Monday, July 1, 2013

Monday Mailbox: Fooey on

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxDear Ancestry Insider,

Fooey!  Per their e-mail to me today (see below), I am one of only 2% of their subscribers using the "old search" and they are going to discontinue it in about six months.

I primarily use Ancestry in a somewhat different way than most folks - As editor of the "Maverick" column of the Token and Medal Society, I assist members of our organization in the attribution of trade tokens that do not show on them the city and state where they were used.  As an example, see eBay item 111105958281 which just has the name, "W. M. Pashons"  One clue I have is that the seller is in Indiana, but even that is a starting point. From experience, I can guesstimate the piece dates from say 1910 to 1935.  With the old search, I can search for "Pashon*" and get the summary of records, and use my best guess to check the 1920 Census first and look at 44 records before moving on to my second guess, etc.  With the new search, I get a list of 1425 possibilities, starting with the latest first.  I can either refine my search to look at 1920 first, or wade through pages of meaningless results.

Call me "stuck in the mud", but I see this "improvement" as just another example of fixing things that aren't broken.

John Mutch
President - Token and Medal Society
*****************************************************************’s email to John Mutch:

Dear John, is continuing our efforts to improve the search experience across and will be making changes to our search functionality in the upcoming months. Some features will be added and some will be discontinued. As part of the 2% of our subscribers that use the old search function on the site, we know that you are passionate about the search experience on and we are reaching out to you to get input on potential improvements. We hope you will take the opportunity to share your insights and feedback on our plans.

To identify which areas of the experience we should focus on this year, we have drawn on customer input, usage data, usage patterns and our old search function for inspiration. From all of that, we are looking at making your time on more productive by improving these areas of the search experience in 2013:

  • More relevant search results with the best results at the top
  • Easier refining and control of your search results
  • Keeping a better history of the work you have done
  • Publishing more new content and more corrections to existing content
  • Performance improvements to return results faster

As we begin to make these improvements, we will no longer maintain two separate search systems for the site. Maintaining two systems limits the resources we can use to make improvements and increases the complexity of every improvement we try to make. Additionally, continuing to maintain the two systems limits our ability to direct more investment into other areas like adding more record collections and correcting existing collections.Based on that, as a part of the work this year we will be bringing together the two search experiences into a single search experience on We hope to bring forward the best features of both the old and new search systems into the consolidated experience to facilitate the transition for our users and to improve the overall search experience. We expect to discontinue the old search function as a separate experience within the next 6 months.As a user of the old search feature, we wanted to give you advance notice and let you influence the changes we are making in search. Please take this survey to share your feedback and ideas on key features to improve.

Best regards,
The Product Team

Dear John,

I certainly understand your pain. Anytime (or FamilySearch or some other company) redoes a product from the ground up, they always mess up. What we have today as “old search” is already wanting of what the real old search used to be.

Let me give one example. Before introduced relevance-ranked results one could click the search button without entering anything in the search form. The search engine dutifully did its thing, and as old search does, listed the number of results in each category and in each record collection. This was a great coverage tool. One could immediately see that (for a hypothetical example), Cook County Marriages looked too low to cover the entire population. When switched to relevance-ranked results, some well meaning engineer or manager stopped that, giving an error message when searching on an empty form. Perhaps it was necessary to prevent the engine from comparing many billions of records with nothing. Or perhaps they thought they were being helpful. Either way, functionality was forever lost.

Let me give another example. Just as it does today, the real old search allowed the user to specify the number of results. If you selected 20, then the end of the URL showed “hc=20”, or whatever other number selected. There are several workflows where a researcher might want to examine 1,000 results at one time. With the real old search, you could change 20 to 1000 and the search engine would do what you asked it to. Today, it doesn’t. Picking a a FAN club out of results might take copy and paste of 20 pages.

John, the bad news in this situation is obvious. But I don’t want to be a Debbie-downer. There is good news as well. I’ve decided to make this “ S.O.S. Week here at the offices of the Ancestry Insider to delve further into the issue.

The Ancestry Insider

P.S. My apologies to anyone actually named Debbie Downer. I don’t mean to offend. Oh, and you have my sympathies as well.

Tomorrow:’s responds to John.


  1. For the sake of balance, I think it's worth pointing out that 'New' search does meet the requirements of Ancestry's typical user.

