Do you use Google for genealogy? This free, powerful web browser will scan over 30 trillion webpages for information we request: our ancestors’ names, messages from those with common ancestors, or pictures and stories relating to our relatives’ lives.
However, it’s all too easy to run a Google search for an ancestor’s name–and then become discouraged when we see a quarter million search results. Especially if the first few results don’t seem relevant at all! We may give up, unaware that the gem we’re after is among our results, but much further down the list.
Certain Google keyword search tips and tricks can help you get exactly the types of search results you’re after. Once you learn Google search strategies for genealogy, you’ll find yourself using the same strategies to find other things online, from recipes to how-tos to old car manuals or anything else you need!
Here’s how to get started
1. Go to the Google home page and enter a few keywords relating to a piece of information you hope to find online. Say, an ancestor’s full name and hometown such as Andrew Larsen Scranton PA. Or a type of record you need and the location (probate records Lackawanna County PA). As you see from these examples, you don’t need commas in between your words or any other punctuation, at least to begin with. After entering a few keywords, hit Enter.
2. Look at your search results. The first few may be sponsored search results, or results that appear on websites that are paying for you to see them first. These results may or may not be what you’re looking for. Scan them, but keep looking!
3. Do you see too many search results? Too few? Not quite on target? Add or subtract keywords as needed, and search again. For example, if your search for probate records Lackawanna County PA just brings up current probate records, add the word genealogy. If Andrew Larsen Scranton PA doesn’t bring up any relevant results, try omitting his first name from the search. Then results for anyone with that surname will come up.
4. Still not quite right? It may be time to start adding little codes to tell Google exactly what you want.
5 Google Search Strategies That Get Better Results
Search operators are symbols and words that instruct Google on what to do with the keywords you provide in your search query. Get ready to talk Google’s language with these 5 strategies:
1. Quotation Marks (“ ”). One of the quickest ways to improve your search results is to use quotation marks.Using quotation marks around a phrase ensures that this exact phrase appears in each and every result. For example: “U.S. Federal Census” returns websites featuring that exact phrase, and no variation. “Jehu Burkhart” returns only webpages that include the exact name Jehu Burkhart somewhere on the page. Keep in mind though that if Jehu’s name appears as Burkhart, Jehu on a web page it will not appear in your results list.
2. OR. Use this to provide for more options in Google search results. For example, we can solve the last name first, first name last problem like this: “Jehu Burkhart” OR “Burkart, Jehu”. Not be sure whether Great Grandmother Smith is buried in Manhattan or Brooklyn? Search for cemeteries in either city: Cemeteries Manhattan OR Brooklyn.
3. Minus Sign (-). Let’s say that you are searching a Harold Carter from Springfield, Ohio and there happens to be a prominent man named Harold Carter from Springfield, Missouri who keeps popping up in your search results. Ask yourself: “what’s unique about this other person that I could eliminate from my Google search?” If the unwanted Mr. Carter was married to Mabel and owned a steel factory, you could try this approach:“Harold Carter” “Springfield” Missouri -Mabel -Steel. By using the minus sign operator you can sweep this Mr. Carter from Missouri out of the way and off your results page.
4. Numrange (00..18). The numrange command adds a range of numbers to your search parameters. To enter the command, type the beginning number, then two periods (no spaces), then the ending number. Use this feature to include the timeframe of your ancestor’s life in your online search. “Harold Carter” “Springfield” 1865..1934.
Google Search Example
5. Mix and Match. As you can already see in the above examples, it is perfectly acceptable to mix and match search operators. Here’s a search query that makes use of our first four strategies: “Harold Carter” OR “Carter Harold” “Springfield” Missouri -Mabel -Steel 1865..1934
The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox has become the “Google bible for genealogists.” Now in its second edition, the book was fully revised and updated in 2015. A lot has changed since the first edition was published in 2011, and it’s all documented step-by-step in this new edition.
