Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Genealogy Websites


Using General Search Engines to Research a Genealogy

If the Internet can be considered a giant library, then search engines are your card catalog to the Internet. Without using the card catalog at your library, it's almost impossible to find the books that will help you. By the same token, if you don't know how to use it effectively, you'll have trouble locating the information you had hoped to discover.

General search engines help people find things on the Internet when they either don't have the Web address or don't know if a site exists for a specific subject. At this time there is no one general search engine that catalogs the entire World Wide Web. There are a number of general search engines, and you may quickly pick a favorite.

Different methods of cataloguing the Web result in different results from each search engine. Try these general search engines:

Making General Search Engines More Effective

Most genealogists try general search engines for basic research and then dismiss them as their research gets more detailed. This can be a mistake.

No search engine is going to dig up only the information you seek. False hits are links that lead you to unrelated sites. One way to eliminate possible false hits is to add the word genealogy to the search field. Keep in mind, however, that Web sites that don't use the word "genealogy" on the site or encoded in their site will be eliminated from the search results. Be careful that you don't accidentally block useful family history sites with this approach.

Another method is to search for the places where your ancestors lived. For instance, if you're looking for Stephen Webster who lived in Haverhill, Middlesex, Massachusetts, you might try searching for "Stephen Webster" Haverhill. This narrows down the number of hits you get and increases the likelihood that they pertain to your ancestor.

Of course, the more common the name, the less effective a general search engine may be. It will take some practice to figure out how to narrow the search without blocking potentially useful sites.

General search engines are also great for digging into the history of an event or locality. For instance, perhaps you've heard a family story about one of your ancestors being buried in Potter's Field in New York City. A general search for "Potter's Field" New York City should reveal some sites that detail the history of that particular Potter's Field.

What general search engines cannot do is show you what is contained within the compiled genealogy databases. This is because of the way the data is stored. You must usually use a search tool within the site to view the information.

Never presume that no one else would be interested in the subject you have questions about. The Internet offers the world a place to create pages about their various interests.

Directories are quite different than general search engines, but can be just as valuable to your genealogy project. Learn about these on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.


More to Explore