Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on January 29, 2009 in Website

There were some questions in the webinar that were search related that I didn’t have time to answer. I thought I pull out some of them and answer them here.

1. Does performing a general search not look in all data sets?

If you perform a general search it will look in all 27,000 plus data sets.

2. Can we use wildcards in search? What is a wildcard?

Both are good questions. A wildcard is a character we use in a search query to represent an unknown character. Most commonly * is used to represent 0 (zero) or more characters, and ? is used to represent just one character. So if you search for Ill? in the Card Catalog title field, it will match illi and ills. If you use Ill* it will match phrases such as Illinois or illustration. As to the question “Can we use wildcards in search”, you can, but with limitations. We have over 27,000 plus data sets with over 7 billion names in them. In order to keep the site running well and not tie up our search query servers (we have thousands), we will only allow wild cards where the first three characters are specified. Ill* is ok, Il* is not.

3. Why don’t you have the 1940 census

Don’t you wish we did? 🙂 The 1940 US Census will not be made public until 2012. The US Government has decided for privacy reasons that a census must 72 years old before they will make it available for public viewing.

4. How can you identify known errors in current indexes?

Nobody knows their ancestors names better than their descendants. My favorite example is my g-g-g-grandfather Tarlton Gillespie. He’s listed as Fulton, Satton and Frelton in the transcriptions. It was my RAGK (Random Act of Genealogical Kindness) to go and add a correction.
If you want to help some future searcher, here’s what you do: on the record page, on the left hand side, you will see:

Page Tools on Record Page

Click on the “Comments and Corrections” link and enter what you believe the correct name to be.

Once it’s submitted, it takes about a week to get processed into the system and stored in our indices.

Which brings me to the next question:

5. On rare occasions, I have submitted a correction with a typo. I always recognize my typo immediately, and desperately wish for an undo. But my error is there forever. Can I delete it?

I admit it, I’ve done that as well. Currently there is no way to remove a correction once you’ve submitted it. It is on the list of features to add to the corrections tool; I believe you’ll see this around midyear.

6. If you put in a date will it stick to that date and not all dates?

If you are doing a “fuzzy” search, (that means you haven’t checked it as exact), it will not just stick to that date, but it will rank records that are around that date higher. There is a way around this, most easily done in the new search interface.

Limiting a date

You’ll notice that I have identified 1787 as Tarlton’s birth date, but you know how our ancestors were…they were never that exact on these things, so I identified a range of +- 5. Then I checked exact. So when I execute this search, a record MUST have a birth date in the range of 1782-1792, (including those two). Be careful when you do this. If the birth date is listed as 1793, it won’t show up in this example. Also, if a record does not have a birth date, it will not show up as a search result. This is a great trick in limiting the number of results you are getting.

I have six more questions that I want to answer, but this post is getting just a bit long, so I’ll post those questions and answer on Monday or Tuesday.

Happy Searching.

Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on 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. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. Gail

    I was wondering if there is a good reason why the position of the search boxes for input of death dates or birth dates is not consistant in the databases of Death Cerficates and the Death Collection. They are opposite and it is so annoying (I use these two databases alot). In the Death Collection the death date comes first but in the Death Certificates, the birth is listed first. Why is this? And am I the only one bothered by it?

  2. Ken

    Anne, what you failed to see in my post on the State pages section was that the search engines were changing from the selected old search to the new search without the new search being selected. When you try to change back, you are sent to the initial search page (select state). So before you answer that the old search is available to everyone, be sure it is available to everyone in every database. You can only fix to this by by taking down the new search until it’s ready. I know that’s not going to happen. Ancestry would have to admit it made a mistake and we can’t have that can we? I had just deleted all my cookies, etc. before logging on to Ancestry (my intial stop). Within 30 minutes of trying to use the site, the speed was cut down to less than half what it had been and the cookies, etc. had to be dumped again before I could resume. Plowing through hundreds of irrelevant search results from the new search engine and no way to access the database with the old search is extemely frustrating. The Virginia databases are not the only ones that have this problem. But since you don’t think there is a problem,, then I don’t see any reason to tell you about the others. What’s the point?

