There are several different ways to ''break into'' the genealogy information available on the web. It probably will pay to try them all. As I am far from an expert on this subject, after a little work, you'll probably find better ways than those that I am suggesting. Perhaps the most straight forward is to use one of the standard ''search engines'' (I like Alta Vista but ''google'' and ''infoseek'' are also very good.) and simply type in the name of the ancestor that you are looking for. Be sure and put the name in quotes so that it will look for that name, specifically, as in ''Harmon Greathouse'' and not look for all the Harmon references and all the Greathouse references, independent of each other. The latter will give you a bunch of ''hits'' that will be mostly garbage for your needs. The quotation marks around the name tells the search engine to look for those two words together, in that order. It makes a big difference in the usefulness of the results.
Another option is to seek out specific homepages for either the state or county that you are interested in or the surname your are interested in. One excellent opportunity is the GenForum. I check it frequently and once you have the email address for one surname, it is easy to modify the address to find others. For example, the Internet address for the Hogan GenForum is <http://www.genforum.com/hogan/>. By going there, you will find inquires placed by people looking for various Hogan ancestors and messages by other folks who are responding to those inquiries. It is also very easy for you to add your own inquiry. Because it is unlikely that you are doing research on the Hogan surname, here is what you need to do to find if there is a GenForum for your surname. Simple take the Hogan internet address, shown above, and delete the ''hogan'' portion of the address and in its place, substitute the surname you are interested in. For example, if you are looking for a relative with a Greathouse surname, change the address to read <http://www.genforum.com/greathouse/>. (Warning, do not capitalize the surname or you won't get where you want to go).
Another alternative to this surname specific approach is to do the state/county (geographic) approach. For example, there are homepages that can get you to a county or counties within a state. Some of our Illinois ancestors came through the southern trails from Virginia or North Carolina, into Kentucky, and then later to Illinois, so we have, at least temporarily, Kentucky roots. One of my favorites for Kentucky is found at <http://www.mindspring.com/~jogt/ kygen/kyquer.htm>. This address gives you a listing of all 120 counties in Kentucky. By a point and click on any listed county, it sends you to a genealogy page for that county. These typically will have a list of surnames being researched within the county; a list of folks who may be willing to do brief ''lookups'' in locally published references (e.g. cemeteries listings); and also will usually have an inquiry and response area. These generally have a key word search function so that you can type in the surname of interest and get a list back of all inquires/responses on that surname.
Another approach is to do a search engine effort on a specific topic. For example, if you have Swedish ancestors in Knox County, you might want to go to one of the search engines and type in the name ''Bishop Hill'', again being sure to use quotes around the name. This will get you general information on Bishop Hill and by a little looking, get you some fine genealogy information on Swedes who came and settled in Bishop Hill.
See, for example, <http://www.rootsweb.com/ ~ilbhccad/surnames.htm>. This address should get you to ''Bishop Hill Colonists and Descendants Database,'' described as being a database containing 12,404 individuals in 4,038 family groups.
Another example of the same type is to use the search engine for a specific interest area for an ancestor. If you have someone who served in the Civil War and you know what unit he served with, type it in, for example ''102 Illinois Volunteer Infantry''. Depending on your topic (and your luck), it may bring in specific information on your relative, or it may help build the background. Most (maybe all) northern Civil War units have unit histories that describe when and where the unit was organized, trained, served, and decommissioned. It also usually lists officers and general information about numbers killed and wounded during any major battles in which the unit participated. With this information, you can then do additional searches on the key battles of interest that your relative was involved with.
Similar topical information searches can be done to fill in the blanks around the sketchy information that you may have on a relative. If, you know that one of your civil war ancestors spent some time in the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy, you can do a search on the facility and find out more about the site. The opportunities are just about endless.
As an example of how well it can work, I had used the Alta Vista search engine and searched on the name of one of my wife's relatives, Harmon Hogan. One of the ''hits'' was a reference to a U.S. Supreme Court case on a land title issue in which Abe Lincoln was one of the attorneys. Based on that find, I was able to find out that Harmon Hogan and others, were represented (perhaps rather poorly) by Abe Lincoln, before he became President. This spawned an article that I published in this column a while back. In fact, the article can be found on the Internet either by going directly to the Zephyr homepage <http://www.thezephyr.com/baktrak/baktrak.htm> or by doing a search on ''Harmon Hogan'' or even on my name, using the Alta Vista search engine.
If you get hooked on this approach, there are a wide variety of books being published on ''how to'' for genealogy and the Internet. These provide much more sophisticated information that I can provide -- but mine comes cheaper.
Old ancestors and new technologies can help your backtracking efforts to be more rewarding and more entertaining to those who read your results.