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
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Who doesn’t love a good genealogical surprise? Sometimes we discover something we overlooked the first time around. Other times we find gems in places we never expected. Google Books is one of those places full of unexpected surprises.
with Lisa Louise Cooke
What is Google Books
Google Books is a free online catalog of over 25 million books, 10 million of which are digitized and searchable. The collection is international in scope.
You can search at the stand-alone website. You can also start your search at Google.com and then select Books results on the search results page.
While you would expect to find books at Google Books, you may be surprised to discover there it also includes many other types of published materials. Here are 10 surprising things you can find at Google Books. Watch the video and follow along in the article below.
10 Surprising Things at Google Books
The final issue of Ancestry magazine was published in 2010. Though times and technology change, core genealogical methodology stays much the same. Browse or search past issues spanning 1994 through 2010 at Google Books for free. You’ll also find countless other magazine titles including Life magazine (1953-1972).
An ideal way to fill in between census enumerations is with city directories. Typically published yearly but sometimes irregularly, they are an invaluable source for information about your ancestors. You might find listed their place of employment and spouse’s name in addition to address and phone number.
Search Tip: Target city directories specifically by searching for the name of the city in quotation marks. Google interprets quotation marks to mean that you want that word exactly as written to appear in each returned result. Next add the phrase city directory, again in quotes. To ensure you don’t miss directories that include additional words between city and directory, place an asterisk between the words.
Here’s how your search will look: “Nashville” “city * directory”
This search operator tells Google that the phrase may also include a word or two between city and directory. An example might be The Nashville City and Business Directory.
When we hear the word almanac we often automatically think of the yearly Old Farmer’s Almanac. However, almanacs of the 19th century and earlier sometimes also included information on local residents and businesses. It’s worth taking a look to see if your ancestor’s community published almanacs. Businesses and other organizations also published almanacs.
4. Governmental Publications
It’s not uncommon for every person at some point in their life to interact with the government. Those interactions create paperwork, and that paperwork may have been published. In Google books, search for probate documents, hearings and other types of government generated works in combination with the names of your ancestors, their businesses, and other organizations with which they were associated.
5. County Histories
The digitized items on Google Books are often there because they either fall within the public domain (published prior to 1924). Consequently, there is a very good chance that the county history published in your ancestor’s area is digitized and available on Google Books. These books are a wealth of historical information about families and communities.
6. Compiled Family Histories
There’s a good chance that sometime in the past someone has researched a family line that connects to your family tree. These genealogies may be published in a compiled family history. Since the phrase compiled family history will probably not be in the title of the book, try this search approach:
1. Search for the word genealogy (no quotation marks) and a surname (with quotation marks)
2. Filter to Free Google eBooks
3. Filter by time frame (for example 19th century)
The Google News Archive was a newspaper digitization project that was discontinued several years ago. The archive remains but is very difficult to search. The good news is that those digitized newspapers are now included in Google Books with its powerful search engine. Start by running a search and then on the results page filter Document Type to Newspapers. Use the Share a Clip clipping tool (found in the three stacked dots button on the digitized book page) to clip articles.
Newspapers may appear in the old Classic View of Google Books (as they do at the time of this writing.) If so, use the search box in the column on the left side of the page to search within the newspaper.
Search Tip: Save time by visiting the Google News Archive to see which newspapers are included and the years that they cover.
8. Genealogy Journals
The oldest genealogy journal has been published quarterly by the New England Historical and Genealogical Society since 1847. Since then many other societies such as the Genealogical Society of Utah have regularly published journals. These journals often list families and sources and are an invaluable resource to genealogists today. Family Associations also often publish journals.
Try a simple search of genealogy journal to start browsing. Then try adding a surname, state, or country or combination of those. Filter down to Free Google eBooks to view only free digitized publications.
The Historical Journal of the More Family. United States: John More Association, 1892.
Old maps can be found in many of the surprising items we’ve found so far. County Histories in particular are a wonderful resource of old maps. Many times, they will include plat maps that even include the owners name written on the property. Many maps may be one-of-a-kind.
A quick and easy way to spot maps within a book is to use ThumbnailView. You’ll find the ThumbnailView button (which looks like a checkerboard or collection of six squares) at the top of the screen when viewing a digitized book. Once clicked, your view will change from a single page to many pages at once. This makes it very easy to scroll and spot maps. You can also try looking through the Contents menu for Maps.
Use the Share a Clip feature (mentioned in #7) to clip the map. In the pop-up box, click the Copy button next to the image link. Paste the link in a new browser tab and hit Enter on your keyboard. On a PC, right-click the image and save it to your computer by selecting Save Image As.
Like old maps, there are many photographs and images in old digitized books at Google Books. These could include photos, engravings and drawings of your ancestors, their homes or other items relating to your family history. Follow the directions in #9 to find and save photos and images.
Tips for using Google Books
When reviewing a digitized book, look for the Contents menu at the top of the screen. Here you’ll find addition options to jump to different parts of the book such as topics or chapters.
In the new Google Books user interface, you will find the digitized book is overlayed over the catalog entry for the book. The search box at the top of the screen is for searching only within that book. To close the book and view the catalog entry, click the X in the upper right corner of the screen.
To remove the yellow highlighted items, you searched for from a book and start a new search, click the Clear Search button.
Translate foreign language text by using the clipping tool. While viewing a digitized page, click the three stacked dots and select Share a Clip. Using your mouse, draw a box around the text you want to translate. In the Share this Clip pop-up window click the Translate button.
How to filter your search results down to only free digitized book: On the search results page you should see that the Tools button is greyed out (if it is not, click it) and in the drop down menu click Any Books and select Free Google eBooks.
How to cite books in Google Books: Close the digitized book to reveal the book’s catalog entry page. In the About this edition click the Create Citation button. Copy the desired source citation.
Book:The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke. Learn everything you need to know about effective searching as well as using Google Books and the Google News Archive.
Premium Members: Watch my Premium video class Google books the Tool I Use Every Day for many more specific and effective strategies for using Google Books for genealogy.
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Carolyn: Can you put in a year range for the city directory search From Lisa: Yes, you can use the numrange search operator when searching Google Books. Example: “Nashville” “city * directory” 1850..1900
From Regina: What if you have a really common surname?
From Lisa: Common names pose a challenge but you can find them too! It takes a bit more strategy, and I cover that extensively in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
From Mary: Could you find diaries, journals, and manuscripts? What would it be under? From Lisa: If the items were formally published then there is definitely a possibility of finding them in Google Books. Run a search on diary and filter down to Free Google eBooks and you will see many examples. From there, you can try adding names, places, etc.
From Kathryn: When you clip a map or image, how can you add the citation of the book? From Lisa: Click the X to close the digitized book. This will reveal the book’s catalog entry page. In the About this edition click the Create Citation button. Copy the desired source citation. You can then paste it into the document where you are using the clipping, or paste it into the meta data (Properties) of the image file.
From Georgiann: Sometimes I get so overwhelmed with the ALL of this good information. Lisa, are you cloned so I can have you sit next to me to calm me down as I start? From Lisa: Well, as you heard in this episode it turns out I don’t have a twin, LOL! However, Premium Membership is the next best thing. Then you can have me “on demand” all year long.
Premium Podcast Episodes As a Genealogy Gems Premium Member you have access to the entire back catalog of Premium Episodes! Of course, things do change over time, so occasionally you’ll hear about something that is no longer around (like the Premium Message...
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.