As you search the web, much of the data you seek will be gathered into websites like Ancestry.com and RootsWeb.com. These websites incorporate their own search engines to help you effectively explore their various database collections and assets. As you enter a website, our instinct is to type in the surname or individual you seek and hope you find a match. Take the time to find and review search query outlines that have been provided to help maximize their collections. Be aware that most websites have aspects of their organization and design that are unique to searching their collections and would not be effective in a Google search. The following are some tips to help you navigate searching websites that provide genealogical data:
Review the contents of the databases. Throughout the Internet, you will find many websites that promote and offer data collections with the same category headings. If you were to compare the collections side by side, you would find portions of collections that are the same and others that are unique to that website. Sometimes you will find the website does not have any data but merely has a search engine that goes out to other websites and searches their databases.
Whatever the case, it is important to take time to review what makes up the content of the database and where the sources come from so that you can better understand the value of the databases to you—especially if you are getting ready to order a subscription, such as with Ancestry.com. By looking around, you may be able to find exactly what you are looking for on a free site.
Start broad and narrow your search. Whenever I start my search, I will usually start with a general, broad search. Based on what I receive in my search results, I will then use the search logic associated with the particular website search engine to narrow my search.
Starting with a name. The search engine will first look for an exact name match, followed by common variants, misspellings, and nicknames. For example, a search for Bill Smith might return “William Smith,” “Wm Smith,” “Bill Smith,” and “B. Smith.”
Filling in the blanks. When you are entering the data for your search, you must have at least the last name. The other fields can be blank. You don’t have to fill in all the fields of your query.
Be careful with abbreviations. Search engines find only exact matches. If you have used abbreviations, retype your search string using alternatives—for example, PA, then Penn, then Pennsylvania. Avoid abbreviations for descriptive terms (such as Sgt., Co., Reg’t., Dr., or Jr.). Do not enter titles (like Dr., Earl, or Queen) or suffixes (3rd, III, or Jr.). Just search for the name without the title and then check the results for the ones you want.
Use of quotation marks ” “. Quotation marks are used in searches to denote that you are specifically looking for these words in this order. For example, you are looking for John Lee in Florida, then in your query you would enter John Lee Florida. Chances are, you would receive all the Johns in Lee County, Florida. By using quotations, you are able to make the search more targeted and avoid a lot of unwanted search results. The query now becomes “John Lee” Florida. The search will include results that include both John Lee and Florida.
By using quotation marks, you tell the search engine that you want the words surrounded in quotations to be in exactly the order you have them.
Advanced Search. Whenever possible, use the “advanced search” option. The more information you are able to enter in the search criteria, the better results you are likely to receive. For example, by adding a date to your search you will help to narrow the scope. Even if you don’t know the exact year, an educated guess in the “date” field will improve your results. The following are a few suggestions of how to improve the advance search:
- Add a middle name, if you know of one
- Add a birth or death year
- Add a birth or death place
Focus on specific databases. Every time a website like Ancestry.com adds a collection of data—be it records of Mt. Carmel Cemetery, Adams County Census, or a state’s marriage records—the new information is being grouped with similar records. Sometimes the collections are kept as separate databases, and sometimes they are folded in with other data. In either case, you are given the opportunity to search within or among databases. After you complete your initial search, you may feel it prudent to narrow your search by focusing on one of these categories. Usually you can choose by clicking on a radio button or choosing from a dropdown box. The type of category groupings you will see include the following:
- Ancestry Name Search
- Census Records
- Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
- Social Security Death Index
- Surname Indexes
- Passenger and Immigration Records
- Military Records
- Directories and Members Lists
- Family and Local Histories
- Newspapers and Periodicals
- Family and Local Histories
- Photos and Maps
- Court, Land, and Probate Records