Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Progress in the War for Columnar Search Results

Tables arrange data into rows and columns. They are a time proven way of organizing and presenting data. Once upon a time, utilized columnar tables when presenting search results. (Anyone remember how they did it back in ‘97?) Ancestry never mixed search results from different record collections. This presentation was one reason many users preferred “Old Search” over “New.” used to have columnar search results
Ancestry users had a clear preference for columnar search results

FamilySearch’s soon-to-be-retired website came along in 1999. Its sentence style presentation of results from one or more record collections made scanning results slow and inconvenient.

Class FamilySearch listed search results in sentence format

With the introduction of relevance-ranked search results from multiple record collections, Ancestry succumbed to the dark side, labeling and stacking the information (a tabular column replacing columnar table).

In search results, they stacked the information

This layout persists in “New Search” today.

In search results, they stacked the information

FamilySearch came along in 2007 and introduced the Record Search Pilot. It utilized columns!

FamilySearch's Record Search Pilot presented search resuls in columns

The progress was soon lost with the introduction of Beta which again stacked search results. FamilySearch improved on the Ancestry display by bolding the principal name, but lost ground by separating it from the rest of the record data.

Beta stacked information in search resuls

In the September 2011 release of, FamilySearch has introduced a compromise.

September 2011 returned to columnar search results layout

FamilySearch made three major changes. They widened the search results to utilize wasted screen space on either side of the results. That gets a thumbs up. They included more information. Also a thumbs up. And they lined up dates, places, and the names of other people. This is a great step in the right direction, but I think more is possible.

Rules for Website Designers

I think lists of search results should follow these requirements:

  • Utilize the entire width of the screen.
  • If something else shares the horizontal space, allow the user to resize the two panes.
  • Allow the user to change column widths, change the order of columns, and add or remove columns dynamically. See Microsoft Outlook or Windows Explorer for examples.
  • Allow the user to sort any column in either direction (such as A to Z or Z to A).
  • The first two columns should be principal name and principal date. For a death record, that is decedent and death date. For a marriage record, it is the individual matching the search result and the marriage date. For a census, it is resident and residence date.
  • Almost never stack or combine data of different types (dates and places, for example) or different semantics (birth and death dates, for example).
  • One instance in which it might be okay to stack, is a column with all the names of others mentioned in the record, labeling them as Ancestry and FamilySearch do today.
  • Another instance might be links and icons associated with actions, such as cameras, permissions, quality, and links to view record or image.
  • In most instances, wrap information that is too long for a column. In some instances, truncate the information, show ellipses, and display complete values when the cursor is placed on top of the truncated information.

Here’s an artist conception of such a layout. The user has squished several columns and sorted by birth date.

The Ancestry Insider's conception of columnar search results from multiple collections

My reference to Windows Explorer (not Internet Explorer, but the computer/folder viewer) raises some interesting possibilities for exploration. Explorer has several views: detail, thumbnails of varying size, icon view, and list view. I can imagine clever web designers tickling additional ways to interact with search results.

What about you? What is your wish list for the layout of search results?


  1. Dear web-site designer:
    1. Even if you don't allow sorting by the user, apply a consistent sort to the results.
    2. Allow a copy of the output summary so I can paste it into a document.

    Why? Because if I'm searching for all members of the X family in county Y (say), I'd like to run off a copy of the index results and save in in (say) Word or Excel. That way I can then tick them off in some fashion when I've checked each one in detail (that's why I need to copy it).

    And if you add new records, then it's possible for me to find where you've added them in but only if your order is consistent. If you just throw a load of stuff at me in a different order each time, then it's very difficult for me to check through the stuff. (It also makes me think you're unprofessional since you can't even be bothered to produce tidy, consistent output).

    Adrian B

  2. YES YES YES! Please show data in columns and allow us to sort the columns!

  3. 1)'s wasteful use of screen acreage in presentation of NewSearch results is loathsome; difficult to read the results quickly, and requiring too much scrolling.

