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!
The book I wrote for our Kemptville Pirates Day event is now available at the Pearce Heritage Research Associates website. You’ll find it at the bottom of our Links page at: http://www.pearceheritageresearch.ca/links.php.
You’ll learn some interesting facts about Blackbeard the Pirate. I also look at some of the legends about Blackbeard, and provide you with some links to additional resources, including primary sources, to learn more about one of history’s most infamous buccaneers. The free ebook contains a complete transcription of the chapter about Blackbeard (Edward Teach) from Captain Charles Johnson‘s 1724 book.
There is no charge for this ebook, however, if you like what you read, please like us on Facebook and follow us here on WordPress. I still have copies of the original print version if anyone is interested. Contact me using the Contact Us section of the PHRA website.
Enjoy! Ahoy, avast, and all that!
- Kemptville Pirate’s Day (brennapearce.wordpress.com)
Okay, maybe I’m a bit off the wall with this one, but I truly believe that completing Sudoku puzzles is a good way to develop your genealogical skills. To be more precise, this activity is a great way to increase your powers of deduction, logic, and inference. I’ll explain how in this post.
What is a Sudoku Puzzle?
A Sudoku (pronounced “soo-doe-koo”), if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a number puzzle. Like most things, it has an interesting history all on its own. I won’t go into that here, but it actually didn’t originate in Japan as the name suggests. (Your assignment is to go research the history of Sudoku. There will be a test.)*
The puzzle is a grid made up of a total of 81 squares divided into smaller grids in nine smaller squares of nine numbers each (i.e. the numbers 1 through 9). The numbers are in a 3 by 3 arrangement in the smaller squares. To start, some of the 81 numbers in the larger puzzle grid are already filled in. Your task is to fill in the remaining numbers. The catch is that no number can be used twice in any of the smaller squares, vertical columns or horizontal rows. So how do you solve it with so little information?
First, you have to take a step back and ask yourself what the puzzle is already telling you. Even though it looks like there is no useful information at all (i.e. just a bunch of random numbers plugged in here and there), in fact there are logical inferences you can make from the numbers you have. Take a look at the example here:
Now, this is a major cheat since you would not very likely start off in a Sudoku puzzle with two full lines and one sub-grid filled in. However, I wanted to simplify it a bit for the purposes of showing you how the logical part works. What do you see?
The fact that some of the numbers are repeated more than others might be one thing you notice. The 3, 6, 7, and 9 appear more than the five other numbers. The 6 and 7 appear most often. Therefore, we have more information about the placements of the 6 and 7 than we do about any of the other numbers. This is a good place to start, then.
What do we do with that? If you look at the possible locations of the next number 6, you’ll see there are just too many possibilities to say for certain where that next 6 will go. There are from two to four possible locations for any of the squares that do not yet contain a 6.
Moving on, what about the 7? In the three centre sub-grids, from the top sub-grid to the bottom sub-grid, there are three, five, and five possibilities respectively. That’s not enough information. In the left-centre sub-grid, there are two possibilities for placement. Again, this is not enough information to tell us where to put the 7.
But look at the bottom right-hand grid. There is only one possible square in which to place a number 7: the bottom line, middle square. I hope you see this. You have just used a logical inference.
Why is This Relevant?
In order to complete a Sudoku successfully you need to use logic, inference, and deduction. It is just exactly this kind of careful examination of the clues you have that you’ll use in sorting out the possibilities for relationships in family trees and pedigrees. In order to research your family history you often need to use…logic, inference, and deduction.
Don’t be fooled. A Sudoku is not about the numbers or about mathematics (although there is mathematical theory that applies to it). You don’t have to be a whiz at arithmetic to solve one. I have heard many people say, “Oh, I don’t do Sudokus. I’m no good at math.” You don’t have to be! Solving the puzzle is all about you reasoning effectively.
If you’re already a whiz at Sudokus, but you haven’t started researching your family history, I ask you: “Why not?” You’ll likely be very good at it. The skills you honed while solving Sudokus are exactly the same kinds of skills, among many others, that university history professors spend 3 or 4 years trying to drill into their students’ heads. In other words, these skills are excellent building blocks for learning how to conduct historical and genealogical research.
If you’ve never done a Sudoku puzzle and you’re interested in family history research, start doing a daily Sudoku. It won’t get you any closer to learning your great-great-grandfather’s name, but you will have a good grounding on how to figure out who he is from a dozen others of the same name living in the same county once you do start researching because now you will have the powers of logic, inference, and deduction you’ll need to do that. The rest is finding the resources to apply your new skills to in order to create your family tree. (But that’s another blog post for another day.)
I’m Convinced, Where do I Find One?
Most daily newspapers run a daily Sudoku. In the Eastern Ontario area where I live, we have a weekly free newspaper that always features a Sudoku. You can also buy whole books of Sudoku puzzles at bookstores like Chapters-Indigo or at department stores or grocery stores with magazine sections. So they’re not hard to find.
The CBC website has a daily Sudoku on their website in their Games pages (on the main page, click on “More” then look for the “Games” link under the “Sections” heading; scroll down to find the “Sudoku Daily” link under the “Diversions” heading) . The Open Directory Project has dozens of links to daily Sudoku puzzles at http://www.dmoz.org/Games/Puzzles/Brain_Teasers/Sudoku/ .
So do go and get a Sudoku and start working on it! And let us know how it turns out by leaving a comment!
Contact Pearce Heritage Research at www.pearceheritageresearch.ca if you need help getting started on your family history research. Tell us that you read our Sudoku blog entry and we’ll give you a half-hour free genealogy consultation (offer good until December 31, 2012). Fill in the message area on our Contact Us page and tell us you read this blog post.
*Just kidding about the test. And the assignment.