Monday, January 24, 2011

Tech Tuesday: How's Your Google-Fu?

One of my favorite non-genealogy blogs is lifehacker. It offers tip and tricks to, well, make your life easier. I also follow it on Facebook, and find that I learn some time-saving tidbit just about every day. Yesterday, they posed a question on their Facebook page that piqued my interest: What are your favorite search tricks for getting better results?

As someone who is obsessed with genealogy, I spend a lot of time on search engines and I'm always trying to determine ways of configuring search terms to get new -- or better -- results that might help dig up new information or break down stubborn brick walls. For the most part, lifehacker's readers offered up answers to the question that were solid, but that I already knew: use quotation marks around a phrase, use Boolean search terms, check your spelling, use '' to search within a website. Nothing new under the sun, but it got me thinking about how I use search engines, particularly Google. 

Most people think of Google as just a plain old search engine, but Google has acquired a nice assemblage of companies to add to their existing technologies, and has continued to evolve over the years. You can find more than just links to other websites on Google. You can find entire books, scans of newspaper articles, photos, links to Google-hosted blogs (why, yes, this blog is hosted by a Google property). You can even use Google to translate just about anything from one of nearly 60 languages into another.

Here are some examples of the family history treasures that Google has helped me unearth with just a few clicks of the mouse:

Thomas J. Rooks & Serena Jane Ishmael
Google Images (
A quick search on ["Thomas Rooks"] (including the quotation marks, but not the brackets) netted 323 results, including this picture of my GGG grandparents, Thomas J. Rooks and Serena Jane Ishmael. When I clicked on the photo, it took me to a Picasa photo album that is a wealth of photos and document scans, including wills and land documents, pertaining to this part of my family.

I've also found photos of the land where my ancestors lived as well as some really cool old maps. These types of images really help me to understand where my people came from. It's fun to look at the old maps compared to the current maps that you can find on Google Maps to see how the counties and land boundaries may have changed over the years.

Google Translate (
This has really come in handy with my Danish research. It's so ridiculously simple that you'll wonder what you ever did without it for your non-English language research. All you have to do is type or copy in whatever it is you're trying to translate, determine your "from" and "to" languages, then click on the "Translate" button. 

For example, I copied this from the Genealogy Aero website:
"Hvis du interesserer dig for Ærøs historie, eller hvis du har slægt på Ærø, kan denne hjemmeside være et besøg værd. Da hjemmesiden består af flere hundrede sider, har jeg valgt at inddele den i afsnit" 
And, it translates from Danish to English as: 
"If you are interested Ærø history, or if you have relatives on the Aero, this website will be worth a visit. Since the site consists of several hundred pages, I have chosen to divide it into sections."
Is Google Translate always precise? No. But the translations are pretty darn close, and it will definitely give you a solid idea of what's being communicated.

Google News (
You might think of Google News as a repository for the current news of the day, and you'd be correct. However, Google has archived newspaper articles that date back at least to the 1860s. With a simple search ["John Bartram"+ rodeo], I was able to find images of four actual newspaper articles that reported my Grandpa John's rodeo wins in the 1930s. Here's one from the May 18, 1939, Prescott Evening Courier that shows his win in the Bronc Riding contest during the San Francisco World's Fair in May 1939:

And, when I typed in my dad's name ["William Lee Brittain"], and narrowed down time period to 2003-2005, I came up with an abstract of his obituary in the Contra Costa Times. If I wanted to, I could purchase the full copy of the article for my records:

Google Books (
Google now offers millions of book titles to search and read. Some are offered only in "snippet" view, some have larger previews and some you can read in their entirety, directly from your browser, by downloading a PDF or by reading on your mobile device. 

Again, I typed in ["John Bartram" + rodeo] on the Google Books site, and the very first thing that popped up was a link to a book called "Early Livermore" that featured several photos of my Grandpa John competing in rodeo events. This listing offered only a preview of what was included in the book, but I was able to get my hands on a bound copy of this book for my personal collection. I also did some sleuthing around for similar books about locations where my ancestors lived, and came up with a treasure trove of fantastic information on my relatives from several California towns as well as around Missouri and Alabama.

I've also found books that detail my ancestors' military engagements in the Revolutionary War, Civil War (both sides) and World War I. One of my more recent finds has been "The Parish Records of Kelsale, Suffolk" compiled in 1887. In it, I found the September 15, 1816, marriage record of my GGG grandparents, Samuel Bartram and Harriet Boste, as well as the 1842 marriage record of their daughter, Harriet. I'm still exploring that tome for more goodies on my Suffolk, England, ancestors.

Of course, you're not going to find everything on Google, just as you're not going to find everything by spending all your time on Ancestry or Footnote or GenealogyBank or the various historical society and library websites. However, I think that a lot of people neglect to make full use of this handy tool that's right in front of us. And all for free! 

BTW, here are links to help you brush up on your own basic Google-Fu:
What are some of your favorite search tips for unearthing genealogical treasures?


  1. Wendy,
    I hope this comment doesn't seem too self serving, but given how much time I've dedicated over the years to share Google tips, I thought I should at least mention my book, Google Your Family Tree because it does specifically address the use of these great free tools for the passion we all share. Great blog post. Thanks! (It came to me via a Google Alert and i'm glad it did...).
    Dan Lynch

  2. Thanks, Dan. I will definitely check out your book!

  3. Wendy, Dan Lynch's book 'Google Your Family Tree' is absolutely awesome. I think there is one section that is a bit out of date because Google has changed things, but even so, the book is worth its weight in gold. I had the very great pleasure of attending three of Dan's talks when he was in Australia recently, and the man is a genealogist's saviour!

  4. Great tips, Wendy! I have done some of these things but reading all your suggestions in their entirety makes me realize I can tweak my searching and maybe find more. Excellent. Thanks.

  5. I read through this post congratulating myself, 'cause I had already been doing so many of your suggestions. THEN I looked closely at how you prepared the search keyword. Ahhh. Taking note I immediately applied the suggestion: "John P Minor" + cattle. Bingo. I had new information. Great suggestions written in a friendly manner. Also want to get Dan Lynch's book now!

  6. Thanks, Elizabeth and Kay! I plan to get Dan's book, too. I just wish it was available for Kindle or the iPad...