Posted by Crista Cowan on January 20, 2012 in Wiki, Research

If you caught my Ancestry LIVE broadcast on Thursday morning you know that the topic of the week is Research Like a Pro. (If you haven’t watched it yet go ahead. We’ll wait for you.)

I’ve been doing genealogy research professionally for almost a decade now. When clients are paying you by the hour, you learn lots of really great shortcuts to keep you moving along and focused. The big tip I shared on Thursday’s episode of The Barefoot Genealogist? (Drumroll, please.)

Professional Genealogists Create Research Plans


1. What do I want to know?

Be really specific about exactly what it is you are looking for. This helps you stay focused and is the key to the rest of the plan.

Bad: Where do my Woodruff’s come from?

Better: Where was my ggg-grandfather born?

Best: John Woodruff was probably born about 1831 in Ohio. Who were his parents?


2. What do I already know?

3. How do I know it?

These two questions go together. And, I often bounce back and forth between them repeatedly until I’ve exhausted everything I already know about the person in question. I also make sure I’ve recorded everything I know about their spouse and children.

I like to put this information into the notes section of the person profile in Family Tree Maker. I enter the notes chronologically based on the person’s life (not based on the order in which I found the records). You can see an example of how I do that at 7:22 in the video.


4. Where could I possibly find what I want to know?

5. Do the records exist? If so, where?

Again, we have a pair of questions that work well together. Create a list of records you could search – census, military, vitals, immigration, etc. Then do a search in the Ancestry Wiki for the place and record type to see if what you need exists. Also, be sure to check the Ancestry Card Catalog to see if what you want exists ONLINE at

For those of you who are new to this fun and fascinating adventure called genealogy, I hope you find this helpful. For those of you who’ve been doing it a while maybe this will give you a renewed focus to break through that brick wall you’ve been struggling with.

Feel free to PIN this graphic so you have it available to you. Or, you could even print it out and put it near your computer so you make sure not to skip any steps.

Bonus Tip: Look for a local genealogical society to join. You will find friends who are willing to help and offer fresh perspectives on your genealogy brick walls.

Until next time – Have fun climbing your family tree…

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Twitter


  1. BobNY

    Jeez, your first step must not go over very well with the ACOM advertising folks. They are spending a ton of money (almost 30% of total revenues which equates to more than half of total operating expenses in 3Q11) telling gullible folks “”You don’t even have to know what you’re looking for…you just have to start looking.”

  2. Crista Cowan

    Bob – That is certainly true when you are just getting started (which is the target audience for that particular marketing message). If you read on you’ll discover that I am talking about strategies for breaking through brick walls.

  3. Pam Arevalo

    Crista, at the end of your video, you mentioned sharing the spreadsheet that you use to track your research. Did I miss seeing it somewhere? Or could you at least give a few more details of what you put on there so I can create my own?

    I’m loving your videos. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  4. Clarice Snyder

    I am with Pam this morning, I came on looking for the spreadsheet you promised. I am always looking for something that gets me better organized. I have pieces of paper everywhere around my computer, and have to sort throughout to find something I researched before. Big waste of time! Thanks for all you do!

  5. Susan Sousie Mehan

    Crista, Thank you.

    This will be a big help on cutting down my WASTING time on my researching. Now I can research the right way 🙂

    I also liked the tip on adding my info into the notes like you did chronologically in family tree.

    P.S. you mentioned something about a spreadsheet to help with better organization. I couldn’t find it.

    Once again thanks

  6. Crista Cowan

    Thank you all for the kind comments. I am trying to figure out where to upload the spreadsheet so you can download it. I’ll post here as soon as I get that done. Thanks for your patience.

  7. Long time member

    I think this video was very good. I wish more beginners would/could see it. As a FHL librarian you wouldn’t believe what I’m expected to provide in only 5 minutes. From now on I will present your list and how to use it.

  8. Robert Esch

    I finally found this blog. It is not advertised very well, like it used to be. Me thinks there is an effort to squeltch complaints. I was hoping to get an update as to the site status (no message from the site status about any problems) because the dreaded “Check back soon” message is popping up when I want to search.

  9. Kaylehn Brunner


    Thanks for this video it was a big help to me. I did not know about the notes information screen, I am going to take advantage of that very soon. I could not find the spreadsheet you had mentioned. I will be checking back for that.
    Thanks again,

  10. What is going on with Ancestry? I can take short naps in the time it takes to down load a file. I have to click on a pdf file multiple time to get it to open and half the time it does not open but takes you to the Home page. When you add hints that are on a persons page some times you just get a blank page posted on the person page. When you do add hints they don’t drop off the hints list.
    Not my ISP or computer! I have been on desk tops, Lap tops and computers at the Library and they all do the same thing. This is crap for what we are paying!!!!

