Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Perfect "Search" Storm

Ewing headstone photograph for Search ShootoutI've been meaning to do a search "shootout" for a long time, pitting Ancestry's old, exact search against Ancestry's new search experience. Mind you, I'm talking the whole ball of wax here, including Ancestry's tree-based search experience. Well, last night I found the "perfect storm," the optimum combination of elements to create a contest worthy of pitting the two titans against one another.

Anne? Are you listening? I've thrown down your gauntlet.

Any of you, all of you, can participate. The more the better. Do you feel like Ancestry.com's new search is a step backwards?

The rules of the contest are simple.

  1. Log in and set the search to old or new before you begin. Set or clear exact. Jot down your choices.
  2. Start from the home page. Record the time. GO!
  3. Start searching (or tree building), writing down a list of each keystroke and mouse click along the way.
  4. Score 100 points for each instance you find where the target individual is referenced by name in the U.S. Federal Census. Record the time, the number of keystrokes and mouse clicks, the census year and location. Then start a new count of keystrokes and mouse clicks.

    OK. Maybe the rules need to be a little more explicit.

  5. For this shootout, each click of the mouse and tap of the keyboard counts one point. Don't forget to count scrolling, Back button and Forward button. Shift keys are free. Don't use your mouse's scroll wheel, since that neutralizes some differences between the formats of old and new search results. If you hover over a result link to see the pop-up information, count that as a click.
  6. Plan your strategy carefully in advance and record your experience the first time through. No fair going back and starting over using what you've learned. Be honest and include the clicks and taps from everything you try on your first time through, even activity that got you nowhere. See the last rule in this list for information about submitting subsequent or amended attempts.
  7. Be sure to include any clicks and taps after the last successful search up to the time that you stop searching. I know; it will be tempting to leave some of this off, deciding belatedly that you really stopped seriously looking several minutes earlier. "To thine own self be true..."
  8. If you plan to use Ancestry's tree-based searching, before you begin create a new tree with just yourself to preclude any pre-loaded, relevant information.
  9. Do not make any name corrections on Ancestry.com's records; that would alter the contest search experience for those that follow you. (Yes, you can read a hint into this rule.)
  10. Do not consult any information other than what is returned by Ancestry.com (other than the death certificate, as directed below).
  11. Do not look at the comments attached to this message.
  12. When you have results, post them as comments to this message. Your entry should include a list like this:

    12:45, Start, Old search, Not exact, Tree-based
    1:08, keys=452, clicks=72, 1900, California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, p. 4
    1:08, keys=0, clicks=0, 1920, California, Orange, Anaheim, p. 7
    1:09, keys=0, clicks=1, 1910, California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, p. 8
    1:12, keys=138, clicks=15, 1880, Illinois, Cook, Chicago, p. 26
    2:00, keys=351, clicks=186, stop

  13. The deadline for the contest is the end of day Tuesday, 6 January 2009 NEW: Friday, 9 January 2009. Because of the holidays, it is unlikely that Ancestry will change their website code during that time. That hopefully keeps all contestants on an equal footing.
  14. If you wish to post your results on a blog of your own, may I ask that you post a comment here with a link to your results.
  15. Now the final rule. If you want to submit a subsequent or amended attempt, go ahead iff (that's short for "if and only if") you have first submitted an honest first attempt. Identify the submission as a later attempt and explain why other readers should consider it instead of or in addition to your first attempt. ("I misunderstood the instructions..." "This is the theoretical best for this search type..." "The sun was in my eyes..." "I don't know why I didn't follow my usual method..." "I wanted to try the other search...")

Have fun! And may the best search win!

Fake 'original' death certificate for search contestOh... I almost forgot to set the stage.

Family tradition says that you are cousins to the famous Ewings of Dallas, Texas! On her deathbed, your grand-aunt gives you an old photograph of your Ewing ancestor's headstone with a cemetery name penciled on the front. Click on the photograph, above, to see a full-sized copy. Then use FamilySearch Record Search pilot to find the death certificate. The John Ewing of the headstone and death certificate is the target of your Ancestry.com search. Everybody play fair. And don't forget to come back and post your results in a comment.

On your mark; get set; GO!


  1. Ancestry.com does plan to upload new code a week or so after New Year's, so your proposed test may be moot.

    There are already numerous submissions by users described and detailed on the Ancestry Blog, related to excessive clickiness, huge numbers of totally irrelevant search results and failure of New Fuzzy Search Interface to find what is actually in Ancestry's databases. Why didn't you test drive some of those? Some of them are just as simple as the one you propose.

  2. Dear Geolover,

    Why? Having engineered the test case, I've invalidated myself as a test subject. Likewise, any previously published scenario can't be trusted to reproduce the experience of someone performing a search for the first time. That's also why participants are trusted to post their first result, and why I should have excluded anyone who had already researched the target individual.

    Any additional details will have to wait until after the test concludes, as they may skew the results of those that still plan to participate.

    Don't worry; the test is not moot. I've already received an entry via email. It is for old, exact search and it is VERY impressive. Any New Search advocates out there? You'll have to step up if you're going to answer the challenge.

    But you've peaked my interest. What do you know about Ancestry.com's post-New Years plans? Contact me privately at AncestryInsider@gmail.com

    -- The Ancestry Insider

  3. Insider-no-longer,

    The code update is public information:


    Since the message boards are not being indexed as frequently as they used to be, you may not yet be able to search the topic for the thread, but in 'flat view' you can use your browser 'find' function for the word "code".


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