Hi! My name is Anne Mitchell and I’ve just joined the team here at ancestry.com as the product manager for search. My previous job experience has been both in product management and engineering at companies including webshots.com and excite.com. And in case you’re thinking, “well that’s nice, but does she actually do genealogy, does she actually use search?” the answer is a resounding yes. I drive family and friends a little crazy in my quest to find my ancestors, and ancestry.com has been a very important part of that quest. So you see, I have a vested interest in making search the best it can possibly be.
I’ve been reading your comments over the past few months and I have an idea of what you think is working and not working. I’m hoping you will continue to share your thoughts on what works and doesn’t work with us. This is my first week on the job and I’ve spent time talking to our search engineers and the rest of the team trying to get an understanding of how the system works, and what is being worked on. There is a lot going on here, and it will take me a little while to get completely up to speed so I’m hoping you can be a tiny bit patient while that happens.
The new search interface is the hot topic of conversation. It’s not a new search engine; it’s just a new way to interact with the search engine. And yes, I know, it’s not always behaving in a way that you expect. But it’s a never-ending process of improvement for us. There are many plans in the works to improve the interface and the backend engine to bring you better results.
I’ve been reading the posts and some of you have done a good job of documenting searches and unexpected behaviors in the search results with new search interface and the old search interface. Now, I can’t address all of them in one posting, but I am going to starting pulling a few at random and try and dissect them here so that we can make some progress.
The case of John Cousins
So let’s begin with a posting by Tony C about one of his ancestors John Cousins. Here’s the snippet to get us started:
Name – John Cousins – exact
Born 1816 +/- 2 years – exact in Suffolk, England – again
Now add the fact that he died somewhere around 1877, again in Suffolk, England – exact all you get are family trees.
OK, so this is what I tried in the new search interface (click on the image to see the results):
And sure enough, I get family trees. Not there is anything wrong with family trees, but we would like to get some other documents. The issue lies with “exact”, specifically, the location, and how the data is stored.
Now I’m seeing census links and BMD records. So what happened?
Back to the new search interface. Why is exact location wrong? Then it hits me, a census record doesn’t know the exact location of death. How can it? John Cousins is still alive when the census was recorded. What if I just try “unexacting” the death location:
I see the census records. Interesting. But no BMD records.
So I try the opposite:
So what does this tell me. Exact death location will prohibit me from getting a census record. Does that make sense? I think it does. A census record does not contain death information so it shouldn’t match.
In the old search interface, your “exactness” was much more general, and it was sort of hit or miss in how it worked. In the new search interface, you can be very specific, and that ultimately gives you a lot more power in refining your searches. Which can a very useful tool when you are trying to wade through a bunch of records.
Now I know some of you are sitting there thinking, “Um, Anne, I really don’t want to think that hard, I just want to see the records I need. Old interface search gave me what I wanted.” I think maybe some of you are luckier than I am, because the old search interface was NOT always giving me what I wanted. But you probably don’t want to hear my long journey through the western Virginia census records. I ended up having to read through them to find what I wanted (which is sort of fun anyway). I just couldn’t be specific enough to find what I needed. I am finding some better results with the new search interface.
Over the next few weeks, I will try and pull up more of the examples you all have had trouble with and see if we can’t figure exactly why the new search interfaces produces what it does and if it is reasonable.
And I’ll show you some of the successes I have had as well, and hopefully some of you can share those with me as well.
Hang in there, we are going to work on making search on ancestry the best it can be. Stay tuned.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.