Using Ranked Search at

by George G. Morgan allows you many search options to find your ancestors. Two of the most important are the Ranked Search and the Exact Search. These are options that are found as tabs at the top of many of the search templates, or boxes, throughout the site.

The Ranked Search helps you locate data about your ancestors quickly and easily by bringing up the best possible matches first in your list of search results. Performing a Ranked Search also gives you the option of specifying a date and place of birth and/or a date and place of death in your search. The search results page shows the most relevant matches from all of the Ancestry databases on the initial search results page, including basic information about birth, marriage, and death events as well as other possible matches.

Start by clicking the Ranked Search tab at the top of the search template. When the Ranked Search template (which is tan in color) appears, enter as much information as you can. Sometimes even an educated guess can help. Those family stories can come in handy here! The more information you fill in, the better your chances of getting more search results.

The Ranked Search Results screen will usually appear, listing all possible matches. For example, I entered the name of my uncle, Joe Mason (his forename was not Joseph), and information I knew. He was born in 1914 in the U.S. in North Carolina, and he died in the U.S. in Virginia. I allowed for a search of “All Record Types� but only for the United States. The search results appeared and were very helpful.

To the left of each search results are stars that represent the match quality. Four and five star matches are probably the most relevant match, while one to three stars represent possibly less appropriate matches. A drop-down box at the top of the list allows you to refine the search results presented by specifying “All Matches� or only those up to and including certain star ratings.

In this case, Joe Mason, whose middle name was Brown, is shown in the OneWorldTree, and as Joe B Mason in the U.S. World War II Enlistment Records, 1938-1946.  These are four-star ratings. By selecting only four-star results or better, I narrowed a rather large group of results down to seventeen, and two were applicable to my Uncle Joe.

A Ranked Search is also smart enough to automatically return alternate spellings and abbreviations for name(s) of your ancestor. For example, a search for Joe Mason also returned some matches for Joseph Mason and Jos. Mason. This is especially helpful when records include other variants, misspellings, and nicknames. Additional names may be returned with first or middle initials for someone, as happened when I entered Joe Mason and got responses for both Joe B Mason and Joe Brown Mason. For records from the databases, such as the OneWorldTree, a person might be included in the search results (with less stars) because his or her father’s name was Joe, Jos., or Joseph Mason. While these may seem extraneous, they really are not. They are additional clues!

What happens if you enter a name into the Ranked Search and you get no results at all? In this case, your search is probably set to only search for five-star entries. Click on the link labeled “See the lower-quality matches you missed� near the top of the screen. It will then display matches with less than five stars and you can browse there for potential matches.

Also, remember that if you add more information, you increase your chances of bringing your ancestor to the top of the list. The Ranked Search is a powerful tool. Try it out and get a feel for what it can do for you!
AWJ Editor’s Note: For a more in-depth look at the Ranked Search, see Kendall Hulet’s informative article, Needles, Haystacks, and Ranked Search at


Visit George’s ALL-NEW website for information about his company, speaking engagements, and presentation topics. You can also listen to George and Drew Smith’s “Genealogy Guys” podcast at:

Copyright 2006,

39 thoughts on “Using Ranked Search at

  1. Am I the only one who can’t/won’t use Ranked Search? I think the results are confusing and hard to sort, never apply to the person I’m looking for and navigating the results is very difficult. I use Exact Search with much better, clearer, simpler results and have great luck finding what I need. The biggest problem in the Census Records is the poor transcription, and no amount of ranked searching will help that one. I use Ranked Search as a last resort, not a first one.

  2. The stars work great for slimming down the list but if I remember years ago there was a way to click off if you had viewed the item previously. If your surname has letters the same begining like James or John..the “J” will bring it up on both list. Let’s say the parents had boys with both of these names and you had reviewed the report under James and it now appears again under John the color doesn’t change (because you had opened it) nor is there a place to check it off. Either of these would really help to save on time. I know you can’t do anything about this but maybe those who design may read this and take it to heart. Thanks for the new blog…the design is beautiful and it is easy to use. Mary Ann

  3. George,

    What does someone do to get more than 3 stars for a Ranked Search result? I have Rudolf Filip. I did an exact search and obtained the transcription of his Immigration Record. I then opened another window and went to New York Passenger Lists and changed from Exact to Ranked Search.

    I copied & pasted all of the information from my Exact Search into the boxes in the Ranked Search for the New York Passenger Lists. I added as Keywords: Breuham (copied from Exact Search Result) 1866 Oct 29. I indicated he was male and didn’t use + or- for year of birth (1866).

    I clicked Search and this is what I got:

    The Ranked Search result is 3 stars. I think since I requested everything exactly as in the transcription that Rudolf should have been 5 stars or maybe 4. Sure Rudolf is first on the list but there are 52 others that have 3 stars including his sister #3 on the list and 2 of his brothers. His other sister is #54 on the list and 2 stars.

