Most genealogy education is focused on using specific databases or collections, and there is often an implied warning against random online searches. After all it can be overwhelming and confusing to type a name into a search engine and see the thousands of results that are returned, many of which can easily lead you down the wrong path. But broad online searches do have their place in genealogy research. Think of it this way: there is so much information out there that it would be impossible for you to find every single applicable bit directly. Searching is sometimes the only way to discover those hidden gems.
So how do you keep from getting lost in the thousands of results? First of all, you make sure your searches are specific. Simply typing a name into Google isn’t going to give you the kind of results that will help your research. It’s important to add quotation marks, dates, places, alternate spellings, and even the names of relatives – all in multiple combinations – to make sure you get relevant results. And don’t forget about those advanced search options! They can be a huge timesaver when your searches keep returning irrelevant results.
So, what type of relevant results can you expect to find? Well, you may discover a distant relative who (following my advice from last week) has published his or her research to a blog or personal website. You may find others researching your family and discussing their finds and questions on a message board, where you may learn something new or be able to help someone else. You may find your relative listed on a local city or county history page or in on online index you were previously unaware of. The possibilities are endless.
Here’s an example from my personal research. A while back, while researching a branch of my father’s family tree, I hit a brick wall. I had traced the family back to the Alsace-Lorraine area of France, but could not find any information about the family prior to their emigration. I decided to do some random Google searching, and to my surprise I stumbled upon a French archive site that contained digitized copies of census, birth, marriage, and death records for the region. I was able to find my family listed in several documents. If I hadn’t taken the time to do multiple Google searches and sift through the results I never would have found such a site.
If the prospect of dealing with the huge number of irrelevant results a search engine like Google or Bing returns gives you a headache, then you might try using Mocavo. Mocavo is a genealogy-specific search engine that claims to be able to return only those results that are relevant to family history. The basic site requires you to create an account, but it is free and offers other features as well, such as being able to publish your family tree and create alerts specific to the family members you are searching for. I haven’t used to site much as of yet, but the concept is certainly promising.
To test the site, I decided to do a quick search for an individual I’m researching who lived in Marion County for a short time before settling in Sullivan County. You can see above that the search engine is set up to take a name plus keywords. I entered Indiana in the keyword box to limit my search to his time spent in this state.
The search returned only 7 results, 4 of which were relevant to my research. They included a listing and a memorial for a different relative on FindaGrave.com and a discussion about the family on an Ancestry.com message board. Though I was already aware of the Find A Grave page, I would not likely have found the message board without searching.
So give Mocavo or another favorite search engine a try and see what you can discover out there in the World Wide Web.