3 Tips for Using Google for Genealogy

June 16, 2016  - by 
3 Tips for Using Google for Genealogy

It’s likely that we’ve all turned to Google at some point in our genealogical research. After all, simply typing in our search topic, hitting “Enter,” and hoping for the best is one of easiest ways to be led to heaps of helpful (and sometimes not-so-helpful) sources. But there’s a better way to use Google for family history research says Lisa Louise Cooke, host of The Genealogy Gems Podcast.

“I’ve discovered that there actually is a methodology to using Google for genealogy,” said Cooke in her presentation at RootsTech 2016. “There really is a science to it.”

While there are many ways you can use Google to aid your research, here are three of the most beneficial:

1. Formulate Specific Queries

The first and most important step to using Google successfully is identifying what you want to find. That may sound simple, says Cooke, but many people will simply pull up Google and search “Johnson.” Instantly, the searcher will be overwhelmed with results that likely aren’t relevant due to the commonality of the name “Johnson.”

“We’ve been a little too global in what we’re requesting,” says Cooke. “So don’t throw your genealogy brain out the window just because it’s going to Google.com. Structure a question about what you want in really specific terms. Are you looking for a particular record collection? Are you looking for a particular ancestor in a family? Are you just trying to figure out how to upload your family tree?”

Cooke says it’s a good idea to formulate your question to Google just as you would to a reference librarian.

“How would I describe it to a reference librarian? Ask yourself that. That will help you in doing this.”

2. Use Quotation Marks and Minus Signs to Narrow Search Results

One of the best ways to get relevant results from a Google search is to use quotation marks in your search query. Quotation marks tell Google to display only an exact keyword or phrase in all results.

“If I’m doing newspaper research in the San Francisco area, I put ‘newspapers’ in quotes and also ‘San Francisco.’ I’m telling Google something very specific about—it’s got to have ‘newspapers,’ and it’s got to have ‘San Francisco,’” said Cooke.

To further refine search results, you can also use the minus sign (-) to get rid of keywords that you know have nothing to do with your family.

3. Set Up Google Alerts

After you’ve flushed out the perfect search query for your ancestors, turn to Google Alerts. Google Alerts will take the keywords or phrase you’ve developed and will run it across the internet every hour of every day until you tell it to stop.

“Setting up Google Alerts is like getting your own genealogy personal assistant, somebody who’s going to do this for you in the background,” says Cooke.

To create a customized Google Alert, go to www.google.com/alerts. In the search bar near the top of the page, insert your query or the keyword you want to search. In the box below that, type the email address you wish to have results sent to, and click “Create Alert.”

Your customized Google Alert will then send you links to web pages that match your query.

After you set up the alert, Google will email you updates on new and updated web pages. Cooke also said, “You can have up to a thousand [alerts]. You’re going to sign in, make one query after another, and in your sleep, Google will be searching and finding ancestors. And you will wake up, and it’s just like Christmas every day. I love it.”

You can learn more about using Google for genealogy by watching Cooke’s RootsTech presentation here.

How do you use Google for genealogy? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.


Watch the full video here:


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    1. The services offered by FamilySearch are free and always will be. Our goal is to provide access to millions of genealogical records worldwide. As a benefit through your free account at FamilySearch, you will have additional access to some of the services and records offered by our partners. You can register for your free account at FamilySearch.org.

    2. Dear B. Buckley,
      If your relative lived in PA.,I can do a free Look-up for you,and can find a Farm OR Land Deed,a place,and possibly other info. IF your relative came over on a Ship in 1750,there are 3 GOOD REFS that can help you. “Ships Lists,The North” and “Ships Lists,The South”,both cover from about 1730-1780’s. (Blue Books)ALSO THERE IS “Immigrants to MD.”by Coldham,He also has VA.,NC.,& PA.Done by Liber/ Folio: FOR EX; John Jones, LIB.Q, FOL. 25. Take this index to the appropriate State Archives,and you can Learn Port of Exit/entry, age,Wife and Childrens names,what occupation etc.What Info besides 1750 do you have?

      1. Would you do a free lookup for me? My ancestor, Thomas white, grandfather to Thomas White McBride of Haun’s Mill, was in the Boston tea party. The journal of James McBride, Thomas White’s great grandson, states in his journal that he believes his father Thomas White McBride is of Irish descent. I would so love to find Thomas White, his daughter Mary who married James McBride, revolutionary soldier who lived in Pa., Maryland and Virginia in Coldham’s book to learn of their immigration and prior life (in Ireland??) I would love a free or paid lookup, but if not, how can I access Coldham’s book?

        1. Start by typing this in google:
          Thomas White McBride of Haun’s Mill + Boston Tea Party
          There’s pdf out there. Have you seen it?

          1. You must be talking about the one by Gordon Buttars? He claims to use the James McBride journal as a main source yet contradicts James’ claim that Thomas White McBride is of Irish descent, James believes. Upsetting is that Gordon gives no references for his claim to Scotland or to Wales for Catherine John. I would love to see sources. Thomas White was in the tea party but I do not believe Thomas White McBride was old enough back then to be there with his grandpa.

