These Google keyword search tips can help you harness the incredible power of Google to search for your ancestors across trillions of webpages!
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
Resources for Success
Use Google Search Operators to Define Old or Unfamiliar Words
Can Google Help Me Search Digitized Newspaper Pages?
Google for Genealogy: New Search Operators and More (podcast episode, available to Premium members)
The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox
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:
- Google Search
- Google Alerts
- Google Books
- Google Translate
- Google Earth
- Brand new chapters on Google Scholar and Google Patents
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Google your family history with Genealogy Gems! Google has a great collection of free online search tools–all powered by the same Google search engine–that can help you discover your family history. In this new Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning video,...
Thom learned how to use Google Earth for family history after watching my free Google Earth for Genealogy video, and then made a landmark discovery: his ancestors’ pond, business and a photo of his family at work.
This Using Google Earth for Family History success story was recently sent in by Thom, a young genealogist who blogs at The Millennial Genealogist. Be sure to click on the picture that goes with his story–it’s really neat.
Thom’s Google Earth Story
“I am writing to share with you a TOTAL (and entirely unexpected) success in using Google tools for my research.
By way of introduction, I am a young genealogist (age 21) from Massachusetts. I recently discovered your podcast and have been working through the archived episodes on my daily 1.5 hour commute.
I watched your Google Earth presentation last weekend, and had some time to try your tips out after work today.
My family has strong roots in North Attleboro, Bristol County, Massachusetts. So I decided that my first task would be to find a good historical map to overlay. A quick Google search yielded a 1943 USGS map of the greater Attleboro area on the University of New Hampshire website. Some quick adjustments left me with this great result:
My curiosity having been piqued, I began exploring the map. I know that two sets of my second-great-grandparents, Bert Barrett and Grace Freeman, and James Adams and Elizabeth Todd, all lived near Oldtown Church (presently the First Congregational Church). I zoomed in:
Looking at Google’s current street names, Oldtown Church is right by the intersection of Mt. Hope and Old Post (you’ll note the small cross). Now keep following Mt. Hope Street – do you see what I see? Todd’s Pond! I just knew this couldn’t be a coincidence. So I went straight to Google again:
And the very first result, a page within a Google Book on the history of North Attleboro, was astonishing:
“In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here).
By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co.
Todd’s Pond was located on the westerly side of Old Post Road near the corner of Allen Avenue. The Oldtown Church is visible in the background.”
From North Attleborough by Bob Lanpher, Dorothea Donnelly and George Cunningham (Images of America series, Arcadia; click here to see the picture that goes with this photo, along with other pictures he found with a follow-up visit to the area.)”
Mentioned by name are great-great-grandmother Elizabeth’s four brothers, George, Henry, James, and William Todd. What a spectacular find!
I plan to reach out to the local museum that prepared the book to see if they can provide a better copy, and even additional media should I be so fortunate.
In short, I wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU so very much! Had I not been exploring Google Earth at your suggestion, I’m not sure if I ever would have ever noticed “Todd’s Pond.”
The Power of Google Used for Genealogy
I hope you are using Google Earth for family history! Paired with Google Books and the rest of rest of Google’s genealogy tool box, it can help you unearth fascinating facts about your family history.
Here’s an image I found (using Google Images) that shows the process of harvesting ice, a profession long gone with the age of modern refrigeration.
The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the “uptown trade” to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, 30 August 1884. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.
Resources for Using Google Earth for Family History
In my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’ll teach you how to use Google Earth for family history, along with Google Books, Google Images and more.
My Google Earth for Genealogy video tutorial series will then round out your education.
Both are packed with step-by-step instructions and examples from my own family history research to inspire you. Google and all its powerful tools are FREE. Why not invest some time in learning to harness its power?
More Google Earth for Family History Success Stories
Click below to read more Genealogy Gems articles on how you can use Google Earth for your family history research:
Alvie Discovers His Unknown Childhood Home: 4 Steps for Using Google Earth for Genealogy
Was This My Ancestor’s Neighborhood?
Have you had success using any of these techniques? Please leave a comment below.
Using Google Books for genealogy is a successful tool to many. A Gem’s reader shares the remarkable story she uncovered using the tips for using Google Books she learned from a recent Genealogy Gems Premium podcast.
From Genealogy Gems Premium member:
I was just listening to the newest Premium podcast concerning filtering the lists on Google Books (Premium episode 137). I would like to relay my story for using your hints and tips on Google.
