5 Tips for Effective Genealogy Searching

August 2, 2016  - by 
5 Tips for Effective Genealogy Searching

by Amy Johnson Crow

No two genealogy websites are exactly alike. FamilySearch.org doesn’t look like Ancestry.com, which doesn’t look like findmypast.com or MyHeritage.com. None of them look like the website of your favorite library or genealogy society. It can feel a little overwhelming to learn the ins and outs of each website. However, we can do some things on any genealogy website that will make for more effective searching.

  1. Explore What Is Available

    It is tempting to plug a name into a search field, look at the results, and think that our search is complete. When we do that, however, we shortchange our research. Many websites, including FamilySearch.org, have online collections that are “image only” collections, meaning that they have not been indexed and aren’t searchable by name. To get to the records we want, we need to browse the images in that collection. (Don’t worry—many of those collections have a basic index at the front of each volume.)

    Another benefit of seeing the collections that are available is that the list of collections can prompt ideas for more research. (You might say, “There are prison records available? I should look up great-great-uncle George.”)

    At Ancestry.com, the collection listing is called the Card Catalog; at findmypast.com, it is called the A–Z of Record Sets. On other websites, look for links called “explore our collections,” “collection listing,” and so on.

    On FamilySearch.org, click Search at the top of the page. Below the map, you’ll see a section called “Find a Collection.” In the field, type in the name of the state or the country you’re interested in. You’ll get a list of all the collections that have the name of the location in the title; click the one you want to start exploring.

    Watch Robert Kehrer explain how to take full advantage of the records FamilySearch has to offer:

  2. Read the Description

    Just as the introduction to a book gives information about what we’re going to read, the description of an online database can help us better understand the resource. Where did the data come from? Are there any gaps in what the collection contains?

    Looking at the description for Ancestry.com’s collection Ohio, Marriages, 1803–1900 (under the search box for that collection), we see a list of the counties that are included in the collection and what years each county contains. We learn that the collection doesn’t include every Ohio county and doesn’t have all years for all counties. That’s important to know so we don’t make incorrect conclusions about not finding a record.

    Learning more about a collection can also help us search it better. The Evangelical Messenger Obituary Index, available online at the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library, includes obituaries from 1848 through 1946 and includes the name of the deceased and the name of that person’s spouse. Knowing that we can search by either name can be helpful.

  3. Search Globally, Refine Locally

    Global searching (where you search across an entire website at once) can be a great time saver, but the results can be overwhelming. Get an idea of what you’d like to find, and search just in the collections that could give you the answer you’re looking for. You’ll have fewer results, but they will often be more meaningful results.

    Also, when you search in just one collection, you could have more search options than you have in a global search.

    Take findmypast,com as an example. Their global search across all categories of collections gives search boxes only for the person’s name, a date, and a place, with the option to narrow by category. However, if you go to specific collections, there are often more ways to search. In the Cardigan Baptisms collection, for example, you can include the father’s name and the mother’s name. Those extra search fields are so handy when the child you’re trying to find has a common name. 

  4. Test Different Types of Searches

    Read the search FAQs. Does the website allow wildcards and, if so, explain how to use them? How exact are name searches? (Will a search for “William” bring a result for “Bill,” or will a search for “Crowe” bring back “Crow”?)

    FamilySearch.org uses the question mark (?) to stand for one character and the asterisk (*) to stand for multiple characters. You can begin your search with a wildcard. Ancestry.com also uses the question mark as a wildcard for one character, and it uses an asterisk for 0–5 characters. In both instances, the first three letters of name need to be specified.
    If you can’t find if the website you’re using allows wildcard searches, try some searches with them and see what results you get. (For example, do a search for Smi*, and see if you get any “Smiths.”)

  5. Less Can Be More

    Are you adding too much information to your search? Having a name, date, and place of birth; a date and place of death; a residence, spouse’s name, and parents’ names might exclude records that either don’t have all that information or that have information that doesn’t quite match.

    If I do a search on FamilySearch.org for Katherine Fannan, married in Ohio, died in Ohio between 1908 and 1940, and had a spouse named Martin Tracy, I get several marriage records in which she is the mother of the bride or groom, as well as two death records in which she was the mother of the deceased.

    However, I don’t get a result for her own death record. I’ve put in too much information, and I’m using her maiden name, not her married name.

    Match the information to what you would expect to find in a particular record type. (In most cases, a birth record wouldn’t normally include the person’s spouse’s name, for example.)

Bonus tip: No matter what website you use, take a few minutes and explore. Look for search tips. If you don’t get the results you were expecting, try doing the search in another way. Don’t assume that if you searched once and didn’t find your ancestor that he or she isn’t there.  


