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Monday, August 22, 2005

Ancestors by Gooooogle

There is no better way to peer into the hidden corners of the web than to type a query into Google. But Google's utility to genealogists depends on the rarity of the terms searched for.

Take my hometown of Greenwood, Maine. There are 86 populated places named Greenwood in the United States (not including variants and trailer parks), and three Greenwood Counties. Pennsylvania alone has three Greenwood Townships. There are Greenwoods in British Columbia, Ontario, and Queensland, Australia. And it is a fairly common American surname (1276th in 1990). Searching for "Greenwood" is pointless: I have to search for "Greenwood ME" or "Greenwood Maine" to produce useful results. (Try Easy Google Genealogy Searcher for some other good tips.)

On the other hand, take the nearby town of Dixfield, Maine. Dixfield's claim to fame has resulted in the adoption of a slogan: "The Only One." It is the only Dixfield in the world, and far easier to research than Greenwood. Searching for "Dixfield" in Google (or searching for "dleifxiD" in elgooG) yields 81,200 results—almost all of which would be found relevant to the town. Compare this to search results for the smallish towns neighboring Dixfield, which include Carthage (1,670,000 results), Peru (47,600,000), and Mexico (168,000,000).

The same problem applies to surnames. My own name, Dunham, provides good search results, but try searching for surnames like "House," "Thing," "Work," "Small," or (God forbid) "Bush." Including both first and last name in the query will sometimes work, but not if the person searched for is Miles Long—a settler of Buckfield, Maine, who does not merit 768,000 Google results.

Often, though, a given name can save an individual from obscurity. That is the case for an early resident of Paris, Maine, who bore the most common surname in America: Smith. His Christian name? Merodachbaladan.

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