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Tips for using Google searches to help with family history

SALT LAKE CITY — Being more specific while using Google's search engine can lead to greater flow in relevant genealogical information, said Lisa Louise Cooke during the RootsTech family history conference on Feb. 5 at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

When genealogists are frustrated because Google is not giving them the results they want, it is often because they are not being specific enough in their queries, Cooke said.

“If it was all Google’s fault, you’d be hard pressed to get them to change their algorithm,” Cooke said.

Google searches are pretty literal, she said. Cooke shared about a variety of tools to use to narrow a search in order to increase productivity.

• Use quotations around specific names or phrases, such as "John Green."

The quotations ensure that the words are not just found at some point on the website, but that they must be together and in that order, Cooke said.

• Add an asterisk in the search terms, such as "John * Green."

The asterisk acts as a placeholder and Google includes results that contain something in between, such as a middle name or initial in this case, she said.

• Use a dash, such as "John * Lincoln" —Abraham.

A dash subtracts or excludes a keyword from search results, Cooke said. In this example, the search results will not include Abraham. Because President Abraham Lincoln will have many websites related to him, subtracting Abraham will reduce the number of those results.

• Add a date range, such as “John * Lincoln” —Abraham 1790..1830

That searches for results within the years selected, Cooke said.

Cooke said that other sites, such as Google Scholar and YouTube, follow the same rules.

Along with these research tactics, Cooke mentioned a couple other strengths of doing Google searches.

Since Google tracks the sites its users visit, Google places heavier emphasis on results for items previously searched, Cooke said. So when genealogists have used Google to do their research in the past, the results related to genealogy work will rank higher on their search results. This practice ultimately makes it easier for genealogists to find what they need, Cooke said.

Cooke also recommended using Google Alerts, which will search specific queries in Google continually. This way, if users didn’t find what they were looking for initially, Google Alerts will notify users through their email about new search results that appear later.

“I just found that my grandfather sold a race horse for $5,000 and the painting is hanging in my mom’s living room,” said Laura Munson of Pleasant Grove, who attended the class. “She just passed away, so I have the whole story here, just by listening to how she said to search, which I wouldn’t have found without it.”