Using Ancestry.com: Turning Changes Into Results, by Juliana Smith

Newsboys, 1908Well, I’m back from a week away from the computer and wow, how things can change in such a short time. It was a week of changes at Ancestry.com and I made a few changes around the house. (I wrote a bit about the Ancestry.com changes this week on the blog).

While I was off, I cleaned out the basement. We had some storage issues that needed to be addressed so I hauled everything out and started going through things, sorting, tossing, combining, and generally putting things in better order.

When my husband came home from work I could tell by the look on his face he was none too pleased with my efforts thus far. I kept telling him to be patient–I had a vision! I was going to rearrange the furniture in his space and it would give him more room and solve some of our storage problems. He remained skeptical. (To be fair, he’s seen some of my visions that didn’t quite play out as well I’d hoped.)

My renovations had taken him by surprise, but by the end of the next day when he got home, he was thrilled with his new sanctuary. There were still some rough spots to be worked out, of course. He lost some shelf space near his desk that he liked and there was the logistics of where to plug things in, etc. It took some time, and as he notices things, he is still tweaking it a bit, but the bottom line is, once he gave it a chance, he found he really liked it.

I have been listening to a lot of discussion this week about the changes at Ancestry.com, and while there are some known issues, the folks at Ancestry are working on correcting them and tweaking the site, and more improvements are forthcoming.

The comparison between Ancestry and my little project, while it has its similarities, is really an uneven one. While there was some sorting to make things easier to find, it goes beyond just sorting the Christmas stuff from the Easter stuff from the Halloween stuff, etc. And the complications I had were not nearly as, well . . . complicated, as those faced by the folks at Ancestry. This was major stuff!

Let’s think about it for a minute. The collections at Ancestry.com have been growing for ten years. Ten years! Think back. If you had a computer ten years ago, what kind was it and what could it do? It was the day of the Zip drive (which wowed us at the time with its ability to store 100MB!), and Windows 95 was still new.

What kinds of databases were available then? Mainly indexes with few searchable fields. Compare that technology to the more flexible searching of more recent databases and their links to actual images. Most of us probably didn’t imagine it was possible to make the entire U.S. Federal Census (as well as much of the UK and parts of Canada) available for searching and viewing from the comfort of home.

Not only does Ancestry have to constantly update so that all the databases–old and new–”play nice” in the larger search environment of today, but they also have to have foresight and think ahead to emerging technologies and new data collections. This is a daunting task, to say the least, when you’re working with upwards of 23,000 databases.

Where’s My Keyword Search?
With changes comes adaptation. My husband has had to adapt to some of the changes I made and is faced with where to stash his beloved sunflower seeds and where to plug in all his equipment. (The seed problem was quickly solved, whereas we’re probably going to have to enlist the aid of an electrician to help us with the latter problem.)

We’re also going to have to adapt to the search changes, and truth be told, it really isn’t all that painful. Perhaps one of the most difficult changes on the search functionality was the loss of the keyword search and some other advanced functions on the main search pages. In speaking with some of the folks at Ancestry, I am told that the new advanced search page that is in the works will restore the missing search tools and add some new functionality as well.

But in fact, these tools are not really gone. The main searches will typically bring in more hits than you need, but once you locate a database of interest and are viewing the hits in a particular database, you have the ability to refine your search, typically in an advanced search template customized for searching the data within. These templates have always been more powerful and effective than the global search and for this reason it is the route I usually take anyway, bypassing the global search for the most part, and zeroing in on one database of interest.

How Do I Know What’s Available?
There are several ways to explore what databases are available for your area of interest and the new Card Catalog is a great place to start. I wrote about it a while back on the blog and George Morgan also discussed it in his 18 June column.

The ability to browse by location is also still available. From the main search page, just select the location you are interested in from the list or map in the lower left portion of the page and browse through the lists of titles, which are arranged by record type.

