Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ancestry.com Rethinking New Search?

Ancestry.com survey invitation headerThanks to an alert reader, I’ve found out that last month Ancestry.com sent out a survey to a few of its users soliciting feedback about its search system:

If you have a few spare minutes, we would love to get your feedback on your experiences with search on Ancestry.com. Our goal for search is to make it easy for you to find all the records about your ancestor as easily as possible. Your responses to this short survey will let us know how well we are meeting this goal, and will help us to prioritize areas for improvement.

The survey was indeed brief. Ancestry asked about search usage, satisfaction, accuracy of results, and relevancy of results.

I’ve had many discussions with colleagues, both while at Ancestry and while at FamilySearch about Ancestry’s “New Search.” In these colleagiate discussions, the number of search results often came up. People who had no indigestion when Google returned 43,000 results experienced consternation when New Search returned 4,300. (Ancestry doesn’t expect you to review all 4,300, folks.)

In the survey Ancestry asked about the number of search results. Were there too many? Just about right? Too few?

(BTW, what’s up using the word “new,” as in “New Search” or “New FamilySearch?”Do these people think they will never replace the “new” system? How confusing was it when the new FamilySearch.org came out, making new.FamilySearch.org no longer new? 

I’ve got an idea. Let’s start calling FamilySearch Family Tree “Newer FamilySearch.”

But I digress…)

A premise behind New Search is that it is good to return results that only partially match the search criteria. These results are valuable, according to the premise, because they contain unexpected, but relevant records. The search is also more resilient against mistakes in records, such as indexing errors or mistakes by record creators. A name can be misspelled. A birthplace can be misreported. New Search could often find these records.

Ancestry asked outright if users “prefer for Ancestry.com to suggest potential record matches, even when they do not exactly match [the] search query.” They asked how well they are doing at finding records that don’t exactly match the search query and if Ancestry.com makes it hard to find intended records.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it sounds to me like Ancestry is reexamining the premise behind New Search. It will be interesting to see how Ancestry proceeds. Stay tuned…


What’s your experience? Do they return too many results? Is the long list of results a price you’re willing to pay to find records with errors? How often does Ancestry find—correctly find—records you weren’t expecting?

31 comments:

  1. I often get so few returns for my ancestral searches, that I'm happy that Ancestry gives me anything.

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  2. I would prefer it if Ancestry started to look at all its records from the Census again and transcribed them properly! to use someone in Salt Lake City to transcribe a record in England just doesn't work. They have no local knowledge so more often than not get it very wrong!

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    1. Much better than having someone in Asia doing the transcriptions which has been happening quite a lot.

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  3. I am still very happily using Old search, and tell them every time that they survey me, that if they remove it I will not renew my subscription. My suggestion is that they rename it "Professional search"! And leave the "New Search" for those who any old ancestor will do to fit on their tree - there are plenty of trees like that about!

    I know what I am looking for and the likely pitfalls, and prefer a search which returns what I ask for. This also applies to New(er) FamilySearch, but thankfully they are listening and it is now possible to (more or less) search for what you're actually looking for and not 10,000 other results...

    And interestingly Ancestry lost a lot of money and kudos when they introduced the "New Search" (with no possibility of changing back to "Old Search") on their Library Edition. This meant that a very popular course run by Oxford University Department of Continuing Education had to close as the results returned became useless for any sort of quantitative analysis - the sort needed by local and demographic historians for example. It's not only Family Historians who need to make use of the UK census returns!

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    1. Marsha,

      Go to search.ancestry.com and you should see the link to switch between New Search (which is more than 5 years old now I think) and Old Search in the upper right-hand corner.

      Kimberly

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    2. Talking of quantitive analysis, if only even Old Search worked correctly!

      Searching the England and Wales Birth index 1916-2005 using the child's surname and checking "Exact Matches only" produces an interesting variation on the meaning of "Exact matches" perhaps a dictionary would be in order?

