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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to do Custom Searches with Google for Genealogists: Part Four -- How to find what you are looking for

How do you find something if you don't know what you are looking for? This is the classical genealogical research question. If you don't know the names of your ancestor's parents or when or where they lived or were born, how do you go about finding them?

The essence of a Google search is guessing the terms used by someone on a website that might contain information about what you are searching for. But if you don't know what terms to use, how do you proceed with a search? The simple answer is that you don't. But genealogy is built on the concept that we use the information we do know to find the information we do not know. For example, we can start with the First Rule of Genealogy: When the baby was born, the mother was there.

Let me start with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that you know your mother's married name and birth place. Let' further suppose that you know your own name and birth place. You also know your own birth date. Now, as an aside, of course, there are people who do not know this minimal amount of information about themselves or their mothers, but this is my hypothetical and I am not, at the moment, writing about adoption or foundlings. With the information that you already know, i.e. names and birth places, where would you start to search? Hmm. If that seems like a rhetorical question, it really isn't. You begin your search with the information you do know. You being by looking for your own birth record. Now another aside, of course, if your mother is alive, you ask her for information, but again this is my hypothetical so I can set up the facts anyway I want to. 

I will further assume that when you begin your search for your own birth record, that you have no idea about all the genealogical information that is available online, so you start with a general Google search such as looking for "birth records." Here is a screenshot of such a search:

If you do the same search using the same terms, your results on a Google Search will be similar. In my case, I got over 13 million results. But among those results are two types of records. The idea here is that once you make a Google Search, no matter how general, you now have some additional information. If you examine these results you will see that the two types of records include current birth records for living people and birth records for deceased people. If you modify your search with the geographic location of your supposed birthplace, you will get an even more specific list of possible place for additional searches. 

Now, let me go back to the beginning of this post. You are looking for information that you do not yet know. Perhaps your goal is to identify your grandparents or great-grandparents or whatever. But no matter what you have as an ultimate goal, you have to start with what you do know. Assuming we are searching for genealogically relevant information, we are essentially searching for records and documents. The search I made above found several important institutions with information that will help me discover how and where to find a birth record. For example, one of the results refers to the Research Wiki article entitled, "United States Birth Records Genealogy." Here is a screenshot of that webpage:

Right there on the page is a link to another article about "How to Find United States Birth Records." OK, I know that maybe you weren't born in the United States and all that, but the issue here is that you start by searching Google with terms incorporated from what you already know and then refine those search terms with more specific terms learned from the results of your search. 

So, let's do the search again, this time for some specific information. Let me search for information about my Great-grandfather's death and let's further suppose that all I know is his name and where he might have died. 

His name is Henry Martin Tanner and he might have died in Arizona. Here is my first search for death records in Arizona:

Since he is my Great-grandfather, I might have to try and guess a few additional things. I might suppose that he was already dead assuming that I was fairly old. I might assume that I knew his name and that what I knew about his name was correct. All of this might be wrong, but we have to try to find the information we need by making some logical assumptions. I note that the first entry on my search results above includes a reference to " Genealogy Birth and Death Certificates." This seems like a good place to go to search further, so I click on the link. 

To make this explanation shorter, I do find the death certificate for my ancestor. Here it is.

I do have to modify my search to look for "Henry Tanner" and leave out his middle name. But now, I have more information and a lot more search terms to use to look for additional information about my family.

Please note, I have not employed an advanced search. I did not use Boolean Algebraic Terms. I did not use a complicated set of symbols or any other method. All I did was start with some general terms and then used the information I found to make additional searches and by varying the terms, I found what I was looking for. Of course, this was a somewhat contrived search since I have done the search before and already knew that there was a death certificate online, but the principles involved are always the same. Searching is a skill that must be learned. There are some basic principles involved that help you get started, but there is no substitute for practice. 

Last point. Don't make your life any more complicated than it already is by starting Google Searches by using the Advanced Search/Shortcuts. If you find some of these to be useful after becoming frustrated, fine. But don't think there is a magic solution for finding things online. The magic comes from doing hundreds of thousands of searches. Just like playing the piano comes from practice. 

Oh, by the way, just like pianists; some have more natural talent than others, but all of us can learn some of the fundamentals.

Here are the previous articles in this series.

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