Using Google for Your Genealogy Searches

The easiest way to start researching a new person in your family tree is to use a search engine. Obviously it's not the only place you search, but it should be one of your steps. Since Google offers several different ways to zero in on the results you want instead of tons of junk that you don't want we'll focus our attention on how to utilize Google's search engine to its fullest.

If you were to search for a name as simple as John Smith you will obviously get tons of results that have nothing to do with what you are looking for. To narrow your search results you would add other terms to your search phrase such as the name of a wife or child or possibly a location where they were known to have lived. You could also exclude words from your results to get rid of more junk results. Perhaps the most popular John Smith was one of the leaders of the first Jamestown landing so you might exclude words like Pocahontas or Powhatan to try to get rid of that particular John Smith.

Aside from adding different terms to a search phrase or excluding certain words from a list of results Google offers several methods for achieving both of those actions to a far greater degree than most people realize. Additionally, Google offers methods to further narrow down or focus results on specific web sites or specific ranges of dates as well as methods to target certain places within a web site that are normally not searched.

Getting the Most Out of Simple Google Searches

The simplest type of Google search would be simply for a name. Rather than use the John Smith example that I mentioned let's take a look at something a bit more practical that will require a bit of teasing to eliminate junk results. For the following examples we'll use a nephew of my 6th great grandfather: James Mathews. As we go along I'll mention some of the personal details about James to illustrate how to fine tune the results we get from Google.

The simplest search would be just for the name James Mathews. We need to ensure that we get only web pages with his first and last name together; not using the quotes means that we would get results where the words James and/or Mathews appear anywhere in the page and not necessarily together which would not be very useful at all under most circumstances. So put the name in quotes when entering it into either the search page on or in the Google search box on your Google Toolbar:

"James Mathews"

Just the name by itself is not going to be very descriptive when trying to find a specific person (unless of course you are looking for a person with a rather unique name) so we need to add some more information for our search to be somewhat relevant. Since I know that this James spent a good bit of time in Halifax County, NC where he was a Justice of the Peace and that he later moved to Morgan County, GA I would expand the search term to something like the following focusing on either of the two counties he lived in:

"James Mathews" "Halifax County"


"James Mathews" "Halifax Co"

Special note: since I have no idea whether or not the web pages out there that hopefully mention James completely spell out the word "county" or shorten it to merely "co." I use both spellings in two different searchs.

A little further down I will explain how to enter both possibilities into a single search term thereby saving some time and effort. I could just leave out "county", but doing so would give me way too many results from places like Canada and Australia that I am not interested in or give me results from cities named Halifax which are also of no interest.

If you need still more phrases in your search term to weed out junk results just add more to the phrase. Other possibilities would be a spouse or child. Just be sure to place quote marks around terms of more than one word. I would, however, advise against putting relatively long phrases inside quote marks (e.g. St. Luke's Pristine Chapel of His Holiness) as there is no guarantee that a web page author used that exact long phrase, they might have shortened it and by including the whole thing in quotes will mean that you won't see the page with the shortened phrase in your results.

How to Exclude Words or Phrases from Google Searches

When you use a search engine to look for anything one of the first things you notice is that you get a lot of results that don't necessarily have anything to do with what you are really looking for. Getting rid of those results is fairly easy and the method Google uses is no different from other search engines. You merely add a minus sign before the word or phrase you want to get rid of. The catch is that you must put the minus sign in front of every word or phrase that you want to exclude and again phrases must be wrapped within quote marks.

Using exclusionary words and phrases alone can be very helpful. There must be web pages out there that mention my James Mathews, but have no mention of where he lived or his spouse or children. So, rather than trying to include places and people associated with him I could work backwards and try to exclude results that I know have nothing to do with him and see what I get.

The first thing to do is to start with the simplest search for just "James Mathews". After seeing what kinds of results get I might notice that there are a lot of results mentioning some other James Mathews who once performed in the Barber of Seville or another one who lived in Angola. To get rid of those results I would make my search as follows (make sure there is no space between the - and the word(s) you are excluding) :

"James Mathews" -Angola -"Barber of Seville"

After seeing what you are left with you might want to go back and add in some other word or phrase that was in fact associated with him. Let's add the name of the wife of James, Sarah Brinkley:

"James Mathews" "Sarah Brinkley" -Angola -"Barber of Seville"

As you can see there are several ways you can add or subtract words to your search. Always remember to include multiple words in quotes if the words go together. Perhaps the most important thing to take way from this is to start off simple with just a single name and then add more words or phrases to your search term to help you narrow in on your target depending on what kind of results you get from Google.

Advanced Google Search Techniques

If you have a surname that has a lot of different spellings you are faced with a lot web searching as you attempt cover all of your bases with all of the different spellings

There is a way to include all of those different spellings in a single search to save you a good bit of time. My own surname has at least 15 different ways that I know of. Using the example below I'll illustrate how to do a search for two different people in the Mathews family who lived in Halifax County, NC in the latter half of the 1700s using a half dozen different spelling variants for the last name:

(Isaac | James) (Mathews | Matthews | Mathis | Mathes | Matthis | Matthewes) ("Halifax County" | "Halifax Co") -Canada

The above search phrase I'm sure looks a bit daunting. Let's examine it a piece at a time. First of all, those vertical lines you see (the | character) is found on your keyboard right above your ENTER key. This character is Google's shorthand way of saying OR. In computer programming OR is a logical term that is the exact opposite of AND. I capitalize them because that is way they are typically written in Boolean programming. If you don't like the | key or find it awkward just use the word OR in its place.

