For family history enthusiasts throughout the world, search is our hobby, our passion and our addiction. We can spend years searching for details which enable us to complete a single box on a pedigree chart, only to be rewarded with two new empty boxes that remind us how much more we have to learn – and the call to learn, for many, is irresistible.
creative search logo used for the 500th anniversary of the Piri Reis map
With more than 25 billion pages included in Google’s index of the web, however, even these powerful free tools can challenge some users who are met with a haystack of results instead of just a few precise needles.
The services provided by Google have become an indispensable assortment of tools helping us filter and find web pages, photographs, historical books and newspapers, patent filings, legal opinions, detailed maps, videos, satellite imagery, and even the ability to take a virtual walk down the streets where our ancestors walked years before.
By taking the time to understand and use some essential Google filtering techniques, you can reduce the number of results obtained for your queries, while simultaneously increasing their relevancy for your particular area of interest.
"WWW" May Not Mean What You Think
When presenting at genealogy conferences, I often ask if anyone knows what the acronym 'WWW' stands for. As if reading from cue cards, the audience typically responds in unison – "World Wide Web." As I remind them that we are family historians first, technology users second, their look of surprise is quickly followed by laughter
As family historians, we are always asking Who, Where, and When.
- Who from the family tree am I looking for at the moment?
- Where were they when a particular event occurred?
- When was it that the event likely took place?
That’s the foundation for everything we do in genealogy.
Lucky for us, Google is perfectly suited to answering family history questions, as well as many others. We can greatly increase our odds of finding meaningful answers when we know how to ask.
Google family history basics
When using Google to search the Internet for clues about the lives of our ancestors, keep in mind that the keywords best suited to help you find what you're looking for lie in answering the questions who, where, and when. Often in that particular order.
Be specific in your search
Even when we cannot locate clues about our own ancestors, we can improve our understanding of our family story by looking at more general information for a group of people from the same time and place.
For example: If you know your family came to the United States from southern Italy in 1902, then search for information about that group and that time frame.
For circumstances when you may not have a full name or may be unsure of a spelling, providing the elements that you do know can help Google start you down the right path.
How Google search works
Before setting off to explain certain tips and techniques, it’s important to have a good foundation of the basics of what Google is doing each time you submit a search. The fact that the web is also changing every second makes it that much more difficult for many of us to fully appreciate.
Google and other search engines use automated programs, often referred to as spiders, to ‘crawl’ the web in search of web pages and their links to other pages or sites. With each visit, Google catalogues the spiders' discoveries, which are then added to one of the largest and most comprehensive indexes of the web known to exist.
When we search, we are actually asking Google to look through their index of the web for matching terms, not the live internet itself. Google continually refines this process, and as a result, most queries are resolved in well under one second. Google uses as much information as it can to help ensure your results are the most relevant ones possible, while still doing so as quickly as possible.
For example: Google can often detect the geographic location where your computer or mobile device is connecting to the Internet, and this is useful data if your query is, ‘take out restaurant’ or ‘electrician’ or ‘catholic cemetery.’ In each example, Google can provide far more relevant results using your location and keywords you provided, in combination with other relevant data.
Search tip: Google is not generally case sensitive (with just a very few exceptions), so genealogy, GENEALOGY, Genealogy, and gEnEaLoGy will all yield the same results.
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