Explore a Bit
One good thing that comes out of change, is that it forces us to shed old habits and take a fresh look around. I played around with all the searches and although I found that I still like my direct approach best, the main search brought some new things to my attention. I searched Photographs and Maps for Brooklyn and found some great photographs that are available from the Library of Congress Photo Collection. One showed a family in 1912 making brushes at home. (I posted this image with today’s quote. Click on the image to enlarge it.) Since an ancestor of mine was a brushmaker, I found this particularly interesting. The photo citation reads:

8 P.M. Farrell family, 151 Eleventh St., Brooklyn. (See schedule.) They had temporarily discontinued the brush making, but sent to a neighbor for materials and posed for me, just as they had been doing it. The little five year old on the right is very deft. Her eyes seemed to be troubling her. Boy on left is a neighbor who makes them too. The father complained of the little money there is in the work. Location: New York–Brooklyn, New York (State)

Another photograph from 1908 (click on the image to enlarge it) showed a group of newsboys, one of them with a cigarette in his mouth. It was particularly heart-wrenching for me as he looked to be about my daughter’s age.

The Historical Records search is a bit wider than it used to be when it comes to specifying a geographic location because, if for example you specify New York, it will pull up all of the hits for that name that even mention that location. For example, a search for James Kelly in New York turned up a James Kelly in Ohio Military Men, 1917-18, whose residence was Akron, Ohio. However, it also listed his birthplace as New York, N.Y.

Although you will see more hits than normal, it can also bring some hits to the surface that may have been overlooked because the location of the record wasn’t what you expected. With the launch of the new advanced search soon, the global search will be more powerful than before, and in the meantime, we may find that by shaking up things a bit, some unexpected gems may surface.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,”rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

30 thoughts on “Using Ancestry.com: Turning Changes Into Results, by Juliana Smith

  1. I guess I probably was not the only one who emailed ancestry about the changes. It is not user friendly, hope I can get use to it. I definitely miss the keyword function. For someone who has used Ancestry for a while, it is hard for change. I will try to follow the spirit of the article and get ready for changes.

  2. I know you mean well, but I really could use less of the soft side of genealogy banter and a lot more about how to make Ancestry.com work for me.

  3. Frankly, the search engine could use a complete revamp, not just different boxes to check. The ranked search just throws everything at you, many times in duplicate. The exact search is a joke – it’s unbelievable how many times I’ve come to discover such things as there being no 18-year-old males in a given state in 1850…While I’m grateful that Ancestry has all these records online, it would be nice if I could find my people in them a little less hit or miss based on how well the search engine is working that day…

  4. Let’s here it for change!!!! Now I can’t even find things I know I’ve found before. All the new search engine has done is make everything take longer and almost impossible to find.

  5. I guess I’m a slow learner so the new format has been difficult for me but the entry today gave me a little courage to try to start all over again.

  6. As a paying customer of Ancestry.com, it would be nice to know if they even have a test server with real users trying these changes before they go “live”. It seems like the latest updates are generally disliked and confusing. Does ancestry.com try these changes out on real users before implementing them?

  7. I just signed up for the most expensive subscription and now find I can’t use it. I have to fill in the name, country, state etc. I’m looking for on 4 or more screens when previously, I could fill it in one time. It’s not only confusing but more time consuming and I swear there is less available information.

    I agree that these changes should have been more thoroughly tested before sending them out to those of us who are not experts in research. WHEN WILL WE AGAIN BE ABLE TO USE THE MAIN SCREEN YOU USED TO HAVE. I’ll just have to quit my research until then, I suppose and that’s quite a waste of my money. I am extremely disappointed!

  8. Do we get any sort of refund for the time spent on your “new and better” pages. I think it is still under construction and not really serviceable. Certainly not very usuer friendly. I am finding most of my links through the card file, but shouldn’t that link be on the home page?????? I have to go to the search page to get to it.

