Six Search Tips for Ancestry.com

March 25, 2012 at 5:49 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, Genealogy Websites | 1 Comment
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Improving Search Results By Adding Family Members

Improving Search Results By Adding Family Members

Ancestry.com has become the Goliath of genealogy record repositories in the last decade virtually revolutionizing the way we play the genealogy game.  The same principles of solid research apply, but the means and methods have changed.  To make the most of Ancestry – and for that matter the most online multi-database- sites, you really have to be a “Search Wizard.”

Here are a few tips I’ve discovered in the many late night hours of fuzzy-slipper-I’ll-be-to-be-in-a-minute, honey-searching.  I hope they are helpful for you, too.

  1. Card Catalog – Growing up you may remember, as I do, the card catalogs in the libraries.  They were those quaint drawers of index-type cards with all of the publications organized by subject, author, and title.  Now card catalogs have made it to the digital age.  Instead of searching all eight billion records at one time in Ancestry, you can find one database, one publication, and search it.  I promise you better results, simply because the algorithm in the Ancestry search engine doesn’t have to search as far and wide for the results.  Further, you can see the types of databases or publications Ancestry is drawing on to provide your results – giving you real clues as to whether the data is there or not.  If there isn’t a database in their card catalog that includes Pennsylvania births, you may not be as successful as you hope finding a Pennsylvania birth record.  How to Use: from the main menu, click on Search.  The last item in the drop down is “Card Catalog.”  Click on that.  Then you can put in a keyword or title to search for like records.  Search suggestions would include searching the county and state you’re researching (Sedgwick County, Kansas), the type of record and location you’re looking for (Kansas Land Records), or the type and era of military record (civil war pensions).
  2. Suggested Records – Have you noticed that when you search for records on Ancestry, and on the right hand side of the screen pops up a list of other records for possibly that ancestor?  The title of the section is “Suggested Records.”  If you’ve never seen it or clicked on one, you’re missing out.  Because it is my theory that these are records other searchers have connected to the ancestor you’ve searched in their tree.   I’m not certain, but somehow, some way Ancestry thinks these records are related.  And in my experience most of the time they are related.  Now, that doesn’t mean to run down the road and add all of the records they suggest to your tree.  Because, if I suspect, that someone else has correlated them, that someone may have made a mistake.  Nonetheless, let Ancestry give you a hand and at least check out their recommendations.
  3. First Names Only – Did you know you can search by just the first name?  Sometimes, you know where someone is, but that last name is giving you fits.  Just put in the first name and the location and dates.  Avoid the whole last name altogether.  It’s best to do this with one database at a time or you will get 100,000 results for “Mary.”
  4. Add Family Members – In almost all search windows Ancestry presents the researcher, there is an option right below the place you key in the name, “+Add Family Members.” (see above) I’ve seen it a thousand times, but only now realized the full power of it.  It hit a home run for me when I was battling what seemed to be a spelling issue with the last name.  I knew my ancestor was in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1880.  I had records that placed him there before and after that date, but I could not for the life of me find him in the 1880 US Census for Pennsylvania.  Until I tried “+ Family Members.”  I searched ONLY the 1880 US Census for Cumberland County, Pennsylvania (see Card Catalog trick above to get to just that database), then I searched for the first names ONLY of “Vincent” + Add Family Member, “spouse” “Mary.”  And tada!  The first result was a Vincent and Mary SMAISH (the last name I was using was SMARSH!).    By getting around the pesky issue of the last name spelling and scoping in on a tight geography, I found them.  Try this when you only know siblings and are searching for them in a Census.
  5. Search Wildcards – Do you have a family name where a vowel could be written as an “a,e,i,o, or u?”  Or the “v” is often a “b?”  Lots of names are misspelled in records, and we could talk for hours about the reasons.  But the trick in the digital database age to overcoming this is the wildcard secret weapon.   There are two types of wildcards, an asterisk and a question mark.  The asterisk when inserted in a word with at least two characters, tells Ancestry to replace the asterisk with zero to an unlimited number of characters.  A search for “john*” might return “john, johnson, johnsen, johnathon, johns”, etc.  A search with the question mark, again with at least two characters provided, substitutes only one letter.  “Sm?th” equals both “Smith” and Smyth.”  Either way, you don’t have to come up with all the possible spelling variations to find the right record.  Ancestry will happily and easily do it for you.
  6. Family Search Wiki –Wikis are the new, 21st Century, answer to the multi-volume, printed encyclopedia.  They are evolving at the speed of light and are ubiquitous on the Internet.  The most famous is Wikipedia, a free, general knowledge online encyclopedia, where anyone and everyone can contribute and edit.  You might think that by the group editing nature, it would be fairly weak as a trustable source – and there are those that debate this.  However, at least in principle, each article must be sourced – no original, editorial writing allowed – and there is an editorial board to maintain some editorial control.  All of that said the genealogy world as gotten on the Wiki band wagon in a BIG way.  Ancestry has its own Family Search Wiki.  (From the main menu, click on “Learning Center,” then the last item is Family Search Wiki.)  There are articles on anything and everything related to genealogy.  This is not a database of records.  You won’t find grandpa’s birth certificate here.  But!  But you will find out where to look for grandpa’s birth certificate if he lived in Missouri in the 1910s.  It is your ace in the hole to find records not found on Ancestry, but in print or microfilm all acrosss the country. This is the everyman’s tool for easy genealogy knowledge.  And the best part is it is FREE.  You do not have to subscribe to Ancestry to get access to the Wiki.  So, dig in.  What are you waiting for?  You can be the family expert on Arkansas cemeteries in no time.

Whole books have been written about the art and science of navigating Ancestry, and I’ve just scratched the surface here.  But I hope you’ll agree that there’s more here than the home page search box.  With eight billion records and counting, there’s a lot to find, and we can only help ourselves by becoming search masters using all of the tools at our disposal.

Happy Researching.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Good day! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept talking about
    this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    Thank you for sharing!


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