My great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier. At the age of 48, he married my great-grandmother and my grandmother was born the next year. I found much to my dismay, that he committed suicide when my grandmother was a few weeks old. It was stated that he had what would be described today as post-traumatic stress disorder, and the burning of the court house where he worked as a county clerk set off something. My Dad was born on what would have been my great-grandfather’s 90th birthday.
I have known for about 30 years that my great-grandfather wrote articles under a pen name. My aunt told me she had been told he wrote articles about the scenery in southern Utah where he lived. I searched and searched and never found any of his articles. Then, I had a breakthrough. I found the pen name by using several tips you mentioned for using Google. The pen name was Lock Melone. It was spelled differently than I had been told.
It turns out, he was a very well-known humorist. One of his stories appears in a publication alongside an article by Mark Twain. (He wrote articles in the 1870s and 1880s.)
Now, back to your tips on Google. I was Googling, checking all the old newspapers I could find to collect his writings. One of the sources continually mentioned in Google Books was a literary magazine called The Californian. These were not all free on Google, but I was not to be deterred after all these years! I used the basic information and time frames listed in Google Books and looked at WorldCat. That led me to e-books and to some of the holdings in universities around the country.
As of today, I have found 69 of his articles! They have made an ancestor who I thought had a rough life with a tragic end, a new person, full of life and laughter! I am sure his stories are based on events that occurred during his “real life” adventures. He lived life to the fullest, traveling a great deal, and saw the world through a light heart.
I am continuing to search for more articles and have begun to compile his writings to give to my children and cousins for a Christmas present this year (if I can figure out how to put it all together!) With my grandmother as his only child, I will have given his life to all his descendants, a very special chore on which I have worked on with great pleasure.
Thanks for the tips on Google and other sites you have given over the years.”
This Gems member is certainly on the right track in many ways. She figured out how to harness the power of Google to search for the proverbial needle in a haystack—not just her grandfather’s articles but articles written under a pseudonym! Good for her for using Google Books and WorldCat. That’s a great combination. You can learn more about using WorldCat for genealogy in my book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers and in the Premium video Getting the Scoop Part 2: Tech Tools for Newspapers.
Follow-up Ideas for Using Google Books for Genealogy
Here are a few follow-up suggestions relating to finding issues of a literary magazine or another scholarly publication like The Californian:
First, turn to another powerful free tool in the Google toolbox: Google Scholar. It takes Google Books to the next level and you may hit on some things that Google Books may miss. Refer back to Premium Podcast 136 for a discussion of Google Scholar for genealogy, and Chapter 11 in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition.
Second, remember that sometimes serial publications change names, or two different ones may have the same name. Wikipedia’s not the most expert source, but its article on The Californian says something you can follow up on. The Californian was published from 1880 to 1882, as a continuation of the earlier Overland Monthly which had stopped in 1875, and then in 1882 it switched back to its old name. This means you should look for both titles.
A third idea may be to check e-bay for back issues of old magazines and journals. Sometimes, it’s cheaper and easier to buy them than to try to borrow them through inter-library loan. E-bay does happen to have a CD version for sale of The Californian issues from 1880 to 1882. I talk more about finding family history items on e-bay in the Premium Podcast episodes 16, 76, and 131.
Lastly, don’t forget JSTOR. JSTOR is a shared digital library for scholarly journals and the like. It launched in 1995 to serve university and college libraries, running out of space to store old journal issues. Today, it includes over 2,300 journals and thousands of other materials. It’s even started including books. Over 50 million pages are digitized, with another 3 million being added every year.
The nice thing about JSTOR is that you don’t have to be affiliated with a major library to get access now. Individuals can register for free access allowing them to read some materials online. They offer free access to their Early Journal Content collection of scholarly content published before 1923 in the U.S. (and before 1870 in other parts of the world.) That collection alone has nearly a half million articles from over 200 journals.
Unfortunately in this case, JSTOR doesn’t have The Californian or Overland Monthly in its collections. But one can certainly use JSTOR to search for other journals. JSTOR is just a great resource for anyone to use when searching for historical articles, especially those you may come across in Google Scholar without the full article text.
Your Google Books for Genealogy Success Stories
It is so rewarding to hear your success stories in using Google Books for genealogy. Your stories inspire others. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below.
Keep Reading: More Gems on Using Google Books for Genealogy Success
Free Video: Google Books Image Search for Genealogy and Family History
Google Scholar for Genealogy? Here’s Why to Try It