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.
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!
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