Ancestry.com Web Guide

Ancestry.com Web Guide

Thanks to a marketing blitz on TV and the Internet, just about everyone’s heard of the subscription genealogy records service Ancestry.com. The company started as a small publisher in 1983, and as it expanded, redubbed itself MyFamily.com, with Ancestry.com as its primary product. Now it’s...

Thanks to a marketing blitz on TV and the Internet, just about everyone’s heard of the subscription genealogy records service Ancestry.com. The company started as a small publisher in 1983, and as it expanded, redubbed itself MyFamily.com, with Ancestry.com as its primary product. Now it’s The Generations Network, and properties include Ancestry.com , Ancestry.ca, Ancestry.co.uk, several other international sites, Genealogy.com, MyFamily.com, Roots­Web and Family Tree Maker software.

 
Nearly all these elements integrate with Ancestry.com, which may have you thinking you can do all your genealogy there. Unless you’re extremely lucky, you won’t find all your family’s facts on Ancestry.com—and the sprawling site and sometimes-confounding search might even conceal the ancestral details within. We’ll show you some tricks and techniques for teasing out the information Ancestry.com holds on your family.
 
How to join

Ancestry.com has three membership levels, with the free basic registration (click Community and Create Your Free Profile) entitling you to post a family tree, create a photo book and join its online forums.

 
You don’t have to register or subscribe to search for an ancestor, in which case, unless it’s a free resource, your search results will contain bare-bones information—maybe just a name and a place. You’ll be prompted to subscribe when you try to click on a record listing.
 
If you subscribe (turn the page for prices), your search results will contain more details and you can view record images. Surprise!—Ancestry.com has some free records, including the Social Security Death Index, several Jewish databases and indexes resulting from its World Archives Project volunteer indexing effort. Even more free data are in store if a library near you offers Ancestry Library Edition. This service, available at some libraries (but not from home), has much of the same content as Ancestry.com’s consumer edition.
 
Finding your way

Access the eight main areas of Ancestry.com via the navigation bar on every page. Except for the record search, all these features are available with a free registration.

 
Home: Once you’ve registered, you can personalize the home page, which is the default when you’re logged in. Click Customize Your Homepage in the upper right to add quick links to various Ancestry.com pages, update your research to-do list, see recent Ancestry.com blog posts and add other tools. (When you land on an Ancestry.com page you want to access quickly in the future, click Add to Quick Links at the top of the page.) Your most recent searches show up here, too, as will your Shoebox (see the step-by-step search guide). Click My Account in the top right corner to see which records collection (if any) you’re subscribed to and when your subscription ends, to upgrade or cancel your subscription, or to update your payment information.
 
Family Tree: Store genealogy information free by typing it in or uploading a GEDCOM or Family Tree Maker file. You can make Person Pages for relatives with photos, documents and timelines. Download a toolbar that lets you quickly add records from other sites. Ancestry.com automatically searches its collections for matches to your tree, though you must subscribe to view records in fee-based databases.
 
You can invite others to view your tree; they can see attached records without subscribing. If you keep your tree public, other Ancestry.com members can see it, too. If you make it private, relatives’ names and birth dates may show up in others’ searches, but the searcher must contact you through Ancestry.com for more details. You also can exclude your tree altogether from others’ searches. When others’ trees appear in your search results, remember they’re not independently verified, so do research to back up the claims.
 
Search: Ancestry.com’s search is the portal to 26,000 databases with billions of indexed names and digitized records. Our guide focuses on the new search interface, introduced in 2008, which changed the search form’s appearance and options, as well as the presentation of search results. Its debut sparked an outcry from those who preferred the old interface, and developers continue to adjust it. (As of this writing, the “old search” is still available; just click the “Switch back” link at the top of the Search page to access it.)
 
The main Search page features a global form to search all databases. Scroll down for a categorized database list; click one title to search just that database. (Turn the page for a step-by-step search guide.) Below that list, click the Card Catalog link to look for databases that might have records about your ancestors.
 
Print and Share: With MyCanvas (formerly Ancestry Press), you can create family history books, photo books and posters. The service is graphics-intensive and may run slow. You can import photos and type in text, or automatically incorporate information from your Family Tree Maker software or Ancestry.com family tree. Print your book at home for free, or order it professionally printed and bound.
 
Community: Here, access Ancestry.com message boards (the same ones available through RootsWeb). You’ll see links to surname boards based on your recent searches and suggested connections to others who’ve searched on the same names. You can search all the boards; browse by last name, location or other topic; or visit the message boards home page.
 
DNA: Ancestry.com launched its DNA testing service in 2007 with the acquisition of Relative Genetics. Besides ordering a genetic genealogy test, you can run a free search for DNA matches (even if you were tested with another company), search for names of others who’ve been tested (detailed results are private, but you can contact a matching person through the site) and look for surname studies.
 
Learning Center: This area provides how-to genealogy information and help using Ancestry.com. Keep in mind the focus is marketing; you’ll find few recommendations for resources outside Ancestry.com.

The Learning Center has several subsections: Get Started offers simplified beginning steps and research forms; Find Answers has videos and tips on using the records in Ancestry.com; Build a Tree explains how to create a family tree on Ancestry.com; Join the Community introduces you to the site’s member profiles, blogs and message boards; Discover More touts various aspects of Ancestry.com; and Keep Learning links to experts’ genealogy advice.

