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A Basic Family Search Tutorial - Page 3

Rule #3

For a slightly abbreviated, printable version of this tutorial CLICK HERE.

Rule #3 - Limit responses using Boolean search delimiters.

What is a Boolean search and what are delimiters? Literally speaking, it is searching using the logical phrases of AND, NOT, and OR. We're going to add a couple more of these "delimiters" that are not, strictly speaking, Boolean, but perform the same basic purpose, so we'll include them.

Back in the olden days, when search engines were just developing, databases, like Microsoft's Access were searched using Boolean delimiters. The designers of the new search engines saw this as a logical way for internet search engines to operate as well. All web searches had to be performed using Boolean search parameters. Search engines were "dumb", so to speak, and had to be told exactly what to look for and how to look for it.

The new heuristic search algorithms have made that largely a thing of the past, but heuristic searches by their very nature are a sort of educated guess that the search engine is making. Sometimes it gets it right, sometimes it's way off. Usually it ends up somewhere near the middle. That's the price we pay for being able to search in plain language. But the Boolean searches and delimiters can still be used even though they are not required, and for those that use them their searches are sped up and the results they get are usually more along the lines of what they were looking for.

The easiest way to think of a Boolean search is to think of how a sculptor works. He doesn't add anything to the stone he is working with. He simply chips away the things he doesn't need and what's left behind is what he was looking to reveal. That is precisely how Boolean searching works. As we saw with Rule #2, sometimes being ultra-specific with your search terms limits the responses you get down to nothing. In that case we will need to use more general search words and phrases. This opens us up to the possibility of getting so many returns that the search is of no use to us. What we need is a way to specify to the search engine the things we DON'T want it to show us so that it whittles away the junk and leaves us with the things we are really interested in.

Now that we have an idea what a Boolean search does, let's see exactly what these delimiters look like. Going back to our very first example, we put the word "Leathers" into Google and got back 553,000 returns. We saw that the vast majority of these returns had nothing to do with our family name, but were related to the material "leather". We want to get rid of these unrelated entries without getting rid of ones we want, and we will accomplish this using the most basic Boolean delimiter of all; the word "NOT", which must be written in all capital letters for the search engine to recognize that we mean it as a Boolean term. A simpler way is just to use the minus sign "-", placed directly in front of the word we want our search engine to exclude from its search results.

Since "leather" was probably the most common word returned, we can exclude it from our searches by adding to our search the word leather with a minus sign in front of it (no space between the sign and the word,) like this: "-leather". This goes immediately after our search word of "Leathers" (there is a space between Leathers and -leather.) Try it and see what happens.

You will notice that by telling Google to eliminate that one word, our returns have fallen from 553,000 to a mere 211,000. Better, but still far too many returns to be of any real use to us. We need to chip away a few more terms. How do we decide what terms to eliminate? Well, we could go down and look at the returns to see what sorts of things are popping up. This might be feasible at the very start of the process, but the more we refine our search the harder it will be to spot words that are frequently found in our search results but are unrelated to our intended target. A better way is to make a few educated guesses.

We know that leather, as a textile or material is what the vast majority of these erroneous search returns are related to. And leather is used largely in the manufacture of clothing and furniture, and these two items are sold in stores. So let's eliminate the words "clothing, furniture, store" from the search results. Try it one word at a time so you can see the results. Eliminating "clothing" brings our results down to 176,000. Eliminating furniture down to 167,000. And taking out the word "store"e drops it further down to only 148,000. We could continue eliminating words, like "sale", "price", "quality", and so forth, getting rid of words which are directly related to the retail sales industry. The thing we need to be careful of is that we don't eliminate a word that is also common to the field of genealogy. Some words have applicability to more than one subject, and if we get to crazy we could lose returns that we really wanted to see. And remember, search engines have a ten word maximum for search words, so we can't simply add more "NOT" words indefinitely.

Obviously, just using the NOT delimiter alone isn't going to get us where we want to be anytime soon. We will want to combine it with our other basic search rules. For example, you might use the search words "Leathers" and "family" without quotation marks, and after these use the "-leather" delimiter. Try it and you will see that it drops the returns from 68,700 to 36,700.

