Why Your Ancestry.com and Other Online Genealogy Searches Don’t Work

Why Your Ancestry.com and Other Online Genealogy Searches Don’t Work

Chances are you've become frustrated at times when searching for ancestors online at genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilySearch. Knowing why genealogy searches sometimes fail can help you figure out how to fix them. Below is our cheat sheet of common issues that trip up your...

Chances are you’ve become frustrated at times when searching for ancestors online at genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilySearch. Knowing why genealogy searches sometimes fail can help you figure out how to fix them.

Below is our cheat sheet of common issues that trip up your searches, plus tips to fix them.

Get expert guidance on using Ancestry.com in our Become an Ancestry.com Power User online course, starting Monday, Aug. 1, at Family Tree University. This four-week course will help you delve into the Ancestry’s rich resources and pull out records where you came up empty before.

Problem Why it Happens Solution
Transcription errors You’re not actually searching the documents on genealogy websites. Instead, you’re searching a textual index created by a person (or sometimes, software) who transcribed what he or she thought the documents said. Illegible records, poor-quality digital images and human error cause a mismatch between the index and your search terms.

    • Use filters and wildcards to find variant names, enter date ranges, and broaden the geographic area

    • Search for variant and incorrect name spellings

    • Search with fewer terms, i.e., leave the name blank

    • Try another site with the same data set (the index may be different)

    • Browse the records

    Record errors Enumerators and clerks who created records may have recorded wrong information, your ancestor may have reported it wrong, or another informant (such as neighbor) may have taken a guess. The index accurately reflects the record, but it doesn’t match your search. Same as above

    Incorrect search terms You might be wrong about details such as when your immigrant arrived or when Great-great-grandma was born, so your search terms don’t match the record you want.

      • Same as above

        • Double-check your research and information sources. Disregard family stories that lack a basis in records.

          The record doesn’t exist Disasters such as fire, flood or custodial neglect may have destroyed the records. Or maybe they were never created in the first place, such as for early vital records in much of the US. It’s also possible your ancestor wasn’t enumerated in the census, or no one reported his birth.

            • Check the collection search page and local genealogy guides for information on record gaps.

              • Look for substitute sources, such as church records for vital records.

                The record isn’t online Libraries and archives are full of valuable records that exist only on paper or microfilm. Occasionally, one or more documents might be missed during digitization.

                  • Check local library websites and genealogy guides for record locations. Visit the archive, hire a researcher to visit for you, or request a copy by mail or email.

                    • Look for other, more-accessible records with the information you need.

                      The record is online, but isn’t indexed A collection may be digitized and browsable online, but no searchable index exists. Figure out how the collection is organized (such as by state and county, chronologically, etc.) and browse to the record you need.

                      Register for our four-week Become an Ancestry.com Power User course at Family Tree University!

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                      1. I have been trying all day to get into my ancestry.com account. Why isn’t this working? I want you people to give me a phone# that I have keyed in "www.ancestry.com" and it doesn’t work. What is going on? Please give me a phone# to call for this.
                        KarenHollinger24

                        Karen Hollinger

                      2. Margaret Owen Thorpe

                        When I saw your headline "Why Your Ancestry.com and Other Online Genealogy Searches Don’t Work", I expected to find the obvious answer: they don’t work because too many idiots have entered too much wrong information. ancestry.com is, by far, the worst. In fact, I joined it once – and cancelled before the trial was up because I found so much erroneous information about my family. If I didn’t already know what I know, I certainly wouldn’t trust it for anything I don’t know. As for its so-called records, I find them useless. I enter a simple name – like William Owen – and I enter a specific birth place – North Carolina – and birth date and date and place of death – California, and ancestry.com gives me a bunch of guys named Owen Williams who were born and died in Texas. The only way to use ancestry.com is to know more about one’s dang ancestors than it does. My Owen family has been in the colonies since they were colonies. You would not believe how many "patriarchs" – original immigrants – to whom we’ve been attributed – and none of the attributions I’ve seen on ancestry.com are correct. Back before there were DNA tests and online primary sources, we could excuse folks for making wrong guesses – especially with common names like William, John, and Thomas Owen. Not a lot of excuses these days. (My 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins and I firmly believe that every guy in 18th century Virginia – other than George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson – was named William, John, or Thomas Owen.)

                      3. Your cheat sheet is fantastic. I had a major brain wave about something yesterday and although it does not pertain to Ancestry it illustrates what you were talking about. My husband’s niece and I have been trying to find my husband’s great grandfather’s cemetery info for ages. On FindAGrave there is an entry for Josephine Crampton in the cemetery where Joseph E Crampton is buried. We have wondered if this is Joseph. I realized last night that some clerk may have misheard Joseph E as Josephine. I contacted the person who posted this info and she is going to take another look at the records. It never hurts to ask!!