 
Store: Here’s where to buy Family Tree Maker software, Ancestry publications and other products.
 
 
 
Searching for ancestors
In order to find an ancestor’s record, the search terms you enter must match what Ancestry.com’s databases say about him. That’s harder than it sounds, what with variant and misspelled names; incorrectly reported or recorded names, dates and places; family members who moved, died or went for a walk before the census taker came by; confounding handwriting; mistranscriptions; and other problems rampant in historical records and indexes. In addition, what you understand to be true about your ancestor—where he was born, when he immigrated—might not be what really happened. The site tries to account for all this by assuming the information in your ancestor’s record won’t perfectly match the search terms you enter.
 
The search engine scores records according to how well they match your search terms, called “ranking.” It gives points for closely matching terms and subtracts points for names and dates that don’t match. Results are presented in ranked order, with one to five stars indicating the quality of the match. The frustrating part? Your best match still might earn just a single star. There may be an infinitesimal difference between two records’ scores, and it can be hard to tell why some records made the list. Even if you get a lot of irrelevant matches, your search still might miss your ancestor’s record. 
 
In that case, use the panel on the left side of the results page to refine your search by adding or changing terms. You also can designate certain terms as Exact to find records in which the specified term exactly matches what you’ve entered: If you check Exact by your ancestor’s last name Smyth, the search won’t return results for Smith or Schmidt. Further, when you specify Exact for a search field, the search ignores records that don’t have information in that field. For example, say you choose Exact for your ancestor’s death date. That’ll eliminate a slew of results because few records contain death information—your ancestor wasn’t dead when most of his records were created. So it’s best to do a general search first and see what you get, then judiciously check Exact boxes if necessary.
 
 
Strategies for hard-to-find folks

If your Ancestry.com searches are unsuccessful, try these strategies:

 
Be methodical. Change one search term at a time. Say you don’t know Great-grandpa’s birth year, and a broad range gets a ton of results. Start with a narrow range that covers five years. If you don’t find him, enter the next or previous five years. Don’t also change the spelling of his last name, or you won’t know what’s throwing you off. Keep a log of your searches.
 
Use wildcards. These symbols can help catch strange spellings. Insert them in a name to tell the search engine that any letter could go in that spot. Use a question mark (?) to replace one character and an asterisk (*) to replace zero or more. A search for fran* will return matches on Fran, Franny and Frank. A search for Johns?n matches Johnson and Johnsen, but not Johnston. Note the wildcard must follow at least three characters: Entering Br*n, for example, will get you an error message.
 
Take out the name. You can search without a name, though you’ll have to experiment a little. Enter at least a place and birth date (don’t check Exact yet). If you get a message to add more search terms, try adding a first name or initial, or check Exact for one or more terms.
 
Try odd variants. Ancestry.com automatically searches for spelling variations and nicknames (unless you check Exact), but you still should enter unusual nicknames and outlandish interpretations. 
 
Search within a database. Looking for a specific record, such as the 1920 census? Use the search form for that database. It’s customized to the data, letting you more-specifically formulate your search. To find the form, locate the database title on the main Search page or in the Card Catalog (link to the catalog from the side or the bottom of the main Search page). Search the Card Catalog or filter it by database category (click Clear All between searches).
 
Browse. It’s time-consuming, but try looking at records that would’ve been filed near your ancestor’s. Find the search form for the individual database and scroll down, where you usually can select a place (for records organized geographically), alphabet range (for records arranged by name) or date range (for records filed chronologically). So to browse a census, choose a state, then a county, then an enumeration district. Use arrows at the top of the record viewer to view nearby records. Another browsing method is to run a search and then use the arrows to look through the records.
 
Get the original. Problems indexing and scanning records can make them hard to find or unreadable in online databases. Use the source information on the individual database page to find microfilm of the original records.
 
Check for gaps. Maybe the record you need isn’t there because it was lost or destroyed, or was never created in the first place. Check the source information and ask a genealogy librarian from your ancestor’s area about missing records.
 
 
 
Vital Statistics

 
Web address: <Ancestry.com>
 
Owner: The Generations Network,

360 West 4800 North, Provo, UT
84604, (800) 262-3787

 
Subscriptions:

US Deluxe Membership (includes all Ancestry.com content): $155.40 annually, $50.85 for three months, $19.95 monthly
World Deluxe Membership (includes content on Ancestry.com, Ancestry.ca, Ancestry.co.uk, and other worldwide sites): $299.40 annually, $83.85 for three months, $29.95 monthly
Paying subscribers: 850,000
Content: 26,000 databases with more than 7 billion indexed names

 
Major Content Collections

• all available US census records; many Canadian, England and Wales censuses
• US border-crossing records and microfilmed passenger arrival lists
• military records including Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI and WWII databases
• vital-records indexes from various US states, Canada and the United Kingdom
• 20,000 digitized family and local history books; city directories and yearbooks
• newspapers dating back to the 1700s
• 8 million user-contributed family trees

 
Timeline

1983: Founded as Ancestry, a small publishing company
1997: Paul Allen and Dan Taggart buy Ancestry, launch MyFamily.com
2000: MyFamily.com buys RootsWeb
2003: MyFamily.com acquires Genealogy.com and Family Tree Maker
2004: MyFamily.com licenses Ancestry Library Edition to ProQuest
2006: MyFamily.com becomes The Generations Network (TGN)
2007: TGN acquires Relative Genetics
2008: TGN debuts World Archives Project
 

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