This brand new edition includes:
Brand new chapters on Google Scholar and Google Patents
It’s Nice to Share. Do youhave friends who would benefit from this article on using Google for genealogy and Google keyword search tips. Please share this article with them. You will find handy sharing buttons on this page, or just copy and paste the URL for this article into a Facebook post or email. Thanks!
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Elevenses with Lisa Episode 21 Video and Show Notes
Live show air date: August 20, 2020
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
How to Find Free Genealogy Resources
In the genealogy community it’s often said, “Only a fraction of genealogical records are online.” That’s true indeed, but it’s not a reason not to start your search online. A more helpful and accurate piece of advice would be “while not everything is online, all search for genealogical information starts online.”
The reason for this is simple. Online research before you go will reveal:
If the materials are available at a more convenient location
If the materials are available somewhere online for free
The call number, location, and other specific information you need to quickly access the materials once you arrive.
Details about gaining access to the facility and materials.
The last bullet point above will help you avoid the disappointment of discovering an unforeseen closure, or that the specific records you need are actually help at a satellite location.
New genealogical information and records are uploaded daily to the internet. Some of this information is available for free. In this article and episode we will cover strategic ways to locate and access free genealogy online.
The Amount of Data Continues to Increase – Read more about the growth of online information here.
The Path of Least Resistance to Free Genealogy
Most genealogists want to obtain records at the lowest available cost with the least amount of travel. Therefore, always starting your search online just makes good sense.
Here’s our path of least resistance:
Free and Online: FamilySearch, Google, WorldCat
Online and Subscription: Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, niche sites
Free and Locally Offline: Libraries, Archives, Universities
Offline and Distant: Examples include the National Archives, Allen County Library, Family History Library, NEHGS
The FamilySearch Catalog: New digitized images are added daily from microfilms & digital camera operators. These include books, maps, compiled family histories, and more. The catalog also includes materials that are not online but are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or through Inter-library loan.
The FamilySearch Wiki is a free online genealogical guide comprised of more than 93,000 articles. It covers 244 countries, territories, and islands. It includes links to genealogy databases and online resources as well as how-to information.
Use the FamilySearch Wiki Watchlist to follow pages of research interest. Here’s how to watch Wiki pages for new and free genealogy content:
Log in with your free FamilySearch account
navigate to the desired page
click the Watchlist link in the upper right corner of the page.
Look for the Watchlist link, and the blue buttons that lead to free online genealogy records for that location.
Google is still your best bet for finding sources both online and offline.
You can dramatically improve your search results by incorporating search operators into your search. Watch episode 13 of Elevenses with Lisa to learn about how to use search operators when googling for genealogy.
Set up free Google Alerts to be on the lookout for new and updated search results. You’ll receive them by email, and you can control the frequency.
Google Alerts do the work of searching for free genealogy for you.
How to Create a Google Alert:
Highlight and copy (Control C on Windows or Command C on Mac) the search query that you typed into the Google search box
Go to www.google.com/alerts
Sign into your free Google account
Paste (Control V or Command V) your search query into the Search Query box on the Google Alerts page
Select the Result Type you desire (ex. Everything, News, etc.)
Select how often you wish to receive alerts
Select How Many results you want to receive (I recommend Only the Best Results)
Enter / Select the email address you want your alerts to be sent to
Click the Create Alert button
Partnerships Make Free Genealogy Available
Many of the genealogy giants enter partnerships with each other in order to facilitate digitization and indexing of genealogical records. This means that the same materials may be found in different locations on the web, and sometimes for free.
17,900 subscribing member libraries in 123 countries collectively maintain WorldCat’s database which is the world’s largest bibliographic database.
Use WorldCat to check that you are indeed accessing the resource from the most convenient repository and if it’s available for free. Here’s how:
Run your search
Click an item
Under Find a Copy in the Library enter your zip code
The library closest to you will be listed at the top
Once you get your search results, look to the left in the Formats box. There you can quickly narrow down to only items that are online by clicking boxes like DownloadableArticle. Some of these may require a log in on the website you are referred to.