  9. The changes are definitely not user friendly. There was nothing wrong with Ancestry before – now it’s impossible. After writing for help, I was told where to find my listings, but it sure is hidden. Just like the gal that wrote this article – it takes forever to get to the point you’re looking for.

  10. I do hope someone is paying attention to the unhappy customers! The comments concerning changes to Ancestry (after Juliana’s column about returning from vacation and finding changes) went from 20+ to 150 in a day. I sincerely hope they continue to increase.

    I was essentially told that no one cares what we think when I complained.

  11. I am glad to see someone commenting on how to handle these changes at Ancestry. This is the worst “improvement” I have ever seen. Searches need to be user friendly. I don’t want to spend all of my time going through “hits” that I am not interested in.

    Testing definitely needs to be done. I am very disappointed.

  12. Well, you have really made a mess of the search system. The very idea of thinking that you should determine how we need to do our searches. The seach that produced the lovely list of all avaliable information was much better and as for the One World Family Tree it does not hold a candle to the old Ancestry Family Tree search. There is an old saying that Ancestry.com, MY Family.com and any other part of your company needs to learn. IF IT IS NOT BROKEN DO NOT TRY TO FIX IT. Each person has their own special way of doing research, therefore, the broadest search engine that can be used is the one that should be provided. This is impossible to work with. It takes to much time and is definately not user friendly.

    Your program developers really made a very user friendly program into one that definately discourages the use of the web site.

    As I states previously in an e-mail about the grouping of all of the differant data bases into one fee. You cut your nose off to spite your face. This will cause even more subscribers to leave your site. It is now one of the most poorly organized sites on the web. Greed of course is the basis for all of the changes. What will you be doing next. Going back to charging for each data base seperately. That looks like what you are getting ready to do.

  13. Juliana, Respectfully, do you REALLY think this new search interface is better than the old? Do you find it easier, more efficient, intuitive, better results, fewer clicks for the same results? Be honest now. If you say yes, you are in an extreme minority from what I am reading. I know you are being paid to sell this disgusting mess to us and for that, I feel very sorry for you. None of your explaination however, speaks to why ancestry gave us this kool-aid to drink with NO warning, then had the gaul to call it an improvement. Now we are being asked to “be patient”. “Just wait” we are told, “you’ll get used to it”, “change is good”, besides, the new advanced search is coming to restore that which we already had plus more improvements. Gee I feel so much better. Sure it’s difficult to mesh databases. Sure there is tons of data at ancestry.com. Ancestry is adding very little new content now, so what was the rush to make this horrible change? So how is it that google can do keyword type searches on zillions of web pages and ancestry has to take ours away because of technical difficulties? Now the message board upgrade has been postponed. What’s the scoop there? Maybe it’s not quite working up to snuff or maybe someone forgot to rip out the last of the keyword searches? I would feel modestly better if CEO Tim Sullivan would personally send me a letter apologizing for these so called improvements and refund all the subscription time until keyword is functional again. But then that isn’t going to happen is it? A lot is riding on how quickly and how good this so called “advanced search” is. To follow through on your basement cleaning analogy: I care too much for my husband to make willy-nilly changes that affect his/our space. I respect his opinion, and value his input, and intelligence, often his ideas are better than mine. Why would I not take advantage of that?

    Indeed why didn’t ancestry?

  14. Platitudes- that’s what this article is- trying to smooth over rufffled feathers, when what Ancestry should be doing is fixing the problem!! If at least SOME people had SOME positive comments, I would hold out hope that I just need to adjust to changes, but I don’t think that’s the case, and I don’t think Ancestry cares. Unless things change for the better, my money will be spent elsewhere in the future.

  15. Juliana, I always look forward to your articles and how you can apply the happenings in everyday life to genealogy, and this one was no different.

    I am wondering it someone could make a table showing how Ancestry did it the Old way and how they are doing it the New way. I like charts and tables to express information.

