly what you’re looking for by typing what you want into the search box. For genealogy, let’s say you want to learn more about the migration routes your ancestors used when they left their Pennsylvania home and headed to Virginia.

Go to Google (or whatever your favorite search engine is) and type in American migration routes Pennsylvania to Virginia. This simple search returns exactly what you want within the first few results in less than a second. Pretty amazing.

Results differ for different search engines. Although it’s easy to always use the same one, try to mix it up. If you don’t find what you’re looking for using one search engine, move to another one, such as Bing or Yahoo!.

Making refinements

Simple searches won’t always do the trick. Finding ancestors online is a game of flexible thinking. If one approach doesn’t work, bend it a little and see what happens. Often, refining a search is necessary, such as when you’re looking for a common surname. One quick and easy way to focus your results is adding the word genealogy to your search phrase. Also try family history or the misspelled geneology. You can add a place name to your search phrase or put the words together in a different order.
When you’re trying to think of helpful search terms, one trick is to imagine that you’ve built a website that contains the very information you’re seeking. What words would you use to describe the information? For example, if your site is about the first families of Pennsylvania, what would you call them?

• first families
• early settlers
• pioneers
• first settlers
• early Quakers
• original settlers

• original Quakers
The terms you’d use on the site are probably the same ones others would use. If your search with one term doesn’t net the results you need, try another term.
Another trick is to start small, see what you get, and then go big. First, use the least number of words to describe your search, such as Civil War Columbus. If most of the hits are about the capital of Ohio and you want to know about Columbus, Miss., add Mississippi to your search terms. To bring sites with information on nearby battles to the top, add battles.

Cultivating complexity

A search engine looks for web pages that have at least one of the words in your search phrase, but not necessarily all of them. For example, if you type in American migration routes genealogy, the search engine might find pages that have the word migration or pages that have the word American or genealogy but not necessarily pages that have all of the words in your phrase. This search returns millions of pages, many of them irrelevant to genealogy. To get more relevant results, you’ll need to filter out most of the nongenealogy hits using search operators.

Operators are words or symbols that force a search engine to filter results in a specific way. Most search engines have a link to an advanced search form listing operators it uses; Google’s advanced search is here.
Google operators include:

Quotation marks: Quotation marks around a single word tell the search engine that the word must be included in your search results. American migration routes genealogy produces 4.36 million hits; “American” “migration” “routes” “genealogy” produces 370,000.

Quotation marks around a phrase tell the search engine that the exact phrase must appear on the web page. American migration routes produces 18.5 million hits; “American migration routes” produces 213,000. Using quotation marks also allows your search phrase to contain “stop words,” common words such as the, on and how that Google normally discounts when searching.

Use quotation marks with caution, though. If you’re searching for William Crawford with “William Crawford,” you’ll miss results on pages that have William F. Crawford or Bill Crawford.

Minus sign: Use the minus sign in front of a word when you don’t want your results to contain web pages with that word. For example, peanut -butter returns pages that have the word peanut but not the word butter. This strategy comes in handy if, for example, you’re looking for an ancestor who lived in Massachusetts, but the search engine keeps returning results about a same-named person living in Michigan. You’d add –Michigan to your search to eliminate the unwanted matches from your results list. Of course, you have to be careful with this operator, too: -Michigan will eliminate pages that mention your ancestor along with his neighbor who was born in Michigan.

Asterisk: This “wildcard” operator can be used in place of any other letter or number in your search. It’s useful if you don’t know the exact year for an event, or if you want to simultaneously search on multiple spellings of a surname. Sm*th would bring up results for Smith and Smyth in the same search; 191* would find pages containing any year in the 1910s. (Another way you can search with a date range is by putting two periods between the years, such as Edward Thoss 1807..1836.) 

You can use different operators in combination to create a complex search. Because this looks so much like an algebraic equation, it’s often called “search engine math.” Let’s look at the search phrase “American” “migration routes” “from Pennsylvania” -Ohio.

• The quotation marks indicate that the word American and the exact phrases “migration routes” and “from Pennsylvania” must appear on the page.
• The – indicates that Ohio must not appear on any of the search results pages.

Setting your sites

Another way to use Google in your genealogy search is to search a specific website or domain. For example, maybe you want to find your ancestor’s name anywhere on a web page within the RootsWeb site. Rootsweb is a free genealogy community with millions of user-submitted record transcriptions, the WorldConnect Project pedigree database, message boards and mailing lists. Instead of combing each page that your ancestor is likely to be named on, go to Google and type plus your ancestor’s name. Your matches will be limited to pages with the name in the RootsWeb domain.

You also might find it useful to run a site search of your ancestral county and state USGenWeb sites. USGebWeb is a network of thousands of genealogy websites maintained by volunteers. Sites may be bare bones or brimming with biographies, county histories and record transcriptions. Because sites in the network are on different web domains, searching the USGenWeb domain may miss the results you want. Instead, go to the USGenWeb home page and choose your ancestor’s state, then county. Then run a Google site search of that domain, such as smith family.

