19 March 2011

Updated: AncestorSearch using Google Custom Search, version 1.1

This is an update to my original post, "Does this Google Custom Search help find records about your ancestors?"

You may recall that I built the AncestorSearch form as a timesaver for my own genealogical web searches, and I decided to share it on my website in case others find it useful too.  (As a reminder, the AncestorSearch form performs a Google search that is optimized for finding web pages mentioning ancestors by making use of  Google search techniques including quoted phrases, checking both firstname lastname, and lastname firstname order, placing the "OR" statements and parenthesis in the right places, and so on.)
  
I appreciate all the feedback I've received on the usefulness of my search form from many users!  (And in fact, in the last few weeks, I've extended two more branches of my family tree back into the 1700s using my search form.  I found web pages with historical references to my ancestors that evidently had been hidden in heaps of irrelevant standard Google search results).

Anyway, based on feedback from users, I've made a couple of enhancements
to the AncestorSearch form.

Before I get to the enhancements, I want to acknowledge a new Genealogy Search engine you've probably heard announced this week called Mocavo.  As I understand the description on their website, Mocavo performs a search across lots of known genealogically-relevant websites, which is one useful approach to searching; in fact, I've had some success finding web pages mentioning my ancestors.  However, be aware that Mocavo searches only web sites that it knows or that it believes are genealogically-relevant; it does not search the entire Internet.  While this sounds spot on (why search through non-genealogical websites?), it actually has its limitations, as Mocavo does not search thousands (or millions?) of blogs, texts from historical books, and countless other websites that Google knows about but Mocavo doesn't.

So for instance, several of my ancestors' marriages that I've recently found on my AncestorSearch form could not be located using Mocavo.  It appears that this is because my AncestorSearch form found mentions of these ancestors' marriages on web pages that were not really genealogy pages, and therefore were not found by Mocavo.  Perhaps with time, Mocavo will cover more and more of those non-genealogical pages.  

As a personal preference, I prefer to cast as wide a net as possible in my web searches (i.e. search the "full" Internet using Google), but efficiently weed out the irrelevant results.  Therefore, I built my AncestorSearch form using a Google Custom Search, which searches the entire web as indexed by Google, but uses exact phrases, logical operators (like "OR"/"|" and "()"), checks reverse name order, and so on, in order to better weed out web pages which are likely not relevant to my search.

So, on to the enhancements to my AncestorSearch form:  A number of people provided feedback that they wanted to be able to modify their search before submitting it.  The new version handles this by filling a standard Google search input box (at the bottom in the image below) based on what the user has entered into the boxes on the search form.  

This box at the bottom enables the user to modify the query before hitting the Google Search button.  You can add or change anything you want to in the box, as it is a standard Google search box.  For instance, in the example above, I've added -randymajors.com to the end of the query in order to exclude my own website from the search results. (Check out this Google help page for details on advanced search operators -- which you can use in AncestorSearch -- here: http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?answer=136861)

Also, as a shorcut, you can skip this step of viewing and modifying the search query by simply hitting the Enter key from any part of the search form; doing so will take you directly to the search results page.  You can then use the Back button on your browser to go back and modify your search query if needed.

Just to be clear, I by no means think my AncestorSearch form is the perfect genealogical search tool.  (And I think Mocavo is a very noble effort which will no doubt just get better with time).  But as with anything in genealogy (and in life), there are many ways to accomplish a task.  I've simply found it to be a time-saver not to have to take the time to type quoted phrases, type firstname lastname, followed by lastname firstname, figure out where all the "OR" (same as "|") statements go, where I should put parenthesis and so on.  My AncestorSearch form simply saves me the headache of thinking about and typing all of that.  Nothing magic, just efficient.

And since I built it to help me with my genealogy searches, the least I can do is share it with others who might find it useful too.

As always, I welcome any additional comments or feedback on how I can make this tool more useful.  You can find my AncestorSearch form here: