Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to Write a "Cousin Bait" Genealogy Blog Post

Last week I shared with you how I used a "cousin bait" blog post to reach out to others who have information on my ancestors. I refer to it as cousin bait, because it's a lot like fishing. You do a little work to get your line ready, then you set it in the water and wait for a bite.

If you have your own genealogy blog (or other online tool) it's very easy to cast your own genealogy fishing lines. Here are some tips on writing effective cousin-bait blog posts:

Determine the subject(s) of your post.
Put some thought into selecting people for your cousin bait post. Pick one or more people, but not too many. Don't ask for "all the information you have on the Miller family." Readers won't bite at that request because it's too much work and you just look lazy. Also, that type of request doesn't utilize individual names, which you want for better search rankings.

For my cousin bait post, I chose a family unit (dad, mom and children). I already knew the basics of the family including birth, marriage and death dates. What I didn't have were the other facts that define a life such as stories, work history, education, etc. I also didn't have any photos of this family and wanted some.

State your case.
In cousin bait posts, I always like to explain my connection to the subject or subjects. I do this in an attempt to help readers and potential cousins understand my interest in their ancestors. I want them to know we may be related, that I have a real reason for wanting this information, and I'm not a stalker. I am a crazy genealogy lady, but I will appreciate any information they give me and it will be used for family history purposes.

Think about the searcher.
I always tell people to blog for themselves and not the audience, but this is one of those rare occasions where you need to get into your readers' heads. When people are searching the Internet for your ancestors, you want them to click on your blog. To do that, you need to write a search-friendly cousin bait post.

"Search friendly" in this case just means that you take into account all the different combinations of searches one could use to land on your blog and then write a post incorporating as many of those options as possible. Too confusing? Here's what you need to include in your cousin bait post:

Include the full names of your subjects, including married and maiden names if you know them. Don't forget nicknames. My great-grandfather is Noel Thibodeaux, but he always went by his middle name "Holly." People searching for him on the Internet may look for "Noel Thibodeaux" or "Holly Thibodeaux." I include both names to increase my search success chances.

If you know birth and death dates for the subjects, include them in your post. This is the level of information that sets your blog post apart from the other search results a reader sees. My fourth great-grandfather is John Williamson. A basic search of John Williamson on Google yields many hits about an Australian singer. However, when I add my ancestor's birth and death years to my search--John Williamson 1786 1861--the top results all pertain to him...and most are from my blog.

You want your blog to come up at the top of search results, right? Include birth and death dates if you have them for your cousin bait subjects if you have them.

Just like with numbers, you want to include places in your cousin bait post in order to let your blog rise above others in search results. Why are places so important? Two words: Joseph Smith. He is my third great-grandfather. He's not *that* Joseph Smith, so searching for him can be a challenge.

In order to cut through all the search results for the Mormon Joseph Smith, I include the place name when I'm talking about my Joseph Smith. In this case it's Kilkenny, LeSueur County, Minnesota.

If you know the township, city, county, states, and/or country, include all of that information in your post. My John Williamson mentioned above was in the Arkansas state legislature in the 1830s. Though he's buried in the city of Russellville, that town didn't exist back then. He lived in Illinois Township and served the constituents of Pope County, Arkansas. I make sure all those search terms are in my post because potential cousins can search for any or all of them.

Don't give away the farm.
Here I just told you to put all kinds of information in your cousin bait post and now I'm going to tell you to limit what you put in said cousin bait post.

Say what?

You're trying to get potential cousins to read your blog, contact you and exchange family history information. The names, numbers and places will help your blog post be seen in search engines. However, you don't want to put all your subject's information online. Why? Because then people won't contact you. They'll snag your documents and photos from your blog without a word or an offer to reciprocate.

Be a tease. Tell readers that you do have other items. Briefly describe them: wedding photos, probate files, etc. Then invite cousins to contact you and share what information they have and you will share what you have. If someone knows you have a photo, they will contact you. The suspense would be too much to bear.

Patience, my friend.
Now you have enough tools in your belt to write a really strong cousin-bait post. Write as many posts as you want. There's no limit. However, don't be in a hurry for results. The reason I keep making fishing analogies is because there is a lot of waiting for a cousin bite. Some take 8-9 months. Some of mine are still waiting for a hit. Don't get discouraged, just keep on researching your family tree. Your cousins will find you.

Do you have a successful cousin bait story? Share it in the comments so we can convince others to take up cousin fishing, too.


  1. While I was reading this, an e-mail came in from someone who shares 5th great-grandparents! It's been over a year since I blogged about that family. Yes, it works.

  2. Just one of many examples: I was contacted by a distant cousin in Lithuania who read my blog, and obtained the names of my great-great-grandfather and great-great-great grandfather on my mother's paternal line. He sent me images of my great-grandfather's baptismal record, my great-great grandparents marriage record, and my great-great-grandmother's death record, which I would not have been able to find on my own since I can't read Russian.

  3. I've quite a few hits, and thus connections, from my blog even though I've never written specific cousin bait posts. However, I was disappointed a few months ago when I was searching for something on ancestry and a photo - MY PHOTO - came up for my great grandmother. Like you said, someone found her on my blog, took the photo and ran. I realize that once it's on the internet some people feel like it's fair game but it really annoyed me. I sent her a message and asked her about it and we have some distant relationship. And while she's offered to share, I don't really care to strike up a relationship with her so I've just let it go.

    1. That can be frustrating. I'm ok with most photos being out there. My priority is to tell the ancestor's story and the image helps to do that. Maybe adding watermarks to your blog photos would help with identification. It won't keep them from being "borrowed" but at least people would know where they came from.

  4. Amy, this is great: SEO for genealogy! It's really Search Engine Optimization that you are talking about, but you're putting it where the rubber meets the road for our own research purposes. That's great!

    I've reaped my fair share of Snoopy-Happy-Dance results over the years from posting queries in online forums, but my happiest result was when I posted an article on my blog about my maternal grandmother. It must have been serendipity, but at that time, someone not related to me was rehabbing the house where my grandmother grew up, and was looking for family connections to find photographs and other memorabilia for the house, which is being turned into a bed and breakfast. It was just the neatest news I've gotten in my inbox in a long time!

    1. Jacqi, it is indeed SEO but I didn't want to label it because it scares people away. This way they're doing it without even knowing it. :)

      Congrats in your connection and find. I never get tired of hearing these success stories.

  5. Another fab post, Amy. You are one of my best resources when I give talks on genealogy blogging - thanks for your inspiration.

  6. Recently I have been contacted by a few different cousins because of my blog posts. I've spent years researching my father's line and kept hitting a brick wall. Within two days I was contacted by my 6th cousin here in the USA and by another cousin in Alsace-Lorraine where my Ancestors are from. My tree now extends 7 generations for my fathers line. Cousin Bait posts really do work!!

  7. I’ve had a number of truly awesome connections from my blog – and a few came when I didn’t even follow any of the suggestions to really optimize the search result.

    One of my favorites was a post I wrote about family names and I just happened to refer to my great-aunt Hildegarde. Someone left a comment asking about her parents and stating that he was a first cousin twice removed. We started corresponding after that and he had absolutely wonderful information on the Benzie side of the family.

    Because of this connection I have a copy of a letter written by my great-great-grandfather about the death of my great-great-grandmother. Truly priceless!!!

  8. I've thrown out a line. We'll see what we catch. I've also decided to write some more Cousin Baits in the future. As you said, the more lines in the water, the more opportunities to catch something. Here's hoping!

    THANK YOU for your instructional and inspirational words.

  9. Okay, I have thrown out my line and will now wait. Thanks for your info on Ancestry so that I could find this and get started.

  10. Great post, Amy - and definitely I'll be doing more. I just wrote in my personal journal that I need to be doing a regular blog post on particular ancestors about whom I know little or nothing... or just a smidge! I'd love more photos - it seems like many of my ancestors didn't pass them on to anyone I know or can find. Thank you very much for your lovely clear post on cousin-baiting!!