Genealogy Web Guide to

Genealogy Web Guide to

We'll show you the best search strategies and tips for finding records of your ancestors on the website.

Web address:     
Owner: DC Thomson Family History         
Launched: 2003
Contact: 1291 Electric Ave., Venice, CA 90291


  • US Records: 850 million
  • Global records: more than 1.6 billion
  • Subscribers: 18 million in worldwide network of sites

Membership options

Membership Level  Cost  Benefits
US Subscription  $84.96/year, $45/six months, $14.99 monthly access US and Canadian Records
build a family tree
World Subscription  $159.96/year, $89.58/six months, $23.96 monthly access all records on the site
build a family tree
Pay As You Go  $13.95 for 100 credits to use within 90 days (viewing most record images or transcriptions costs 5 to 10 credits) access US and international records on a pay-per-view basis.

Major Content Collections

  • US records: Census (1790-1940); UK passenger departure lists (1890-1960); Germans, Italians and Russians to America; WWI draft registrations; miscellaneous state vital records
  • Australia and New Zealand records: birth, marriage and death records; cemetery records; military records; various censuses and electoral rolls; business and local directories; miscellaneous police gazettes; newspapers; UK passenger departure lists (1890-1960); miscellaneous immigrant lists
  • UK records: censuses (1841 through 1911); military records including British Army service records (1760-1915), London volunteer soldiers (1855-1959) and military nurses (1856-1994); birth, marriage and death registers starting in 1837; parish registers; General Register Office overseas births, marriages and deaths; business directories; UK passenger departure lists (1890-1960); miscellaneous workhouse records
  • Irish records: miscellaneous censuses, Griffith’s Valuation, miscellaneous church records; UK passenger departure lists (1890-1960); prison registers (1790-1924); petty sessions order books (1842-1913); newspapers; birth, marriage and death records; parish registers; business and local directories
  • Canadian records: family history books
Originally launched as to provide online access to UK civil birth, marriage and death records (which begin in 1837, hence the name), has broadened beyond that mission and even its initial British focus. Today, the site offers a vastly larger collection of UK records, the complete US census and other American records, as well as databases from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland. A partnership with FamilySearch will add records from the free website, too. Find your past on with our guide.

Searching records

You can perform a basic search from the home page, or select Search All Records to use an advanced search form (shown on the opposite page) with filtering options. The best approach is usually to search as broadly as possible, and then narrow your search using the options on the left side of the results page (by collection, for example, or by adding search criteria).

While it might appear that you can search leaving both the first and last name fields blank, in practice this produces peculiar results. Instead, try filling in just a last name and broad year and geographic search terms, and checking the “name variants” box below the name field. You can also use * and ? as wildcard characters.

Keep in mind that not all the records in’s collections contain data for all the search fields that are available here. An early marriage record, for example, might not have the birth date of the groom or bride (or even her name, for that matter), only the marriage date. A marriage date isn’t an option on the Search forms in the When dropdown box, which lists only Born, Died or Other Event. If you don’t know the marriage date to enter as an Other Event, guess a year and use the +/- dropdown to search with a range of up to 40 years before or after that year. does a pretty good job, however, of making educated guesses for you. If you search for an ancestor born about 1633 in Kent, England, for example, the site will find marriage records that would be reasonable (or at least, possible) for such a person—even though those marriage records are missing a birth year. Your results will similarly include deaths that could plausibly fit that individual, even though death records so early might not include a birth year.

Note that when you do a simple search from the home page, your results will draw only from the site’s historical records. To search newspapers and periodicals, click the Newspaper& Periodicals under the Search dropdown menu. This search treats place names as essentially keywords, so in your search for Kent, England, people named Kent and mentions of Kent State University will pop up as well. “US & World” publications is selected by default. In addition to US papers, it includes those from China, Denmark, France, Germany, Jamaica and South Africa. (Click the By Publication filter on the left to see a list of titles in the collection; coverage dates aren’t included here.)

To instead search UK or Irish newspapers, use the buttons at the top left.


Advanced searching

1. Fill in the Who you’re searching for. You can enter only a last name, only a first name or both. (Searching with only a first name or with no name, however, runs into a bug that causes the site to favor hits with last names such as Moore, Morgan and Morris.)

2. Check Name Variants under one or both name fields to search for different spellings. This is checked by default for first name, unchecked for last name.

3. Entering a When is optional.  Choices are Born, Died or Other Event. You can enter only a year (in four-digit format) in the date field. The +/- dropdown lets you choose a range from zero to 40 years (in effect, up to an 80-year span).

4. Specifying where the event occurred is also optional. Select where the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia & New Zealand, or World.

5. Narrow the Where search further by entering a place in the location box. It can be a state, city or other place name, but it’s best not to combine them. For example, you can search for Chicago or Illinois, but entering Chicago, Illinois may produce zero results. Be cautious entering a place name that includes punctuation or abbreviations, such as St. Lawrence. You may need to experiment to see how has indexed the place name you’re seeking: St Lawrence (no period) in England, for example, but Saint Louis and St Louis (no period) in Missouri.

When searching newspapers and periodicals, the Where field becomes What Else? and functions as a keyword field, not limited to place names.

6. Click Clear Search to start from scratch. This also clears any filters you may have selected along the left side of the screen, so it’s a good idea to click here any time you’re beginning an entirely new search.

7. Save Search remembers your search criteria for future use. Access saved searches under My Account.

8. Once you’ve run an initial search (or you’re on the Search All Records page), the results page gives you the option to narrow your results by category. After you’ve tried a basic search, you can check only the record categories containing matches; the rest will be grayed out. You’ll also be able to narrow by country, record collection or record set. Here you can also add optional keywords; check the box to search for variant spellings of these keywords. When you’re done, click Update to refresh your results.

If you searched Newspapers & Periodicals, the filtering options let you instead choose a collection by region, US & World being the default. You can also narrow a publication search by country, state, publication or date. Click Show Date Range to display a second date box for a From/To search.

Top search strategies

Begin broadly. Because the site’s advanced filters and keyword option don’t appear until the results screen, start your search broadly; your goal is to get to a results page, from which you can customize your results. Go ahead and check the boxes for name variants, to search as broadly as possible and catch any misspellings in the records or transcriptions. You don’t have to enter a date to run this initial search. You can also leave the location box blank, instead just picking a country or “World” from the dropdown menu.

Run wild. In addition to the Name Variants checkboxes, you can use ? and * as wildcard characters. These are especially useful in capturing abbreviations, common for first names. For example, William was often abbreviated as Wm, Thomas as Thos or Tom, Patrick as Pat or Patk or Patr, Daniel as Dan or Danl or Danny, Margaret as Maggie, and Elizabeth as Beth or Eliza. An exact search for a given name may unintentionally hide an ancestor from view if the original record or transcription used an abbreviation.

The ? wildcard stands for any single character. So, Sm?th finds Smyth but not Smythe. The * wildcard takes the place of any number of characters (including zero), so Smith* will find Smith as well as Smithers. You can use ? and * in combination, and there are no minimums as to how many non-wildcard characters you must use with them. So a search for Sm?th* would work to find Smythe, for example, as well as Smythers.

Jr and Sr are often indexed as though they were part of the last name. If you can’t find John Smith Jr. with a simple search for Smith, try using a wildcard * or checking Name Variants.

Search multiple years. Dates and ages within records can be misleading as they might have been approximated or inaccurately recorded—or may be missing entirely. Searching a few years before and after a date, using the +/- dropdown menu, can help cover all the possibilities.

Use “Other Event.” You might be skeptical of the site’s third choice for finding a date, after the precise Born and Died. But searching using Other Event and a date or date range really does work, especially if you try to match the event to the type of record you view using the filters. For example, searching births, marriages and deaths with an Other Event year or year range typically finds marriages matching that date or range you entered. Results for an Other Event search viewed through the Military, Service & Conflict filter will instead narrow to an individual’s time of military service, or at least to a particular conflict (1917, for instance, finds WWI records).

Skip the name fields (maybe). When you’re really stumped, suggests searching using other information about an individual, but leaving both the given name and surname blank. It’s true that a combination of errors might result in your ancestor hiding in plain sight: The name may be transcribed exactly as it appears in the historical record, but the census enumerator may have written the name incorrectly years earlier. If you have strong additional evidence for a person, but still can’t locate him in a particular census, searching using everything except the name can get around these black holes. In your search results, use location, birth/death and other collection-specific filters to rule out names that don’t match, so you can view those that do. Searching a particular state, county and city/township for a 12-year-old son born in Virginia already narrows your pool of results, for example.
That’s all true, but can prove flaky when you’re attempting such searches. As noted above, name-free searches tend to return results partial to the middle of the Ms in the alphabet. Even when non-M names are found from earlier in the alphabet, the “relevance” ranking puts them after M-Z. Searches without a name work best and are least buggy when you supply a lot of additional information.


Quick Tips

  • Click the free trial icon on the home page to sign up for a 14-day free trial to Your credit card will be charged only if you don’t cancel by the time and date specified on your Payment Details page.
  • To search only a particular record type without having to select it as a filter from the Search All Records page, hover over Search Records and select the category (such as Census, Land & Substitutes) from the dropdown menu.
  • Use the Search Records dropdown menu to jump directly to a Newspapers search. The default is the US & World Newspapers collection, but you can change this selection using the menu on the left of the page. To search individual newspaper titles, narrow your search by publication using the filters on the left.
  • Forgot to save or print out that ancestral find? stores the records you’ve viewed under My Account/Viewed records. The camera icon indicates a record image is available; the page icon takes you to a transcription.
  • Create an online family tree. This feature is pretty rudimentary now, but the site promises enhancements including importing trees, searching others’ trees and attaching records.
  • Clicking the camera icon downloads a document image to your computer. Use the page icon to open a transcription of a document, along with source information. Instead of printing the entire page, you can select 
  • just the transcription and choose Print Selection (depending on your web browser). Alternatively copy and paste the transcription into a word-processing file. It’s a good idea to save the transcription along with the record image, for easier data entry into your genealogy software.



More Online

From the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine 

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