One of the reasons genealogy has become such a popular hobby is that so much information is now available online. In fact, when I began to trace my family tree I did most of the initial research online. Eventually you will need to get your lazy butt to a county courthouse or a cemetery, but the internet will probably be your best source for information and collaboration opportunities with other researchers.
While there are some commercial ventures out there that make a tidy profit from all this web traffic, there are also a lot of free sites with fantastic information. They might not have the best search engines (if at all) and it might take a little longer to get to what you were looking for, but most of the time you will find what you need. The obvious first place to go to is FamilySearch.org which is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or also knwon as the Mormons). One place to start is the pedigree resource file. Another great resource is RootsWeb (which is owned by Ancestry.com but is free to use). By the way, you can always get a free trial of Ancestry.com US Deluxe Membership and then cancel it before your subscription goes into effect.
Another great place to start (and once again, totally free) are message boards. You can find a lot of information as well as connect with other researchers who are working on the same surnames. One of the best boards is GenForum – it is very easy to navigate and you can easily find your surname and search within that board. Some of the posts tend to be on the ancient side and getting in touch with the researchers might be tough at times, but there is too much good information to pass it up. You should also check out the Ancestry.com message boards.
Keep a log of your searches and boards you have visited so that you don’t waste your time on redundant work. It’s also a wise idea to bookmark your favorite places or even sign up to an RSS feed if one is available for your board (if this is too technical for you right now, don’t worry about it, I’ll try to expand on this later). Don’t forget to save everything you find!
And of course there’s Google. But that’s a topic for a different time.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more step by step instructions to using online resources. Good luck!