Search Tools and Strategies

The hallmark of a good online genealogist is knowing how to work the search engines or databases to find what he seeks. But knowing how to search is not enough by itself. You also need to know where to search, and what to do with the results. To help you with this, several search tools and strategies are outlined below.

Bring Back Sites from the Dead

How many times have you found a link to a promising website, only to find that it leads to a File Not Found page? Websites are in a state of constant flux, with webmasters changing file names, switching ISPs, or just taking down the site or letting the domain name lapse because they no longer have the time or interest to maintain it. As frustrating as this is, a File Not Found, or 404, error does not always mean the content is gone forever.

  • Trim back the URL. Perhaps someone just moved that particular page into a new folder, or otherwise rearranged or renamed some of the files on the site. Try trimming the URL of the page you're trying to access back to the root domain (the root domain being everything between the http:// and the next backslash) to see if the site exists. If it does, use the Search feature or click on likely links or tabs to find the page you want.

  • Try Google Cache. When you follow a link from Google that comes up 404, or missing, hit the Back button to return to Google and click on the little Cached link at the end of the Google listing for the site. This will bring up a copy of the page as it appeared at the time that Google last indexed the page.

  • Visit the Internet Archive. Sometimes sites really are taken offline. Even that doesn't mean the information is necessarily lost forever. The Wayback Machine at Internet Archive preserves websites for posterity by taking regular “snapshots” of web pages at various points in time. Type a URL into the Wayback Machine search box (, then select a date from the available archives and you can begin surfing an archived version of the web page.

  • Use the Find Feature in Your Browser

    Many genealogy transcriptions and records appear online as long scrolling pages of text. To quickly search these pages for a particular name or other piece of information, use the Find feature in your browser. To access the Find feature, press CTRL+F for PCs, or the COMMAND+F for Macs.

    For further help with understanding and using search engines to effectively find what you need, check out the Spider's Apprentice ( The site rates the various search engines based on their effectiveness, offers a variety of search strategies for finding various types of information on the web, and also explains how to improve your own search-engine ranking if you maintain a blog or website.

    Use the Steve Morse One-Step Search Tools

    The one-step search pages ( created by Steve Morse offer enhanced search options for popular genealogical databases such as Ellis Island Records,, and the Social Security Death Index. In almost every case, the one-step search offers more flexibility than the original database's search engine. Use these one-step tools as a back door when you're unsuccessful at searching popular databases directly.

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