  11. Shelly Crosby

    This was a great video…and tonight on a FB group, we were discussing various topics concerning researching genealogy….we all were saying how great it would be to go back in time and as question of our ancestors.
    So, what a great thing to tie in with creating a research plan..Think of 3 questions then make a plan to find the answers to those questions.
    For example, I have an ancestor who family lore says was in a mental hospital…haven’t found out if this was true but it was said that he beat his kids. His wife divorced my 3 questions would be:
    1. Were you in a mental hospital, if so, when and where?
    2. Was the divorce because you were in the mental hospital or was the mental hospital because of the divorce?
    3.Why did you move to Iowa and when?
    Keep up the good work…

  12. BEE

    I think the reason these blogs get “off topic” is because people either don’t get a response to their problems elsewhere, or aren’t satisfied with the response.
    I recently sent an email with a list of 5 problems that have been plaguing me lately, and if someone ever responds, I’ll add a 6th to that list.
    Otherwise, I might copy them here to “vent”, although I’m sure Andy would tell me to use the messageboards.

  13. Lucille Feenstra

    I am compiling information for the local genealogy club newsletter. How do I get permission to put your article in our Newsletter? The one I would like to publish is the 20 JAN 2012 Blog, Genealogy Research Plan. Thanks so much.

  14. Lydia Sadler

    I have been researching on for about four years. My problem is not the research, bit in getting family members to help out. some people won’t give information because it will show their age. Other people just don’t want to help me. I find a lot of information, but I can’t verify musch of it. being a Black American, it is difficult to find ancestors because most of the time they are just listed as Male/Female on a reocrd, no name, and sometimes an age. How do I address that?

  15. Janice

    Crista: Just watched your video on the updated Pennsylvanina records and it was most helpful.. I was anxious to peruse the Pennsylvania resources but when I went to checkout the county of my interest,,, it wasnt listed.. I am having trouble locating informatin about Mount Pleasan (Pleasant Mount?) in Wayne County for the years from 1830 upward. Any suggestions?? I sure could use some help!! Thanks in advance.. Janice

  16. Heather

    Wonderful video. Thank you for sharing. Can’t wait to see the spreadsheet you will be uploading.

  17. MBritt

    Whats wrong with the people that run Anc. they just keep adding things to the site to try and help us and all it does is slow everything down you have to push more icons to do the same thing we were doing before….just give us what we pay for, records to look up…..duh

  18. Long time member

    Since we all agree Christa’s blog is a good one, but we are going off topic, is anyone having a problem with printing on the family trees? Or any other problem with the revised trees?

    I have called them without getting a satisfactory answer, although they gave me a good amount of time. Emailing customer support does seem to help for anything so I usually forget that.

    Andy usually knows where to go to get some info. Are you there, Andy?


  19. Jade

    Does not do any good to do quality research, enter documented data in tree together with evidence citation, if Ancestry Engineering comes along and decides to replace a displayed death date with a stupid erroneous graphic.


  20. Andy is here but…
    Andy never prints from the online trees-only from my genealogy program (The Master Genealogists) so has no help to offer other than to suggest maybe posting on the Member Trees Message Board. Perhaps Russ or someone there can be of help.


  21. Monika

    Yes, I have the samae problem when printing a profile page. Called tech support about three months ago and they told me that they are aware of this and “are working on it”. Called them back last month and they suggested I switch my browser to Firefox. Did so on my laptop. So, now I can print beautiful profile pages from my lap top and the one’s on the main computer still look like crap. So, I will switch to Firefox there too.

  22. Monika

    By the way, in case that helps: I have Internet Explorer 8 on my main computer, which, for years, has told me is their favorite!

  23. BEE

    Internet Explorer might be ancestry’s favorite, but it’s not mine. I use Firefox almost exclusively. I think the “problems” are with ancestry, not Firefox.
    I’ve found the response to my emails always prompt and thorough, but it seems their solution is to go to a link “How can I optimize my experience?” which tells me – “check your settings”, which basically means {to me} “it’s your fault, not ours”, rather than admitting that some particular issue really is a problem.
    Since most of my “issues” are minor, and ancestry’s answers don’t help {me} much, I guess I’ll just have to live with them until someone decides something really is a problem, and corrects it.

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