Genealogy Web Guide to Searching

By Diane Haddad Premium
Web address:
Owner: Inc.                     
Launched: 1983
Contact:; (800) 262-3787, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern has the largest online commercial collection of genealogy records. Its databases focus on the United States, but also come from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and elsewhere (with more records from those countries on its international sister sites). Our cheat sheet guide will help you make the most of this huge genealogy resource.


  • Subscribers: 2.1 million on branded sites; 2.7 million across all websites
  • Databases: more than 31,000 on
  • Data: 10 petabytes
  • Records: 12 billion on; an average of 2 million added per day
  • Searches: more than 40 million per day
  • mobile App downloads: more than 10 million since January 2011
  • Ancestry DNA database: 200,000-plus samples

Sister Sites

  • (US; includes some collections from other countries): launched in 1996
  • (Canada): launched in 2006
  • (UK): launched in 2002
  • (Australia): launched in 2006
  • (Germany): launched in 2006
  • (Italy): launched in 2007
  • (France): launched in 2007
  • (Sweden): launched in 2007
  • 1000memories: acquired in 2012
  • AncestryDNA: launched in 2007
  • acquired in 2012
  • Family Tree Maker software: acquired in 2003
  • Find-a-grave: acquired in 2013
  • acquired in 2010 (originally Footnote)
  • acquired in 2003
  • Genline: acquired in 2010
  • Mundia: launched in 2009
  • MyCanvas publishing (renamed from Ancestry Press in 2008)
  • launched in 1998
  • launched in 2012
  • ProGenealogists research firm: acquired in 2010
  • acquired in 2000

Major Content Collections

  • US censuses: 1790 through 1940 federal censuses; select nonpopulation censuses; various colonial, territorial and state censuses; American Indian census rolls
  • Canadian censuses: 1861-1911; plus 1851, 1906 and 1916 provincial censuses
  • UK censuses: 1841-1911
  • US vital records: birth, marriage and death indexes or record images for various years, cities and states; Social Security Death Index; newspaper birth, marriage and death announcements
  • FamilySearch Records: birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial information from 67 countries
  • English birth and marriage indexes: 1916-2005
  • Ireland civil registration indexes
  • Immigration: passenger lists for US ports, border-crossing records with Canada and Mexico, Passenger & Immigration Lists Index, various naturalization record indexes and/or record images, US passport applications
  • Military: Revolutionary War muster rolls; Revolutionary War and War of 1812 bounty land warrants; Civil War, WWI and WWII draft registrations; Civil War pension index; US Colored Troops records; US Army Register of Enlistments; Marine Corps muster rolls
  • Newspapers: various publications from the US and abroad, obituaries
  • Family and local history books
  • City Directories: major US cities and some smaller cities
  • California Great Register of Voters
  • High school and college yearbooks
  • Swedish church records
  • Family Trees: members’ trees with more than 4 billion profiles and 160 million attached images and stories
  • US Public Records Index: index to various public records spanning 1950 to 1993

Membership Options

Membership Level  Cost  Benefits
Ancestry Member  free (registration required) build a family tree
use message boards

access free records
US Discovery $19.99/month
$99/six months
 all of the above, plus access to premium records on
World Explorer $34.99/month
$149/six months
all of the above, plus access to premium records on,, and other international sites
World Explorer Plus $44.99/month
$199/six months
all of the above, plus access to, and



When you search for records on (or another genealogy website), you’re actually searching a textual index—names, dates and other data transcribed by people who looked at the original records. Indexes for some records, such as city directories, newspapers and books, were created by optical character recognition (OCR) software that “read” the records. This means searching for records can be a guessing game of how information about your ancestor appears in the index. Several factors may complicate your search:

  • The person who provided the information when the original record was created may have given a name, date or other detail that’s different from what you’re expecting to find. Our ancestors often were inconsistent about their dates of birth, marriage and immigration, and about the spelling of their names. Or someone not close to your ancestral family, such as a neighbor, may have answered a census taker’s questions about your clan.
  • The creator of the record, such as the census taker or a court clerk, may have made a mistake when recording the information.
  • The indexer who transcribed the record may have incorrectly interpreted it or made a typo when entering the information into a searchable database.
  • For records that are indexed by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, such as newspapers and city directories, ink spots and other printing problems may have caused the software to “misread” the text. attempts to compensate for these potential complications with its search options and the algorithm used to find matching records. The search looks at all the search terms and filters you used, and ranks its records according to how well the indexed information matches what you entered.