      The over helpful search engine decides that this idiot obviously intended to use "Mother's Maiden Name" option in Advanced Search as it also pumps out all the children where the Mother's maiden name matches the child's surname regardless of what the Child's surname actually is.... for surname = Smee I get 2,717 hits of which only 56% are what I actually asked for!

      Use New Search instead? I really can't be bothered to investigate why it returns nearly 6,000 entries ie 75% incorrect ones.

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    3. Both New and Old Search behave the same way with "Smee" for Last Name on "England & Wales, Birth Index, 1916-2005". In fact, New Search is actually more helpful. This is an artefact of Ancestry's programming that is the same in New AND Old Search.

      If I use New Search on "England & Wales, Birth Index, 1916-2005", "Smee" for the last name, set 'Match all terms exactly' AND exact matches on the child's Last Name, then I get 2,717 (including mother's name = Smee) - as justifiably complained about.

      Ditto for Old Search. New Search IS better because I get Smee entries FIRST.

      I do NOT get nearly 6,000 entries on New Search UNLESS I UNcheck "match All term exactly" AND use Default Settings for Name. If I CHECK "match All term exactly" AND use 'Restrict to Exact' for Last Name, then I get 2,717 names, exactly as per Old Search.

      I would suggest that anyone using New Search MUST set "match All term exactly" AND *start* with 'Restrict to Exact' for Last Name. If I try for phonetic matching on that last name, it goes off to look for Smee in the mother's name as well. On a census, this still gives sensible answers because there is no alternate name to search.

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    4. It sounds like what you want is to only return records that match your query exactly, but both the Old Search and the New Search have this capability. In both searches, it is selected with a checkbox at the top of the search form. On the Old Search, it is labeled "Exact matches only" and on the New Search it is labeled "Match all terms exactly".

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  4. Who knows? New Search is based on the assumption that people cannot spell. Whilst that may be an issue in a frontier country, it is a problem with a small minority of old English Records.

    More painfull is Ancestry's removal last Friday of the ability in "Old search" for the user to chack a box so that only databases relevant to the country are searched when accessing from an Ancestry country "Storefront"

    I only have a UK subscription and now have difficuly spotting the databases I have access to amongst the endless list of databases that have no meaning to me and I can't afford to access.

    Presumably a not very subtle way of the Ancestry trying to force us to use "New search" (I always assumed it is called that because it generates so much dross it is a guarantee you will need to perform a new search every time.

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  5. I didn't see the survey, but then, I'm use OldSearch almost exclusively. Maybe I'm a control freak, but I have developed a feel for which search parameters are most likely to vary in the databases I'm using, and OldSearch lets me easily adjust where and how to add variability. I am usually searching for particular people, and don't need all "random" results that NewSearch puts up. I know that some NewSearch settings can tame this, but my past attempts have been frustrating and fruitless. And NewSearch doen't help at all when the index entry is really badly messed up.
    Two search improvements I would love to see (but probably never will), are sortable results tables and changing some dropbox options to checkboxes. Eg. I already know that a person is missing from their parents' census household, so want to exclude the child option(s) from the possible relationships list. Currently I need to use multiple searches and potentially export to a spreadsheet to deal with this scenario.

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  6. I find myself totally unable to get thousands of responses in NewSearch unless I uncheck "Match All Terms Exactly". What am I doing wrong? (PS - that's irony)

    There is, admittedly an issue with the search on Family Trees when it seems to use the country to count the answers but ignores it when it gives you the results (i.e. it says 10 and gives you 510) - but I usually search for evidence, not someone else's conclusions, so exclude FamilyTrees.

    Adrian

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  7. Well, I use New Search just about exclusively and haven't any problems with it. And yes, I was using Ancestry before New Search showed up so I'm quite familiar with Old Search. I'm generally searching from a member tree which I'm certain helps in the weeding out process. I always search within a specific country (generally England, UK & Ireland, or Australia). The results I have displayed by Category and database and I'm often surprised when a new, to me, database pops up in the results. I've had some happy surprises this way.