  3. Tyler

    Anne, just a note to let you guys know how much I appreciated the webinar and even though I’ve been using the site for a couple of years now, I picked up a number of good ideas.

    And, these Q&As are also excellent in presenting valuable tidbits of info in nice doses.

  4. Anne Mitchell

    Tyler, thanks. 🙂

    Ken, we currently start non cookied users out in new search. New search tends to work best for people who have not used the site before, i.e., non cookied users. I would recommend that if you are going to dump your cookies every night, that when you first visit the site, you go to the search home page, click on “Switch back to the old experience” and continue searching from there. You will be in the old experience from then on. If you delete your cookies nightly, this is the only way you can put yourself into the old search experience.

    Gail, not really sure if you are in old search or new search. I’m guessing old search because new search is pretty consistent as those templates are generated through an automated system. Currently we are not making changes to the old search templates. I could see where it might be a bit distracting but currently we are working on improving our algorithms and some other projects and not on search templates.

  5. Ken

    Anne,Evidently you are not paying attention. First, I don’t normally dump cookies nightly. This was the first time in a couple of weeks. Second, Just before signing on to this blog, I followed your directions and went to the search home page, selected Old Search and Virginia. On the next page “Virginia Historical Records” the search reverted to the New Search Experience and WILL NOT change to the Old Search regardless of how many times you select the old search or go back to the Search Home page.

  6. Virginia Arnold

    I have 2 questions.
    1) When you click on the birth, marriage, & death you also get ALL the family pictures. Why is that? If I want to search pictures I will click on Pictures.
    2) When I find another source for marriage. I have tried to attach it to the 2nd marriage where it belongs but it only wants to attach to the 3rd marriage. My mom was married 3 times. I was able to attach to the 3rd marriage but I cannot attach any for the 2nd marriage. It only gives you the option of attaching to the last marriage.

  7. Jerry Bryan

    Anne, I’ve been curious about whether New Search or Old Search was the default for a new customer (or an old customer on a new computer, or anything else that would cause the customer to be non-cookied). I’ve been an “old customer” so long that it’s hard to tell what the very original default is. The New Search default will skew usage statistics and make New Search look more popular than it really is. And, of course, making Old Search the default would similarly make Old Search look more popular than it really is (grin!). But putting that aside, are you *sure* you want the first experience that a new customer has to be New Search? It really doesn’t make a very good first impression.

    My first impressions of were terrible, and the first impressions kept me from being a paying customer for a couple of years. I first tried ancestry at my public library. At the time, I was working on either the 1830 or 1840 census for Anderson County, Tennessee. I had access to the census via microfilm at the library, but microfilm is a pain and having to drive to the library is a pain. So I was looking for an online alternative and was willing to pay for it.

    But every time I tried to search that census in that county, nobody would come up, even though I knew they were there. I would try the same search every month or two, and I kept getting the same horrible result. Perceiving myself to be a genealogy expert and a computer expert plus having Y-DNA prevented me from the simple exercise of asking a librarian for help. (I’m persuaded that there is a “don’t ask for help” gene in the Y-DNA that has been passed down from father to son for millennia!)

    A couple of years later, I finally did ask a really nice librarian for help. She tried the same search as I did with the same terrible result. The first words out of her mouth were the famous “I’ve never seen that happen before. It always works for me!”. After considerable playing around with it, she concluded that only about 10 people were indexed in that year for the whole county. But she had me try a few other census years and a few other counties. I liked what I saw. (Why didn’t I try that myself? Duh!) I went home and subscribed to ancestry. And I’ve been a satisfied customer ever since. Until New Search came along.

    First impressions really do matter.

    (By the way, p.172 is still missing from the 1830 Anderson County, Tennessee census. You can’t even browse the page. And nobody from that page is in the index. I suppose that from one point of view, this isn’t a Search problem because it can’t be fixed by improving the Search engine or the Search interface. But writ large and from the customer’s point of view, it’s certainly a “search problem” because they can’t find the data they need. I can go to the library and look at p.172. But what if somebody now living in California searched for somebody that just happened to be on that page. They would think that their ancestor was not enumerated that year.)