Remember that a site search finds text only on web pages, not in digitized record images or in searchable databases.

Calling for photos

You can find more than text-based descriptions on the web. Google Images lets you look for digitized photos and documents as well. On the Google Home page, click the Images link to go to the Google Images search page. It’s almost identical to the web search page.

You can use the same search techniques and operators in Google Images as for any search engine. Type in your search words and click Enter. Your search results are all images. Click one to see it larger, along with a link the web page it’s on. Use the X at the top right to return to your search results, or click the link to visit the web page with the photo. Because this search finds images with file names matching your search terms, and on pages that contain your search terms, the image might not be related to your family history. If you can’t locate your search terms on the linked page, find them using the browser’s Find function (under the Edit menu, or hit command F).

Use Google Images to search for pictures not only of your ancestors, but also of your ancestral state, colony, city or village. You also can look for historical images of everyday objects your family might’ve used—clothing, tools, foods, housekeeping items, modes of transportation and more. Want to find a photo or drawing of an historical occupation? Search Google Images for an occupation such as blacksmith. Images I found included a Victorian-era drawing of a blacksmith at work along with photos and drawings of a blacksmith’s tools.

Now you can use Google Images to search for information about a photo. On the Google Images home page, click the camera in the search box. You can enter the URL of the image, drag it into the search box or upload it. Results show you web pages with that image, as well as similar images.

When I searched Google Images for my ancestor Calvin Dimmitt, I didn’t find a photo of the man himself, but what did turn up were pictures of his tombstone, his father’s tombstone, and his wife’s death certificate. Another example:

I’d learned that part of my Faulkenberry family was involved with a famous incident in Texas—the 1836 kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker from Parker’s Fort. First, I searched for information on the fort, then I went to Google Images to track down photos of it. Success!

If you want to use an image you find online in your genealogy book or on your blog or website, first get permission from the owner of the site where you found it. A library or historical society website may have a copyright page describing how you can use the images.

Using genealogy-focused search engines

One way to focus your search results on genealogically relevant pages is to use a search engine that seeks out only genealogy sites. One is Mocavo, which searches tens of thousands of genealogy-specific sites including forums, blogs, state archives,, Find A Grave, Library of Congress, the Internet Archives, and National Archives. A basic search here is free; you must subscribe to access the advanced search.

Type an ancestor’s name and keywords on the Mocavo home page. In addition to matching web pages, search results will include records from Mocavo’s databases (downloading records requires a subscription). The majority of matching web pages will relate specifically to genealogy. For even more-refined results, upload a GEDCOM (a file any genealogy software program can read) of your family tree file to Mocavo. The site will scan the contents of your GEDCOM for better matches, and email you the results.

Another genealogy search engine is Stephen P. Morse’s One-Step Web Pages site. You can use it to search specific databases at other sites such as and (you’ll need a subscription to view results on fee-based sites). Morse’s enhanced search tools let you do a more-nuanced search of those third-party sites. The One-Step Gold Form, for instance, searches the Ellis Island passenger database, but offers more search features than the Ellis Island website does. That includes searching for a surname either by the first few letters, with a “sounds like” name, or phonetically. You can also check an Ethnicity box in the search form to help filter results even further.

The case studies on the previous pages show you how I put these online search techniques together to learn about two ancestral families. To see more demos about working through real-life research scenarios, download the free videos at Family Tree University (name and email address required). Genealogy is a lifetime pursuit, so take your time as you put these search strategies into practice. You’ll be able to merge all you’ve learned into a rich history of your family—one to be shared today and treasured tomorrow.

Untangling the Web

Different web search engines give you different results. Try the tricks in this article with multiple search engines, including:
Family Tree Searcher
Genealogy In Time

Giddy for Google

Besides its search engine, Google offers other tools many genealogists find indispensable to their research. A few of our favorites include:

Google Translate: This popular, free tool can translate words, sentences and web pages from 80 languages (including Dutch, French, German, Greek, Polish, Slovak, Spanish and Ukrainian). Google automatically detects the language of text you enter, or you can specify languages to translate from and to. You also can upload a document to translate, view a virtual keyboard with characters from that language, hear your translation pronounced and translate web pages. Download the mobile app for iPhone and Android. Just remember that because the process is automated, not all translations will be perfect. Learn more on the Google Translate blog.

Google Earth: With this is free software, you can virtually travel all over the world, view maps and satellite imagery, and overlay historical maps onto modern ones to see where your ancestors lived. Download Google Earth to your computer, iPhone or iPad, or Android device. For more tips, watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s video about using Google Earth in your genealogy search.

Google Drive: The new version of Google Docs, Google Drive is a cloud storage service where you can keep documents (such as your research log), photos and other files. You get up to 15GB of free storage space, and you can pay per month for more.

Tip: Don’t want to worry about using search operators? After you run a Google search, click on the gear icon
at the top right corner of the page to access Advanced search options.
Tip: To switch your Google search from web pages to books, blogs, news, maps, patents or other categories, run your search and then click the More link at the top of the page.

More Online

 From the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine

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