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Genealogy Info

Ancestry Magazine
11/1/2004 - Archive
November / December 2004 Vol. 22 / No. 6


Google for Genealogy

Google TM has won the search engine wars, for the time being. Its complete text search functionality for its database of over 4 billion webpages has made Google extremely popular. Last year, the search engine processed more than 112 million search requests per day. This year, Google accounts for forty percent of all Internet searches performed in the United States. It has an even larger slice of the search engine pie in other countries—performing sixty-five percent of all searches in the United Kingdom and eighty percent of all searches in Germany.
Even with more than 4 billion webpages cataloged, Google only indexes a portion of the Internet. It isn't a perfect tool, but it's the best tool for the job right now. Perhaps one reason is because Google's catalog of websites is kept very updated. Its bots do an excellent job of searching throughout the Internet for new and updated webpages every day.

For genealogists, using Google is a must. Not only does the search engine provide search capabilities for current webpages, it also provides historical copies of old webpages that have changed or been removed from the Web.

When you view the results of a Google search, you will see a link labeled "Cached" under the individual search results. Following this link will take you to a copy of that webpage stored at Google. This version shows the website as it appeared when Google last visited it. Faced with the impermanence of information on the Internet, these cached copies can be a great help in finding genealogical information that has otherwise vanished from the Web.

A few tips and tricks for using Google effectively in your genealogical research are noted in this article. You should visit Google Help Central at <www.google.com/help/index.html> and educate yourself on using Google to its full potential. Of particular value are the Basics of Search and the Advanced Search Tips.

The Google Toolbar
Before the specifics of using the Google website are discussed, a digression on using the Google Toolbar is in order. The Google Toolbar is a free download from Google available at <http://toolbar.google.com>. It allows you to add the search functionality of the Google website to your Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. By downloading and installing the toolbar, you are able to do Google searches of the Internet directly from your browser without having to first visit the Google website. A search box appears on your browser's toolbar in which you can directly type your Google searches.

The Google Toolbar has some additional features that make it a handy companion to Google searches. By customizing the Options on the Toolbar, you can maintain a drop-down list of prior searches you have performed. This is great for helping you keep track of what you've already searched for. In addition, the Highlight button will automatically highlight the exact individual words in your search parameters anywhere they appear in your search results. This makes finding the most relevant results much easier.

When you visit a specific website, the Search Site button on the Google Toolbar allows you to search specifically within that particular website, based on its domain name. This feature is excellent for further drill-down searching once you have located a likely website and want to search more deeply on that site alone.

While not specific to genealogy, another very useful feature of the Google Toolbar is its Popup Blocker. This will close down the popup advertisements that appear when you visit some websites. Be aware that some websites generate new windows for reasons other than advertisements (such as database search results). These new non-advertisement windows may also sometimes be blocked in error by the Popup Blocker. The Google Toolbar allows you to individually unblock popups on specific websites by visiting that site and clicking the Popup Blocker button.

Customizing Google
The Google website can be customized to fit your needs. Information on how to customize the Google website can be found at <www.google.com/help/customize.html>. The customizations themselves are made at <www.google.com/preferences>.
Customization allows you to specify the language you want to have your searches returned in. The Safe Search Filtering blocks pornographic search results from being returned. Perhaps the most useful customization is for changing the number of results displayed per page. The default number of search results per page is ten, but the maximum allowed is one hundred. Set your number of results per page to the number that best balances the number of results per page versus the time it takes Google to render the results page for you.

Boolean Operators
Google is not case-sensitive regarding the parameters of your search. A search on the uppercase "SMITH" will generate the same 40 million results as a search on the lowercase "smith." But the Boolean operators used to qualify search parameters—AND, OR, and NOT—must always be uppercase. Boolean operators are used to broaden or narrow a search by specifying how the keywords in the search parameters must relate to one another.

Google automatically defaults to the Boolean operator AND when you use multiple words in search parameters. Thus, "Smith genealogy" is exactly the same search as "Smith AND genealogy." Google will allow up to about ten individual words for search parameters. If you use more than ten, the remaining words are ignored. Use distinct words for search parameters whenever possible. When searching for a common name such as "John Smith," adding a location and time to the search parameter such as "John Smith Moonshine Holler Missouri 1902" will produce a more effective result. In Google, the Boolean operators may be represented by mathematical symbols as well as by conjunctions. Thus + is the same as AND, | represents OR, and – means NOT.

