How to Get the Most Out of Your Google Searches

3d illustration of a large magnifying glass hovering over top of an extruded Google logo.

Google Search by C_osett, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved
3d illustration of a large magnifying glass hovering over top of an extruded Google logo.
Google Search by C_osett, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved

Once you have decided to delve into the realm of genealogical exploration, deciding where to begin your research and understanding how to isolate important information are crucial to developing your family tree.  A key strategy to optimizing your search is learning to utilize certain basic Google functions.  An understanding of Google’s capabilities will reduce the number of results you obtain and increase the likelihood that the information is relevant to your inquiry.  The following list contains some helpful advice for constructing your Google search for those who are just beginning their investigations into their family histories.

Be discriminating when choosing your search terms.   To maximize your findings using Google, it is critical to have some familiarity with how Google operates.  For example, when you input multiple terms into your query, Google assumes that these terms are all connected by an “AND” term.  Thus, you will only receive hits that contain all of your search terms.  Additionally, the order of your search terms dictates the priority level allocated to each of those terms.  The most relevant terms should always come first in your string of words.

Use punctuation and connectors to access the most relevant findings.  In order to return results with what Google refers to as an “exact phrase match,” it is necessary to use quotation marks.  Google will only identify matches where the terms appear as a consecutive string.  This can be especially helpful when searching for a proper name.  So a search for “john smith” will only produce results for “john smith,” not john jefferson or adam smith.  If you want to exclude all pages that contain a particular term from your search, you can add a minus sign (-).  This feature is useful if your ancestor has a surname that is also a common word or a name shared with a famous individual.  Your search would therefore be “johnson –lyndon” or ”–magic”.  If you have found several matches with your ancestor’s name and you know that your ancestor was from Delaware and not Kentucky, you can use the minus feature to omit all pages citing that person’s name from Kentucky.  Another tool to assist in locating the correct surname when there appears to be more than one spelling or you are uncertain of the correct spelling is placing the word “OR” in uppercase letters between one or more terms.  This allows Google to perform a search that will yield all the results for the surnames “hoff,” “huff” or “hough.”

Apply other symbols to gather information.  Google automatically conducts searches for terms that are commonly used synonyms for the word the user inputs in the query.  But you can command Google to return additional synonyms and related terms by using the tilde symbol (῀).  Thus, a search for “obituaries” will yield matches for “obits”,” death notices,” “newspaper obituaries” etc.  Another method to find information is using a wildcard (*).  This symbol instructs Google to consider it a placeholder for unknown terms and locate the most relevant matches.  This can be strategically placed at the end of a phrase or question, such as “mildred crosby was born in *”.

Google searches, particularly when utilizing advanced search functions, can become much more complex and detailed.  These methods will be explored at a future time.  However, for the novice genealogist, the basic Google techniques discussed above provide a useful starting point before exploring more obscure sources and searches.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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