Why Your and Other Online Genealogy Searches Don’t Work

By Diane Haddad


Chances are you’ve become frustrated at times when searching for ancestors online at genealogy sites such as, 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.

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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.

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