10 July 2012

Google and the Genealogical Proof Standard

How do you apply the Genealogical Proof Standard1 to an online search?

A reasonably exhaustive search could take years if you just type a name into Google and try to review millions of hits. Search for samuel christopher johnson. As of today, Google gives about 16,700,000 hits. Advanced search engine features can focus your results on the best matches to solve research problems. Add quotes around the name and narrow the number of hits to 54. But don't forget there may be lots more information on this person in pages not indexed by the search engine—what is called the Deep Web.

Other advanced search engine features can narrow the focus to even more pertinent hits. Using the time limitation tools can display only those pages added or changed since the last time you did this same search (assuming you keep a research log so you know when you last searched for samuel). Restricting a search to a specific USGenWeb site (using the site option in Google) is helpful when I want something from a specific county, but that county site doesn't include a good search tool. Using a minus sign to eliminate some words is helpful when searching a surname that is also a generic word like Lake or Carpenter. Parentheses and the OR modifier help when several words or phrases might be found in pertinent sources.

Some of the most useful Google modifiers are covered in John Tedesco's blog post "How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques."2 Tedesco's article lists several of the advanced Google search terms every genealogical researcher should know. Tedesco learned about these in a presentation by Daniel Russell who studies search techniques for Google. Russell's SearchReSearch blog is one of my favorites. Tedesco's post links to this challenge on Russell's blog:

"Where are you?" posts a challenge to the researcher with solutions entered in the comments sections by readers.3 "Answer: where are you?" is Russell's solution.4 Any genealogist who has ever tried to glean family information from a photo will be interested in the search techniques presented here.

Two of Russell's "Search lessons" in his answer apply to everything we do in genealogy. Every time we analyze the information in a source we should remember:

— Sometimes clues can be misleading.

— Sometimes clues are hidden in the details.

Adhering to the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) reduces the chances of clues leading us down the wrong trail. These are just some of the things to think of when doing online research:

A reasonably exhaustive search lets us find other evidence that will help us determine which is the misleading clue. Using the right search terms and tools help make that search reasonable and not just exhausting.

Carefully citing our sources lets us and others know what we have searched—even if it has been years since we worked on this problem and we can't remember where the information came from without that citation. For online searches the citation should also include where we did the search and what search terms we used.

Careful analysis and correlation of those details and information about the source can eliminate the misleading clues. Analysis also tells us which sources are more reliable and should be given more weight. It is especially important to include an evaluation of online sources. Are the findings from an undocumented site put up by a cousin who is guessing about things? Or do they come from a trustworthy archive site that is making digital copies of their holdings available online? Has the entire collection been placed online or is it still a work in process with some documents not yet available?

Resolving conflicts logically lends credence to our proposed solution. Not being able to resolve a conflict may indicate the need for more research or let us know we've been misled and need to rethink the proposed solution. Many times this will indicate a need to do research in original records that aren't online yet. Those records may not even be microfilmed requiring us to visit the courthouse or repository holding the paper records.

Putting the results of that analytic process to ink and paper helps us see what we did right and wrong. It shows whether there is more we need to do as we see holes in our theory and possible sources to fill that hole.

And don't forget you can learn more about using Google from Dan Lynch's Google Your Family Tree.5

1. Christine Rose, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case, 3d ed. (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2009).

2. John Tedesco, "How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques," John Tedesco blog, posted 21 June 2012, (http://www.johntedesco.net/blog/2012/06/21/how-to-solve-impossible-problems-daniel-russells-awesome-google-search-techniques/ : accessed 10 July 2012).

3. Daniel Russell, "Wednesday search challenge (Feb 1, 2011 [sic): Where are you?," SearchReSearch blog, posted 1 February 2012
(http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com/2012/02/wednesday-search-challenge-feb-1-2011.html : accessed 10 July 2012).

4. Daniel Russell, "Answer: Where are you?" SearchReSearchblog, posted 2 February 2012 (http://searchresearch1.blogspot.com/2012/02/answer-where-are-you.html : accessed 10 July 2012).

5. Daniel M. Lynch, Google Your Family Tree: Unlock the Hidden Power of Google (Provo, Utah: FamilyLink.com, 2008).

To cite this blog post:
Debbie Parker Wayne, "Google and the Genealogical Proof Standard," Deb's Delvings Blog, posted 10 July 2012 (http://debsdelvings.blogspot.com/ : accessed [date]).

© 2012, Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, All Rights Reserved


  1. Debbie, this is such an informative post. You've given me a lot to think about. I am definately pursuing more from Daniel Russell and John Tedesco.

  2. Eileen, there are so many good blogs out there I can't keep up with the ones I want to read. These are two great ones. I hope you enjoy them. Good research techniques transcend subject matter. Seeing how someone whose expertise is in search makes use of Google is a great learning tool.