Infographic- 5 Hacks for Record Research

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Amy Johnson Crow
Amy Johnson Crow is a Certified Genealogist and has a Master of Library and Information Science degree. On her blog at AmyJohnsonCrow.com, she offers practical advice for genealogists to help them make more discoveries. Her research specialties include Ohio and the Civil War, and she has a special interest in the U.S. Colored Troops.




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  1. I hope you can help me. I had a link to a page where the latest additions and updates were listed in chronological order. For some reason that link no longer works.

    Would you be so kind as to update the URL for that list for me? Thanks in advance.

      1. Please bear with me, it may sound a bit convoluted but it worked until just the other day when I clicked on it and got the ”page not found’ message.

        I would click on this bookmark I saved, https://familysearch.org/node/1873 . It was an alphabetical list of some sort. I would click on the top database and it would then take me to a page that had all of the new and updated databases listed in chronological order.

  2. Regarding my earlier post, I am not sure if I was clear. What I am asking is if you could please supply me with the proper URL link the the page where recent and updated databases are listed in chronological order? Thank you.

    1. I’m not quite sure if this will help or not. However, if you click on the “Search” link from the home page of familysearch.org it should take you to the “records” search by default. Then click on the “Browse all published collections” link OR just go to: https://familysearch.org/search/collection/list. This brings up a list of all the databases available on the website.

      From here if you click on “Title” the databases are arranged in alphabetical order. If you click on “Records” they will sort according to the number of records in the database. If you click on “Last Updated” they will sort according to those most recently added/updated (also will be marked with an asterisk*)

  3. I believe these lists were provided in the Blog by Logan Steele. Apparently, he has moved to another section so these updates are no longer available.

    I,too, have pressed for them being made available again, as I found this to be important to research on the site.

    Hopefully, someone at FamilySearch will also see the importance of this issue and allocate another individual to give regular postings of new and updated collections.

    1. A new FamilySearch press page is being developed right now and should be available soon. I believe when that is complete, these updates will be made available once again. We apologize for the delay on this, I totally understand the value that these updates provide.

  4. I find the websites a waste of time. I do the old pencil and paper research log like a real researcher does. I see the internet as a repository of many records and the family search and ancestry of places where people upload and document and share what they have found. But to my chagrin I dislike family search because it is open to anyone to delete information, not document their information and they can really make a mess. For this reason You are better off having your own electronic databases that only you can control. I’m cool with sharing and collaboration, but I don’t trust anyone else’s research unless they are experienced, and convey the information in a logical manner, and attach sources. Primary sources and good compiled and research secondary sources are highly available on the internet in google books and archived and shared documents. 15 Generation pedigree charts are excellent and are very user friendly. I prefer to write in pencil so I can make erasures and then I will make sure it is find then I will add to sites such as family search. However, I will always attach source information when I have it all done. I have been irritated by the novices who don’t consult maps or really think about dates and relationships, but will enter information just because they are in a hurry. I always consult my family history guides and parish and county maps for my Scottish family history. The best part of this article is knowing what sources are available and what parameters and limitations they have. This is history 101 for any history major, and it applies to family history as well. Excel, Microsoft Word are my tools for arranging and organizing my information and chronicling where I am at in my research. Free pedigree charts that are editable PDFs are a great resource. The family historian today needs to understand electronic sources, but more importantly needs to know how to use electronic sources, but not just limit themselves to Ancestry, or Family Search.

  5. i went to click on a picture and when it comes up i dont get the photo image but a message that says “image available to signed in members of supporting organizations” why is it i can not view i thought i was signed in please and thank you

    1. We would love to be able to make all our images available freely to everyone. However, the owners of the original records occasionally place restrictions on how or where the records can be accessed. In some cases, we are only allowed to provide access to members of certain groups (in this case probably referring to LDS Church members). If you are LDS, please make sure you are signing in with an LDS account. If not, these records will still be available to you at your local family history center. To locate your nearest family history center, go to: https://familysearch.org/locations/centerlocator?cid=hp2-1047

  6. My family Bible lists my gt grandparents as being married in New York City on 27 Aug 1864,yet when I access NYC Familysearch marriages 1686 thru 1980 there is no record. I have tried the usual with different spellings but to no avail. Michael Tancred married Rosanna Ryan Thanks

    1. There is a chance it has not been indexed. You may have to manually search the images of records from that location and time. There are also a lot of US marriage indexing projects going on right now. Maybe they’ll turn up there.

  7. I never knew that global searching can be a great time saver, but the results can be overwhelming. I have been searching for my ancestors online for a while. Thank you for the tips on genealogy research.