Tracing your family tree can be an amazing experience. You’ll uncover grand old stories, funny family rumors, and revelations of connections to wealth or tragedy. But to get there, you need to know how to collect the information, how to store it, and how to present it.
One way is with a family tree application. These tools (available for Windows, macOS, and Linux, plus the cross-platform Gramps) typically offer a database that is organized in the family tree style, making it simple for you to organize your ancestors. But these tools are rarely cheap, and when they’re free, they don’t typically offer any extra features.
The alternative is to make good use of the free options that are available to you, such as the browser-based Geni.
If you go the free way, why not tap into Google? It offers various tools that you can use, from search to documents, and beyond.
Get Started: Prepare for Data
While compiling your family tree, you’re going to get a lot of data to sift through. Whether this is dates and places of births and deaths, or stories, you’ll first need a way to collect it.
I started my own family tree in about 1990 using a notebook and ballpoint pen. Dates and names, stories, details, and facts, were all jotted down in that pad on and off for five years, while the results were painstakingly written out, first in pencil, then in pen, on the plain side of a piece of disused wallpaper.
Collecting data is hard work. Fortunately, you can make it easier. And you don’t have to store your database on the back of some wood chip!
The bare bones of a family tree are names and dates. Following this come the stories, the facts, the events, and the sayings. People often say the same things over and over, intentionally or otherwise. These quotes are important in building an idea of the person.
How can you use a Google tool to collect this information? Let’s find out.
Use Forms for Facts and Stories
We’ll assume you’re not researching your ancestry single-handed. Perhaps you have an elderly relative you can contact for help. The thing is, whoever you speak to may have difficulty remembering at the time you’re chatting.
One way around this is to send over a form that they can fill in when memories strike. You can create an easy-to-email form using Google Docs.
Begin by signing into your Google account, then go to drive.google.com. Here, click New > More > Google Forms > Blank Form. Give the form a title. I used “Family Memories” as I felt anything more formal (such as “Family Tree Questionnaire”) might seem too formal and create unnecessary barriers to engagement. You might like to add an encouraging description, too.
Next, use the first default field and change its type from Multiple choice to Short answer. Give it a title, then click the + symbol on the right to add more. I used a form based on this:
- Your name.
- Who you’re remembering.
- Event you’re remembering.
- Your memories.
Each of these had a Short answer space, except for the final question, which used the Paragraph option. This gives the respondent more space to contribute.
Once you’re happy, click Send. You’ll then be able to select one or more people to email the form to. Add their email addresses, and click Send once more. You’ll see a notification when their responses are sent. This will appear in the Responses screen of the form.
Using a Google form for family tree research is that easy!
Other Google Drive Tricks
It’s not just the Google Forms tool that you can use. Google Sheets, for instance, can be used to illustrate your family tree. This is a good way to get started, especially if you don’t have the funds for a family tree database application, or are unsure which one to use.
Meanwhile, you can use your Google Drive storage to retain copies of any documents you find to photograph or scan. These will then be available in a pinch for you to refer to. Google Drive, synced to your PC, is simple to organize.
Pro Tip: Make sure you keep a rigorous approach to naming folders and establishing directory structures. This will make it easy to find data that you’ve saved.
For instance, create a directory for both sides of your family tree. Within these, create directories for individuals, based either on name, sex, or the century they were born. Once you have created individual folders for your ancestors, create additional folders. You might have one for photos, another for BMD certificates (that’s birth, marriage, and death), one for newspaper reports, etc.
In short, Google Drive gives you a great starting point for managing your family tree.
Use Google Search to Find Family History
You know all about Google’s strength as a search engine. So, it should come as no surprise for you to learn that it can be used to research your family history.
However: Google cannot help when it comes to data stored behind paywalls. If you need to access facts and figures stored at ancestry.com, then you’ll need to sign up for a free trial or one of their paid subscription plans.
But Google can be used for other information. Newspaper reports, for instance, share considerable information, from business advertisements to probate notices. If these are indexed by Google, you’ll find them. Details about surnames and their etymology is also worth searching on Google.
Other Google Searches might return useful images of people and places, details from the Google News archive of digitized newspapers, and information compiled in book form via Google Books.
Pro Tip: You have other family members. You may have a few you’ve never met. If they have recorded their family tree, there is a chance that it has been published in some form. In this case, Google will find it.
10 Google Search Tips for Family Tree Research
If you already know how to use Google Search effectively, you should be able to get to grips with these tips and tricks easily. It’s all about making sure the right search terms are used.
For instance, remember that everything you type into the search box will be searched. Google silently adds “AND” between every search term — for instance, “make AND use AND of”. You can get around this using quotation marks around a search term: “makeuseof”.
1. Get Site-Specific Results
Non-paywalled websites can be searched using Google with the site:SITEURL command. For instance:
site:familysearch.org "stangoe, donald"
This will search the specified site for results corresponding to the name “Donald Stangoe”. See our guide to getting the most out of Google search for further tips.
