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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Understanding Online Searches in Depth -- Part One

There is no doubt that genealogy is a search intensive activity. We spend a great deal of time looking for things. This post is going to discuss the how and why of searching online, but let me warn you, I am not going to try to simplify this topic. I think it is time to share some of the more complex concepts in successful online searches on Google and other search engines. But there is no real way to make these concepts simple but I will try to explain them as simply as possible.

You may ask why I am an "authority" on searching online? That is a reasonable question to ask. I am only an authority on the subject of online searches in the same way any experienced person becomes an "authority." I work on computers, on the average, about ten to twelve hours a day and much of what I do involves searching and I have been doing this for a very, very long time. Before computers, I spent time searching in libraries and in many other contexts. When I want a very simple statement of what I had done most of my life, I say I find things.

In this context, I have occasionally quoted British writer Arthur C. Clarke. Here are Clarke's three laws:
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Laws numbers two and three have particular application to searching online. When people watch what I do when I am searching they think it is magic. It is not magic, but it is very advanced technology.

When I examine my search history from time to time, I am amazed at the number of combinations of searches I automatically do on a specific topic. For example, in looking at the list of searches I did yesterday, I did approximately 400 searches and that was not a particularly busy day. Now, enough of this self aggrandizement, on to understanding searches online.

The process appears to be simple. You enter a word or phrase into a search box and the program retrieves a list of related items. It would be really nice if this were true. It is not. Let's look for something specific. In this case I am going to start with a real question. One I do not presently know the answer to. I am going to look for the burial information for my Great Uncle, Henry Victor Overson. He died on 13 April 1986 in Phoenix, Maricopa, Arizona, United States. For some reason, I did not record any burial information. Briefly, as an introduction to this search, I spent a few minutes yesterday searching without success. For the purposes of this post, I will start with a summary of the challenges from some things I have learned about searching for ancestors.

First of all the challenge here is that the date of his burial is quite recent. Before I begin to search, I have to stop and think for a minute or so about places where his burial information may have been recorded. In this regard, obituaries, cemetery records and closer relatives's family trees may give me a clue. Without jumping directly to the most likely source and thereby obscuring the process of searching, I am going to take it slow and painfully through the process. Should I find the information very quickly, I will move to another search. The idea here is to illustrate the process not necessarily solve any one inquiry. I am using Google for all these searches unless otherwise noted. Why Google? I might have to write about that again, I am still getting questions about other search engines.

I start with a vey general search for "Henry Victor Overson" in quotes. The quotes put the complete phrase as a search term and not the individual names. But wait. Before I go off and search for a name, perhaps it would be a good idea to think about where I might find the information I am looking for and the probability of finding it. Rather than mere mechanics, a search involves a great deal of personal experience in finding things both online and in the physical world. First and foremost, you much always assume that whatever you are looking for is actually there. In the case of a burial taking place in Arizona in 1986, you can assume 100% probability that the information you are looking for has been recorded and is available. Likewise, you can assume an almost 100% probability that the same information has made its way online.

Why would I do a general Google search? Why not just go directly to or or some other specialized website for listing burials? There is plenty of room for variations in the was any individual search is conducted. Knowing about specialized places to look for certain types of information is part of the experience component of searching. Just as a example, let's suppose I go and search in I did just that. I searched for Henry Victor Overson in Arizona. Nothing. No response. Also zero responses from Taking out his middle name also yields no results in either program.

Back to Google, using the name in quotation marks. I get 19 results. The first results are in There are several entries for Henry Victor Overson but none of them have a place of burial. There are more entries in, but likewise, they are missing the burial place.

Why am I not getting the information immediately? Perhaps I need to do some careful thinking. Even though his name was Henry Victor Overson, he may have gone by the name "Victor" or he may have gone by the name "Henry."

This brings us to the next point about searches. They do not take place in a vacuum. Through experience, there is always a next place to look. I happen to know quite a few of those places. The Mesa FamilySearch Library has been compiling an index of obituaries for many years. Before tackling Google again, let's look on the Mesa FamilySearch Library website. On the Mesa FamilySearch Library website, I search the obituary index without success. Maybe he wasn't buried in Arizona?

If I do not find the results in the first elementary searches, I just keep searching.

Well, it certainly looks like this post is going to be continued. Tune in soon.

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