This is a good place to introduce the "AND" delimiter, which can also be stated as a "+" immediately preceding a word. What this tells the search engine is that this word MUST be found in all webpages returned, and to ignore any pages that do not have that particular word in them. Let's keep using our example above and add the word "genealogy" without using any delimiter on it. You will see that it returns about 2,180 webpages. Now insert a "+" immediately in front of the word "genealogy", and be sure that there is no space between the + and the word. The returns decrease to about 1,850. This is because before we used the + delimiter we had four search words, which meant Google's normal search algorithm was making up it's own word combinations. Some of them did not include the word "genealogy". By specifying we wanted genealogy in all search returns, Google eliminated those which its algorithm had come up with that did not contain our required word. Pretty simple, huh?

On to the "OR" delimiter. Earlier we used the phrase in quotations, "Leathers family tree" and found it gave us only one return. Similarly, if we used the phrase "Leathers family line" we would get only one return, but it is a different webpage. To get the best of both worlds, put in both of these search phrases and between them insert the word "OR" in all capital letters. You will see that you now get two returns. The OR delimiter tells the search engine to give returns from either one of the phrases, but from BOTH if it can find them! For fun, add a third phrase, "Leathers family history" to the search, and put an OR between it and the other search phrases. It now returns ten webpages to you, all of which contain at least one of the search phrases you entered. The OR delimiter is a powerful search tool that greatly speeds up our searching.

Here are a couple of bonus delimiters that are technically not Boolean, but because they function in a similar way we'll use them. The first is what is known as a "proximity search", which uses the word "NEAR" in all capital letters. Going back to our original example, if we search the words "Leathers" and "family" without using quotations, we get back 68,700 returns. Putting the words in quotation marks drops it down to 166. But what if we still aren't finding what we want? Perhaps the quotation marks have narrowed our search down too far. We need a way to find "Leathers" and "family" in a way that relates the two words. So we insert the word "NEAR" between them. This tells the search engine to return webpages that have those two words close together. They may not be side by side but they are close, and that returns about 17,800 webpages. Still too many to deal with, but now we can begin using our other delimiters and search word techniques to whittle it down.

Here's another great delimiter. Putting the tilde "~" in front of a word tells the search engine to look for all synonyms of that word. For example, if we put it in front of the word "genealogy", the search engine will look for that word and for all synonyms of that word. This is a great way to cheat that ten word limit most search engines have. Using just one word and the ~ lets us search for multiple words without actually entering them in to the search engine.

Yet another trick is to use the asterisk "*" as what is known as a "wildcard". For instance, I might list a search word like this: "educat*". That asterisk tells the search engine to use educat as the root, and to find all words having that root, such as educate, education, educating, educator, etc. This would be especially helpful if you are searching for a particular person's first name but are not exactly certain of the spelling or believe the person may have used some variation of their name. For example, maybe you're looking for a "Ricardo" Leathers, but you think he may have Americanized his first name when he entered the USA but aren't certain just how he spelled it. Entering the name as "Ric*" Leathers would find his name if he had spelled it Ricardo, or Richard, or Ricky, etc.

Let's summarize what we've learned about Rule #3 - Limit responses using Boolean search delimiters.

1. Use "NOT" or "-" to exclude words from search returns.
2. Use "AND" or "+" to specify words that MUST be in the search returns.
3. Use "OR" between two words or phrases to get either one or BOTH returned in the search results.
4. Use "NEAR" between two words or phrases to find sites where those words or phrases are close to each other but not necessarily side by side.
5. Use "~" to get synonyms of your search word returned in the search results.
6. Use "*" as a wild card with the root of a word to have all variations of that root returned in the search results.
7. Use of Boolean search delimiters is most effective when combined with a combination of Rules #1 and #2.

If you have followed this basic search tutorial and learned to apply the three rules you will uncover more results pertinent to your searches and do so faster than 99% of the people using the internet. The rules are not difficult. Once you have read through them you should be able to use them referring only to the summaries at the end of each page for reference.

For those who have already mastered the basics of searching, go to our page on Advanced Searches where we will discuss some of the best places to search for genealogical material and the techniques that will produce maximum success. Happy hunting!