Saturday, July 9, 2011

What Google is Good For

Searching for ancestors? You’ve scouted out all the freebies using Cyndi’s List. You’ve caved—or got hooked on genealogy—and subscribed to an online content provider. You’ve done all this and more…and still got stuck with brick walls.

Enter Google. No, they’re not a new genealogy content provider, but it is almost as if they were. Just the other day, in researching to prepare some posts in commemoration of my first husband’s family, on a wild hunch, I decided to enter one ancestor’s name in Google, just to see what would happen.

Granted, searching for a name using something as powerful as a search engine can translate into the digital version of the needle-in-the-haystack task. It does seem like overkill—not to mention, the results feel like overkill!

Using a delimiting term or two helps deflect the overabundance of social network hits or come-ons from every business from background checks to vital statistics merchandisers. I try to plug in generic terms such as “history” or “genealogy” or even “obituary” when searching a name (and all its variants). Or, I can use a city name or other qualifying term in addition to the person’s name. Plus, putting the full name within quotes avoids hits for pages that happen to include “Bill” and “Smith,” though not while referring to the same person. (You can't blame a search engine for coming up with a result that includes news on Bill Jones and Bob Smith; it did, after all, include the items you asked for.)

So, the other day, I plugged the name “William Shields” into Google’s pristine dialogue box. Now that is a name guaranteed to get a million useless hits, so I added the terms “history” and “Fresno” (for the city where he settled). And hit the little button labeled “Google Search.”

Yeah, sure, there were lots of extraneous hits, but right toward the top of the list was an excerpt from an e-book website detailing more of William Shields’ ancestry than I ever thought I could find in one place. The e-book was a publication of the history of the region that included the city and county of Fresno, California. The author evidently also wrote several other such books covering other regions in California, too—all available for free at this same website.

With that one find, I now have William Shields’ wife’s line described as descending all the way back to the landing of the Pilgrims. Not bad for one keystroke’s work.

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