Most of us use Google search to look for our ancestors on a regular basis. After all, once we’re done searching our favorite family history sites directly, Google is our best bet for locating new records online.
But finding valuable data via Google search can be hard since there are so many sites, and so many pages of data. After typing in an ancestor’s name and a few details we often find that we’ve turned up hundreds or thousands of results, and most of them are irrelevant.
While this is true for all inquires via search, it is especially true for family history searches because many sites have published long lists of names and dates, including family trees, transcribed book pages and records. This is great news for research, but turning up relevant pages is tricky. Even if you’re careful to enter specific details into your searches you may not successfully limit results to the ones you want.
Luckily, Google is a pretty smart search engine and can help you reveal just what you’re looking for — if you know the “secrets.”
Below we have walked you through 6 of these hidden search tips that will help you locate your ancestors much more quickly. We are using an example ancestor — James Wilcox, married to Mahala and born in 1837 — to illustrate each trick.
For those who may not have spent a great deal of time searching Google for family history, we’ve included 3 important and somewhat common tricks, as well as the more advanced tricks in our list.
Want more advanced Google search tricks? An entire section of our online Genealogy Course is dedicated to this topic. Register to get access to the lessons now.
6 Google Search Tricks
1. Apply Quotation Marks
Also known as a string search this is one of the best, and most obvious ways, to limit search results in Google. When you type in a name like James Wilcox, Google will search the entire title and text of pages for those terms. They do not need to be related to each other – so you may turn up a page with James and Wilcox, but not necessarily a page where these terms appear together.
Use “James Wilcox” or “Wilcox, James” to limit results (remember that many genealogy related sites place the last name first). Also apply quotations around terms like “obituary” to make them exact — otherwise Google will substitute other words like ‘death’ or ‘died.’ This can be helpful in some situations, but for others is can be a big hassle and turn up many unwanted results.
2. Use the Minus Sign
Oftentimes when we are searching for ancestors, especially those with common names, we may find that a certain person or location we’re NOT looking for turns up again and again, clouding our results. For instance, a James Wilcox who lived in Somerset keeps coming up for us. He’s definitely not our guy, so we’ll exclude the term Somerset.
Place a minus sign before a term to exclude these unwanted results (Example: “wilcox, james” 1837 mahala -somerset). The minus sign can be placed in front of many terms to further refine results ( -dunbar -somerset -1907) or term strings (-“Wilcox, James Robinson”). Just make sure that the minus sign is placed directly before the term with no space in between. This works to exclude specific sites as well (-rootsweb).
3. Get Site Specific Results
Would you like to get search results only for a specific website, such as FamilySearch?
Use ‘site:SITEURL’ before a term or terms to do this. Example: site:familysearch.org “wilcox, james” –note that we didn’t place a space between ‘site:’ and the url and that we didn’t include the ‘http://www’ part either.
4. Search Only Page Titles
When looking for a specific ancestor is can be very helpful to have the pages you turn up only be ones that focus on that individual alone. Or, when searching for a surname, to find articles centered around that specific last name. Making sure a search term appears in the title of the page is a good way to do this. This isn’t always true of course, and you’ll miss a lot of results this way, but when looking for discussions about a person, biographies or in-depth data it can be a very helpful trick.
To search only web page titles use ‘allintitle:’ Example: allintitle: “Wilcox, James.” You can also search only the text, and exclude the titles, by using ‘allintext:’
5. Search a Date Range
This is one of the best and most underused Google search tips for genealogists. This super cool trick lets you search multiple dates at one time without having to enter them individually. This is hugely helpful if you are looking for birth, marriage or death records (or any date based source) but don’t know the exact date of an event.
Just add DATE..DATE to your search box to accomplish this (two periods in between the dates like this 1900..1910). For instance, we know that James Wilcox was most likely born between 1835 and 1839 based on the information we have, so we could search for “Wilcox, James” 1835..1839. This will bring up only pages that include one or all of the dates 1835, 1836, 1837, 1838 and 1839. It will not exclude pages that include other dates (which we usually would not want to do.) But if we did want to do that we could exclude any date by typing -DATE, such as -1840 after our other terms.
6. Search for Terms Near Each Other
One of the most frustrating things about searching for ancestors in Google is that, while the engine will search an entire page for your terms, your terms may not have any association to each other. As mentioned early on in this article, that can cause major problems for genealogists since many pages include long lists of dates and names. It is entirely possible, for example, to find the exact names, dates and other details you’re looking for — but not in relation to each other in any way. For instance, our searches for James Wilcox and 1837 turned up pages that include James Wilcox and the date 1837, but that date was often applied to other people on the page.
However, there is a way to ask Google to find terms near each other! Enter AROUND(1) between terms to do this. An example would be: “James Wilcox” AROUND(10) 1837. That means we want Google to look for pages where the exact name James Wilcox appears within 10 words of the date 1837. You can change the modifying number to anything you want (“James Wilcox” AROUND(3) 1837 or “James Wilcox AROUND(1) Mahala) a lower number means a closer association and thus, usually, fewer results. We can also apply this to multiple terms (Example: “Wilcox, James” AROUND(10) Mahala AROUND(5) 1837). You will be blown away by how much this helps you find more relevant results.
We hope these “secret” tips help you in your Google genealogy searches! Don’t forget to combine them to maximize your results. And, when you’re done trying these out, check out our Google Image Search for Genealogy help article for more tips.
Note: Sometimes when you apply these operators, especially if you do so several times in a row, Google may check to make sure you’re a real person and not a computer by transferring you to a captcha verification page. Don’t worry, just type in the characters and proceed — and try not to get too excited that you’re geeky enough to be considered a computer by Google. 🙂
Image: Baltimore, MD. Every individual Social Security Account is listed in several ways in the Social Security Board Records Office. 1937. Library of Congress