Using Google Alerts for Genealogy: A Step By Step Guide to Setting Up Alerts

Search engines can be a genealogist's best friend when it comes to tracing a family's ancestry. Putting your ancestor's name into a search engine can sometimes yield details that you never would have found using only traditional record sources (census records, vital records, etc). You may come across the individual's name in a published history, a personal website or blog documenting the person or family, newspaper articles, photographs, or other data.

However, unless you search your ancestors' names on a regular basis, you may miss out on data that was recently added. This is what makes Google Alerts a free genealogy resource. With Google Alerts, you set up a search to be performed at certain intervals. If something new pertaining to your search is added to the internet, you get an alert via your email or RSS reader.

To get started, go to Google Alerts.

 The first field asks for your search terms. If your ancestor has an uncommon name, you can search their name only. However, if like most of us, you have an ancestor with a common name, you will need to make your search more specific with advanced techniques.

  • Putting quotation marks ("") around the name will return only the results with that exact name. For instance, if you search John Smith, you will get results that have John and Smith, not necessarily together. Searching "John Smith" will return only results that have the exact phrase.
  • To exclude certain words, use a minus sign (-). Returning to the John Smith example, you could search John Smith -Pocahontas to eliminate all John Smith references that include Pocahontas.
  • A plus sign (+) can be used when you want to be sure the search is performed exactly as you have spelled it. If your ancestor was named John Sith. you would want to use the search terms John +Sith to ensure you got the correct spelling.
  • You can also designate specific sites to be searched or excluded by using the site operator (site:). Going back to our John Smith, if you wanted to search only .edu sites, you would use the search John Smith To exclude a site, add a minus sign in front of the site operator (-site:). In the John Smith example, but now excluding .edu sites, the search would be John Smith
  • To narrow the year range, use two periods (..) between the years. To narrow our John Smith down to only those that mention 1790-1820, you would use John Smith 1790..1820.
  • The OR operator can be used if you're not sure exactly what name your ancestor is using. If you know that John sometimes went by Joe, you use the search John OR Joe Smith to find results with either name variation. Make sure that you capitalize both letters in the OR operator. Otherwise, it does not work.
The second field asks what type of information sources you are looking for. You can choose from everything, news, blogs, updates, video or discussions. I like to use the everything option since it gives you the most flexibility in finding your ancestor.

The third field allows you to designate how often you want to receive alerts. Your options are as it happens, once a day or once a week. It's up to you to decide how often you want alerts. If you find you get a lot of alerts, though, it might be best to limit your alerts to once a week to prevent your inbox from filling up.

In the fourth field, you can select the volume of alerts. Selecting only the best results will limit your alerts. The other option is all results. You may need to experiment to find the right setting for you.

Finally, the last field is for your email. If you are already logged into Google, this field will probably already be filled with the email associated with your account. Logging in also lets you choose to get your alerts via a RSS reader.

Click on the create alert button and your alert is now set up.You can set up as many alerts as you like, up to a maximum of 1000. If you aren't signed in to Google when you set up your alerts, however, you will have to go to your email to click the verification link for each search. Otherwise, you will only be able to have 10 alerts.

I love free genealogy resources like Google Alerts. They take care of some of the time-consuming work so you can focus on other areas of your family's genealogy.


  • WhitePineLane says:
    November 14, 2010 at 7:30 PM

    Brilliant! Genealogy is my hobby, and I use Google Alerts frequently, but I had never put the two together in my mind! Thanks for the excellent suggestion - off to set up new alerts right now! :-D

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