    3. before you pay anyone to do a search, do your own. You have access to the best source: yourself and your family!
      Talk to all of your relatives and write down everything they know. For Names: first name, last name, middle names, maiden names, names of parents, names of sisters, uncles, Different spellings. etc. My name has multiple unique spellings and I searched most of them! Dates: birthdates, dates of immigration, years they moved, etc Stories! Family stories are very important clues, even the funny ones! My dad used to tell us our uncle had been the burgomeister! We thought this was funny. It turned out to be true! All sorts of stories such as “my mom once told me that my great grandmother did something”.
      Search census records where they lived and census records of nearby towns because very often families lived in neighboring towns.
      Go to the library and search genealogy volumes, news archives, etc. There are two large volumes on my grandmothers family names in the public library.
      After this start with a free trial membership on ancestry and start looking for the names you got from your initial research. If you find it helpful then you can consider whether or not it’s worth it to pay for a subscription.
      LDS – you can often find the most information here. One of the volunteers in the LDS archives befriended me and found hundreds of documents on my family. It didn’t cost me anything!
      Supplement all of your research with the google searches.
      DNA testing is a great tool! I used Famly Tree DNA.
      Finally, when you have hit a dead end, consider hiring someone but get recommendations from people before you pay anyone.
      I found someone in one of the groups I was in. She specialized in Eastern European Genealogy and was expert on Bulgarian research.
      I spent years at this and I hope my experience helps you!

    4. My experience—-very expensive and I had to pay for information I already told the researcher I had. It seems they believe you miss something. Could be but a waste of money. However, when all else fails it may work out.

      1. The cost varies according to the searcher. I have taken Scandinavian lines back to the 1600s, completely filling out the pedigree chart, and wholly documented for $20 since it only took me an hour to do it.

      2. With all the resources available online, you shouldn’t have to pay someone to do what you’ve already done.
        Join ancestry boards and facebook groups. Use the free limited memberships and take it as far as you can. I found a very helpful volunteer with LDS who did a lot of research for me. The public library has volumes of genealogies and census records and of course the google search.
        You can take little tidbits of information you find in a census record and plug it into your google search. You’ll spend a lot of time pouring over redundant information. It’s a painstaking process but keep chipping away at it.
        I only resorted to hiring someone when I reached a dead end. My grandfather immigrated from a country that had no records because they had been under Ottomon rule and later Communist rule. By the time I hired her, I had a lot of it worked out already which gave her a good place to start.
        Also, be careful who you hire. Get recommendations from people about genealogists.

    1. Hi Alice,
      I just did a short free course on genealogical research with FutureLearn through Strathclyde University. Two good options suggested for your dilemma were:
      Using free software on your computer create a separate Tree for each of your main branches
      Or, use something like OneNote where you can use a different section for each branch

      1. I make a card file with one card for each ancestor on my pedigree chart. On the front of the card I place their data. On the back I sketch a pedigree chart and place a star on the line where the ancestor belongs. Then I define my relationship to the person at the bottom using abbreviations. i.e.: GGdau, 7th GGdau, etc.

  1. Some time ago I lost all my ancestral information when my computer crashed, and everything disappeared. I have tried to find it all but to no avail. I am wondering if it can be retrieved from your end if at all possible please?
    I know this is not the right section to contact but thought I’d try. Many thanks, Pat Zaknich.

    1. Unfortunately the only information we have is what already is uploaded to the Family Tree and any information that is discovered through our records.

    2. were you tracking it all on ancestry.com? I haven’t been there in a long time but I know if I were to log on today, I’d find it still there. Contact support and ask them to help you track it down.

  2. There is no mention of the most productive use of Google. Change the language to the country or area of interest, then search. You can use Google translate back to English if you find something interesting. All Google settings are in the same location, even though in another language, so you can change back to English.
    My family name, Drähn, has many more hits in German than English. I discovered it is a Silesian dialect, so I changed Google to Polish and found even more hits.

  3. You neglected to tell readers just how to use the minus sign in a query. I know how, but most people do not.
    How about elaborating for them ?????

    I was told that my GR-GR-Grandfather,Samuel Freeman B.1845-D. 1928, “Was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Sinking Spring,PA. to Samuel Matz”. Using the 1862 Sinking Spring TWP. Map,and looking up ALL the Matz names I could find in the Local phone book,I sent 9 LETTERS of request,and a kind old lady confirmed that Samuel Matz was a direct relative,and he did live there. (2) In 1863,the Will of My GR-GR-GR Grand mother mentioned that she was selling an Inn to Amos Yost.While at State archives in Harrisburg,I requested a Map Titled “On the road to Nicholas Yosts’,1787. Sure enough, it ran right by the Farm in New Holland,PA. That she would later come to own after the death of her Husband in 1825. Sometimes outside the box thinking works,not everything is in “the Box”.

  5. I felt like I was going in a circle… now there is hope with Google new Family Search blogg!!! Thanks for getting me exceited about my family tree again

  6. The link to “watching Cooke’s RootsTech presentation” doesn’t work!
    Is this another of FamilySearch’s “helps” that doesn’t help?
    Why do you make research so difficult? Isn’t there a way to make it easier?

    1. Sorry about this. It looks like the video was taken down from the RootsTech site as they prepare for 2017. I’ll see if we can get it working again.

  7. My sister has been trying to learn more about genealogy research. She likes the work that is done when trying to piece together the past. It might help her to know that you can set up Google alerts as a genealogy assistant.

  8. I am trying to find my great grandfather Ulysses Carney. He was born in Virginia to a Florence Hodges. He was born around 1875. He was married to Irene Justine Roberts. I can not find any death information on him.

    His father Robert Carney was born 1855. I think he was born in North Carolina. I can not find his birth records. He had to be born in slavery. I checked the Freedman’s Bureau but I could not find him or his family. Please help or point me in the right direction.