Friday morning at the 2015 annual conference of the National Genealogical Society I attended “Maximizing Your Search on Ancestry.com,” taught by Ancestry’s corporate genealogist, Crista Cowan. She told us that Ancestry.com, the website, has 16 billion records online. Some years ago Crista supervised Ancestry’s indexing. At that time, they were publishing one to two million records per month. Today, that number has grown to one to two million records per day. They have been doing that for the last two years.
One challenge we have as genealogists is that we have become searchers, not researchers, Crista said. A researcher thinks about what they are searching for and then takes steps to find that thing. Another mistake is that we think we are looking for people. But we are not searching for people; we are looking for records about people.
1. Crista’s search strategy begins with hints.
Ancestry provides hints for the top 10% of its record collections. The presence of hints are indicated on a pedigree chart with a leaf icon that shakes momentarily. Crista said, “It used to shake forever, but you didn’t like it so we stopped it.” (I don’t hear any laughter. Crista is a masterful presenter and the way she said it, people laughed. I guess she speaks better than I write. :-) Go to the person whose records you seek. Then examine the record hints for that person.
Hints are not provided for every database. That is intentional. “We want to get you started,” she said. “We grab that low hanging fruit so that you experience that aha moment.” The collections that are hinted include vital records, census records, cemetery records, and draft records. “Remember that hints are just hints.” You need to look and decide if a record should be attached to a person in your tree. Concentrate on record hints. Member Trees are the first hint. Below that are the record hints. (See example to the right.)
2. After examining hints, Crista next moves to suggested records.
Suggested records are those along the right side of records about your person. “These are suggested by you,” she said, referring to all Ancestry users. She had us think about Amazon’s “People who bought this, also bought this.” Suggested records are records attached to persons in member trees that were attached alongside the record you are looking at. “I’ve found some real gems,” she said. If you find no suggested records, it means you are breaking virgin ground. “I get giddy when there are suggested records and I get giddy when there are not!”
3. After utilizing hints and suggested records, Crista performs a search starting from the tree.
Go to the person whose records you seek. Underneath their portrait, click on Search Records. This switches to the search page and loads the search form with information about the person, including names of parents, spouses, siblings, and children. (For an example, see the parameters along the left side of the screen shot, below.)
“The computer returns what we call our ranked search results,” Crista said. For example, suppose the tree loaded up 22 pieces of information for the search. Will any record match all 22? No. But the record matching the most fields, say 18, would be listed first. Results are sorted in the order of the number of matching fields. (It might be a touch more sophisticated. Some fields may have more weight than others.) Go far enough down the list and you’ll see records that might not match the name at all, but match several other fields.
Crista scans through the result list, opening ones of interest in new tabs. To open a page in a new tab, hold down the Ctrl key while clicking the link. She stops scanning the list somewhere along the first page. For me, that is typically when the matches start to get less than helpful. Only after clicking all the records of interest does she come back and start looking at each tab. Examining the results in this manner has several benefits. When the Internet is being slow, other tabs load while you examine one tab. The search results page is still available in the first tab. Tabs can be reordered using drag-and-drop, perhaps to arrange them chronologically or some other desired order.
The default view for search results is the ranked record view:
Click on Categories (circled in red, above) to switch to category view:
“I can go directly to a particular section that might have a database with the information I’m searching for,” Crista said. It also helps identify record collections you may not have thought of.
“One of my favorite collections is our yearbook collection,” she said. One day she was working in the Ancestry booth in the exhibit hall at a conference. A man walked up, “clearly his wife’s designated driver.” He asked what was being done at the computers. Crista told him she was helping people search for their ancestors. She added, “Would you like to search for yours?”
“Can you find me"?” he queried.
We won’t have much of any interest about you, she told him. “Tell me about your Dad.”
“No. Search for me.”
She typed in his name, expecting nothing more than perhaps an address from the U.S. Public Records collection. One of the first things that came up was a junior high band photo. He just stood there, fascinated. He got really quiet. Then a little teary.
“Don’t move,” he said. “I’ve got to go find my wife.” He brought his wife back and began relating stories about his youth. He spoke eagerly for about 15 minutes. Crista says his wife looked over his head at her and mouthed the words, “Thank you!”
Stay tuned to learn what Crista does next to maximize search effectiveness…