The NOT Boolean operator is particularly useful if your genealogy includes a famous surname. If you have Jefferson ancestry, Google may return a great deal of information regarding the author of the Declaration of Independence. To avoid this, you could search " Jefferson genealogy NOT Thomas" to avoid information on the famous redhead. If you have a less famous Thomas Jefferson in your family tree, you could avoid results including the third U.S. president by searching for "Thomas Jefferson genealogy NOT Virginia." Using a location parameter is a good way to focus a search.

The OR operator allows you to waffle on genealogical searches when you are not sure about your information. If you have a John Schmidt who may have also gone by the first name Johannes, you can search Google using "John OR Johannes AND Schmidt" to cover both possibilities. As with non-Internet genealogical research, all possible combinations need to be researched, including nicknames and abbreviations.

To keep a phrase together in the search parameters, surround the search with quotation marks. For example, if you had an ancestor who reputedly survived the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 and you wanted to learn more about the event, you will get more relevant results by enclosing "great molasses flood" in quotations than by letting Google search for them as individual words located somewhere on the same page but not necessarily together.

Advanced Search
The Google Advance Search page at <www.google.com/advanced_search> provides a form that can be used to invoke the Boolean operators without having to type them in the search parameters yourself. "Find results with all the words" corresponds to using the AND operator. "Exact phrase" is the equivalent of using quotation marks to keep words together in a search. "At least one of the words" is OR and "without the words" is NOT.

Of particular use for genealogists is the Date, Occurrences, and Domain advance search features. The Date field allows you to search only for the webpages Google has found to be updated in the past three months, six months, or one year. If you are being consistent with your genealogical searches over time, this feature can be very handy for repeating your standard searches on a periodic basis but limiting the search to only those websites that have been updated.

The Occurrences field allows you to specify searches anywhere in any page, in only the title of the pages, in only the text, in only the URL, or in only the links on the pages. Specifying these types of searches can be useful if you already know a title of a webpage and are trying to find it again or if you know of a particular webpage that references some genealogical information in its text but does not include it in its title or URL.

The Domain field is great for searching genealogy sites with large amounts of content. If you remember that the FamilySearch site has a German word list full of German genealogical words but can't seem to find it at FamilySearch, the Domain field to search for "German Word List" is at <www.familysearch.org> only. Notice that in the search box on the results page for the advanced search for the German Word List appears as ‘"German Word List" site:www.familysearch.org. This shows that the syntax for the Domain Only search is "site:www.familysearch.org."

Other advance search syntax you can type directly into the search box includes "daterange:" for Date, and "intitle:", "allinurl:", and "intext:" for Occurrences. Whether you use the Advanced Search page or type in the syntax yourself is up to you. Either way, if you remember visiting a website whose URL included the phrase "smith genealogy" but you can't remember the exact URL, you can search Google with the syntax "allinurl: smith genealogy" to find it again.

Other Considerations
In the search results returned by Google, you will notice that there are Sponsored Links on the upper righthand corner of the results page. These are paid advertisements placed there based on one or more of the keywords you searched on. Be aware that these sponsored links may or may not be relevant to your search.

As with your offline research, you should be keeping a research log of what you have searched for through Google. If you keep your word processor open at the same time you use your browser to search with Google, you can easily copy and paste your search syntax from every search and thus keep an exact record of past searches. A research log with a listing of past searches helps you resubmit identical searches three months or six months later when webpages have changed, new webpages have appeared, and Google's index is updated with this new information. Remember to use the Advanced Search Date field or the "daterange:" syntax to avoid getting results you have already seen.

Always try alternate word choices in your searches. Use not only genealogy but also "family history" and "family tree." Different webmasters will title similar webpages differently so try to out-think them. Misspellings are also common on the Internet so don't forget geneology for genealogy and cemetary for cemetery. Abbreviations need to be taken into consideration in your searches as well. Remember CO for county and Reg. or Reg't for regiment. Finally, initials and nicknames in place of full names are typical so try searching on F.X. for Francis Xavier and Tom for Thomas.

Google is an extremely powerful search engine, and you'll need to educate yourself in its various features to use it most effectively in your family research. Just as you had to learn how to use the microfilm readers when you first visited your local library or Family History Center, you must familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of Google's capabilities. By just typing in a name and hoping for the best, you are not letting Google do the heavy lifting for you.
Mark Howells Googles at markhow@oz.net.
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