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5 Tips for Improving Your Ancestry.com Searches

By Family Tree Editors

A search is a search is a search, right? Not necessarily, especially when it comes to Ancestry.com’s massive database. Here are five tips for improving your searches on Ancestry.

1. Craft a Strong Search Plan

Ancestry.com has a powerful search engine for its database of genealogy records, but you have to take a strategic approach. Typing your ancestor’s name, birthday and location is a start, but it won’t magically turn up records relevant to your family history. While you can cast a wide net by keeping the research parameters broad, or steadily narrow them down to exact spellings and dates, the system is imperfect and may not pull up records that have misspellings or transcription errors.

Before you type in a single query, create a search plan. What is it that you want to know? This is one of the most overlooked steps in our hurry to discover new things. However, if you can formulate your search into a question, you will be able to determine what records you need to find the answer and you’ll cut down on aimless searches.

2. Tweak Your Ancestry Search

If you’re investing in an Ancestry.com subscription, you want to be able to turn up all the relevant records in the database. Ancestry has millions of records in over 37,700 collections, so if you’re not getting the results you want when you search by name and date, try using Ancestry.com’s filters to refine the search. You can also try reversing the first and last names.

Try searching a few different spellings of your ancestor’s names, try both married and maiden names, and use wild cards such as asterisks and question marks in your searches.

3. Research the Card Catalog

When you’ve created a plan and have your question in mind, you’ll find that it to do some research on the available collections. The Card Catalog not only lets you search within a specific collection; you can also learn about the overall records. Some even offer search tips inside the collection, so they can save you a lot of time and effort.

The best reason to search the Ancestry.com catalog is to get a feel for the types of collections available. You can also see records that have been recently added or updated, plus get a feel for the sheer scope of what’s already in the online database. Within the catalog, you filter your search by collection type, region, dates, and language. You can also narrow your results by doing a keyword search.

Another great reason to search the Ancestry.com catalog: to know the types of records. This can inspire new leads in your research, plus inspiration for you when your genealogy research stagnates. You may find records that don’t come up using the search engine, or end up buried several pages back in the results.

4. Master the Art of the Hint

Hints can be incredibly handy, but you have to explore them closely to ensure they match the ancestors you’re researching. There are steps you can take to improve the quality of the hints you’re receiving, and that includes making sure your online tree is as accurate as you can make it.

5. Learn What the Records Tell You

It’s not enough to learn about the collections; you’ll want to learn what the records within each collection can tell you about your ancestors. For example, the largest group of US records in the Wills, Probates, Land, Tax and Criminal Records collections are the court, governmental and criminal records. Court records can include everything from wills and probate records to criminal lists and divorce records. Records vary from state to state, so read the description to learn what details you can expect to find—and what you can’t.

Take the California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950 collection. Here you can find names, crimes, conviction dates, prison numbers, discharge dates, physical descriptions, and several other details useful to your research.

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