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What is an effective search?

An effective search is one that:

  • Returns results on highly likely matches or on the correct individuals
  • Doesn’t overwhelm you with too many results or underwhelm you with too little or no results.

The desire to undertake effective searches has strong links to the Genealogical Proof Standard, which we’ll learn more about later in the course, and its goal of performing a ‘reasonably exhaustive’ search. This means that you have examined a wide range of high quality sources in an organised way, considering name variations and possible confusion with other likely matches.

A good way is to make sure that you have done an effective search is to formulate a searching strategy before you begin searching and to keep refining it as you go along. We’ve explored research strategies elsewhere but to recap, a searching strategy has several steps:

Step #1 – Analyse your topic to decide where to begin
– Does the topic have distinctive words? E.g.: Hesse-Cassel, Testatika
– Have variant spellings, synonyms, etc? E.g.: Bolander, Bolender, Bolland or Millennium, Year 2000.

Step #2 – Choose the right starting place…what databases or other search tools do you want to use?

Step #3 – Learn as you go & VARY your approach with what you learn.

Step #4– Don’t get stuck on a strategy that doesn’t work.
– Be willing to start again and abandon fruitless searches.
– Switch from one search tool to another.

Step #5 – Return to the search better informed.

(Many thanks to the U.C. Berkeley Library for these strategies)


Here are some quick tips on effectively searching genealogy databases (and we’ll cover many of these in greater detail elsewhere on the course):

  • Search data collections separately on large multi-collection database sites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch. For example, just search the 1891 Canadian census collection or the Australian electoral roll collection search pages rather than starting a search with the general search boxes on the front page.

  • Don’t enter everything you know about a person right off; just start with their name and perhaps a place of birth and range of birth dates. You can always enter more data later if you get loads of possible matches

  • Don’t get side-tracked from your primary research goal. Note down interesting bits of information and go back later to check them out.

  • Use Boolean searching techniques if the database allows this. Boolean terms are words used to connect terms you want to search with. They are: AND, OR and NOT.
    –AND requires all terms to appear in a record. Using AND narrows a search and thus returns fewer results. Many databases use AND as their default.
    –OR retrieves records that include either term searched for. Using OR broadens a search and thus returns more results.
    –NOT excludes terms found within records. Using NOT narrows a search and thus returns fewer results.

  • Remember to try using specialist databases rather than just sticking to the same old ones you normally use. We’ll cover some of these in the course but Cyndi’s List is a great way to discover new sources of information. And do remember to search for people in regular internet search engines such as Google or DuckDuckGo; it’s amazing what can be found out by doing this.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic.

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This article is from the free online course:

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

University of Strathclyde

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