The first thing fledgling genealogists do if they have disposable income is to subscribe to any or many of the fee-based databases for genealogical research. It makes sense. These are the companies that collect, index, and disseminate information we so passionately want. But is this the wisest path for amateur or professional genealogists?
One of the largest and most sophisticated databases for genealogists is Google: yes, the ubiquitous, much loved and much vilified repository for all information about everything in the world, is actually one of the best genealogical resources.
Yet, when your solution is Google, your problem is also Google. This is to say, making this comprehensive and disparate database relevant to you necessitates refining it your searches so your results bring you the elegant replies that will give you the solutions to your brick walls.
How do you achieve this? Following I outline simple assumptions, search enhancements, and professional tips that will set you up for success.
- Google is a verbatim search: make sure you say exactly what you want. Google does not second guess what you might have meant; rather, it grabs the words you use and produces results based on those. Be meticulous about meaning what you say and saying what you mean.
- Google is not case sensitive: whether you capitalize or not makes no difference to Google’s resulting searches.
- Every word counts: words such as ‘and’ and ‘or’ have specific functions in searching; words such as ‘what’ will take the search onto a different path; words such as ‘street’ instead of ‘highway’ will give you entirely different results. Do not add words for better clarity. The fewer words in your search terms the better; the more precise the better.
- Use the Google for your own country: If you are googling an ancestor born in France, but you are living in Australia and thus default to the Australian version of Google, you do yourself a disservice. More information will be available to you if you search on the Google of the country where your subject lived. For example, if you live in the United States, your default Google is google.com. But if you are seeking records for an English woman who lived and died in England, you would do better to start at google.co.uk, which is the UK Google.
Every search engine has its tricks, and Google is no stranger to this. To achieve the most sophisticated searches, you have two choices: Boolean protocols or the Google Advanced Search.
A Boolean search is one that makes use of certain language logic, and was invented by the English mathematician, George Boole. Using certain words as ‘operators’, you are able to include or exclude information, which will bring you to better honed results.
For example, if you are searching for the will of George Boole, who was born in England in 1815 and died in Ireland in 1864 (remember to search from the appropriate Google country!), you might search for George Boole, but a better search would be George Boole AND death AND Ireland AND will NOT birth.
The operators (terms that focus your search) are: AND, NOT, OR, AND NOT.
However, in Google has created the Google Advanced Search tool that will do this narrowing for you. www.google.com/advanced_search will take you to a prepared set of parameters. All you do is fill in the drop down boxes with your answers, and Google will do the Boolean search for you.
Finally, here is a list of useful tips that professional genealogists use when searching Google for ancestors:
- Don’t phrase your search as a question: you will get better results with critical key words rather than using extraneous words
- Put quotation marks around phrases that you want to search specifically without alteration, such as “George Boole”
- Put a plus sign between words that you absolutely want to include in your search, such as “George Boole” + will
- Remember that Google will be deleting any stop words: A ‘stop word’ is a common word like ‘the’ that the search engine deletes for efficiency purposes when it conducts your search. If you intend the stop word to be included, make sure you put quotation marks around the phrase including it.
- Date ranges: make sure you include date ranges in your searches if you know them.
- Google newspapers: Google has a free and diverse repository of newspapers. Before you buy a subscription to the fee-based ones, try this link
- Google books: this is one of the most useful components of the entire Google search process. Often, your ancestors will be mentioned in historical books, and books.google.com is one of the most comprehensive repositories of the full text of books in existence. You may not find the latest best seller, but you will find a wealth of information about families.
- Google alerts: at www.google.com/alerts, you will be able to enter particular searches that you would like Google to perform regularly. Anytime new content appears on the internet, Google will send you a notification that your own brick wall has cracked a little.
- Site specific searches: When you employ Google for your search engine, you are not obligated to search the entire web every single time. You will reduce the amount of irrelevant information that is retrieved by searching a single site for your search words. For example, if you are aware that your ancestor, George Boole, was mentioned in an article in the New York Times, rather than choosing the broad Google.com and your ancestor’s name, limit your search to the New York Times by doing it this way: site:nytimes.com Boole. This way, the search will return only those mentions of Boole that occurred in the New York Times. This is a great time saver!