When you enter a search term such as:

big red bicycle

there is an implied AND between each word. This means that when you press the search button Google translates big red bicycle as big AND red AND bicycle. Some people put the AND in their search terms, but there is no need to do that as it is implied anway. So, when Google sees big red bicycle it is going to return any web page that has all three of those words on it. The AND (whether typed or implied) means that the words must be on the same page.

In contrast to the implied AND, the word OR must be used if you want any of two or more words to appear on the web page.

The parentheses ( ) that are wrapped around the first three groups of terms are used to group those words together. There is also an implied AND between each of those parenthetical groups.

So, if we were to translate the long search phrase above we would say it like this:

I want to see web pages that have men named Isaac OR James AND I want to have any of those various spellings of their last name on the page AND I only want to see pages that mention Halifax County whether it is spelled Halifax County OR merely Halifax Co. AND I don't want any web pages that mention Canada (since I'm looking for Halifax County, NC not the Halifax found in Canada).

Using this search term gives me some pretty good results, but I'm still getting a good bit of junk. There is yet another trick that Google allows us: using dates. Google allows you to specify a range of dates that must appear on a web page. An example would be 1900..1950. If you included that in a web search you would get results that span those 50 years between 1900 and 1950 (nothing prevents the results from having other date ranges as well).

Now, the two men that I've been using, James and Isaac, were only in Halifax County between about 1740 and roughly 1800. If I include that date range I get page after page of Google results that are EXACTLY what I'm after:

(Isaac | James) (Mathews | Matthews | Mathis | Mathes | Matthis | Matthewes) ("Halifax County" | "Halifax Co") 1740..1800 -Canada

There is yet one more word that could be added to this search phrase that would narrow things down even further. Typically I only use it after I've done every thing else. That one word to add is: genealogy. If you have a detailed search phrase like mine and you still get too many junk results just throw that word in there and I can almost guarantee your results will improve dramatically. Personally I use the "genealogy" addition as a last resort as there are a lot of web pages out there that are historical in nature that mention your ancestors, but are not necessarily "genealogical" in nature and hence the word may not appear on the page. A good example of this are the books that Google has scanned. Many are very old and will mention your ancestors, but typically they will be excluded from your search results if you use the word "genealogy" in your search as the books have nothing to do with genealogy per se.

A final note on these more detailed searches is to remember that you can BOOKMARK them! There is no way that I would type these long lines in every time I want to search for these people, especially considering that I have a collection of roughly 30 variations on the above searches.lf you figure out a better way to do your own long searches, just change the search and re-bookmark it.

The Best Google Searches You've Never Heard Of

In the section above I mentioned how you can search Google for web pages based on date. In addition to the date search Google also has a number of other special search types that can be useful to the genealogist. In general these methods, at least as far as a genealogist is concerned, are considerably more specialized in the types of results you can expect to receive. I will explain the usefulness as well as the limitations of each below.

The first of these special searches is the "search within a web page title". If you look at the very top of your browser you will see the words Genealogy Tools. That is the title of this web page. Many genealogy web sites are dedicated to a specific family so you will find them titled such as "The Jones Family", "The Samuel Adams family" etc. Other sites might be dedicated to the genealogical discussions of a specific county such as "Morgan County Alabama Genealogy". Google offers a way to search for words within a title. Examples would be:

allintitle:Edgefield County genealogy


allintitle:Samuel Adams family


allintitle:Edgefield genealogy books

The variations are limitless, but I recommend restricting your search to three words. Web page titles are generally only a few words long and are not very descriptive aside from a very general phrase describing the site so don't go crazy with a lot of search terms when using allintitle: . Do not add any other search terms or parameters to this type of search other thanwhat you wish to find in the title.

Another of these special searches is the "search within an address" (or url to be precise). The address referred to here is the actual address of the web page. An example web page address: If I search for the words Edgefield genealogy only within the address this web page would be one of the results I would get. Edgefield is a county in South Carolina and as far as I know there is no other county in the US with the same name so I can omit the word county, but if you wanted to search for a county that is not so unique I would add the word county to the search. The search term looks like this:

allinurl:Edgefield genealogy

You cannot add any other search parameter or terms to this type of search so only include the one to three words that you want to find within a web page's address. To be honest this is perhaps the least useful special search for genealogists, but I include it here in case you want to consider it. This type of search works best for locations and subjects; it is unlikely to be very useful for finding a specific person.

A third type of special search is the search that is targeted to a specific web site. This type of search is perhaps the most effective at getting information from web sites that are difficult to search on their own. There are two very good examples of sites of this type that are commonly used by genealogist. The first of these two sites is which arguably has the most popular general use genealogy forums on the internet: Genforum. The problem with Genforum is that they have no universal search form. By that I mean there is no way to search all of their forums at once. If you want to dig on a specific person and see what other information might be in their forums aside from the forum dedicated to their surname you are in for a lot of work if you can't search the whole site at once. Use something like the following to search a site like Genforum: "Isaac Mathews"

or something more detailed like: "James Matthews" "morgan co."

Make sure there is no space between site: and the site that you use in your search.

The second site that I mentioned that can be difficult to search is Rootsweb. Rootsweb has many different databases within the site that can be searched individually and they also have an all-in-one search, however, I have found it easier to use Google to do my searches on their site as I find it easier to manipulate the search parameters. Since Rootsweb has different addresses within their site depending on which database you are searching you would want to use a wildcard (the star * symbol) on their address like this:

site:* "Isaac Mathews"

There are a few other special search types that Google has that could possibly be useful to the genealogist, but I feel that these three listed above are the best of the bunch.

Don't be afraid to mix up the searches and experiment with them to see what works best for you. Bookmark them once you figure out what works best.