A basic search performed from’s home page may work if the person you’re researching had an unusual name, but it’s more likely that this approach will result in an overwhelming number of hits for other
individuals with the same or a similar name. You can best control your search matches and ranking by using the Advanced Search form (shown below)—click Show Advanced on the home page.

Here’s how the Advanced Search works (note that you can leave any of the fields blank when you search):

1. Enter a first and middle name, if you know it. Click “Use default settings” to see options for restricting your search to:

  • the exact name you typed
  • the exact name plus phonetic matches (names  that sound similar)
  • the exact name plus names with similar meanings or spellings (such as William and Will)
  • the exact name plus records with initials only
  • all of the above

The first name default setting finds records with all of the above, plus records for which the name is not a strong match, but other criteria are.

2. Click for options to restrict your surname search to:

  • the exact last name you type 
  • the exact last name plus Soundex matches
  • the exact last name plus phonetic matches
  • the exact last name plus names with similar spellings and meanings (such as Smith and Schmidt). 
  • all of the above

The default settings for the Last Name field find the exact name plus phonetic matches and those with
similar spellings and meanings. Note the default settings don’t include Soundex searches.

3. Click to choose a life event for your search target—birth, death, lived in, marriage, arrival, departure or military. Choose at least a birth date or “lived in” date (a good option if you want to find records such as censuses, city directories or newspapers) to focus your search. For an immigration records search, choose arrival or departure.

4. Enter the year you think the specified event happened. Use the dropdown menu to choose a range of 0, 1, 2, 5 or 10 years before and after the year you typed. Click Exact to narrow your search to exactly the year or year range you specified. Note that designating a birth date as exact will eliminate records that don’t contain a birth date or age (such as city directories). Use “lived in” unless you’re looking for a record that contains an age or birth date. You can’t choose a date if “lived in” is the event.

5. Begin typing a location to see a “type ahead” dropdown menu of places. Choose the place for the event you specified. You can restrict your search to:

  • exactly this place
  • the county the place is in
  • the county and adjacent counties
  • the entire state
  • the state and adjacent states
  • the country

The default setting applies no place filter. In that case, results matching or close to the place you specified rank higher in your search results, but you’ll still get results from other places. If you don’t choose a place from the dropdown menu, you won’t see the filter options described.

6. Click to add another life event to your search. You can add as many events as you want.

7. Use the Family Member dropdown menu to add a mother, father, spouse, and/or children who should appear with your target in the record you want. You can designate each family member’s first and/or last name as exact—but beware this can eliminate records that have the names misspelled, mistranscribed or absent.

8. Adding a keyword related to your target can help the right record rank higher in your search results. For example, enter the name of a ship the person immigrated on or a military regiment. Check Exact to find only records with that keyword, but this can exclude potential matches.

9. Select a gender to help narrow your search results. Note that sometimes people were miscategorized when records were created, so you might get search results for the wrong gender if the record was a strong match on other search criteria.

10. Narrow your search by entering a term such as Black or French in the Race/Nationality field. You can
designate this as exact, but you won’t get matches for records in which the term doesn’t appear. This field doesn’t seem to work in some databases, such as the 1920 census, but you also can enter a nationality in the keyword field.

11. Choose a country or ethnicity so records from related collections rank higher in your search results. If you prioritize Jewish records and choose the phonetic last name filter, Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex coding will be applied.

12. Check boxes for the types of results you want—historical records, stories and publications, family trees or photos and maps.


Top search strategies

Narrow your focus. Rather than search all’s records at once, try searching a record category (such as all census records) or a single database (such as the 1880 US Census). These search pages are customized to the information in that record. For example, the 1880 US census search form lets you enter an occupation. To search a record category, hover over the Search tab and choose from the drop-down menu. For more categories, pick Search All Records from the Search dropdown menu and select from the special collections list on the right side of that page.

You also can keyword-search the Card Catalog of databases (the last option in the Search dropdown menu) or browse collections by place to see what records the site has for your ancestral locale. To browse by place, choose Search All Records from the Search dropdown and scroll down to Explore by Location. Click a state name or a state on the US map or choose one of the tabs for other world regions. You’ll see categories of data collections related to that place. You can search all the records associated with the place or drill down to the local level for even more-specific collections.