    If I didn’t know the information and searched with FTM 2006, requesting only 4 and 5 stars, I would not have gotten his information. The search would have been done using Rudolf Filip as that is his correct name as I have it in FTM 2006.

    Can you explain why Rudolf got only 3 stars when I used exact information for a Ranked Search and there is no question who I am looking for?

  4. Thank you George!

    Even though I’ve been using ranked searching for many moons, your article clarified a few things. It also prompted me to use the WWII database – one I hadn’t thought of mining before.


  5. I totally disagree with coments about the effectiveness of the ranked search. For me it has most always been a total waste. First, when I enter data, such as birth state it will give me results for other states that I know are incorrect. This is frustrating when I am absolutely sure of the birth state from positive sources. The second most frustrating part of this search is that I never know how many hits I have. The screen only shows that there are more hits. I set my replies to 50 so I don’t know if there are just 50 or if there are 500 or 5,000.

    Also, to do as Mr. Morgan states and select “All Record Types” you must first be in the Advanced Search page, not the opening page of Ancestry.

    I just did a search, as suggetsed in this weeks newsletter, using a first name only. I know from actual sources the birth state and where mny family was living in 1910. In the results page I had numerous incorrect states for both where my relative was born and where they were living in 1910, and who knows how many total results. Mostly this is a waste of my time. Ed Keelin

  6. Thanks. Until the previous article in Ancestry News, I really did not understand the signifigance of ranked searches. I can now make much better use of ranked searches.

  7. I agree with Chris. I never use the ranked search because of all the spelling errors/mistranscriptions of the English-as-a-second-language transcribers Ancestry uses. I just keep plugging away with the exact search, often resorting to first name, state, and birth year. I always get my man (or woman) eventually.

  8. Glad to see that I am not the only one who has problems with the ranked search. As Ed stated above, too many irrevelant entries come up when you try and limit the search to known information. I think this blog is a good idea; however I would like a little larger print. I tried enlarging it by holding down the control button and turning my mouse wheel, but the print did not become larger. Is there any other way I can enlarge the print?

  9. I think the ranked searches on Ancestry are one of the weakest part of the site. When I put in detail such as DOB or DOD, Locations etc I get a laundry list of people who are on the SSDI list with 3 stars who died 40-50 years before SSI was even started, names of people who were born and died in states not even close. Ancestry should set up their filters to be more realistic regarding the star system.

  10. Ditto most of the above comments. Ranked Search needs to be improved to be more useful.

  11. Quick note to reply #8 (Sue). At the top of your browser click view > text size > than move the dot to Largest.

  12. Sue – To enlarge the print click on “edit”, “select all”, then go to “view” and click on “text size”. Good luck.

  13. Exact search has always been too limitiing for me. I have always been more succesful using ranked search. All sorts of surprises pop up that sometimes leads to the info I’m looking for, and other times has led to a serendipitous adventure into other people in the family.

    Thank you #12 (Thomas). I too prefer the larger print.

  14. I, too, have had a difficult time with the ranked search, for all of the reasons mentioned. In particular,it will bring up matches to the name you are looking for, then a list of totally unrelated names, and, if you keep working your way down the list, more of the name you are searching for. There is no rhyme or reason for some of the results. Very discouraging.

  15. It can get frustrating, but I have found other family members in that family by the ranked search. So it can be helpfull if you have the time to go thru them, then again you can save time by finding others in the family that you wanted to look up anyway. Just keep an open mind and find a family not just one member.

  16. this is not from this article but has to do with research. Is the “True Stories of New england Captives” a book or a series of articles? My ancstors were the Stebbins whom are frequently mentioned in this as well as the Sheldons. I would like the complete book if it is one. Thank you.

  17. I have a grandfather that I KNOW didn’t sneak into the US. All the papers I’ve found show that he arrived here in 1898 and probably through Ellis Island. But he is unfindable.

    I’ve tried ranked search for him trying to find variant spellings. It doesn’t work…

    I’d love to have a search function for variant spellings. The name I’ve been looking for is Flanagan and of course it was spelled a number of ways. I’ve even resorted to putting in Hanagan and have found several Flanagans who have had the F and the L run together so they look like H. I try to alert Ancestry at all of those I find.

    Bottom line: I wish there was a really decent variant spelling way to search.

  18. I have to agree with all the negative comments about ranked search. While I know patience is required, it’s very frustrating to have all the non-related information come up. If we ask for something pertaining to New York, then only New York should come up. If we don’t know the state, then we can select “All States.” The other thing that makes it difficult is not knowing how many hits come up in a ranked search. Most of us are busy people and using a spare 15 minutes to do a search for someone where the results are numerous means going back and starting all over again when we have more time. I’m getting used to the new format; it is clear and concise, but it’s hard for this old dog to learn new tricks! And I miss my “daily dose”!