2. Search for Page Titles
Has that distant relative made individual page titles for your ancestors? Have they created detailed biographies? You can check this with a different Google search, that uses the allintitle command.
allintitle: "Stangoe, Donald"
Meanwhile, the text of the document can be searched with allintext:
allintext: "Jefferson, John"
3. Use Date Ranges
Google features a date-based search function, allowing you to narrow down to a particular range of years. This is perhaps the best Google search tip a genealogist might have at their disposal. To do this, specify the first and last years of the range, separated by two ellipses:
"Martingell, Elizabeth" 1840..1855
Results will display entries from all dates in the range, inclusive of the two stated dates.
4. Specify a Year
Another way to use dates is to specify a year in the search term that is relevant to the ancestor in question. For instance, you might try one of the BMD dates.
"Thompson, Hannah" 1887
The intention is that this will display information about the individual’s birth, or from around the time of it.
5. Introduce Locations
Similarly, you can add a location to your search, in a similar way:
"Thompson, Hannah" 1887 Ferryhill
Such a search would aim to find information on Hannah Thompson in the year of her birth, in the town of Ferryhill, in Country Durham, United Kingdom.
6. See Your Ancestor’s Home!
Once you’ve found as much as you can using search terms, it’s time to use Google in more straightforward ways. For instance, after finding some information about an ancestor, you might have been given a clue as to where they were born.
What better than to take a trip out and look at the property?
The problem, of course, is that it might be inaccessible. It might also be a long drive, or even a flight, away. One sensible option is to use Google Maps to search for the address, then use Street View to view the building.
7. Revive Dead Sites
Often when searching for family tree data, you’ll encounter websites that are offline. The best thing you can do here is to view an archive of the site. Click back in your browser window, and in the Google search results, click the green arrow under the name of the website.
All you need to do is click Cached and wait for the page to load. Any problems, head to Archive.org and try your luck there.
8. Use Google Image Search
While it is unlikely that you’ll find a long-lost photo of a mysterious great-grandfather, Google Image search can nevertheless prove useful. It can be used to examine remote locations, for instance, or get an idea of the clothes your forefathers might have worn.
Google Image search is also useful for finding images with text in them. This means that there is a chance that a scanned BMD certificate might show up using image search.
9. Cancel Irrelevant Results
It’s difficult to get the results you’re looking for. Often, you’ll find a lot of interference; results that are nothing to do with the person or family you’re researching. In these situations, you simply need to re-run the search, this time “subtracting” the erroneous results.
You do this by spotting the common element. For instance, you might find a lot of results for an ancestor born in Edinburgh, Scotland that point to them being born in Birmingham, Alabama. The easy way around this is to simply add…
…to the search request. The results will filter out anything that mentions Birmingham.
10. Customized Search Forms
To get some real detail from your Google Search, the best thing you can do is construct a long search query. This is done using the AND and OR operators. But it can be time consuming and prone to error.
Instead, you can try a customized search, such as this one at genealogy-search-help.com. Simply add in as much of the required information as you can, and click the button. The search term will be constructed, ready for you to use it and collect your results!
Don’t Forget Google Alerts!
One other thing to consider is Google Alerts. Once set up, this can be used to send links to your inbox whenever a search term you’ve been looking for is found. Typically, this means a website has published information relevant to the term.
Our guide to Google Alerts will show you how to set it up. But what search terms should you use?
I would recommend using a search term that relates to a pairing in your family tree, and the location the people lived. For instance, I’ve created an alert for two of my great-grandparents in Whitby, North Yorkshire.
When anything is found by Google, the Google Alert will forward the corresponding link.
Putting It All Together in a Tree
The final aim of researching your family tree is to be able to present it visually. For this to be successful — and effective — you’ll need to find a suitable template that you can load up in a word processor. Google Docs is a good example!
Where can you find useful templates for your family tree online?
First, head to www.familytreetemplates.net, where you’ll find a collection of templates compatible with Google Docs.
Next, think back to the idea of using Excel as a rough outline for your family tree. Then take a look at this Google Sheets template that you can use to chart your ancestry back three generations.
Finally check the templates linked to by Cyndi’s List. You’ll find over 200 useful templates, many of which can be opened in Google Docs.
In fact, you should have Cyndi’s List bookmarked regardless. It’s truly one of the best genealogy resources on the web, although there are many others!
Find Out Who You Really Are With Google
Google already knows everything about you, so it’s time to use the search engine to find out more about the people you’re descended from. That so many tools and tricks are on offer that can be used to start and enhance your family tree is impressive. But that they’re all free to use… well, that’s just amazing.
Have you used Google to research your family history? Did you find anything amazing? Tell us about it in the comments.
Image Credits: psv/Shutterstock