  8. Stephen Westcott

    It would be really helpful if when searching Births, Deaths and Marriages one could select one of the three and get only those records pertaining to the category selected.

  9. Hugh Andrew

    During the Webinar there was mention that the all in one tree was going to be returned. I am not aware that it has and so I’ve put 2009 aside and have gone back to using FTM 2006

  10. Jerry Bryan

    I would like to follow up my #8 with some additional comments about defaults. 
    Defaults matter even though they can be overridden because most of the
    time most users don’t override defaults.  I get that ancestry really
    can’t very well go back to making Old Search the default for new
    customers.  But I think there are some defaults in New Search
    that could be changed that would greatly improve the search experience with
    new customers.  And I think such changes could be made at very little
    or no cost to ancestry.

    For example, Old Search has two different search screens for
    doing a general search – a regular search screen and an advanced
    search screen.  Soundex is an option on both screens, not
    just on the advanced screen.  Exact is an option on both screens,
    not just on the advanced search screen.

    New Search does not have a Soundex option at all, neither on the regular screen
    nor on the advanced screen.  Anne has said that Soundex is coming
    back on New Search.  When Soundex does come back, it should be available on
    both the regular and on the advanced screen.  New Search has exact
    as an option, but exact is only available on the advanced screen.

    The New Search default is not to turn on the advanced screen.  In and
    of itself, that’s as it should be.  But when you couple that default
    with the fact that the exact option for New Search only appears on the
    advanced screen, you have a terrible default situation because new users
    are very unlikely to stumble across the exact option. 
    But the exact option should always be visible to the user, just
    like with Old Search. 
    I think the New Search default should be to turn on the advanced screen.

    With Old Search, there is a huge difference between a regular search
    and advanced search.  With New Search, the only difference between
    a regular search and an advanced search is whether the exact search option
    is visible.  Since the exact search option should always be visible,
    there is no reason for advanced search even to exist with New Search. 
    The search experience would be greatly enhanced simply by getting rid of
    the advanced search and by turning the exact option on all the time in
    the regular search.

    Finally, with Old Search the results of fuzzy searches are summarized by
    relevance and the results of exact searches are summarized by category. 
    There is no way with Old Search to mix and match the type of search
    and the way the search results are summarized. 
    New Search allows both fuzzy and exact searches to be summarized either by
    relevance or by category.  This is a wonderful new feature in
    New Search.  (See, I don’t just bash New Search.  It has
    lots of good features, and I’m happy to point them out!)  However,
    the default seems to be to summarize by relevance, and I think both ancestry
    and the user community would be well served by making the default be
    to summarize by category.  That way, you are not so overwhelmed by
    all the millions of matches that you get from New Search.

    But for
    this particular option, more
    important than the default itself is the way in which the option is
    specified. . The option is not specified on the search screen
    at the beginning of the search.  Rather, it is specified on the
    results screen at the end of the search.  And it’s almost impossible
    for an inexperienced user to even see that the option exists because
    it’s specified with a pull down list.  I think it’s very important
    to the search experience to get this option moved to the search screen,
    for the option always to appear (not for the appearance of the option
    to depend on advanced or anything like that), and for the option to be
    a check box (or maybe radio buttons) rather than being a pull down menu. 
    In other words, the option should be extremely visible.  Leaving
    the option also on the results screen would be fine, I suppose, but I think it’s
    really important to the search experience to get the option onto the search
    screen, for the option to be very visible,
    and that the default for new users to be summarized by category.

  11. Karen

    Hi! I changed nothing on my computer and suddenly, when I try to attach census records to the people in my tree, it takes me to that gray screen. Then, it just sits there. No pop up that allows me to type in a name comes up. It’s funny, it will work one time in the morning and let me attach one record by clicking on the subject name and then typing it in the search box(gray screen) background). I go to the next person on the census and click to attach, I am taken to the gray screen and then it just sits there. What’s been tweaked? It is really really slowing down my record attachment, as there are a lot of misspelled names. The only way your system will let me attach a census record now is if it comes up on your search. I am having to change my persons name to the wrong name on your census record to get the census to even appear on a search. NO response from tech support. HELP!