  19. Obviously I have always used ranked search without realizing it. I just tested it out and came up with five stars for my grandfather. The only problem was that there were several others with five starts, etc. If I didn’t know the correct information I wouldn’t have known which one he was. These other people were from other states as well as other wrong information from what I had entered. Why do we get all the information?

  20. Sorry, have to agree more with the negative comments: irrelevant info (states, dates) and never knowing the total number of results makes me not want to take the time anymore to use this feature. Nice idea- this blogg. People learning from each other.

  21. Is it okay to suggest another website? If so for question 18 I have found my my family at the Ellis Island site or Steve Morse website. Truely amazing but I am so glad I copied the info as now cannot pull it up again.

  22. Well, thank goodness for someplace to ask questions and ask for help! I love the stuff on, but I have been so frustrated with their search engines, that I have not been able to recommend it to my Family History Students.

    Right now I am trying to do a search just as has been recommended. Well after I asked for the United States, up pops “Provinces” for the states. There is no way I can narrow it down with that error! This has happened quite often both in the U.S. and in the U.K. In the U.K., instead of getting English Counties, up pops Irish counties. And this error is not consistant, it just happens “Pot Luck”…never knowing when it will occur.

    Anyone else having that problem?

  23. I use the ranked search, but do wish there was a way to narrow down the results. Many times I know some of the items with reasonable certainty and wish to search only those that exactly match. It is most frustrating with the census.

    Not knowing how many hits is also frustrating. After 2 or 3 pages I generally quit.


  24. To #23

    I have been able to find a lot of information about my families…..Thanks to However, I.too. have the problem with “Provinces” poping up for a state I thought I had selected. Hopefully this will soon be fixed.

  25. It would be nice to be able to narrow the search criteria. I use the rank search most of the time. Also, knowing how many hits would be helpful. I also have the problem with “Provinces” popping up. This is a good idea with the blogg. I enjoy and use it all the time.

  26. Ranked search returns way too many searches that shouldn’t be included. Even if you put a date range in and also a location, you get everything under the sun, even using the star system. It’s my biggest annoyance with my subscription. If I limit a search to, say, Alabama between 1850 and 1910, why can I generate results only in that state and only during that time?

  27. Ranked search and the Obituaries are the catagories I very seldom use. I have never found anything in the obituaries and have found very little using ranked search. Sometimes in exact search I have to resort to different methods of entry, adding or taking away information, using varient spelling, etc. Maybe more effort but more rewarding most of the time.

  28. This site is no good. It takes me longer to find anything.I kept one of my old daily pages and that is what I use.

  29. In response to Tamara, comment #26, I have also had the same problem with “Provinces” coming up after I have already entered “United States” and then an individual “State”. I have found this to be pretty irritating…enough so that I contacted Although I have been extremely pleased with the service, I felt totally blown off by the tech support rep, who indicated that it was just a minor issue that he had noticed too and that it was easy to deal with. I felt like I was bringing something to their attention in a helpful way about a “new little glitch”, but it seemed clear that, at least this particular tech wasn’t interested in improving the site – nor was anything going to be done about it and, clearly, nothing has as far as I can tell.

  30. I have to agree with the negative comments on Ranked Searches as well. Why bother having the state and year options if they are not used to filter the results? For example, I am trying to find out when my grandmother Edna Muethal McTaggart ??? died. She divorced my grandfather in 1924 and was dead (if my mother was correct) by 1930. It is very frustrating to look for someone who died before 1930 when so many Ednas come up as dying in the 1990s.

  31. I too find frustration when working in the ranked search. We should be able to narrow our search to specific times and places. I spent half an hour going through about ten pages of New York and San Francisco hits with years ranging from creation to today. My criterion was a last name in Mississippi between the years of 1790 to 1860. So why did I get San Francisco in 1930?

    The ranked search pages would benefit from some sort of marking system so that we don’t have to sort through the same hits multiple times and a bookmark so that if we don’t have ten hours to look at all two-thousand hits we can come back to where we left off.

    I find most of to be very helpful and I have found a lot of information about my families but this search engine needs to have a researcher’s input respected to be useful.

    I also miss my daily dose and found it difficult to get back to this blog. The navigation system may have been set up by the same folks who do the ranked search engine. By the way, I have been a subscriber since before they charged for everything on the site and when you could access Canada information without another costly subscription. Therefore, I have considerable experience with the MyFamily Inc. system.

  32. I also have had problems with “Provinces” popping up when I was trying to search for a “State”. I found a way to overcome the problem. Click on “All Countries” and “Provinces” will disappear. Then click on “United States” and “States” will appear.

