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Family History

Introduction by Dan Lynch

Google Your Family Tree

Google is an amazing company with extraordinary products. And, no, I'm not an employee or stockholder, I say this simply because I use Google products every day and have developed a deep appreciation for how well they serve my needs. It's not that other Internet search engines aren't helpful in their ability to quickly find needles in the worldwide haystack, it's just that it seems there is no end to the innovation that has come from Google in its relatively short corporate life. But why an entire book focused on Google and genealogy? After all, it's not as if Google engineers had genealogists in mind when they built their service — or did they? Before we step forward to answer that question, we have to step back to look at a brief history. Probably just what you'd expect from a genealogist, right?

Not long ago, family historians could be found dutifully writing letters and visiting archives, libraries, and cemeteries in search of clues detailing the lives of their ancestors. The tools of the trade were pencil and paper, microfilm and microfiche, and one-of-a-kind ledger books tucked away in thousands of vaults throughout the world—unless fire or flood had destroyed them first. With limited discretionary time and 9-to-5 hours at most research venues, many would-be genealogists were forced to wait until retirement to pursue their ancestral roots. By that time, most of their family elders had passed on, making it more difficult for them to preserve their unique family heritage for children and grandchildren of their own. Back in those days, only the most dedicated family historians traveled to Salt Lake City, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and the undisputed mecca for genealogists worldwide. Similarly, millions of visitors each year would make another pilgrimage of sorts to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. These landmarks situated in New York Harbor are recognized throughout the world as symbols of the largest human migration ever recorded. For many family historians, the thought of finding their ancestors' names among the millions recorded on centuries-old passenger lists represented a lifetime of genealogical achievement.

But that was all genealogy B.C. (Before Computers). Today, thanks to personal computers and the Internet, even first-time researchers can point their browser to, the LDS Church's online genealogy homepage, providing free access to millions of records for anyone interested in researching their heritage. The future looks even brighter for genealogists with a promise from the LDS Church that it will continue to digitize much of its prized collection of family records from around the world. And many can still recall the April 2001 launch of the Ellis Island website at With the prospects of finding valuable clues about their immigrant ancestors, tens of millions of visitors flooded the website on opening day causing officials from The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to place limits on inbound site traffic just to keep the servers working for those lucky enough to establish a connection. Those were the days of dial-up connections, and very few websites were offering researchers a view of the actual digitized record — let alone offering it for free. In an instant, it seemed, microfilm was no longer good enough. The bar had been raised for an entire generation of genealogists.

It's nearly impossible to pinpoint a single event or date, but family historians during the last decade have certainly witnessed the most significant changes to ever occur in genealogical research. With an abundance of content now available online to anyone at any time, the Internet has become a critical resource and Google an important tool for every family historian — beginner, intermediate, or professional. Luckily, mastery of this powerful tool can be achieved in a relatively short period of time and can also pay dividends in other areas of life as well. Having lectured on the use of technology for more than a decade, I have paid close attention to the emergence, growth, and changing landscape of the Web. As a fellow genealogist with little time to devote to my own research, I have paid even closer attention to any tool or research technique that could save me time or prevent wasted effort.

The topics covered within these pages are those that I believe to be the most useful for anyone conducting genealogy research online—regardless of the country you call home. Google has a tremendous range of products and services available to a worldwide audience — well beyond those covered in the pages of this book. Throughout this project, one of my biggest challenges has been to stay focused on the elements within Google that have an undisputed role in helping family historians research and record their family history. Over time, I've certainly found a way to squeeze some genealogical benefits from almost every Google feature or application, but I've decided to include only those with the most broad-based application and likelihood of yielding the greatest return with a minimum of time invested by each researcher.

As a frequent lecturer, one of the most common questions about Google asked by attendees is "How did you become such an expert at Google?" — and the answer is easy. I use Google every day and I'm always visiting its "About Google" pages to learn what they're working on next. Google often launches new services in a Beta version and you just have to be willing to try new products in a sometimes rough, unfinished state. In many cases, if you try something new or make a mistake, Google will let you know. I encourage every reader to spend a few minutes every day trying a new command or search technique. Keep a notebook or index cards and try searching for one of your most elusive ancestors. Write down the number of results achieved and how the query was structured to obtain those results. Continue to refine your query until you have success. Once you have mastered a new technique, try using it in combination with another command (a Syntax Summary is found in Appendix E). You may sometimes find it helpful to search for people and places you have found previously. This will allow you to sharpen your search skills without getting immediately distracted by links to another website. And since the Web is growing and changing every day, submit the same query on a regular basis and use other search engines so you can compare results. You might even try searching for yourself to see what information is available online about you for others who may be trying to contact you about their family research.

I put this book together in a specific way to make it easier, I believe, to learn and practice the concepts that will make you a great searcher of Google. Following are some notes to guide you on the way:

Icons & Layout
This book is specifically designed to be an active workbook that you can refer to on a regular basis to grow your knowledge of Google as you research your family history online. We have left some room around the edges for notes, and there are suggestions throughout for how to test the instructions with your real-world examples.

Screen Shots
Sample screen shots are shown throughout this book, either in whole or in part, to visually support the text describing the feature being discussed. With the majority of personal computers using Microsoft Internet Explorer (~55%), I use this as my browser as well. Depending upon which version of Internet Explorer you use, your screen may look different. If you are using Firefox, Chrome, Mozilla, Safari, or Opera, your screen may have slight differences in appearance, as well.

Google It!
The Google It! boxes call your attention to exercises you can do to test the technique being described. Since many of the concepts discussed in this book are cumulative, I recommend pausing when you see this box so you can try a few Google searches for yourself using the technique described. Partially Obscured Text To show results for certain commands, some screen images may contain personal information (email, phone, etc.) of the author or others. To ensure privacy, some text may appear distorted.

Web Addresses
Throughout this book, I list Web addresses (also called URLs—Uniform Resource Locators) for your convenience in visiting the page or site being discussed. I enclose URLs in brackets < >, but you do not need to type the brackets when providing the address. For example, is accessed by typing

One last thing before we begin our journey together down the road to all things Google. Technology, the Internet, and Google are great, but they aren't a replacement for libraries, archives, or participation in local genealogy clubs and societies. Every time I visit a library or archive, I learn something new. Not just from the books or microfilm, but from the knowledgeable staff that serve as custodians of these sources. They are perhaps more eager to help now than at any time in the past because the flow of patrons has slowed to a trickle. In a similar way, clubs and societies have experienced a lack of participation in local events, yet one of the best places to learn new tips and techniques is by talking with a fellow attendee at one of these local functions. So after you've learned how to find anything using Google, be sure to search for the name of a society or research center near you. Turn off your computer and pay them a visit, not just online, but in person. Yes, genealogists still do that!

If you have a favorite Google tip or technique not covered in this book, but one that may be of interest to fellow family historians, please visit the companion website for this book at Updates will be shared online along with other tools of interest to family historians.

Happy hunting!

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