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.  

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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