  33. While Ranked Search has its limitations, I feel we should not decide there is absolutely no value in ranked searches. For example, in searching for Marcus Gilliam in the 1920 census living in Missouri, Exact Search provides no match whereas Ranked Matches lists M.J. Gilliam living in St. Louis–he’s my guy. I typically use Exact Search first, however I am glad Ranked Searches is available as an alternative and would not wish to see it go away.

  34. I guess I’ll have to learn how to print off only part of an article. Printing all the comments is SUCH A WASTRE OF TIME, PAPER AND INK. No thanks.

  35. I have read the comments on using ranked search and would like to offer my technique for using ranked as well as exact search.

    When starting a search on someone new, I like to begin by creating a profile for them on the My Ancestry page by clicking on the add new person link to the right of the People I’m Looking For heading. This has several advantages including being able to guestamate dates. Once I have created and saved the profile, I start my search by clicking on the small magnifying glass to the right of the person’s name that is now under the heading People I’m Looking For. On the following search records page I will choose ranked/all records search. The search records template is auto populated from the profile I have created. On the following results page I look at any and all records that are even close in date, place or spelling. (One of the biggest mistakes you can make is getting caught up in the “ I know he/she was born or lived in any exact place or time”. Even if you have a ten confirmed records stating the exact same information, it does not mean that some other record does not have errors). If I think the record is legit, I will save a link to it by clicking on the Save To My Ancestry button. I don’t like to spend much time evaluating or printing out the record at this point. I will just save the link and keep searching. I do not go through dozens of pages either. If I don’t find something in the first few pages I then narrow my search by clicking on the links to specific databases on the left hand side of the results page. After I feel like I have exhausted the ranked results, I will go back to the My Ancestry page and go through the records comparing and taking notes. This allows me to see where I need to search to fill the holes. I then do an exact search, in an exact database, using an exact state and county, and search for just the last name. I am now looking for anyone in that area and time frame with that last name. This is also where I start playing with the spelling of the name if I need to by using the wildcards and/or soundex.

    Some side notes: I pay little attention to the star rankings. Doing a ranked search is all about finding any information that may come from places, dates, and spellings you might over look. Historical records are famous for mistakes, for a variety of reasons. As I mentioned before, if you get caught up in searching for your ancestor with just the exact information you currently have, you will miss out on some, possibly many other records.

    Also, as I find better, more accurate information while doing my ranked search, I will update the profile by clicking on their name on the My Ancestry page, and then do another search.

  36. Yep, searches can be very frustrating. Try finding the family “DeVincentis” when it was indexed as “Deinimanley”. Huh? I found them in 1900 by searching for their neighbors, the Graham family. I couldn’t find them in 1910. In 1920, I found them by looking up my grandmother’s name, “Mabel”. Need I tell you how many “Mabels” lived in Philadelphia in 1920? They came up as “DeVicentis”. There’s not too many ways around an enumerator’s error.

    But what I REALLY would like to see is the on -line family tree be faster, easier and more complete. It’s too clunky – no options for nice looking reports – too confusing for citations. We pay enough for a subscription. It would be nice to have an updated on -line program. (Can anyone recommend a good one?)

  37. Regarding no. 26 and no. 30 with the problem of provinces popping up with “United States”: I use Mozilla Firefox as my main browser and this has never happened. However, I use Microsoft Internet Explorer if I need to look up newspaper articles on Ancestry since Firefox doesn’t handle them well. In Internet Explorer I had the same experience with “United States” and “provinces”. It seems one must choose again the country, etc., before proceeding.

  38. I would agree with the comments made about difficulties with searches, both exact and ranked. It seems to me that almost always if I do an exact search (KNOWING that this man is in there somewhere, because I have found him elsewhere) I get Nothing, I have to keep backing off my terms; and if I do a ranked search, I get so many it is useless. I did a search for a man who died in 1895. The first one on the results was from the 1920 census. Huh?

    As well, not knowing how many hits there are is frustrating–if I go for 15 more minutes, will I be near the end? or are there 10,000 hits?? I feel that I have to know pretty precisely where my man is before I start at ancestry, or I just spin my wheels. I use Heritage Quest to pin down the years and areas, if I can, and then go to Ancestry–saves me a lot of time.

    I wish there was a way when you switched from Exact to Ranked search you didn’t have to enter all the information again; or when you go Back, you didn’t have to list the country and state again. Sounds petty, but when you do it over and over, you are tearing your hair out.

    All that being said, it is wonderful to be able to have Something to search! It just needs to be tweaked somehow to let you narrow it down, spouses or…? Something like at, but improving on their system where you can put just a surname and narrow it down by state, county, country–that’s a real downer aspect of that one; but at least you know how many hits there are.

    It is frustrating that there is no “suggestion” box anywhere where you can list complaints like this, so I thank you for providing this forum.

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