How to Do Genealogy Internet Research

You'd be surprised how much genealogy you can get done by way of internet research, if you just know what the tools are and how to make the most of them. On this page, I'll show you how to have more control over the search results you get from using the more common search engines, and I'll show you some genealogy-specific search engines too. Some of this has been adapted from a class I took at BYU-Idaho.

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Using Operators in Your Internet Research

Most people are familiar with the idea of entering a search keywords or phrases into a search engine when they're doing internet research. But you can also use what are called "operators" to control how the search engine understands what you are asking for.


The AND Operator - Including Only This AND That

For example, let's say you wanted to look for the marriage of Fred and Minnie Schneider on Google. You can just simply enter "marriage of Fred Minnie" (without the quotes), but this will give you results that have to do with Fred marriages and also Minnie marriages as well as marriages of both Fred and Minnie. It could also look for marriages of a man by the name of Fred Minnie. The way you get what you're looking for in this case is to enter "marriage of Fred AND Minnie". The "AND" is called an operator. It makes the search engine include both "Fred" and "Minnie" in the results.


The OR Operator - Including This OR That or Both

If you want to explicitly open up the results to include either "Fred" or "Minnie" or both, you enter "Fred OR Minnie".

It's natural for people to think of the "OR" operator as limiting results and the "AND" operator as expanding your results, but in fact, the opposite is true. Whereas the "AND" operator gets only results that include both "Fred" AND "Minnie", the OR operator gets all results that include one or the other or both.


The NOT and "-" Operators - Filtering Out Results You Don't Want

In past experiences with internet research, you've probably seen the search engines give you results, but then strikeout a word because it couldn't find results that way. For example, maybe you searched for "history of Philadelphia Berks County Pennsylvania", but the results come back only for Berks County, and a message saying, "history of Philadelphia Berks County Pennsylvania".

The search engine does this because Philadelphia isn't in Berks County. 

But let's say you want to exclude some of the results you're getting. Suppose you searched for "marriage of Fred and Minnie", but you keep getting Fred and Minnie Hayes instead of Fred and Minnie Schneider. If you enter "Fred AND Minnie NOT Hayes" (without the quotes), it will filter out some of the "Hayes" results, leaving you more "Schneiders" and others to look at.

Some Inconsistenies to Watch For

It would be wise to get familiar with operators of different search engines and experiment with how they work as you're doing your internet research, because they are different from what you'd expect in some cases. 

For example, on Google, the NOT operator will drastically cut down the number of results it gives you, but will not necessarily exclude the specified search term from the results. If you want Google to cut out all reference to a specified term, you have to use the "-" operator.


Example:

"Scottsburg NOT Indiana" will still return results for Scottsburg, Indiana.

"Scottsburg -Indiana" will return only Scottsburg results that do not contain "Indiana".


Operator Reference Guides

Google: Refine web searches/List of Operators - This is Google's official listing of their operators. I'm going to spend some time learning to use these in my own genealogy internet research.

How-To-Geek: Bing & Yahoo Search Operators - This guy gives you a detailed description of how to use a lot of operators I hadn't thought of. These will probably work this way on other search engines too!


The Parenthesis () Operator - Grouping Search Terms

What if you want to use several of these operators at once? This can have unpredictable consequences if you're not careful how you combine them. Let's look at some examples.

Say you searched for "scottsburg NOT kentucky OR indiana". This might cause the search engine decide to evaluate the NOT operator first, in which case you'd get "scottsburg" and not get "kentucky" or "indiana". The search engine might also decide to evaluate the "OR" operator first, in which case you'd get all Scottsburg that isn't in Kentucky, and then you'd get all Indiana, including Scottsburg, Indiana. Do you see the difference? 

So how do you make sure the search engine will give you what you want?

Use parentheses. If you enter "scottsburg (NOT kentucky or indiana)", you'll get all Scottsburg results except for Scottsburg, Kentucky and Scottsburg, Indiana. These two "Scottsburgs"  will be left out because you have explicitly placed them together on one side of the "NOT" operator. You can express the same thing by placing the parenthesis between the "NOT" and the "kentucky" like this: "scottsbug NOT (kentucky or indiana)". These two accomplish the same thing, but the second way is more "computer programmer" style.

