Become A Searchologist: How To Conduct Better Searches That Yield Results

by Gena P. Ortega | Oct 20, 2011

Beginning genealogists are introduced to research by typing a surname or a full name into a genealogy website and then sifting through the results. There are many more steps involved in conducting an effective search. Knowing some of the ways you can improve your search will mean a more exhaustive search of the website as well as hits that you may not have received otherwise. The following ideas are just a few to consider as you search genealogy websites, library and archive catalogs and search engines like Google.


Don't Just Search The Homepage

One of the mistakes many genealogists make in searching genealogy websites is searching on only the homepage. Most websites provide you multiple ways to search and browse their collections. It's important to include browsing and searching the site by locality and record type to the type of search that you currently conduct. Look for databases that might include your ancestor and once you find one, search from that database or record collection page. In some cases, the website's general search engine might not find everything in all collections, that's why searching by a locality or record collections can be so important.


The More You Type The Fewer The Results

Search engines provide us with many different ways to search. Typically, you can use everything from a name, place, and date, to keywords and the names of other people in the family. This is all great and provides lots of ways for genealogists to search but it's important to remember that the more you type into a search engine, the less results you are going to get back. When you type multiple words into a search engine you are basically telling it to provide you results that match all the words you have entered. One letter or word off and you won't see relevant results.

So as you search, it's fine to use as many words as possible but systematically, go back and delete a word and then rerun the search. That way you can ensure that you are doing a thorough search.

As you search on the Internet, keep a research log of just your Internet searches. Record the day you searched, the keywords you used in your search, any name variations used and what the results were. Websites are works in progress so an exhaustive search changes over time. You will want to conduct those searches at a later date and maybe include additional search terms as you find new information.


Know The Search Engine

Search engines and their capabilities differ from site to site. That's why it's important to learn as much as possible about the search engine and what it can and cannot do. If a website has a Search Tips section, FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) or information about a record collection and what it contains, make sure you read that prior to conducting a search. There's nothing more frustrating than searching on a collection only to find out later that it doesn't cover the years your ancestor was alive, the place your ancestor was from or is not complete.

Look for answers to the following questions as you learn more about a website's search engine:

  • Does the search engine allow for the use of wild cards?
  • What symbol/s can be used for the wild card?
  • What can the wild card substitute for ?
  • Can you use different Boolean Search terms (or , and, not)?
  • Does the search engine have Advanced Search capability?

There will be differences in the way you can search databases on a genealogy website versus searching a search engine like Google. For example Google allows for phrase searching which helps to narrow you search. So if you are using Google and you search on a name like Anna Harshbarger you will get 659,000 results. (Now, consider if I get that many results for a name that isn't as common what will you get for your Smith or Jones ancestor). If I do a search using the phrase "Anna Harshbarger," which requires quotation marks, I get 1,470 results. The exact phrase search allows me to narrow my search but it also means that my search will miss some hits like those that refer to Anna Harshbarger as A. Harshbarger or Anna Harshbarger Riddle. Google has additional tools to narrow your search including a timeline view and searching by category including just images or books.


Search For Help

In some cases, websites that provide catalogs of information have tools to help you find information. For example, in library catalogs after you have searched on a keyword, click on subject heading suggestions to find additional results that match your keyword. Simply defined, subject headings are used by librarians to catalog books and those words they use to catalog books may not match keywords that you would consider . In WorldCat once you click on a book or other resource you are interested in, to the right of the page you will see a heading that says "Subjects." These links allow you to see searches using subject headings that match your result.

Many archival collections found on university, library and museum websites have finding aids. Finding aids provide you with more information on a collection and what is available in that collection. As you search these manuscript and special collections, make sure to read any finding aids or guides available to help you learn more about the collection and how it can help you with your research.


Your Ancestor's Name Is Not Always The Same

Just because you know your ancestor always wrote his name "John K Smith" doesn't mean that other people didn't write his name a whole bunch of other ways. John Smith, J.K. Smith, J. Karl Smith, John Karl Smith, Jno K Smith, Jno Smith, Jno Karl Smith are all possible variations. Additionally, don't forget the nicknames they may have also used, in this case Johnny or Jack could be a possibility. Don't get caught up in searching on your ancestor's name just one way. You will miss out on hits if you don't try variations of their name. Remember, that it doesn't matter how they wrote their name, it matters how the census taker, tax collector, city directory publisher, court clerk, doctor, employer, minister and others heard, wrote or interpreted the name. There are people I have known for years, even relatives that spell my first name Gina, when in my case, it is Gena.

Nicknames from the previous centuries may be all but unknown to us. In some cases nicknames can make no sense at all and seem to have very little to do with the original name. It's always good to have a reference book available to refer to as you make up a list of name variation possibilities. Consider adding a guide like Christine Rose's Nicknames: Past and Present : a List of Nicknames for Given Names Used in the Past and Present Time to your personal library.

Surnames are a funny thing, everyone has an opinion about how to spell them. However, we tend to want to search on just one spelling of a surname. As you begin a research project create a list of every variation of a person's name, like I did for John K. Smith above, and then make a list of every surname variation you can think of. One way I like to do this is to ask a child, someone between the ages of six and nine, how they think a particular last name is spelled. They will sound it out and give me their best guess at a phonetic spelling. Also try to substitute vowels. As you research you may also see other variations of the surname that you can add to your list.

As you search, resist the temptation to enter a few names into a search engine before going on to the next website and repeating that search. Using the above ideas, will take more time but it will also open up more possibilities of finding your ancestor.


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