There seem to be a number of folks that feel a simple google search of ancestors name is about as worthwhile as watching paint dry. I’ve found that googling a name can be extremely successful and satisfying, but only if you’re approaching it with the right attitude.
Your chances of finding relevant results for your ancestors with the most common names aren’t great. I know I won’t find much of importance by googling “Charles F. O’Donnell” in Philadelphia because it’s such a common name, regardless of the time period. *
The best place to start is with your ancestor’s that have less common names. One of my favorite searches is for “Hiram Felver”—make sure to use those double quotes around the name to avoid searching everything with either Hiram or Felver in the results.
You can also utilized google’s advanced search filters to narrow the results if there’s still too many:
Try using place names (as I did in this example), years, etc. Also remember that many of the women we’re researching will be listed as “Mrs. Hiram Felver” instead of their given name.
Not finding any gems by googling? My best advice is to keep at it. I periodically google the same group of great-grandparent names just to see if anything new has turned up. More and more records and source materials are digitized every day.
Googling “Hiram Felver” has given me information on where he attended school, what organizations he belonged to, and—the one item I find most exciting—that Thomas Edison offered Hiram a job as a machinist for $21 per week in 1887. There’s no indication that Hiram took the job, but it’s still fascinating. A letter Thomas Edison wrote to my ancestor came up for auction a few years ago. This led me to the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers, where I was able to view the letters Hiram had written to Edison. I have periodic google searches to thank, because these letters aren’t going to magically show up on ancestry one day.
*Confession: that doesn’t mean I never google the more common names, I just know I’m not going to find much that’s relevant to the ancestor I’m researching.