Run “fuzzy” searches. Names, dates and places in old records are often inconsistent and don’t always match what you’re expecting to find. It’s common to find the same person with slightly different names and ages in different records. Broaden your search to find these “close” records. Take advantage of Advanced Search filters that let you search for sound-alike names and date ranges.

Use search wildcards. Wildcards can help you account for mistakes and spelling variants that appear in old records. Use a ? to substitute for one letter in a name, and a * to stand for zero or more letters. For example, a search for Johns?n returns records naming Johnsen and Johnson. Smel*er finds Smeltzer, Smeller, Smeltsler and others. You can use a wildcard as the first or last letter of a name, but not both: Han* and *son are okay, but not *anso*. Names must contain at least three non-wildcard characters.

Go nameless. Try leaving out the target person’s name and entering other information, such as a birth year, place of residence and immigration year. Keep your search terms narrow by using the Exact boxes, and search a specific database. You could, for example, search for everyone in the 1920 census who lived in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, was born between 1884 and 1886, and immigrated in 1900. If you get too many hits, add a nationality or a first name. If you get too few hits, uncheck an Exact box or broaden the year ranges.
Take a hint. If you have an Ancestry Member Tree, the site will automatically search for records matching your relatives and, if it finds any, display “shaky leaf” hints on their profiles. Building a family tree is free, but you’ll need a subscription to view most records associated with hints.
To explore your hints, go to your Ancestry member tree and hover over an ancestor bearing a leaf icon. You’ll see a link showing how many hints are available. Click this link for a list of potential matching records. You can click to view that record, or select Review Hint for a comparison between the potential match and the information in your family tree. If the record isn’t your ancestor’s, select Ignore Hint to dismiss it. Or you can check or uncheck these facts and save them to your tree.
Search the message boards.  Located under the Collaborate dropdown menu,’s message boards have more than 25 million posts on more than 198,000 boards. (These message boards are identical to those on the long-standing free RootsWeb site, which—then called—acquired in 2000.)
The Message Boards home page has a search you can use to find posts mentioning the names and research topics you’re interested in. Browse the boards for all the surnames you’re researching, as well as the places (typically by county, for US locales) where your family has lived. You also can explore specialized boards for historical events, wars and more. If you post, use a subject line such as “Harrison family in Ripley County, Ind.” to quickly tell other researchers whether your post might pertain to their families.

Quick Tips

  • Experiment with different search terms and filters for the records you want. Keep track of searches you try so you don’t miss a promising search option or waste time repeating searches. 
  • Scroll down on the database search page to find coverage details. You might learn the collection doesn’t cover the time and place your ancestor lived.
  • Use Exact carefully. If the death date is marked as exact, for example, your results will contain only records that have a death date—and most of your ancestor’s records were created while he was alive.
  • Search for a woman with both her maiden and married names. 
  • Can’t find someone? Look instead for family members who might also be in the record. 
  • If you can’t find a specific record, try browsing. Go to the database search page and click Browse This Collection on the right. Then choose the place, time frame, first letter of the surname or other browsing option (this depends how the original records are organized). Then “page” through the records, similarly to how you’d scroll microfilm.
  • Not sure if you’ve found the right record? On the record summary page, click “Save this record to my Shoebox” for later evaluation.
  • When you find an ancestor’s record, look to the right of the record summary page for suggestions of other records that may name the same person. Do check these suggestions carefully, as they may be for people who aren’t actually relatives.
  • Click the “Customize your home page” link at the top right of your home page for options to add a to-do list, a list of quick links to pages on, links to popular record collections and more. You’ll also be able to rearrange the modules on your home page by clicking and dragging them.
  • Ancestry member trees aren’t independently verified, so use information from trees as clues. Don’t add it to your tree until you’ve researched to make sure it’s correct. subscribers can contact tree owners with questions.
  • regularly adds new databases and updates existing ones, so revisit your searches periodically. 
  • Subscriptions auto-renew. If you don’t want to renew yours, cancel at least two days before the auto-renewal date under the MyAccount link or by calling 1-800-262-3787.
  • Search the Card Catalog for the keyword free to find free content on If your library subscribes to Ancestry Library Edition, you can use its computers to access most of the databases in for free. 
  • Click the Customize Your Home Page link at the top right of your home page for options to add a to-do list, a list of quick links to pages on, links to popular record collections and more. You’ll also be able to rearrange the modules on your home page by clicking and dragging them.



More Online

 From the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine