Using Online Database Sites

By Rick Crume Premium

1. Consider the database’s characteristics.

Before searching a database, get a feel for what you can find in it. Figure out what area and time period it includes. If you know where your ancestor lived, search databases for that city, county and state, as well as national and international databases. If you don’t know where your ancestor lived, first try databases with broad geographic coverage. Sometimes a database has incomplete coverage of a time period, so read the site’s description for notes on missing records and planned updates.

2. Assess the site’s search capabilities.

You’ll want to frame your query to work with the search setup.

  • Can you search for any name?
    Most census indexes cover just heads of households, but FamilySearch‘s cover every name, as do‘s 1870 and 1930 US census indexes.

  • Can you include a middle name?’s databases don’t have a box for middle initials and names, but you can include that information in the first-name box.‘s databases do have a middle-name or -initial box, but anything you enter in it will be ignored (except on the World Family Tree).

  • Does the database have a customized search form?
    Instead of using the universal search, select the databases most likely to have information on your family. Many databases have their own search forms with more options than the generic version.

3. Check name variations.

Search on all possible spellings of a name, such as Myer, Meyer, Meier and Myers. You should also try including and excluding middle names and initials.

4. Change the scope of your query.

Some genealogy sites let you add keywords to narrow your search. If you get too many matches, add more search terms to home in on better hits. If you get too few matches or none, search on fewer terms.

5. Carefully word your search-engine queries.

To zero in on the most relevant Web sites, choose your search terms wisely. You might search on just a surname if it’s rare, on a person’s name, or on both a personal and place name. Put quotation marks around exact phrases (such as “Julius B. Chaffee” or “South Worcester”). Also try querying the name of a town, township, county, state or country plus a subject term such as burials, deeds, genealogy, probate or soldiers.