    Being objective, most users are not going to want to search with no fields inputted. The additional validation is therefore a very helpful reminder for most users! If you need to see how many records are in a collection, the card catalogue does still exist.

    Whilst 'relevance' is not perfect it is reasonably accurate and normally lets you quickly find census and vital records for an individual. They're the records most people are after. Once you have those you will look for further detail (directories, immigration etc.). Using filters New Search lets you filter to relevant collections quickly to find those other records.

    Even if you know nothing or very little about an individual, you can still just input a name and/or use the keyword field and then gradually add more keywords and locations to filter out irrelevant results.

    I'm not saying it's perfect. But. It doesn't make sense to have two searches. It makes sense to rationalise and then to improve so all the required functionality remains available. Change is not inherently bad!

    1. Nowadays, "Ancestry's typical user" is not interested in accuracy. They just want something to plug into a tree. Whatever comes out on top is used. No need to do a search based on known parameters, just use the magic 8-ball approach.

      The trouble is, these people will complete their tree is a jiffy and unsubscribe. Those of us wanting accuracy and control will stick around year after year and subsidize those people and their ridiculous trees.

  2. It’s actually a great and useful piece of info. I am satisfied that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for moving services

  3. The individual who wrote the letter above may not realize that in New Search, the results defaults to the "Records" list he describes, but if he clicks on "Categories" in the upper right, he will see a nicely categorized list of databases similar to the one at "Old Search", and he will be able to click on "1920 Census."

  4. The difference between the old and new search is control. The new search does not allow the same search options and gives irrelevant results. Neither one is perfect though. Ancestry says only 2% use the old search but that's because they've hidden access to it in tiny letters in the upper right hand corner on the Search tab. If you don't know to look there, you would think it's no longer available. The new search is also much more cumbersome to use. I filled out the survey to let them know the improvements I would like to see. Sometimes there's a disconnect the user and the people deciding what they think is best for us.

    1. "gives irrelevant results" - I've never found New Search giving more irrelevant results than Old Search does. Certainly not the 1,000s that some allege. What you need to do is "Show Advanced" and set "Match All Terms Exactly". Oh - and never start a search from your own tree because that unsets "Match All Terms Exactly".

      If you do the above then you will have the control you want - in fact, for surnames you have more control in New than Old since you get phonetic matching and not the brain-dead 1930s (?) Soundex technology, which was designed for manual calculation.

  5. It is important that the community knows we are not abandoning the functionality of Old Search, but merging the best of Old Search into a consolidated NEW search experience. We are listening to the feedback coming in from our members and providing the survey link below as well as we want to hear from as many people as possible. That information will go directly to our product developers so they can take it all into account when designing this new experience.

    You can take the survey here:

    Many of the recent concerns and comments have cited functionality that actually exists in current search, as well as in old search – specifically:

    (1) Our current search experience allows users to view search results as a list of ranked records or as a consolidated list of categories.
    (2) Our current search experience allows users to do “Exact Match” searches.
    (3) Our current search experience allows users to specify a “Collection Priority” to filter results by country.

    Crista Cowan has a great educational video which demonstrates this functionality in the current search experience:

    There is also a helpful article which does a side-by-side explanation of how to achieve the same types of results with the current search as in Old Search:

    There will be times where changes are needed to ensure the product/service can continue to grow, but we are doing what we can to minimize the impact on our customers as we want everyone to have a great experience on We have been talking about sunsetting the Old Search for years now, and promise we are taking all your feedback into consideration. So make sure you let us know what you love about about Old Search to ensure we capture all your comments. The survey link again is:

    Kristie Wells
    Director, Global Social Media and Customer Engagement

    1. Kristie - It has always been the mindset of ancestry to throw as many results as possible at you. A search engine's job is to narrow those results. You don't have to look any further then the message boards to prove this. Why would they have the default search to search all message boards when you are on a particular message board? Wouldn't the common user want to be narrowing down the search? Why should they have to do the extra step of choosing to search just that message board when that is why they choose to go on that board? If you want to add more irrelevant suggestions then give me more shaky leaves I can ignore, I want my search engine to narrow down the choices.

    2. I couldn't agree more. Ancestry wants the appearance of a lot of material when, in fact, most of what you have before you is a waste of time. Then there are the problems finding things because of sloppy transcriptions. The 1940 US census, for example, is simply a mess; my dog could have transcribed some of the stuff there more accurately. I waste a lot of time guessing that Ancestry has misread something...yet once again!


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