Don't Under Estimate Search Engines!

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: September 27, 2001

The World Wide Web is getting bigger and bigger everyday. And the amount of information is increasing by hundreds of thousands of pages every week! And there are so many other genealogists out there creating family information all the time, that chances are, something can be found for your family. Many of them are trying to fill in more than just dates and places and are including anecdotes about their family that have been passed down. And their great grandfather might be your great grandfather!

I routinely go out every couple of months and run straight forward searches on names and surnames on the web. I use the standard search engines. My favorite is Google at Other search sites to try include and

But don't depend on a single search engine! Depending on how a search engine is set up, how the sites are registered and how often they are checked and maintained, you may get drastically different results from different places. I will often use Metacrawler at when I'm beginning a search, particularly for the first time. Metacrawler runs your search on twelve different search engines at the same time. It will return up to ten hits on each engine. Looking at the results will allow you to select a specific search tool to try alone for more hits and which ones you shouldn't bother trying at all.

Sometimes just the surname, particularly if it is common, returns an overwhelming number of hits. Refine it! Try using the first and last name. Putting quotation marks, " ", around the names will cause most search engines to return only an exact match of what you have inside the quotations. Try some of the spelling variations also! Cavellier will return a very different set of matches than Cavelier does. And Swarthout, Swartwout and Swartout all derived from the same name and all come from the same place. You should also try the searches with different variations of the first name, as well as including the middle initial!

Getting too many hits can be almost as depressing as not having found anything. The ability to refine a search through the use of the logical 'not', usually a minus sign before a word, will often eliminate some of the more common sites that are clouding the radar screen. Putting the quotation marks around a phrase you don't want to see can help too. Most of these sites also have an "Advanced" search function. You should be familiar with these features and how to use them to narrow down your search. It may take a few minutes of your time to learn, but it can be worth it in the time savings later on!

One example of what I have found is the information on Myron Angel, first cousin to my 4G Grandfather, Corydon Fairchild. When I did a search on his name, I was surprised when the tools returned a dozen or so solid hits. I was even more surprised when I learned the history of "The Father of CalPolyTech," as well as a number of books that he had edited and even information on his brother, Eugene. When I then started looking at the books, I found that Myron had very informative biographies of many of his cousins, the brothers of my 3Great Grandfather, greatly adding to my knowledge of the family.

Such searches can lead you to the web pages of distant relatives that may already have information on your family several generations in the past. Others with famous names will appear, leading you to the fun exercise of determining whether you are related or not. (Yes, I am related to Gladys and Glendon, but also to Cornelius!) Other searches may lead you to living relatives in distant places that just might have that elusive piece of information you have been looking for the last ten years! I hooked into my family reunions, I just got back from my third one, through a search that lead me to a bulletin board with the reunion information posted on it.

So don't overlook the obvious. Good luck in your search for more family history!

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Updated on 10/25/2005