Alternately, if you enter "(scottsburg NOT kentucky) OR indiana", you'll get both all "scottsburg" results that are not in Kentucy and all of Indiana, including Scottsburg.

So, using parentheses can just help you be more strategic and more specific about what you're asking the search engine to look for when you're doing internet research.


Searching For Exact Phrases

Let's say you're searching for an ancestor by the name of "Captain Voyge". The search engines will drive you nuts with a message saying, "Did you mean Captain Voyage? Showing results for Captain Voyage". If you want the search engine to take you literally, without "fixing" what you're looking for, put the "Voyge" or even "Captain Voyge" in quotes. 

The other thing the search engines will do is give you results that contain part of your phrase, but not all of it. You can prevent this too, by putting the whole phrase in quotes.

Using all of these tools together, in a strategic way, gives you a lot more power over your internet research effort!

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Genealogy-Specific Search Engines

There are a host of search engines available that are designed to help genealogists. Take this one for example: AncestorSearch.

RandyMajors.com
Click to try AncestorSearch!

This will actually manage the operators for you. All you have to do is type in what you're looking for, and you don't have to think about the rest. By typing in just a few details, I had this search generator build me a Google search that pointed me straight to the ancestor I had in mind - nothing more, nothing less, and nothing different! It is incredibly powerful that this thing can point right to what I'm looking for without me having to tinker with the search terms for an hour and then sort through dozens or even hundreds of results. Talk about saving time on my internet research effort!

This is the search string it generated, in a new tab: "adondi adams"|"adams, adondi"|"adondi adam"|"adam, adondi" "berks county pennsylvania" 1766|1767|1768|1769|1770

Just look at this result!

Once you have the search entered in the new tab, you can go back and manually edit it. For example, maybe you want to cut out some years. Maybe you're getting too many results and you don't need "1766". Cut out the "1766|". Just be sure the "|" is always only between search items; you don't want to leave it on one end or the other. Remember, an operator takes the same place in a search phrase as the word it represents would take in a sentence. 


A List of Genealogy Search Engines

Here are a few more of the search engines available to help you really speed up your internet research:

  • Mocavo - a search engine with its own collections, records, and periodicals. They've teamed up with FindMyPast to make an even more powerful resource.
  • KinCrawler - works like Google, but it only gives you genealogy-related results.
  • ZABASearch - now you can search for living relatives and adoptees for free!
  • eGENEe - gives you websites that have to do with genealogy.

For an exhaustive list of links to genealogy-specific search engines, see Search Engines for Genealogical Research on FamilySearch.


A Word About "Wildcard" Characters

In both FamilySearch and Ancestry, you can use "wildcard" characters in your search. What does that mean? Well, let's say you have an ancestor whose name could be spelled a number of different ways:

  • Christensen
  • Christenson
  • Christiansen
  • Christianson

How do you know which one to search for? Luckily you don't need to know, if you know this one neat little internet research trick. Try searching by:

Christ*ns&n

The asterisk replaces any number of characters, so it gets the 'e' and the 'ia' variants in the the "Christian/Christen" part. The question mark replaces only one character, so it gets the 'e' and 'o' variants in the "son/sen" part. By cleverly using wildcards in your search parameters, you can get all possible spellings.


Foreign Name Variations

You might also consider different name variations in your searches.

How to Search by Foreign Characters

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Google Books

Speaking of Adonius Adam, last week as I was doing some internet research on my family, I found an old history of Berks County, Pennsylvania. In that history, I started seeing names I recognized from the Adam branch on my family tree. I learned about Adonius Adam, who came from Germany in the early 1700's. His grandson built a boat factory and a hotel and even got into cattle ranching and building bridges for the Reading Railroad.

If, along with that expansive pedigree chart, you'd also like to be able to tell some neat stories about your ancestors at your next family get-together, try searching for their names in old local histories and family genealogies that have been made available on Google Books. You'll be surprised at what you discover!

Find your family on Google Books

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Research Aids

If you really want to develop your chops as a genealogist - whether professional or amateur - you'll want to get familiar with the process of evidence analysis on the FamilySearch Wiki.

You'll also want to get familiar with guidelines established in professional genealogy for making sure to do complete and accurate research.

Learn about the Genealogical Proof Standard on the FamilySearch Wiki.

Get familiar with LDS genealogy resources.

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