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Google Genealogy Style

25 Google Search Tips for Genealogists


Google is the search engine of choice for most genealogists I know, due to its ability to return relevant search results for genealogy and surname queries and its huge index. Google is much more than just a tool for finding Web sites, however, and most people surfing for information on their ancestors barely scratch the surface of its full potential. If you know what you are doing, you can use Google to search within Web sites, locate photos of your ancestors, bring back dead sites, and track down missing relatives. Learn how to Google as you've never Googled before.

Begin with the Basics

1. All Terms Count - Google automatically assumes an implied AND between each of your search terms. In other words, a basic search will only return pages that include all of your search terms.

2. Use Lower Case - Google is case insensitive, with the exception of the search operators AND and OR. All other search terms will return the same results, regardless of the combination of upper and lower case letters used in your search query. Google also ignores most common punctuation such as commas and periods. Thus a search for Archibald Powell Bristol, England will return the same results as archibald powell bristol england.

3. Search Order Matters - Google will return results that contain all of your search terms, but will give higher priority to the earlier terms in your query. Thus, a search for power wisconsin cemetery will return pages in a different ranked order than wisconsin power cemetery. Put your most important term first, and group your search terms in a way that makes sense.

Search With a Focus

4. Search for a Phrase - Use quotation marks around any two word or greater phrase to find results where the words appear together exactly as you have entered them. This is especially useful when searching for proper names (i.e. a search for thomas jefferson will bring up pages with thomas smith and bill jefferson, while searching for "thomas jefferson" will only bring up pages with the name thomas jefferson included as a phrase.

5. Exclude Unwanted Results - Use a minus sign (-) before words that you want to be excluded from the search. This is especially useful when searching for a surname with a common usage such as "rice" or one which is shared with a famous celebrity such as Harrison Ford. Search for ford -harrison to exclude results with the word 'harrison'. It also works well for cities that exist in more than one area such as shealy lexington "south carolina" OR sc -massachusetts -kentucky -virginia. You have to be careful when eliminating terms (especially place names), however, because this will exclude pages that have results including both your preferred location and the ones you eliminated.

6. Use OR to Combine Searches - Use the term OR between search terms to retrieve search results that match any one of a number of words. The default operation for Google is to return results that match ALL search terms, so by linking your terms with OR (note that you have to type OR in ALL CAPS) you can achieve a bit more flexibility (e.g. smith cemetery OR "gravestone will return results for smith cemetery and smith gravestone).

7. Exactly What You Want - Google employs a number of algorithms to ensure accurate search results, including automatically considering searches for words that are common synonyms to be identical, or suggesting alternate, more common spellings. A similar algorithm, called stemming, returns not only results with your keyword, but also with terms based on the keyword stem - such as "powers," "power" and "powered." Sometimes Google can be a little too helpful, however, and will return results for a synonym or word that you may not want. In these cases, use "quotation marks" around your search term to ensure that it is used exactly as you typed it (e.g. "power" surname genealogy)

8. Force Additional Synonyms - Although Google search automatically displays results for certain synonyms, the tilde symbol (~) will force Google to show additional synonyms (and related words) for your query. For example, a search for schellenberger ~vital records leads Google to return results including "vital records," "birth records," "marriage records," and more. Similarly, ~obituaries will also include "obits," "death notices," "newspaper obituaries," "funeral," etc. Even a search for schellenberger ~genealogy will yield different search results than schellenberger genealogy. Search terms (including synonyms) are bolded in Google search results, so you can easily see what terms were found on each page.

9. Fill in the Blanks - Including an *, or wildcard, in your search query tells Google to treat the star as a placeholder for any unknown term(s) and then find the best matches. Use the wildcard (*) operator to end a question or phrase such as william crisp was born in * or as a proximity search to find terms located within two words of each other such as david * norton (good for middle names and initials). Note that the * operator works only on whole words, not parts of words. You can't, for example, search for owen* in Google to return results for Owen and Owens.

10. Use Google's Advanced Search Form - If the search options above are more than you want to know, try using Google's Advanced Search Form which simplifies most of the search options previously mentioned, such as using search phrases, as well as removing words you don't want included in your search results.

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