Search Engine Basics
You wouldn't wander aimlessly through the stacks at a large city library looking for a book on your family. In the same way, you shouldn't approach a family history hunt on the Internet without a plan. Whether you're using a search engine like Google or searching for your ancestors in the Ellis Island database, an important part of online genealogy research is learning how to search. The sheer magnitude of information available online makes locating information on a particular individual a bit more complicated than just typing a name into a search engine. There are three simple ways to improve your search results: (1) choose your search terms carefully, (2) learn how to use special search operators, and (3) restrict your search with special commands.
Other Facts Help Narrow the Search
It's always a good idea to think about your search before you begin. What do you know about your great-grandfather Jack Smith that can help you distinguish him from all the other Jack Smiths of the world? Perhaps you know that he was born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. You also know that he married your grandmother, Cornelia, and that he was a blacksmith. Use these facts as keywords to help narrow down your search. A search for jack smith blacksmith monongahela or jack smith cornelia monongahela is much more likely to yield something about your great-grandfather than a search for just jack smith.
Which search engine is best for genealogy?
Most genealogists prefer Google (
For more general results, you might try adding the word “genealogy” or “family” to your surname, as in powell genealogy or owens family. This type of search will often bring up family history information that other researchers have posted online. To be honest, this type of search technique lends itself better to names more unique than Powell or Owens. In the above example, better results were achieved when at least one more identifying keyword was added to the search, such as archibald powell genealogy or owens family edgecombe nc.
Along these same lines, consider what you want to find. If you're looking for death information, you'll want to try the word “death” or “died” in your search. You could also try adding the word “cemetery” or “obituary” to your search query to bring up death information about your ancestor. Think about the types of words that might appear in the information you're looking for, and use these as keywords to help focus your search.
Use Search Operators to Focus Results
Most major search engines, including Google, MSN, and Yahoo!, allow you to use special search operators to focus results. These operators allow you to search for specific phrases, exclude certain words, or otherwise fashion a search query that will help you find exactly what you want.
Use quotation marks to find complete phrases. Regular searches look for all keywords to appear on the same page, but don't pay any attention to their proximity to one another. A search for jebediah smith would turn up a page that contained Jebediah Brazelton and Bob Smith, neither of which are your Jebediah Smith. By enclosing specific search phrases in quotes, you force the search engine to find documents that contain the exact phrase, as in “jebediah smith” or “washburn cemetery.”
Include the Boolean operators AND or OR between words. As it sounds, the Boolean operator AND used between two words tells the search engine that both terms must be present on the web page to be included in the search results. Most search engines assume an AND between keywords, or you can use the plus sign, so it isn't often necessary to use this command. The Boolean operator OR requires one term or the other to be present on a web page, but not both. This feature can be helpful when searching for name variations powell AND archie OR archibald or when searching for variations of the same term crisp AND tombstone OR gravestone. Boolean operators must be in ALL CAPS.
Add a plus (+) to force certain words to be included in your search. The plus sign is rarely needed, but can serve as a substitute for AND to ensure that all of your keywords are included in the results. So, instead of using crisp AND cemetery AND macclesfield you could use crisp +cemetery +macclesfield. There are also some small words, called “stop words,” that search engines commonly ignore when processing a search query. If you really need these to be a part of your search, add a plus (+) in front of them, as in thomas jefferson +will.
Add a minus (−) to exclude specific words from your search. When your ancestor shares a name with a famous individual or a popular product, you can use this option to help direct the focus away from these irrelevant results. A search for jimmy dean -sausage will help eliminate results from the Jimmy Dean company, while washington -dc -george -president will help eliminate at least some of the clutter caused by the millions of results for President George Washington.
Specialized genealogy directories and search engines can help you find genealogy-specific sites without having to wade through as many irrelevant results. Cyndi's List (
Restrict Your Search with Special Commands
As you get more comfortable with simple searches, you might want to try your hand at more advanced techniques. Most major search engines include special commands that allow you to restrict your search in some way — to a specific site or date range, for example. The list of available search commands varies by search engine, but the most useful for genealogy purposes is the site:command, which restricts your search results to a specific website or domain. The search command “james brown” site:
To eliminate the need to remember all of these search options, you can also use the search engine's advanced search page. Most allow you to use all of the features discussed above by selecting variables from a drop-down list or clicking a check box. Check the search engine's home page for a link to its advanced search.