Feb 14, 2020

Hints on Narrowing and Broadening Searches on Ancestry

February 14, 2020

Nearly every genealogist uses for his/her research, but many of us are probably not using it as well as we might be. I volunteer at the local library for walk-in one-on-one sessions, and I’ve noticed recently that several people have told me they’ve searched Ancestry for their ancestors to no avail. Since one of our goals during the sessions is to help folks learn to do their own research, not just do research for them, I often suggest that the clients try to search Ancestry again on the library’s computer, which is able to access the library version of Ancestry to which the library subscribes.


Often the client still doesn’t come up with any records of interest, so I usually suggest a few tweaks to their search that sometimes help. One very simple example is the Search Filters section on the Results page of Ancestry. Ancestry tends to default to the broadest search, and many newer genealogists (and even some not-so-new ones) never change the filters, just using the default Broad search for everything. That can result in huge numbers of hits, sometimes in the millions – way too many to deal with. Also, because the search is so broad, it often includes names and places that are not even close to the person and place of interest.  A simple tweaking of the search to the more Exact side of the search filter line can help narrow the number of results. The reverse problem is also possible if the filters are set too far to the Exact side of the bar. In that case, a simple spelling error on a name can toss out a search result that is pertinent. If the location filter is set to Exact, that can also cause problems since it’s sometimes easy to overlook the possibility that someone may have moved to an unknown location, perhaps merely a few miles over a state line, and created records in that locale. If the search filter is set to Exact, those over-the-line records will not show up as results.


I find that the best way to search using the Search Filters is to start with them toward the center of the bars of the filter table. The four categories which include first name, last name, year of birth and location can then be tweaked, depending on how sure the researcher is of that information. For example, with a name such as Lily which can be spelled as Lillly, Lilie, Lillie or Lili, keeping the filter relatively broad will help to catch all the various versions of the name (there are other ways to do this, too, such as using wild card characters, but that’s a discussion for another day).  I also seldom set the Exact search to its furthest degree since even if I’m sure that someone was born in a certain year, it’s always possible that a record incorrectly lists another date. An example of this might be census records, which are notoriously error-prone when it comes to birth years. Folks often lied about their ages or sometimes did not even know the year they were born. Placing an exact filter on a birth year would result in no hits for a census record that was for the correct person.


Ancestry is also beta testing to add more filters for more event locations and dates such as death date, birth locations, marriage location and more that will potentially help filter searches even further. They’re worth trying since they could help narrow searches in new ways, for example, where a birth date is unknown, but a death date and place are known.


The simple step of sliding the cursor on the Filter Searches table can greatly enhance searches by narrowing or broadening them. There are still more ways to filter searches  through Collections and Categories, which we’ll discuss next week.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large