    I wasn't part of the survey, unfortunately. I'm also noticing on some of the message boards that there are quite a number of people who are very upset when they can't find their grandparents who were born post WWII. For them, that is an ancestor.

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  8. In my experience, New Search's extraneous "suggestions" are completely irrelevant. If I specify someone was born and died in Louisiana, USA, between 1850 and 1940, I'm really not looking for a thousand provincial English baptisms in the 1700s.
    The 1940 census index seems to be missing quite a few people. I can find them at familysearch, then bring up the image at ancestry, but can't find them in ancestry's index. ???
    Bring back Old Search!

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  9. Old search only for me as well. I know what I am looking for and can use the fields to target the results pretty well.

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  10. I have someone born in Virgina, so I just entered this into Ancestry's NewSearch
    - their name;
    - lived in = Virginia USA;
    - match all terms exactly = yes;

    I left Collection Priority = All Collections.

    I also excluded Family Trees - like I said, I want evidence, not someone's conclusions.

    I got exactly 4 entries back - including one directory entry I don't think I'd found before. All of then were in Virginia.

    Of course, if I uncheck "Match all terms exactly", I get 139,389 responses from all over the place but why would I want people with the same surname but a different forename, and people outside the US? So - I still don't understand how people get these masses of irrelevancies...

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    1. Bruce, I always restrict the collections to a specific country. Always!

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    2. Actually, Rosemary, 99% of the time, I'd restrict the collections to a specific as well. In this instance I did it just to see if I could see these thousands of extraneous responses. Nope! (The one time it's useful not to restrict is when I'm searching for emigrants. Once I know where they've gone, then it's usually back to 2 searches with restricted "countries").

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    3. I agree with not restricting occasionally; usually when I've lost someone in the late 19th, early 20th century. I generally know where they start from, it's where they end up is the problem. I've found the criminal records remarkably useful for tracking down who was transported, when & where to.

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  11. I keep "New Search" turned off nearly all of the time. On a few occasions I have turned it on to "give it a chance," and did find it to be helpful in suggesting matches I wouldn't have come across otherwise. I especially find the "adjacent county/state" option helpful. But I almost immediately turned it off again, once I realized that the imprecision that is its strength is also its major weakness: not only does it return imprecise, occasionally helpful marginal matches, but it *prevents* very precise searches, even with "Match all terms exactly" turned on. More often than not I know exactly what I'm looking for. Coming from the day of printed indices, I automatically search for variations on names, and am pretty good at using wildcards that will find what I need. I think the "New Search" is probably more beneficial when looking for somebody about whom there is a paucity of facts.

    ... Okay, well, in an effort to find an example to show to you, it seems Ancestry.com has improved the "New Search" since the last time I tried it. It seems it might actually be usable now. I will give in another try.

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    1. I agree with a lot of what you said. I still prefer Old Search as my first point of entry, but for tough cases, or to be sure I haven't missed anything, I will also use New Search as well. I especially like the locality search you mentioned, which allows you to search adjacent counties with a single search. Great for less common surnames!

      Kimberly

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  12. My searches no longer yield results. I'm either searching badly, or I really do need to travel to NJ/PA/NY and dig through records not yet online.

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    1. Belinda, Have you used the Card Catalogue to look at databases relevant to NJ/PA/NY?

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    2. Probably not as often as I should. I will do that, thank you!

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  13. Can somebody please define Ancestry Old Search and New Search?
    I'm afraid this newbie doesn't understand what you mean.

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    1. Go to search.ancestry.com and you should see a link in the upper-right corner to switch between the two different search engines. Ancestry released what they termed "New Search" many years ago and have continued to refine it, but there has been so much consternation from long time users, that they also retained their original search interface (old search).

      Kimberly

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  14. As Polly said in her earlier posting the option to switch back to "Old Search" which Kimberly describes no longer exists in the Library edition, you have to have a Subscription in order to be able to have the choice.

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  15. I hate "new search" and never use it! Yes, I took the time to learn it and tried it out for some time. But I happily returned to "old search" and that's where I intend to stay!

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