    I commented in the “change” section that I believe it may be a good thing to divide historical records from family trees. I find too many beginners or even those who have worked on genealogy for many years who don’t realize the difference between these types of evidence. I decided to phrase it that they have “different weights on the evidence scale.”

    Ancestry does need to improve some of their search engines, especially on the publications tab. I put in the name “George Small” with quotes like you can do on Google and it still gave hits for George on one sentence and small in another. So I’ll wait for the advanced search before using it for people searches.

    However yesterday, I tried historical records and family trees and got good information about my target subject. It did not seem that much different from results I received on similar searches a few weeks ago. So I plan to continue using Ancestry and am looking for to more advanced search options to be able to narrow down searches.

  16. I’m very impressed with the changes on Ancestry.com. I’ve found that searching with “Exact matches only” checked provides me with pretty much the same search interface and search results I’ve been used to seeing since 1998, and searching with “Exact matches only” unchecked provides me a whole different set of results.

    If I want to search just one collection, such as the 1910 Census or the Social Security Death Index, it’s easy to do, and the search can be much more refined than the search from the main page.

    My current favorite of the new features is Photos and Maps! I just searched Photos and Maps for the first time and found a picture of the building where my grandmother worked – The Bancroft Hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts – taken at the time she worked there! What a find!

    In short, after becoming familiar with the changes, I’m finding more on Ancestry.com than I ever found before.

  17. I am usually very easy going and accept change readily. But I must confess that the changes in Ancestry searches are not an improvement. Every time a person has to change screens time is wasted and slows down research. I am not impressed and I too protest my unhappiness with the change.

    Did I miss something, I have been on vacation, what happened to ranked search?

    One suggestion I have made before is to be able to check or have high lighted the Ancestry World Trees, census, and etc. that have been viewed.

    On the positive side, I do enjoy your articles.

  18. Change is NOT aways a good thing. What a colossal mistake it was to mess with something that wasn’t broken. We all know the “old saw” that goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”! I really, really detest the new format.

    “We are NOT amused”

  19. In reply to Rebecca’s comment (comment #18): Ranked Search is still there. Just make sure that “Exact matches only” is NOT checked and you can perform a ranked search.

    Note, too, that if you have the “Exact matches only” box checked, you still have a choice between “Exact” or “Soundex”.

  20. I know that change is sometimes needed to improve things, but I am afraid that improvement is something that has been left out of these latest changes at Ancestry.com. I have been a member for quite a few years now and spent a good deal of money on your membership fees. For probably 90 per cent or more of your members the purpose of subscribing to your site is to join an organization which provides a database to search for information on their genealogy. That is the product that they want to pay for and use and it should be simple to use and accurate to use. Adding a million bells and whistles that few people probably actually make use of is only a hindrance to the majority of subscribers. When items don’t work properly then it becomes a real slap in the face. Since the recent changes I have had many, many people show up in my exact searches than ever before. A few years back your searches used to have a line in the head that said “your search produced 50 (or whatever number) results”. This line is seldom seen anymore and in many searches a viewer has no idea how many hits he has to look at. Looking at the pages helps, but when their numbers go very high it is time consuming if you even just want to flip up through them. I can’t understand why something as helpful as that little bit of imformation was deleted. The accuracy of the searches has not improved one bit with these changes, but has become worse.
    When my subscription runs out the next time, I will have to consider other sites as well as ancestry.com. Perhaps those people who are much more computer literate than I am or have a great deal more time than I have may be happy with the recent changes, but I am not.

  21. In response to Robert (comment #21), check the top of your results screen. If the results screen is titled “Ranked Search Results”, go back to the search form and make sure the “Exact Matches Only” box is checked. When the results screen appears, the title should say “Exact Search Results” and you will see that the number of results will appear.

