Online Genealogy: Tips for Getting the Most Out of Search Engines


Part I.  A Look Under the Search Engine Hood

There are two types of search engines we use frequently in online genealogical research: Internet and database. Most of us probably use one or more of Google, Bing, or Yahoo! on a regular basis and we’re pretty familiar with how to use them. As family history researchers we often come across searchable genealogical databases, too. In order to maximize our family history search results it’s important to understand that these two types of search engines work somewhat differently.

Search engines are like cars. You don’t need to know what’s going on under the hood to use them. Still, there are times in the life of every driver when something goes wrong. The engine stops working for some reason and they suddenly find themselves sitting on the side of the road wishing they knew more about how their vehicle worked.

Just like cars, search engines can leave us stranded sometimes, too. We can find ourselves stuck, unable to move our searches forward. But there are ways to roll the search engine down the hill and kick it into gear, or wrap some pantyhose on the pulleys as a quick-solve. In order to understand how to do that, we have to take a look under the hood.

First, let’s compare some of the functions of Internet and database search engines:

The Same, But Different

So, as you can see, a major difference between the two types of search engines is in the amount of information they’re searching through. This requires different means of returning results to the user. It also raises questions about the relevance and authenticity of the data we’re searching through. Each type of search engine is useful in its own right, and one is not necessarily better than the other. We use them for different reasons. We just need to know how to get the most out of each.

An Internet search engine is trying to return as many possible items that match any or all of the search terms, even if this is the same information duplicated on numerous websites. It prioritizes the search returns first by the number of pages containing all of your requested terms, followed by pages that contain at least some or one of the terms. This can result in millions and even billions of returns.

A database search engine, however, is looking for your specific search terms within a limited dataset. Further, many of these search terms are pre-defined by the database itself because that’s how the information is catalogued within the database, much like a spreadsheet. In other words, each dataset contains elements of all of the pre-defined search terms; they are interrelated in one dataset.

Database Terms and Conditions Apply

For example, in a database a person with surname A, living in location B, age X, with occupation Y, is catalogued by terms A, B, X and Y. Each of these terms has a specific value, such as A=Smith, B=Toronto, X=38, Y=lawyer. So when you input Smith as the value for A, the database searches for all entries where the value for A is Smith without regard to what the values for B, X, or Y are. When you specify another term, such as B=Toronto, the database looks for entries where A is Smith and B is Toronto, ignoring the values of any other search terms. If there are no entries where A=Smith and B=Toronto, you don’t get any returns. The database needs to have entries where both these conditions apply in order to match what you’re searching for.

You can search on any or all of the allowed database terms. If you searched only B=Toronto, you would get back all As, Xs and Ys where term B=Toronto.  A person A, living in location D, would not show up if you search on terms A and B but would show up if you search only term A. All of the terms you search for must be satisfied in order for the search to successfully return a result. The more specific your choice of search terms the more (or less) likely your success, depending on what information is available in the database. You will have more results the fewer search terms you employ since all the search terms you choose need to be satisfied in order to get a result.

As you can see, Internet and database search engines are doing almost exactly the opposite in the way they search. The more terms you enter into an Internet search engine, the more results you’ll get back (usually). The more terms you enter into a database search engine, the more likely you won’t get any returns at all because the database wants to solve every term and if one doesn’t fit, your search is essentially discarded.

This is a very limited look at how search engines work. If you would like to learn more about search engines, a good starting point is Wikipedia. They have a list of search engines for a wide variety of purposes. You’ll also find web directories, lists of academic databases, and more on this page.

Next: Closing the Google Gap

Would you like more articles about how to use search engines? Comment below or contact me at pearceheritageresearch.ca/contact-us.php and let me know!

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