When you know what goes on behind the scenes when you push that search button, you are going to be a much better searcher and you’re going to get better results, said Anne Gillespie Mitchell of Ancestry.com. Anne gave a presentation titled “Become a Master Searcher on Ancestry” at RootsTech 2016. Anne has worked for Ancestry for seven years, including some time as the Search product manager.
Say you search for John Smith, lived in Virginia, and born in 1879. Ancestry searches more than 16 billion records and it finds every record with first name “John.” It finds every record with last name “Smith.” It finds every record mentioning any place in Virginia. And it finds every record with a birthdate close to 1879. Ancestry combines all four of these groups, which is why you get 38 million results. It is possible to get just the results you want by telling the search engine what you want it to do. “You have to know how to talk to the search engine,” she said.
Anne gave us several tips on how to do that.
Tip #1: Start with the basic facts. Starting a search from your family tree has its place, but sometimes it pulls in so many results, it’s hard to find something in particular. There are times when you should start from scratch, specifying just four basic facts: first name, last name, a date, and a place.
Tip #2: Understand how names are searched. “If you know how to control them with filters, you will have control of your results, and you will start finding who you’re looking for,” Anne said. After entering a name, click Exact under the name and set name filtering to work the way you want it to work. The name filters are sticky. Whatever you set them to will continue to be used on subsequent searches.
Be aware that the last name must appear in some form in each result, but the first name doesn’t have to unless you tell it to.
Tip #3: Wildcards are a powerful tool for dealing with name variations. Anne uses “G*L*SP*” to search for variations in her Gillespie maiden name.
Tip #4: Location can be a key search term. The location of an event is often highly accurate. This is because events were usually recorded where they occurred and since indexers are not keying in a different location for every record, Ancestry can set the location without a lot of errors.
When you are searching a census and you know the county, put it in the “Lived In” field. (“Lived in” and “residence” are the same.) Start by specifying your location as exactly as possible. Include district name and number in the keyword field. (Anything that appears anywhere in the record details that can’t be specified in a search field can be searched in the keyword field.)
If you specify location for “Any event,” all records will be returned that specify that location in the record in any capacity.
Tip #5: Filter by location. This is a capability you may not be familiar with because few websites besides Ancestry offer it. Select the location from the dropdown list. Then use the filters to include nearby locations. This helps because our ancestors sometimes crossed county or state lines to do something like marrying or recording a deed.
Tip #6: Limit your scope. At the bottom of the search form you can exclude trees, photos, or stories and publications. The setting is sticky, so it will be used for subsequent searches.
Tip #7: Use Collection priority to set the national focus. This is useful for focusing research in the records of a particular country, such as England or Canada. Be careful, this setting is also sticky.
Tip #8: Search records by type. Certain types of records, like census records, easily float to the top of Ancestry search results. However, some record types, like military records that lack a birthdate and residence, may never be found by global searches. Anne recommends searching by record type. Census records are a good type to search first.
To search military records by conflict, visit http://www.ancestry.com/cs/militaryrecords. That is the only page on the site where that is possible.
Tip #9: Use the Category result list. Above the top search result is the choice to see results by records or by categories. Select categories to see which collections have matching records.
Tip #10: Search a single collection. Searching a single collection is another good way to avoid thousands of unwanted results. The search form shows what fields were indexed for that collection and often include fields not available in the global search form.
Tip #11: Read the collection description. The collection may not include the records you need; the description may warn you of that. It will tell you where the collection came from, which helps you decide how trustworthy the information is.
”Control your results and learn how to do it really well,” Anne said. “You’re going to find more things.”
View Anne’s complete presentation on the RootsTech website.