Using Search Engines: Googling Your Ancestors

by Ted Pack

This will be new and exciting to some of you. Others of you will wonder what I’ll do next — explain how to “dial” a telephone by pushing the little buttons?

You can sometimes use a general search engine for genealogy. My favorite is Google, but there are others — AltaVista, Lycos, MSN, Dogpile, AOL. They all work about the same. The key is what they call an exact phrase, which you enclose in quotation marks. Let’s assume you are looking for Eltweed Pomeroy and Malinda McCorkle, married in Pocatello, Idaho in 1888.

This argument in the search engine: Eltweed Pomeroy Malinda McCorkle (without the quotation marks) means “show me all the pages that have the four words Eltweed, Pomeroy, Malinda and McCorkle on them”. You might strike pay dirt right away; you might also get a page that listed Eltweed Smith, Pomeroy Murgatroyd, Malinda Smith and Ebeneezer McCorkle.

This argument in the search engine: “Eltweed Pomeroy” “Malinda McCorkle” (with two sets of quotation marks) 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 useful.

However, if your ancestors are listed last name first, the argument 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: “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 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. Some of them require a plus sign with each word or phrase, although Google doesn’t. They work best for relatively uncommon names. If you are looking for John Smith who married Mary Johnson in New York City, you’ll get a lot of hits, but your chances of getting the right one are slim.

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. I usually try to use enough words and phrases in the argument that I get 20 hits or less. Quite often I don’t get any, but I’d rather get a few of the right hits than a thousand wrong ones. In this case 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 without a spouse,
“Eltweed Pomeroy” Pocatello
“Pomeroy Eltweed” Pocatello
“Malinda McCorkle” Pocatello
“McCorkle Malinda” Pocatello

Reprinted with permission. Previously published in RootsWebReview: Vol. 6, No. 18, 30 April 2003. (Copyright 1998-2004, Inc. and its subsidiaries.)

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