To find free records at MyHeritage.com, go to https://tinyurl.com/LisaMyHeritage. In the footer menu of the website, click on Historical Records. Then fill in your search criteria. (Update: If you don’t see Historical Records in the footer, go to Research > Collection Catalog and search on the keyword “free.”) Scroll down the search results and look for the green free tags.
To find free records at Findmypast which specialized in British genealogy but also includes records from around the world, go to https://tinyurl.com/FMPLisa.
(Some links in our articles are affiliate links. We will be compensated at no additional cost to use when you use them. This makes it possible for us to bring this free show to you. Thank you!)
Google Site Search Can Help Locate Free Genealogy
A site search works like many search operators as previously discussed in Elevenses with Lisa episode 13 (watch and read here.) It provides Google with specific instructions about the type of search you want to conduct with your search terms and keywords.
This Site search tip comes from Lisa Louise Cooke’s book The Genealogists’s Google Toolbox.
Site search runs your query only on the specified website. This is extremely helpful and efficient if:
you have a particular website in mind that you want to search,
you aren’t having success using the search field provided by the website,
the website you want to search doesn’t have a search field.
Here’s an example of a Site search:
Free Pennsylvania site:ancestry.com
Try running the search above for yourself. You’ll find results that include many free genealogy records pertaining to Pennsylvania. Substitute the words to meet your search needs.
Construct a Site search for Free Genealogy by first typing in the words and phrases you wish to search for. Include the word free. Leave the appropriate spacing between them and follow the last item with a space. Then type site: and add the website home page address (URL). You can copy the URL and simply paste it in place. There is no space between the colon and the URL. And note that www is not required.
Searching for Offline Local Sources with Free Genealogy Information
To find what’s local and free:
Search WorldCat.org (be sure to use the Zip Code filtering to find the genealogy materials at the location closest to you.)
Use Google to search.
Find your local Family History Center here. These centers have unique free resources as well as free access to some subscription genealogy websites.
When you find a library, archive or other repository, visit their website and look for:
Databases they offer
Their online catalog to plan your research
Other associated libraries
Details on planning a visit
Get Free Genealogy Help on Facebook
Search for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) on Facebook.
Family history can be found in many places. We turn to steadfast repositories such as libraries, archives and historical societies. And these days we can also search online at free genealogy websites like FamilySearch, and subscription websites like MyHeritage and Ancestry. All have something unique to offer.
Most importantly, we start our search at home, talking to our oldest relatives and combing through old family papers. We then turn our attention to the family photo albums and scrapbook on the bookshelf, and old home movies if we are lucky enough to have them.
The great news is that the closets in your home are not the only place where you can potentially find old film footage pertaining to your family’s past. The largest online video repository in the world is YouTube (which is owned by Google), and it is the perfect place to look for film. That’s why I’m so excited to share some of my YouTube search strategies from my new book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd Edition. These strategies can help you find old home movies (from your family or someone else’s family that came in contact with your family), news and newsreel films, documentaries, amateur and professional film footage, and countless other subjects that can shed more light on your family’s history.
How to Find Family History on YouTube in 5 Steps
Does finding your family history on YouTube sound unlikely? Believe me, it’s not. YouTube is a treasure trove if you know how to search it. Here are 5 steps from my Google Search Methodology for Genealogy and how to apply them specifically to YouTube.
Step #1. Create a Search Plan
Just like genealogy research, successful Googling, even on YouTube, requires a plan. Rather than searching willy-nilly, take a few moments to determine what it is you hope to find. Having a search plan will save you a lot of time and frustration!
The key to a good research question and plan is to be specific. This means that instead of just searching for family names or places, you have a specific event, place, and / or time frame in mind.
Below is a great example of searching with a specific plan in mind that I received from one of my Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners a while back. I have bolded the keywords that she incorporated into her YouTube search.
From Carol K.: “I really enjoyed (Genealogy Gems) Podcast (episode) #223, particularly the segment with David Haas MD. (Editor’s note: that episode covers Dr. Haas’ vast collection of old home movies and his quest to upload them all to YouTube.)
