Google Filtering Techniques For Family History Research

by Daniel M. Lynch | Jan 28, 2011

Google has proven to be an indispensable tool for family history enthusiasts worldwide, but there are several filtering techniques which can help yield radical improvements in both the relevancy of results, and the time to obtain them. Genealogists are often quick to adopt new technology if it can help unravel a family mystery. The 'secret' of Google didn't last too long after their launch in September 1998. Sure, there were other search engines . . . and we were using them to find what we could about our ancestors, but as Google expanded their index and their product offering, it's no surprise genealogists were at the head of the pack using Google Images, Google News, Google Blog Search, Google Earth, Google Patent Search, and now the Google News Timeline and many other innovative services offered by Google. Sure, the fact that these services are free doesn't hurt . . . genealogists like free . . . but it's the relevancy of results and spectacular finds that keep us coming back day after day.

What Does WWW Stand For Anyway?

When presenting at genealogy conferences, I'll often ask the audience if anyone knows what the acronym 'WWW' stands for. I can't recall a single event anywhere in the world when the audience didn't immediately respond in unison - "World Wide Web." My reaction and response then surprises them when I reply, "...well, sure, I guess it could also mean that, but I'm a genealogist first - and a technology guy second."

I use this example over and over, both for a cheap laugh, but to reinforce that as genealogists, we are always asking ourselves at least three basic questions - Who, Where, and When? It's convenient that we've all developed the habit of typing 'www' before the name of our target website - Google.com or Archives.com or any other site. I stress that typing www should remind us all why it is that we're about to visit a particular site. As family historians - beginner or professional, we are all looking for people (the who) . We also spend a great deal of our time looking for clues pertaining to places (the where), and certain time periods (the when) associated with either the places or the people.

When using Google to search the Internet for clues about the lives of your ancestors, keep in mind that the keywords best suited to helping you find what you're looking for lie in answering the questions who, where, and when. Often in that particular order.

Keywords And Search Strategy

You may not know it, but you already have the most important ingredients for your family search. Depending upon what you are looking for and the dynamics of the surname, you may need to help Google a little more or a little less. The two extremes you might face involve too many results (in the millions) and too few results (zero). Let me explain with a few examples from my own family history.

While the surname Lynch might not be as common as Smith or Jones, it's certainly not unique. The more common the name - especially if the word itself has other meanings - the more important it is that you help give it some context so Google can find results that have some relevancy to what you're searching for.

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In the simple example above, I provide the first and last name for my grandfather, followed by the name of the city where he lived his entire life. That simple query currently generates over 9,000 results - far too many to inspect individually. If I had simply provided the Who (by entering patrick lynch), Google would have responded with nearly 1.8 million results. That helps demonstrate why the Where is critical in helping filter results.

There is no single best way to structure a query, but through trial and error over several years, I've developed techniques that help to quickly filter out or allow in results so we're left with just the type of web pages that family historians expect.

You can enhance the filtering of the above example by adding additional keywords, but also by employing special syntax so Google will know more precisely what you're looking for. As you can see in the example below, the name patrick lynch now appears inside quotation marks as "patrick lynch". That instructs Google to find pages where patrick lynch appears as a consecutive string of characters (what Google calls an 'exact phrase match'). Next, I've added the keyword genealogy, but have placed the tilde simple immediately before the word to instruct Google to find web pages containing the keyword genealogy or words that are similar in meaning. Lastly, I've added the keyword vermont as another place name, but in this instance, I have placed a minus symbol immediately before the word. This instructs Google to exclude all pages that contain the word Vermont. The reason for this is to filter out the pages dealing with Patrick Lynch from Waterbury, Vermont. Someone else may be very interested in this family, but I'm not since my family lived in Connecticut. These examples show how you can use a few additional filters to filter out two-thirds of the results that were not likely to have any relevance for your family. 

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Spelling Variations For Family Names

Building upon what we've already discussed above, there is another common challenge faced by many family historians. It is not unusual to find two or more variant spellings for the family surname. In my case, my paternal grandmother had the surname Phelan. Or was it Phalen or Phallon or Whelan or Whalen. I've seen it so many different ways on "official" documents; it's hard to know for sure. In some cases, your family name may have been changed all together for a variety of reasons (that's a topic for an different article). 

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As you can see in the example above, I use the OR operator. This is placed between one or more terms and must appear in UPPER CASE for Google to perform the conditional search, allowing either result to appear in your results. I used the two most common spellings for my grandmother's maiden name, along with other keywords described earlier. With just 346 results, it's likely that I could quickly find something of relevance. This same technique can be employed when you are not certain about a location. If family legend has it that your great grandparents came to America through the Port of Boston, but you have a clue that points to Philadelphia, then search for boston OR philadelphia. Just be sure the word OR appears in upper case, otherwise Google will ignore it as a common word.

Mix And Match

There are currently more than 25 billion pages indexed by Google - possibly many more than that number. Hiding somewhere in that "worldwide haystack" are clues that may be of interest to you and a few others researching the same family. In fact, they may have been placed online "by accident" only because their names appear alongside that of a stranger from a century ago. Just your luck though - that stranger has a descendant who recently transcribed the entire page and placed it online as part of their research. Today is your lucky day . . . but you've still got to find that needle in the haystack. Use your keywords, quotation marks, the OR operator, the minus and tilde symbols to further refine your query. While they can be used in any order, I'd suggest trying them in the order listed within these examples for best results.

If you're willing to try the techniques described in this article, I'm confident that you'll quickly master them. As Google displays results, you can place your cursor over the magnifying glass icon following the page title and quickly evaluate if the page holds promise for closer inspection.

Additional techniques are described in my book, "Google Your Family Tree," and you can find free details for other more advanced family history queries at: GoogleYourFamilyTree.com

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