Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Searching search formSearching is not a one size fits all. Depending on what you are searching for, you need to use a different search system. Don’t think that because you’ve searched from the home page that you’ve searched everything that FamilySearch has to offer.

I’ve heard FamilySearch criticized on that point. Here are the different search systems. Searching any of these does not search any of the others.

While some of these systems could or should be combined, many should not. Why?

1. Context, context, context

A Google search for [Saint Mary] is almost never going to return what I am looking for. Google will desperately grasp at context. Past the Wikipedia article of Saint Mary, mother of Jesus (always a good Google guess), Google uses my location in Salt Lake City to return an article about “Saint Mary’s Home for Men of Salt Lake City.” Then it uses my search history and returns a link to this article, since I often select articles on Beyond that, Google pretty much depends on a popularity contest with no idea of what I am looking for.

Things change on I might do an exact search of the 1940 census for last name Saint Mary. I might do a location search in the catalog for Saint Mary. I might do an FHC search for Saint Mary. I might search Family Tree for first name Mary and last name Saint. I might search immigration record collections for a ship named Saint Mary. (OK. Actually, I can’t do that on FamilySearch, since they have yet to implement collection-specific search fields. However, I can do that on But I digress…)

In each of these cases each search system uses its context to determine my intent.

If one unified search system could read my mind, a combined search would be great. But somehow I want my search system(s) to know the difference between a person and a place. I don’t want my search system to give me results in poorly documented conclusion trees when I intend to search census and vital records. Nor do I want results from the English BMD indexes when I want a pedigree. I don’t want a golfer’s ancestors when I am searching for an online course about handwriting.

2. Error rate has been down the single search path before and learned some things. Because of what they learned, they separated these three search types—search for a person in a record, a person in a tree, and a person in a book—into three buckets that can be individually searched.

One measure of error is the number of false positives. A false positive is a search result that is wrong. Ancestry found that the false positive rate for books and newspapers was extremely high. Correct results from record collections (like census and vital records) were buried in false positives so deeply they never saw the light of day.

So should any of these searches be combined? I think so.

Could the searches of all tree systems be merged? Yes, I think that would be great. (I’d have to think about it, but you might be able to throw in user submitted IGI also.)

Could searches for places in the Wiki and online learning courses be merged? I think so. Place names in collection titles? Yes. What about catalog place search? Maybe. A good UI (user interface) might make all this work.

Until then, be aware that searching from the home page of does not search everything.


  1. I'm a bit disappointed in the new search screen. Country, like other selection options, should be closed and open only when selected.

  2. It appears as if the search algorithms are not working correctly since these latest changes. I can search for a birth in Norfolk, click the exact box, put in a range of years, and the results show a birth in Suffolk at the top of the list. Down at the bottom of the screen , below the brown divider, is the exact person I wanted; name spelled the same, baptised in Norfolk, within the proper range of years. And yet it came up as not very relevant.

    I've reported this via feedback but haven't heard anything back apart from the usual form letter.

  3. Rosemary, I've observed that as well.

  4. I clicked on the links you provided and did not land at the searches described. I got messages such as "oAuth not permitted" or it kept sending me back to my login screen.

    It would be helpful for your readers to see the actual subheadings, i.e., the actual language of the link,
    such as
    /family-trees/ to search AF, PRF, etc.,
    /locations/centerlocator/ to search for FSCs formerly known as FHCs, or
    /primo_library/libweb/ etc. etc. to search family and local history books

    Better yet, convince FamilySearch to put links on their home page.

  5. Are they actually trying to drive us crazy? I gave up on Family Search long ago. You could find real data in the past, now you have to be a computer programer to find anything. Seems they are being run by computer geeks and not genealogists.
    That is not a Pedigree Chart in your example. Why do they FS, think we want them to do our genealogy for us. Just give us the data and let us make the connections.
    I just don't care what they do any more, seems all these websites (except yours) are just in it to make money. For example the group that just bought Ancestry.
    Just get out of the house and go to the Archives and courthouses and do your own work.


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