  12. Pat

    I can’t find any place to contact Ancestry about a question.

    When will you be gettin more St. Louis Mo. Marriage records?

    There seem to be 2 databases with Missouri marriages, but
    only one contains St Louis marriages and there are many missing from there,
    or indexed under an unrecognizable name

  13. Jade

    Pat, re: your 13,

    You can scan the actual indexes yourself, instead of relying on’s unreliable indexing.

    Go to the BMD database listing

    scroll down to and click on “Missouri Marriage Records, 1805-2002”, then scroll down to the County browse list. If you click on “St. Louis” you will have a choice of browsing the index or the records.

    It is always possible that the original index spells a name differently than one would expect: some of the ministers’ returns could have been misread by the recorder.

    It can certainly be frustrating to not find what you think ‘should’ be there, but not all marriages were recorded, and people often married in adjacent Counties. Or, if one or both parties had recently moved to St. Louis, they may have married ‘back home’.

    Good hunting,

  14. Karen

    For awhile there, I was zipping along on Mozilla Firefox at a great speed. NOT NOW,,Something has changed, but not my settings. I can’t go to a data base and search it by typing in my choices. I can’t bring up a census, click on one of the names in it and attach the record. Now, your program won’t let me do that. The ONLY WAY I can attach a record is if your search finds it, which it won’t if misspelled, etc.! It takes me to the GRAY overlaid screen, then it just sits there!!!! No pop up window that you type the name from your tree in. ALL my settings for your cookies, pop ups, etc. are ENABLED. NO RESPONSE FROM EMAILS TO TECH FOR SUPPORT!! What’s up?

  15. Elizabeth Cheney

    I have been looking for Nellie Jane Jackson, Herman Jackson,Dad and Mother,Davis Salvage , Wife Mary Wilis

  16. Kathe

    I am having a bad experience using your search tools. Like others here, I have searched what I KNOW to be, and get 0 matches. Also, in a general search, I get no matches, but selecting one database gave me results, so I question that the general search does search all databases. I also agree with the gentleman who suggested separating Births, Marriages, Deaths. So far, I haven’t been able to find records of births I know about, so I can see who the parents were, but I see so many obits that my eyes are crossed. And the obits don’t really give that much info. It gets exhausting going thro them all.
    I haven’t been able to find any marriage certificates either.

  17. Sam

    I agree with the two persons who suggested that the Birth, Death, Marriage records need to be separated. While searching that data base, since all are included in one; with a search for any one, let’s say marriage,it can be a very long and tedious task.

  18. Anne Mitchell

    I agree with you about separating the birth marriage and death records. Sure they are all vital records which often show important relationship data, but they are different.

    It’s on the list of things to fix as we move towards one search.

  19. I’m a new user! I’ve read some of the comments. I would love to know how to find marriage certificates. I agree with the comment that it would be nice to have birth marriage and death seperate. I only seem to get death. havn’t found any birts either. I must be missing something. Thanks

  20. Mike Higgins

    Dear Ms. Mitchell:
    I am a new user exploring before I join, if you will. To you and all of the staff, I extend my most heartfelt gratitude.
    My wife’s mother died in 1940, when my wife was 15 months old and she was raised by a blind aunt. She knew very little about her mother or the rest of her ancestors, for that matter. In a few short exploratory sessions, I’ve found her grandparents and great grandparents on her dad’s side and a fairly promising result on her mother’s side.
    When I surprised her with the census record prints, the tears came. 65 years of questions and uncertainty have been replaced with smiles and some comfort at the new found knowledge. God bless all of you and thanks.

    Mike Higgins

  21. Charlie

    I have 2 questions about media files in FTM.
    1. is there some guidance on the most effective manner of storing media files. Should all be stored in the FTM media folder organized by person or subject matter? Should the media be stored in separate folders and link to the person/relationship only. 2. Is there a way to save the file when merged into FTM as a specific name versus the generated file name.


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