Searching for ancestors online is about more than just typing a name into a database or search engine, as you probably learned after the first few dozen times your search for a problem ancestor came up empty.
For example, my third-great-grandmother Elizabeth (Teipel) Thoss mysteriously vanishes sometime between her youngest child’s birth in 1894 and the 1900 census, when her husband is a widow. She’s not where she should be in death records, and searches on genealogy sites net few results. When I search collections indexed with optical character recognition software, I get hundreds of hits on the word “those.”
There are a bunch of variants for Elizabeth’s maiden and married names, too. Wildcards, which you’ll learn about in our upcoming Secrets of Successful Web Searches webinar, can be helpful when you can’t find an ancestor because the name in the record (whether the original or a searchable index) isn’t spelled as you expect.
Usually, a * wildcard stands in for zero or more characters in a name, and a ? stands for one character, but genealogy websites handle them differently:
- Ancestry.com: * stands for zero to five characters; ? stands for one. See wildcard search rules in the site’s Help menu.
- FamilySearch: * stands for zero or more characters; ? stands for one. For search tips, look under First Names and Last Names here.
- Fold3: Wildcard searches used to work here, but the ones I tried today returned no results.
- Mocavo: I couldn’t find wildcard search tips here, but the * seems to work: had*d returned haddad and Haddonfield. My search terms weren’t always highlighted in the results, though.
- MyHeritage: The site doesn’t seem to permit wildcards. My searches treated * and ? like spaces.
You even can use * as a wildcard with some search engines: Put it at the end of a truncated word to find related words (such as Thos* to find Thoss, Thossen or Those). But on Google, * stands in for a whole word.
In addition to wildcard searching, our Secrets of Successful Web Searches webinar will show you
- Search secrets that work across popular genealogy websites, as well as with Google
- How to use FamilySearch.org and Google to unlock family history information on Ancestry.com
- How browsing can help you find ancestors that searches overlook
- How to get results by searching without a name