I had tried researching YouTube for something about my family, including where they settled in Connecticut. I had not come up with much when I decide to search my dad’s ship, The USS Tuscaloosa (Image 1).
Image 1: Carol’s father, Mario Ponte, served on the USS Tuscaloosa
My dad, Mario Ponte, served in the Navy from 1936-1939 (Image 2).
Image 2: Mario DaRin Ponte beside the USS Tuscaloosa – July 27, 1937
I knew he had been on a Goodwill South American Cruisein1939 (Image 3) as he talked about it often and I even have the Cruise Book from that voyage.
image 3: U.S.S. Tuscaloosa South American Good Will Cruise route April – June 1939
On a goodwill tour of South America in 1939, three US cruisers found little goodwill in this angry sea. Newsreel cameras aboard the USS San Francisco recorded this epic struggle of the ships which included the USS Quincy and USS Tuscaloosa.
I don’t recall my father ever mentioning this to me, but my husband said he had heard the story. I only wish my dad were here to share this memory with me. At least, I have been able to share this treacherous event with many in my family.
When you see the tossing, turning and huge waves in the video, I feel they were lucky to have survived. Just think, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story today.
Thanks Lisa and David. I’m now convinced that YouTube can be used for genealogy and to add to our stories.”
Carol’s fascinating success can be directly tied to the fact that she developed a research plan focused on specific information.
2. Craft Your YouTube Search Query
As you can see, Carol didn’t just search YouTube for her Dad’s name. In fact, unless your ancestor was famous in some way, that is likely not a strategy that will pay off.
Instead, she assembled the pertinent information and used that in her query. Here are the keywords and phrases I pulled from her email:
The USS Tuscaloosa
Goodwill South American Cruisein1939
Navy from 1936-1939
I included her dad’s name in this list because it never hurts to run your ancestor’s name through a search just in case something pops up. You never know what might be on YouTube. For example, perhaps a childhood friend has uploaded an old home movie to YouTube and named him as being in the movie too!
When conducting your initial YouTube search, include all the important information. If the results are unsatisfactory, you can always remove or add search terms. Since we can’t be sure what if anything is on YouTube pertaining to our research subject, we have to be flexible, and that means expecting to run several variations of our search. We’ll talk more about that in step 3.
In Carol’s case, her research plan was focused on finding a video pertaining to the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa’s Goodwill cruise that her father participated in. She could start with a search such as:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939
The results for this search query are excellent and include the video that Carol found:
Image 4: YouTube search for family history
3. Analyze Your YouTube Search Results
Even though these results successfully delivered the video that satisfied our research plan, we would miss tremendous opportunity if we didn’t take a few extra moments to further analyze the results. You never know what else might be out there!
Here are just a few of the things you should be looking for when reviewing your YouTube results:
LOOK FOR: Should I be more specific in my search query?
Look at our search results (Image 4 above). What stands out to me is that there appear to be many different videos on YouTube about war time ships and cruisers. This is great for family historians, but it means that there are more results to look through than we might have expected.
As you have probably experienced in the past, not all the words in our search query are included in every search result we receive. There is a way to quickly and easily find only videos that specifically mention the words and phrases we want to find. By putting quotation marks around “U.S.S. Tuscaloosa” we can tell YouTube to only give us videos that mention that exact phrase.
When Google searching (and Google is the search engine under the hood of YouTube), quotation marks function as a search operator. They tell Google specific instructions about what to do with our word or phrase. In this case, they tell Google that the phrase is mandatory, and must appear exactly as typed and spelled. The one exception is the periods in U.S.S. Generally speaking, Google disregards punctuation, so it ignores the periods. It doesn’t matter whether you include them or not.
It is important to note that operators don’t always work as consistently in YouTube as they do in regular searches at Google.com. That being said, it’s great to have a variety of tools that we can use to improve our searches, and they are definitely worth a try. My book includes a wide range of additional search operators and how to use them.
Running a second search on “USS Tuscaloosa” opens many new video opportunities (Image 5):
Image 5: Search results for a query containing the quotation marks search operator.
This search not only includes the 1939 tour, but also other videos of the ship that may also be applicable to the family’s history. As you can see, sometimes less words in a search is more!
LOOK FOR: What do the unwanted video results have in common? Sometimes you may notice that you are receiving many results that are not a good match for what you are looking for. When this happens, take a look at your results and try to come up with words that are associated with the unwanted videos, and have no relevance to your goal.
Image 6 (below) is an example of search results in YouTube for the following query:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939
Image 6: Identify unwanted videos and words in the YouTube search results
While the results page includes a few good matches, it also includes current videos about quarantines on ships which is a viral topic at the time of this writing. Since these are not applicable to our search plan, we will want to eliminate them, and we will do that in Step 4.
4. Improve Upon Your YouTube Search Results
In a case like the one above (Image 6) where you are receiving several video results not applicable to your research goal, you can try literally subtract the unwanted words that you identified in Step 3 from your search. In most cases, this should remove the videos that contain those words in their title or description.
To do this, use the minus sign (-) search operator in conjunction with the word. Here’s an example of how we can do that with this search:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
This search will remove the results that mention quarantine.
You can subtract multiple words from your query if you wish. Each word should have a minus sign touching it, and there should be a space between each subtracted word as in this example:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine -princess -coronavirus
Googling, whether at YouTube, Google.com or any of the other free Google tools, is an art form, not a black and white science. We need to try variations in order to learn from what works and what doesn’t. To reach our goals, we need to try adding in more of what we want, and removing what we don’t want. In this case I would also try adding to my query that that cruise was in South America, and that the phrase USS Tuscaloosa is mandatory. Here’s what that search query would look like:
“USS Tuscaloosa” Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
Remember, we’re not going for perfect results, we’re mining all the different “veins” in the YouTube gold mine by running multiple versions of the same basic query. Feel free to experiment with mixing and matching keywords and operators. The results may be worth it!
Learn more about Google Search operators in my video:
GOOGLE GURU TIP: Conduct each variation of your search in a new browser tab. This allows you to compare the results side-by-side while retaining each query, making it easy to return to the queries that are performing the best.
You can also potentially improve upon your YouTube search results by using the Tools button to reveal the secondary filter menu. (Image 7)
Image 7: Click “Filter” to reveal the YouTube search filter options
These filters won’t prove useful in every case, but they do offer some handy options for narrowing the scope of your search.
5. Capitalize on Your Results
When you find a video that meets your research goals, there’s a good chance that the person or company that uploaded and published the video (publishers are called “Creators” by YouTube) may have more videos on that subject. Here’s a quick and easy way to find out.
On the video page, you will see the name of the Creator right below the video in the left corner. (Image 9)
Image 9: More videos found on YouTube
Click the YouTube Creator’s name. This will take you to their YouTube channel. Every Creator who has published a video has a YouTube channel. It’s sort of like their own home page for their videos. There you will be able to see and search any additional videos they have published. Click Videos to see all their videos. (Image 10)
Image 10: More videos on the Creator’s YouTube channel
If the channel has a lot of videos, click Playlists in the channel’s menu to see how they are grouped by topic. You can also search the channel for keywords and phrases by clicking the small magnifying glass icon on the far right end of the menu.
A Bright Future for Family History on YouTube
In Step 3 we analyzed the search results for Carol’s YouTube search. Let’s take another look at those results:
Image 8: Over time new videos are uploaded to YouTube waiting to be found.
It’s interesting to note that in addition to the video that Carol found which was published 4 years ago, another video on this topic was published a year later.
It’s estimated that more than 500 hours of video is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is up from the 400 hours per minute announced in 2015 by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Among that vast storehouse of film footage I’ve found countless videos that have enhanced my family’s story. And readers just like you email me the gems they unearth. I love receiving these success stories. Thank you to Carol for sharing hers! If you make an exciting discovery using these strategies please share them in the Comments. It will inspire us all to continue our search.
The bottom line is that the potential for finding your family history on YouTube grows dramatically minute by minute, so don’t wait another minute!