Tackling the Internet
Searching the Internet is more than just "Googling". Genealogists should be familiar with
four basic search tools and use all of them, especially when performing literature searches.
- Search Engines
Google, Ask.com, Yahoo.com,
Metacrawler are all examples of search engines or metasearch engines, the latter
designed to search multiple search engines at once. These engines are created by computer robot programs and produce unevaluated
lists of websites ranked according to a computer algorithm frequently based on popularity. Therefore, among the few gems, their results
include many worthless and irrelevant websites. Specialized search engines, such as Searchgov.com,
which searches government sites, Scirus.com, which retrieves scientific information, and
Google Scholar, which retrieves scholarly articles, should also be considered.
Directories are effectively specialized custom search engines. The lists they produce have been reviewed by those knowledgeable in
the field, and so are likely to be both relevant and worthwhile. As the name implies, directories frequently provide links organized by subject.
Browsing for useful information may be helpful. Two important scholarly directories to consider are the Librarians'
Internet Index, and Infomine. The latter has an especially informative section on Internet
finding tools: http://infomine.ucr.edu/guides/help.shtml.
- Searchable Databases
Much of the information on the Internet is "invisible", hidden from search engines in large databases, rather than posted on
static websites. Links to many of these databases can be found in subject directories. Others may be found by monitoring genealogy blogs,
searching library and archive websites, or serendipitously entering the right keywords in a search engine
Springboards are specialized lists of organized links designed to jumpstart a researcher. CyndisList.com
is the first springboard of choice for most genealogists. Godfrey.org, a subscription site,
also maintains a small, but excellent list of free genealogy sites. Both RootsWeb.com and the
USGenWeb site could also be considered springboards.
Searching for published histories and genealogies
- Searchable Databases:
- Subscription Sites:
- Search Engines:
Searching for transcripts and abstracts
When using any of the above sites, review their holdings by location first (State, County, Town) and
then by record type (Census, Cemetery, etc.). Results from the site search engines may be inconsistent and
- Searchable Databases:
- Search engines
- Include location and record type, eg. "bradford county" AND cemetery
Searching for periodical articles
Searching for repository reference material
- Search engines
- Include location and repository type, eg. "bradford county" AND library AND pennsylvania
Most libraries, archives and courthouses maintain websites and many provide records online and answer
email requests for information.
Searching for families, past and present
Keyword Tips and Tricks
Search engines, directories, and searchable databases all have their own unique searching tricks. Most
have both simple search options and advanced search options. If your results aren't what you expect, read
the search help file. The following are basic techniques, but not all work for every search engine.
Enclose phrases in quotes. "isaac staples" retrieves only pages with that phrase. Don't forget
that names are often entered with the surname first, so always search for "staples isaac" as well.
In Google, "isaac * staples" retrieves several-word phrases enclosed by the words isaac
and staples, for example, "Isaac Hayes Staples", "Isaac and Abigail Staples", or "Isaac D. Staples".
- Boolean Search Algorithms
AND, OR, NOT, (), +, and - are among the variety of connectors
that can be used to combine keywords in most search engines. Usage varies from engine to engine, so read the
"Search Tips". If you forget them, most of the Boolean search options can be accessed through an Advanced Search page.
Not all engines allow wildcards, but they can be very handy. Common wildcard symbols are *, %,
and ?. Read the "Search Tips" to determine what limits, if any, are placed on wildcards. For example,
Ancestry.com requires at least three letters at the beginning of each field before the wildcard.
With less than three letters, the search returns an error message.
- Synonym search
The tilde (~) followed by a word is effectively a synonym search in Google. For example, a search for
staples ~genealogy will uncover many Staples genealogy sites, as well as family history sites and family trees, Of
course, you might be surprised at the number of possibilities Google interprets as genealogy synonyms.
If a search engine allows truncation, it returns all results that begin with the word entered; for example, case
returns case, casebeer, casey, etc. You will usually find truncation allowed in a searchable
database, but not in the large search engine sites.
If stemming is allowed, the search engine considers plurals and words ending in -ing and -ed to be equivalents.
- Case Sensitivity
Most of the large search engines are case insensitive. Entering case returns CASE and Case.
This is not always true for searchable databases! If you get no results or an error message, try
reentering your criteria with the proper case.
Most search engines ignore periods and commas. Apostrophes, on the other hand, are important.
The necessity of hyphens varies from search engine to search engine.
For more information on Google search possibilities, check out the Google
Practice Makes Perfect
For an excellent tutorial on searching and evaluating websites, please study the
UC Berkeley Internet Workshop Tutorial. For additional practice, be sure to complete the
Internet Scavenger Hunt.
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at