Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge: S is for … Searching

As has happened many times throughout this Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge already, I changed my mind of what to write about for this letter. I was going to write about the Star of New Zealand ship, but have decided to save that one for another day. So now …


Putting it simply genealogists are searchers. We are detectives, we hunt down all the clues and piece them together one by one, which ultimately makes our family history, and to help us do this we use the internet, naturally. But with the many, many millions of genealogy websites, big and small, together with all the message boards, forums, blogs out there just how do you find what you’re looking for? The answer is to learn the art of searching … that’s how. Because HOW you search can radically change the results you get, and help narrow your focus.

So lets start with the obvious one …  GOOGLE

Here’s an example you can try with me, lets say we’re looking for some cemetery records:
1. Type the word cemetery records australia in Google’s search box, and it comes up with 21,200,000 results – now I don’t know on ANYONE that actually wants to go through that many webpages, so obviously you’ll need to narrow down your search some more. (Note the number of search results can vary depending on which version of Google you use, and I’m using

2. The second step is to narrow it down further. As I’m looking primarily in South Australia, I’ll change the word Australia to “South Australia”, and see what comes up: cemetery records “south australia” gives 310,000 results.

3. Quite often you’d then look through at least the first couple of pages of results and find something useful, but if you want to search further, you can add an extra place or surname to narrow further, but this doesn’t always work, as it does depend on how well websites are indexed. So more search terms is not always better, as you might be missing out on a lot of useful stuff.

I won’t go into the whole plus (+) and minus (-) thing, or even, the squiggle (~) also known as tilde, or even how to search within a whole website, or even using (OR) as an option … but it is possible to narrow your searches down in a bunch of different ways.

Dan Lynch, genealogist, speaker, and author of “Google Your Family Tree“, is known for using Google to it’s full advantage, and he tells others how to do it in his book. Now I did manage to find a short video which shows a snippet of what you can learn from it …

And if you’ve got time, Dan talks to a room full of people who work at Google, about how genealogists use Google to advantage. It does make for very interesting viewing.

And for even more be sure to check out the Google PowerSearch Tips here. But that’s enough for Google, so now on to other searching …



When you go to the big websites (ie. Ancestry, Findmypast, FamilySearch, The Genealogist, WorldVitalRecords and similar sites) they all give you search boxes on their homepages. Naturally visitors to these websites gravitate towards these when on these sites. But there is several things to remember.

1. Sure you’re searching for Samuel Sutton who was born in 1880 in Sussex, but not every record is indexed as Samuel. Think of all the different ways that Samuel’s name might be written on a document: S. Sutton, Mr S. Sutton, Messrs S. Sutton, Saml Sutton, and so on … It depends on the search technology behind the website as to if they also pick up the variants as well. Most do, but there might be some occasions where they don’t. So it’s always good to keep that in mind while searching.

2. Be creative with the spelling (first names and last names). I don’t believe that anyone can say “my name has only ever spelt this one way thoughout all of history”. Learn to expect variants, think of how the name sounds … and you can use the Soundex or Phonetic search to advantage here.

3. Use wildcard searches. If you have variant spellings of names, (ie. SUTTON or SUTON or SUTTEN) use the asterisk (*), or on some sites the question mark (?). So type in SU*N – and it picks up everything that start with SU and ends in N.



On to keyword searches, now this is on the one I have to educate people on the most. As you would expect, people go to the big websites to search for people, so they fill in the first name box, and surname name box and hit search. They skip over the keyword box, but this box is just as useful.

It is not on every website, but if you see it on one, USE it. There is two types of data on the genealogy data sites – there is indexed records, which can be categorised into fields ( ie. names, places etc), then there is scanned records/documents, which is also searchable butnot indexed, and not searchable in the same way.

As an example, many of CDs released by Archive Digital Books Australasia can be found online on both and Using the name search on both of these will not bring up any of the data on these records, as they are OCRd scanned images, but if you use the keyword search instead, and type in a name, place, ship, or event and you’re likely to come up with a whole stack of records.

When using keyword search it is also much more important to think of the variant way a name might be written (as above for Samuel), because using keyword search for Samuel, will be missing out all of the Mr S. Sutton’s, all of the Saml Sutton’s and the Messrs Sutton’s, and every one of these might be relevant to your family.


This isn’t meant to be a detailed post on the various options with searching, but rather an overview reminding you that there are different ways. But as you can see, the more you learn about searching, the more efficient your genealogy searching will be, and that can only be a good thing, particularly these days when we all complain about not having enough time, let’s help utilise our time to our advantage.

Happy Searching, and Happy Family Tree-ing 🙂

3 Responses to “Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge: S is for … Searching”

  1. Fi says:

    Great post and good points to remember. I value the ‘find’ (control f) function when faced with a whole heap of text while searching for that elusive ancestor.

  2. Alona says:

    Oh Fi the Ctrl+F is a good one, and I do use that aswell … it just didn’t enter my head at the time I wrote this post. Thanks for the reminder 😉

  3. Catherine says:

    Lots of GREAT tips… thanks Alona 🙂

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