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Hide & Seek on the Internet    

    I just returned from the Florida State Genealogical Conference in Orlando.  It was another great conference!  I delivered two lectures, worked in the APG Booth and participated in the Ancestors Road Show.  It was great to see old friends and make some new friends.

    One of my lectures was on using search engines on the Internet.  There was a time when I could put my name into a search engine and come up with so few hits, that I could check them all out.  Not so anymore.   If you’re lucky enough to have an unusual surname (like I do) you can probably check out new information without too much trouble.  But in case you think my research is easy, I also research McDowells, Dalys, Martins, and Smiths.

    If I type the name McDowell into Google, I end up with about 13 million hits (in .13 seconds)!  That’s a few too many for me to go through.   In order to get helpful results, I need to be more specific, so I use boolean logic in my requests.  Now, don’t panic...it’s not like high school algebra.  By constructing a query using the additional information I know about the McDowells, I can end up with a reasonable number of results to check.

    I’m looking for genealogy references.  Also, my McDowells were from Pennsylvania, more specifically from Fayette County.  I’m not interested in references to West Virginia and North Carolina.  Finally, my ancestor’s given name was Robert, but sometimes it’s abbreviated Robt.

    Here’s how I construct my query in Google...

McDowell genealogy Pennsylvania Fayette -“West Virginia” -“North Carolina” Robert or Robt

    The first few words in my query are interpreted to be connected by the boolean operator AND.  It means that the words McDowell and genealogy and Pennsylvania and Fayette all must appear on a web page in order for me to get a “hit.”  They don’t need to be near one and other, but they must all appear on the page.

    I notice in the results that I am also getting a number of references to West Virginia and North Carolina.  I don’t want those results, so by putting a minus sign (-) in front of a word I tell Google that if that word appears, I don’t want to see the page.  The minus sign is the boolean operator for NOT.  I’ve done something else with these state names.  Because they contain more than one word, I’ve placed quotation marks around them.  That tells the search engine that I want an EXACT match of the PHRASE.  If the words were not in quotes, I would get results for South Carolina and Virginia. Whenever you want to search for an exact phrase, put it in quotes.

    Finally, I use the OR Boolean operator which means that if either of the words connected by the OR appear on the page to show the page.  So, if Robert OR Robt appear on the page, along with the other criteria, I should get a hit.  This brings my results down to 776 hits from 13 million.  A much more manageable number. (This operator can also be used for other abbreviations such as states, i.e., Massachusetts OR Mass OR MA.  Remember, that the placement on the page is not considered, so you may get a hit on a page that has Robert Todd, Robt Adams and Samuel McDowell.)

    Remember, if you get too many hits, type in additional information to reduce the number, however, if you type in everything you know, and get no hits, remove some of the criteria.  It’s a balancing act to pull in enough hits to net the information you are seeking.  If you type in too much information you might exclude something that could be of value.

    Don’t worry about remembering all of the Boolean operators...just use the advanced search feature of your favorite browser.  In Google for example, click on Advanced Search.  Find results with all the words is an AND search; with the exact phrase is like putting quotes around the phrase; with at least one of the words is equivalent to OR and without the words is NOT.

    Not all browsers use all of the Boolean operators, so check your browser’s FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for specifics.


    Happy Hunting!




© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013