    2) is planning to eliminate the user option to ~select type of record sought~. While the selection at present does not exclude such things as Census entries when one is seeking a marriage record, at least the wanted record type is at the top if it is found. The designers think that the option to seek records in specific-locality, specific-record collections (e.g., WV Births and Christenings) is an adequate substitute for global searches for type-of-record. It is not. The improvement that *should* be made is not to eliminate the record-type option, but to enable specifying the record-type ~while also~ excluding others: if I search for a marriage record, do not give me ~any~ of the endless census results.

  4. @Geolover-I couldn't agree more with #2. It is part of the "more is less" syndrome that seems to be attacking genealogy sites in spades.

  5. One thing I particularly like, when it happens, is for a long list to be accessed by the surname first letter (example: master list of Smart Matches in My Heritage).

    I also like searches where I can search with the surname field blank. It's often the only way I can find families where the indexing is really off.

    In the new Ancestry searches, I am less often finding the unusual records that I wouldn't think to look for.

    Lately most of my searches in Ancestry originate from my Family Tree. It is a nuisance to have to edit the search to remove a woman's married name(s), in order to efficiently find records under her maiden name. This is a particular problem when the married name is a common one, and the maiden name is not.

  6. This is sort of related to what you were saying in this post, but what FamilySearch really needs to do is to show baptism results in the initial search. For example:

    1. Go to

    This is a collection of indexed church records from Honduras.

    2. Search for the surname Hernandez

    3. As you can see in the results, only the child's name and the parents' are shown. I would have to click on the preview button on the far right on every single entry to see the baptism date, as that is not included on the screen when I do a search.

    This problem exists with the indexes for the Argentina church records (baptisms only), Mexico Distrito Federal church records (baptisms only), and in the France protestant church records (baptisms/births only; the date is included on the initial search screen, but is labeled as "Other".

    This seems to be a problem and I think it should be fixed as soon as possible.

  7. Yes! on:
    --Results shown in tables
    --Ability to print out (copy & paste)research results
    --Search only in a record group on familysearch and not see anything else.

    There is something else that bothers me. Often on Ancestry, the digitized images of a record group won't have the beginning of the film from which it came, i.e. the title page, table of contents or index, etc.

  8. I don't see it mentioned previously, but in both old and new search on the results are in columnar format when you search a specific database. While more options on global searches would be nice, db-specific searching is where I find the most value in having column search results. I believe it's also where most avid genealogists spend their time searching.

  9. They still have "New Search"? Who is using it? It should have gone the way of "New Coke" by now.

  10. "They still have "New Search"? Who is using it?"

    Well, me for one. I got used to it. Curiously, it seems to me that many complaints about Ancestry and FamilySearch come from people who simply don't use the facilities - e.g. on Ancestry they don't set "Match all terms exactly" and then complain at getting a lot. For instance, search for Noah Pickstock in the UK 1861 census with "Match all terms exactly" and you get 1. Don't set it and you get 200.

    And if you use "Summarised by category", you get, as Bob says, 6 columns on that query. No waste of space to my eye.... Admitted you do need to click the line of interest first.

    I guess, Mr. Web-site Designer, we can tell you about columns but filtering results might take a bit longer to decide...

    Adrian B

  11. Oh, YES!! YES!! YES!! to pretty much all of the above. Another thing I hate about the 'new' FamilySearch is the COPY button. I find a record I need, press the COPY and get an entire load of code gibberish separating the info I wanted in one large paragraph. (When it works.) In the old FamilySearch, I got exactly what was on the screen of the transcribed info, in a column exactly as it showed on the screen. It was very easy to COPY & paste that into my family tree program. Now, instead of COPY, I need to highlight, scroll, copy, and then paste. What happened to the former ease of using COPY?

  12. As with many others above YES. Columns and tables make sense. In the UK "Find my past" has sortable columns for most if not all their databases, and you get a good fifty or more records in a screenful, so searching is just so much easier than Ancestry's "Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, keep that mousey scrolling . . " I suspect Ancestry have adopted the new search spacious search idea partly deliberately to keep you on a page and on their site. The longer you are scrolling the more time you're available to be hit by advertising, and the more money they may be able to wring out of advertisers who pay for exposure time for their product.


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