14 Online Genealogy Search Strategies You Need to Know
Have you wondered how to quickly find your relatives on the internet to build your family tree? Searching for our ancestors using the internet should be easy. Type their name and biographical details into a search form and boom! You have records about their life.
But in actuality, searching online genealogy resources involves a variety of strategies to find the record you seek. While I've mentioned different ways to maximize what's available in online genealogy platforms, try one of these search strategies with those tips to get the most out of the free and paid family history websites.
Places to Search for your family history online
Before You Search Online
Your chances for successfully finding information about your ancestors online increase if you know two things before you being:
What records might answer the research question?
In Developing a Quality Research Question, I shared tips for defining what you want to know. In [blog post], I discussed how to determine what records will answer that question. Check those out.
14 Online Genealogy Search Strategies
A strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a goal or objective. The following strategies are designed to help know different action plans that will help you as you utilized genealogy databases such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Findmypast, and these little-known genealogy websites.
As each website approaches the ability to test these strategies differently, I'll share the basic ideas and then I invite you to test them out on your website of choice.
1. Broad Search
A broad genealogy search casts a wide net in a database or with a search engine. Sometimes, all you need to add is the name of an ancestor such as Stephen F Austin or Picabo Street to find relevant genealogical records.
While a genealogy website search form might allow you to add a vast amount of biographical data about an ancestor, start with just their name and perhaps a location to get the ball rolling.
2. Narrow Search Results
Broad and narrow search records go hand in hand. Start with a broad search and then narrow down the results using additional information or result filters.
Play around with different combinations of broadening and narrowing query combinations to find all the records available for your ancestors in searchable data sets.
Watch this video.
3. Surname Searches
Many names in searchable databases have limitations that make it hard to find our ancestors. Sometimes our female ancestors appear utilizing their husband's given name. In other instances, the given name is wrong, misspelled, abbreviated, a nickname, an alternate spelling, an anglicized form, or illegible.
Searching online record collections with a surname and other biographical details help us overcome these limitations.
4. First Name Only Searches
By contrast, surnames can also cause problems in our research. For my Zumstein ancestor, I found them with the surname Sunpstene. I would never have found that record using traditional spelling variation strategies. When I searched Robert living n Gainsborough, Canada in the various Canadian census record, I finally found the one missing entry. Be advised, first-name-only searches work best if you restrict your search to one record collection at a time.
5. No-Name Searches
Not every platform allows a no-name search. For those that do, you can search for all females born about 1823 that appear in the 1870 Spotsylvania County, Virginia census record. You can then examine all the young ladies to see which one might be your ancestor.
6. Search for Females With Both Surnames
As mentioned earlier, females often appear with their husband's name as Mrs. Robet Fuller. She might also appear in a record as Miss Yeager. Use the previously mentioned searches with both her maiden and married surnames along with her spouse's given name.
7. Use Last Names as First Names
For whatever reason, individuals who have given names that could be surnames can cause confusion in records. Therefore, if your ancestor's name is Taylor Grant, also search for Grant Taylor.
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8. Switch the Order of Given Names
Frequently, I have found my ancestors have used their first and middle names interchangeably. I have found Robert Peter Sparks as Peter Roberts, Peter R, Peter and Robert without any consistency. He didn't use one name as a child and the other as an adult. Thus, I've learned to use both the first and middle names in my search queries.
9. Conduct Place Searches
Many readers have had tremendous success by searching for their ancestors using property names or addresses. They've found this useful in English Parish records when they search by the name of the property. I've found this helpful when I use a City Directory and use the cross-street index. In some data sets, you can key in an address like 1851 Medill Street and find all the previous occupants of that address.
10. Ancestor + Spouse
In previous variations of the FamilySearch search forms, I have had great success finding unknown children using the Ancestor + Spouse combinations in a specific dataset. I occasionally have to add additional details like a birth year range or a marriage location.
Often, we can use the father and mother search fields and leave the primary person's search fields blank. Occasionally, we might have to add a first name, a surname, or a date range to the primary search person. Again, it all depends on the website you're utilizing.
Be advised, you don't have to use the full name and biographical details about the spouse. Sometimes a first name or the last name is sufficient.
If you can't do the search query you want on one platform, try it out on a different website with similar record collections.
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11. Ancestor + 1 Parent
Not every record records the names of both parents. Additionally, sometimes one of the parents' names is wrong. For instance, my ancestor Henry Geiszler's death record says that his father's name is Thomas Geiszler, and his mother's name is Caroline Mack. By searching for Henry Geiszler and mother Caroline Mack, I found the elusive death record. This search is helpful with children who live with step-parents or if one parent's name is unknown.
12. Name + Other Person
Not every document has our ancestors listed with their parent's or spouses' names on it. Sometimes they are living with a guardian, working as a servant, living in an institution, or with a more distant relative. If you know of another person in the household, you can add their name in the "Other person" field. Not every platform allows this search, but use it where you can.
13. Search for Kin
When you've exhausted all of your search strategies for your ancestor in question, it's time to search for extended family members using the same 12 strategies. Sometimes our ancestors are 'hiding' in their homes or their records, such as wills and land transactions.
14. Search for Neighbors
Not every ancestor lived near their relatives. Sometimes they moved to new cities or countries on their own. However, in less transient times, they often had the same neighbors for several decades. Additionally, neighbors served as witnesses in various civic and church actions. Use the first twelve search strategies to search for neighbors online.
Be sure to keep your discoveries online, particularly on websites like FamilySearch and WikiTree. That way, if you no longer need the research for a neighbor, others can benefit from the work you did.
This overview of search strategies should get you started with online data sets. For more tips on search variations, be sure to check out:
More online genealogy search tips: