Home > Genealogy > Beginning Genealogy > Googling

Googling Your Ancestors

Beginning Genealogy:

How to Start

Links to 11 great sites

Good Queries

Grandfathers in Queries


Geezer Skills

Beginning Internet Skills

Off the web

People after 1900


Mailing Lists

The LDS 1880

Googling your Ancestors

Related Sections:
Main Genealogy Page
Intermediate Genealogy
Essays on Genealogy
Biography questions

Other Sections:
Christmas Letters
Misc. Essays
Peace Corps
Web Design


(Portions of this article appeared in RootsWeb Review, 30 April 2003, Vol. 6, No. 18. The editor had to cut out some parts to save space. She did a great job, but the stuff about the plus signs got left on the cutting room floor.)

This will be new and exciting to some of you. If, however, you already use exact phrases in Google.com to hunt for your ancestors, this will be duller than yesterday's news. You can use the navigation bar to the left to try another page.

If you are still with us, here's a tip - you can sometimes use a general search engine for genealogy. My favorite is Google
but there are others;
AOL and MSN have their own. They all work about the same. The big difference is that some require a plus sign in front of each argument; Google does not. The trick is what they call an exact phrase, which you enclose in quotation marks. An exact phrase just means "these words in this order." Let's assume you are looking for Eltweed Pomeroy and Malinda McCorkle, married in Pocatello, Idaho in 1888.

Before we start, a convention. I'm going to use [square brackets] to show you what to enter in Google. So,
[Eltweed Pomeroy] is just those two words, while
["Eltweed Pomeroy"] is those two words in quotation marks.

This argument
[Eltweed Pomeroy Malinda McCorkle]
(without quotation marks) means "show me all the pages that have the four words Eltweed, Pomeroy, Malinda and McCorkle on them". You might strike paydirt right away; you might also get a page that listed Eltweed Smith, John Pomeroy, Malinda Smith and John McCorkle.

If you get a million hits with relatively rare names, it could mean the search engine needs plus signs:
[+Eltweed +Pomeroy +Malinda +McCorkle]
In some search engines, an argument without the plus signs means "Get me any page with the words Eltweed OR Pomeroy OR Malinda OR McCorkle". Most search engines assume multiple arguments mean AND, not OR, but the old-fashioned engines still need plus signs.

A warning; use what we used to call "double quotes" ("), not the single quote that can also be an apostrophe ('). You'll have to use the shift key to get them.

A second warning; these are all the same person, but, to a search engine, in quotes, they are different:
"Tom Edison"
"Thomas Edison"
"Thomas A Edison"
"Thomas Alva Edison"
"Edison, Tom"
"Edison, Thomas"
Note especially that "given, surname" is not the same as "surname, given". The search engine will ignore the comma, but, since quotation marks mean "these words in this order", it won't switch the word order for you.

This argument:
["Eltweed Pomeroy" "Malinda McCorkle"]
(with two sets of quotation marks, in case they don't show up very well with your font face and text size) means "show me all the pages that have the exact phrases 'Eltweed Pomeroy' and 'Malinda McCorkle' on them". Given the rarity of the names, if you got a hit it would almost certainly be your couple.

If your search engine needs plus signs,
[+"Eltweed Pomeroy" +"Malinda McCorkle"]
will do it; note you put one plus sign for each exact phrase, outside of the quotation marks, not on each word.

Look back to the paragraph about Thomas Edison. If your ancestors are listed last name first, the arguments above won't get them. You won't find them if they have middle initials on the page, either. This is a combination of exact phrase and any match, which sometimes works:
["Eltweed Pomeroy" Malinda McCorkle]
It says "show me all the pages with the exact phrase 'Eltweed Pomeroy' and the two words Malinda and McCorkle somewhere else on the page". This argument would find a page with the sentence "Eltweed Pomeroy married Malinda, second daughter of Alphonse McCorkle..." or "Eltweed Pomeroy married Malinda Q. McCorkle...".

General search engines are not perfect. They don't have a soundex option, although Google will sometimes suggest alternate spellings for you. In my example, I'd try for "MacCorkle", "Elkweed" and "Pomroy" as well. General search engines work best for relatively uncommon names. If you are looking for John Smith and Mary Johnson, you'll get a lot of hits, but your chances of getting the right one are slim.

I try to broaden or narrow the arguments until I get 1 - 20 hits. If you get more than 200 you are either related to Cary Grant or you have ancestors with popular names. You can add middle names, birth years, states, towns and the words "History", "Family" and "Genealogy" to narrow your search. Google must have a limit to how many words you can use in your search, somewhere, but it is more than 16.

Most importantly and worth repeating, the phrase "Eltweed Pomeroy" is NOT the same as the phrase "Pomeroy, Eltweed", to a search engine. You get what you ask for. Quite often I don't get any, but I'd rather get a few of the right hits than a thousand wrong ones. In my example, I would try all of these arguments:

Four pairs of exact phrases:
"Eltweed Pomeroy" "Malinda McCorkle"
"Pomeroy Eltweed" "Malinda McCorkle"
"Eltweed Pomeroy" "McCorkle Malinda"
"Pomeroy Eltweed" "McCorkle Malinda"

Four combination searches:
"Eltweed Pomeroy" Malinda McCorkle
"Pomeroy Eltweed" Malinda McCorkle
"Malinda McCorkle" Eltweed Pomeroy
"McCorkle Malinda" Eltweed Pomeroy

And, just in case one of them was listed somewhere without a spouse,
"Eltweed Pomeroy" Pocatello
"Pomeroy Eltweed" Pocatello
"Malinda McCorkle" Pocatello
"McCorkle Malinda" Pocatello

After a while you'll get a feel for how many arguments you need. The rarer the names, the less arguments you need. Sometimes a surname and a county work wonders; sometimes a surname and an occupation; sometimes an exact phrase and an historical fact. ("Palmer Cady" Revolutionary). Sometimes you can find a single individual with an exact phrase, especially if you have a middle name. Give Google a try; have fun and happy hunting!

Problems, comments or complaints? Need an opinion? Send E-mail to:
This page updated: June 21, 2014