  22. I too have the same complaints at the others on this site! I find my self getting angry when I hear that is it “because we don’t want to learn how to use the site or hate changes” – as I know it and how to use it as well as any one could! It is not because of the changes. it is because on the unnecessary numbers of hits it now brings up that I will not renew my subscription. I just tried one name today ” Jonathon Needham” I had birth date and place and death date and place also. I stopped at 1,900 hits most were repeats. I had 3 matches checked and yet it bought up any match – I had found this person many times before the change, so I know it is there. What needs to be done is list the census – and directories on a separate search. that just brings up the census or the directories. I know that someone that died in the 1800′s is not going to be on the 2004 directory in the area that he died in, yet it will bring hundreds of them up. They have a “search ” key that states “census “- but it still brings up all the other items also, the same as if you had just done it through the search box on the tool bar. Some how I feel that they are saving money with the new format at out expense!
    wow I feel better now that I have been able to vent to someone LOL
    Thanks Melba from Riverside CA.

  23. I think Ancestry.com has changed for the better in the last few years.

    The subscription $ is still outrageous, but lessened with the AUS$ rise above the US $ in the last 18 months. Pity the rest of the World. If our dollar falls again it will be me going round with a bucket to Family members! Far too much for what research I’ve provided, @ $370 year. But still good value world wide Web. (I just contradicted me)

    Comments I can make:

    The site is rather slow after EST 12noon to circa 6pm. Every Canadian, American & Brit on line?

    The site freezes at other times. More overload. Ancestry.com must get it’s server act together before more people have the confience to join @ the rates required.

    Many of the Census data is outrageously wrong. Given it was probably prepared by volunteers in the old days of 1990′s, one has to be careful about who’s Mother is actually a Sister etc. A back up look at FreeBDM or other sites is worth it.

    That dam World Tree is hopeless. I hope its on its way out. Many people have just put or clicked on the Family data and it has a times mucked up a whole Family line, with children being born bfore parents and other nonesense. I wiped my Family tree on OneWorld off so no one can just copy the links.

    That’s all. Love the site. Hate all the other millions using it and slowing me down! How parochial is that !

    b

  24. Me again- One more suggestion. With the new Ms-VISTA plus Nortons (Symantec) 360 security, the ancestry.com site gets a mangling sometimes via MS & Nortons. A real spazz attack. I have to trick it into submission everytime. Down Norton, good girl…back off Vista..you’ve been fed. “sit”

    A security certificate ala MS & Norton would be goooood.
    b

  25. Oh I am silly- forgot. Outside of server & world use of / overload issues, other reasons people have trouble is their
    1. computers- not enough RAM or just too old.
    2. security software only doing its job.
    3. software loaded & also only doing the job paid for (or pirated !).
    4. the user, old dogs can learn new tricks…woof.

    b

  26. Its the journey not the destination. Many users are complaining they can’t find what they are looking for in the new search engine. Huh??? How does one know what one is looking for if one wants to find it immediately. I’ve searched from one continent to another and back. Found a lot of odd things out & had to back track to correct the obvious which did not stare me in the face when I jumped on a ‘roll’ by getting exactly what I wished for.

    I know how frustrating it can be having a whole lot of names, but one has to. People lie about there origins, their ages, their marital arrangements & their children. Census takers & or writers muck up data all the time. One can’t rely on quick results. It’s fun & exciting to get a ‘hit’ & roller coast ones way all the way to the 21st Century. Inevitably its a bit ancestrially spooky when I find its too easy.

    b

  27. Ancestry NEVER listens to the end user!!!! This is one of the WORST, most inane changes they have ever made. I’ve been a member since 2000 or 2001. The early changes were good, new material wonderful, etc. BUT NOW, the last change was awful, now this one is TERRIBLE. When you try to single out a state for their records only, ie Censuses, Vitals, History, etc. you get all this garbage that does not apply to the state that was requested! When you request just census records, they’re not even in ORDER by YEAR, they’re by popularity until you change that, who wants to go through all this to get what just a couple of clicks used to bring up???? I have had the World membership for several years . . . . If this site stays the way it is now, I’m definitely out of here.

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