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Search Engines

Web search engines work by storing information about many web pages, which they retrieve from the page coding itself. These pages are retrieved by a Web crawler (sometimes also known as a spider) — an automated Web browser which follows every link on the site. The contents of each page are then analyzed to determine how it should be indexed (for example, words can be extracted from the titles, page content, headings, or special fields called meta tags). Data about web pages are stored in an index database for use in later queries. A query can be a single word. The index helps find information as quickly as possible.

Some search engines, such as Google, store all or part of the source page (referred to as a cache) as well as information about the web pages, whereas others, such as AltaVista, store every word of every page they find.  This cached page always holds the actual search text since it is the one that was actually indexed, so it can be very useful when the content of the current page has been updated and the search terms are no longer in it. 

When a user enters a query into a search engine, the engine examines its index and provides a listing of best-matching web pages according to its criteria, usually with a short summary containing the document's title and sometimes parts of the text. The index is built from the information stored with the data and the method by which the information is indexed.

Two search engines are of use to genealogists: Mocavo ( is strictly a genealogy search engine.  Google is a general engine and if you have an unusual name, it may be best to use this one. 

Cyndi's List of genealogy search engines ( is helpful as she lists many of the genealogy search engines on the web.

Another search engine at Ancestry ( is free to use, but you must be a member ($$) to follow through on the searches. 

A search engine specific to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) material and is very useful can be found at .  This is another free tool, however not all their information is online yet.  They add to it daily or monthly, I'm not sure which.

Tech Tips for Better Searching

Here are some suggestions for fine-tuning your search, no matter what engine you use:

  1. Choose your words carefully.
  2. Be specific.
  3. When searching, consider words you might use to describe a subject if you were a webmaster.
  4. When looking for a phrase, choose the "Phrase Search" option where applicable.
  5. You'll often be searching for a word pattern that appears just as you've typed it. Choose the "Phrase Search" option in order to force that exact sequence. This is very good way to look for a particular name.
  6. When you want to exclude words from the query use the minus (-) command in front of any word or phrase to screen out that term.
  7. Use the plus (+) command to identify "must have" words or phrases. Most engines will add the + by default so choose your words wisely.
  8. Another way of targeting a specific page is by conducting a document title search where engines offer this option. All of the aforementioned operators apply when you select "document title" with the added capability of searching for a page title.

That's about it to get you started.


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