It’s sometimes hard to remember what life was like before Google; but the company has only been around for little more than 20 years, and only dominant in web search since the mid 2000s. Google is now much more than search with YouTube, Gmail, Maps, Android, News etc. Most of us will be at least using Google for search and maybe Gmail, but as family historians, are we making the most of this fantastic free resource? So, I thought I’d run through some of the ways I use Google for genealogy. If anyone uses Google differently or uses other Google products for research, please feel free to comment.
The heart of the giant beast that is Google, is of course, the search engine, it’s really easy to use, you type in a word or phrase and then you get pages of suggested websites. The problem is that for genealogy research, the results are often not very helpful. This is because the Google algorithm is designed to rank “popular” websites first.
There are a number of factors the Google algorithm uses to determine popularity, the main one being the number of backlinks a site has. These are the links to a site from other websites. Sites like Ancestry and Family Search will always rank highly for genealogy searches as there are thousands, if not millions of other websites with links back to them. Bespoke Genealogy, for example, has several blog posts with links back to these sites.
Ranking popular sites is great for the majority of searches on Google, like finding a pair of shoes or looking for holiday deals, but for genealogy research, we usually want to visit “unpopular” sites. For example, I may be searching for details about an ancestor who lived in England in the 18th century. Someone may have created a website detailing all the monumental inscriptions from churches in a local area and one of those monuments has an inscription containing lots of useful genealogical information about my ancestor. This website probably won’t have many backlinks so I may not find it in general search, unless I’m really specific.
So, how can we get more relevant search results on Google?
Firstly, we should be using Google pages that are local to the research target. Google will usually assume if, for example, you are searching from the USA on Google.com, that you are looking for American records and will therefore prioritize US sites. I’m in Canada and if I search for “birth records” on Google.ca, the first result after the ads is for the Library and Archives Canada site. If you are searching for information on an English ancestor, you should be using Google.co.uk. A list of Google country domains can be found here.
You can improve general search results by using double quotes (“….”) round a word or phrase so only searches containing that word or phrase will appear and you can use the minus sign (-) for words you don’t want to appear in results, for example “Walter Smith”-Washington.
However, for genealogy research we should be using Advanced Search on Google. Advanced Search is not as easy to find these days as it used to be. If you see a Settings button on your Search screen, you’ll find it, if not you will have to search “Google Advanced Search”. Remember to use the domain for the country you want to search in. Here are the pages for three countries:
Google Advanced Search
Advanced search allows you to do a much more focused enquiry by increasing your options. I recommend searching for names using the “exact word or phrase” field. Try using different spelling options and also try changing the order of the name, such as Smith, Walter, as some indexes will be in this format. Use the number range field for date ranges. You can also search within a specific website using the “site or domain” field.
If you’ve never used Google Advanced Search, I recommend you play around with it until you become familiar with all the options. You should get much better results than with the standard search function.
For more on search techniques see: Pro Tips for Better Searching