Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Searching Online -- an acquired skill

When we had our children at home, all seven of them, all of the children had piano lessons. They would take turns practicing, so practicing started early, early in the morning before school and for quite a while after school and into the night. Through practice, some of the children got to be very accomplished pianists and still play regularly today. It is interesting to visit the homes of the ones who kept up their skill and see the same practicing going on with our grandchildren. Playing the piano is a complex skill that requires years of practice to achieve proficiency. Guess what? Searching on the Web is also a skill that needs to be practiced and also takes considerable time to achieve proficiency.

As a genealogist, you cannot just sit down at a computer and expect to find your ancestors without some idea about how searching works and some extensive practice in acquiring the skill. You acquire the skill by understanding how searching works, then how to search and finally by practicing searching over and over again until it becomes second nature.

To begin acquiring this searching skill, you might want to start with's explanation of how their search engine works. This is part of Google's Inside Search. The reference page that outlines a considerable amount of information about the search process. Start with the short slide show called "How Search Works." and then be sure to review the Tips and Tricks from the menu bar. If you want an even more extensive explanation, see How Google Works.

Of course, knowing how Google works is sort-of like watching someone play the piano. You can fully understand how something works and still not have the skill to do what you understand. The only possible way to acquire this skill is spend considerable time searching. But remember, be very careful what you search for; you just might find it. Try not to search for general topics. Usually, the number of returns for your search will be extraordinarily large. Try to think what the people who wrote about your topic would have put on their page of information about the topic.

For example, if I had an ancestor by the name of George Smith, looking for Smiths might be unproductive. I would need to think of some particular characteristic of my George Smith that might show up in any writing about him. That could be a date, a place, an occupation and in some cases, a combination of names of family members or other facts. In my own family, searching for "William Tanner" is very unproductive. A quick search for his name, even if I put the name in quotation marks, returns over 100,000 results. But if I add one word, "Kingston," the place where he lived, the number of results drops dramatically and the first item on the list is my ancestor, William Tanner. You might also want to add the word "genealogy" to your search. This will usually narrow the search and produce information more specific to finding an ancestor or other relevant information.

Take some time to think about the target of your search and choose search terms that will usually be associated with your target.

Good luck and good searching.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, searching is a skill (there are whole college courses devoted to teaching searching skills - generally geared toward finding academic literature using PubMed but the skills are broadly applicable). Knowing who to efficiently find the information you need is often more important than outright knowing the information because at some point you will run into things you don't know and knowing how to search then becomes important.