Faster, Better Web Searching for Your Ancestors

By Diane Haddad

The following tips will help you target your online ancestor searches. Try them out on our 2007 list of the 101 Best Web Sites for Genealogy—you’ll find these sites in the September 2007 Family Tree Magazine and on

Take a minute to read a site’s search instructions. They reveal tricks such as omitting a given name or including wildcards. In’s Exact Matches census searches, for instance, a * after three or more letters of a name represents up to six characters.

Use Boolean operators such as + and to focus 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.

Use search engines to find information on a particular Web site. So to locate’s advice on researching riverboat passengers, you could go to Google and type in riverboat (Note this technique won’t find people in online databases—but see our next tip.) PS: The riverboat advice is on our Now What blog.

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

Seek alternate name spellings. Check the search tips to see whether a search automatically looks for similar names. Even if it does, try odd spellings: A census taker or an indexer might’ve interpreted the name so outlandishly that a “sounds like” search wouldn’t pick up on it.

• On Web sites with multiple databases, search individual databases one at a time. Those customized search engines often include fields you won’t get with the site’s global search.