Search Tips: The Best Advice? Simplify!

With the digitization of newspapers and government records, combined with powerful search engines, online research has opened exciting new possibilities for people exploring their family history with a computer and Internet access. But there's one common mistake these researchers often make: when using a search form, they fill in as many fields as they can (first name, middle initial, place of residence, etc.) thinking that the more information they give the search engine, the more accurate the returns will be. In many cases, however, this is the wrong approach to take.

While it is true that any returns to such a detailed, filled-in search form are likely to be the specific person you are looking for, the danger is that by providing too much detail, you're likely to accidentally weed out many returns that you would like to see. For example, if you tell the search engine to only find matches for your ancestor "William Fellows," you won't see records in which he is referred to as "Will. Fellows" or "W. Fellows" or "Bill Fellows" or "Billy Fellows" or simply "Fellows."

Often, the best approach to family history research is to simplify your first attempt to the most basic search and gradually sharpen the detail and narrow the focus. The following example illustrates this.

Let's say your ancestor was Uriah M. Rose. From family records, letters and stories, you know the following facts about him:
  • He was born March 5, 1834, in Bradfordsville, Kentucky
  • He died August 12, 1913, in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • He was a lawyer
  • He was educated at Transylvania University (Lexington, Kentucky)
  • He lived in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • He was a delegate to the Second Peace Conference at The Hague in 1907 that was focused on an international agreement on the laws of war
That's a fair amount you already know about your ancestor. Now you want to turn to online records to fill in the details of his life and learn more about him as an individual. Since he was a delegate to an important international conference, he was somewhat prominent during his time and there is likely to be newspaper articles and government records about him.

Armed with this much information, you fill in the search form not only with his full name but several locations and key words that should zoom in on articles specifically about him: Bradfordsville, Little Rock, lawyer, Transylvania University, Peace Conference, delegate.

Unfortunately, this is the disappointing result the search engine gives you:

Why would such an "obvious" search fail to get results? Uriah Rose was a fairly prominent man—surely he would be in old newspapers, especially a huge archive such as GenealogyBank's with its 5,700 newspapers and more than one billion articles and records. This very exact, painstaking search included lots of details that should have pointed specifically to him—why were there zero returns?

Uriah Rose in fact does appear in the newspaper articles. The problem is that this search has too many details. GenealogyBank searches for newspaper articles that include every word you type in the search box—therefore, every extra word included in a search reduces the number of articles that can be found about your ancestors.

Since no single article contained every search term you entered, the search engine reported zero returns. It is important to remember that when the search engine finds no matches you should not give up and assume there is no information about your ancestor in GenealogyBank's archive.

The answer? Keep your initial searches simple. What you want to do is enter only the minimum information about a person.

Keeping this strategy in mind, what is the best way to search for Uriah Rose?

He has a distinctive first name, Uriah, which is not very common. However, his surname, Rose, is clearly a commonly-used noun as well as a first and last name. Since his surname will drive millions of hits, it is important to include his first name to fine-tune the search results.

Let's redo your search with the simplest approach: use just his name. The uniqueness of his first name should mute the flood of search results we will get from his last name.

Enter Rose in the first line and Uriah in the second:

Here are the results of this new search. The search engine found 139 newspaper articles about Uriah Rose:

What the search engine is doing here is matching the word "Uriah" near the word "Rose." The closer the word "Uriah" appears to the word "Rose" in the newspaper article's text, the higher the article appears in the search results. As you continue down the list of results you will begin to find articles that are not as directly related to your ancestor, because the word "Uriah" and the word "Rose" appear farther and farther apart in the text. For example, toward the bottom of the list you may find an article about a man named "Uriah Smith," and read in the tenth paragraph that he bought his wife a "rose."

You could read all 139 articles to see which are about your ancestor Uriah Rose. Or, you can narrow your search results by adding another search term.

For example: you know that he died in 1913. Let's see what happens if we limit the search to just that year:

By refining your search with this additional term, you've narrowed 139 returns down to only 7—and it turns out they are all obituaries about your ancestor published in the year 1913:

So remember this helpful tip: Keep your searches simple. Start with just the name, then slowly add other terms to refine your search.

Have fun searching—and good luck with your family history research!

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