Using Ancestry: Ancestry Search Review, by Juliana Smith

This past week it was my pleasure to be the instructor for six classes on Effective Search Strategies on at the FGS Conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I want to thank everyone who was in those classes for their kindness with this rookie speaker and for the enthusiasm they brought to the classes. We had several breakthroughs in the sessions and I was happy to see that many of the attendees left fired up and anxious to try out some new tricks.

As I put together the class the previous week, my biggest problem was how to cram all the information in and keep the session under an hour, and in fact, I was still struggling with that issue up to the night before the first class.

Ancestry currently has more than 6 billion names in 2.5 billion records, and these are grouped in nearly 25,000 databases. It can be challenging to find ancestors in a collection of records this large, but fortunately Ancestry gives us a wide variety of tools to search for the information we need. But some of these tools are very different from each other and recognizing these differences is critical. Used properly the various options available give us a powerful arsenal, but without understanding them fully, we find frustration instead of results.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on creating search engines, algorithms, and all the technical aspects, and you don’t have to be either. But there are some fundamentals that we all should be aware of and understanding these will greatly increase your chances for success.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be running a series of articles on searching Ancestry. Some may be review for many of you who have been reading this newsletter for a while, but even though I use the site very regularly for work, as I prepared for the classes, I was reminded of some details I tend to forget.

The Great Debate: Ranked vs. Exact Searches
When the Ranked Search was released last year, it was the source of a lot of frustration and heated debate. Love it or hate it, it’s simply another option–another weapon in the arsenal. To be honest, I don’t use it too often, because I typically go directly to the database I want to search and only want results from that database to show up. That said, as I prepared the class, I had to come up with some examples and once I figured out how to control the results a bit, I was pleased with what I found.

Let’s start with the basics on Ranked Search. When you are on the homepage of Ancestry, the search box allows for either a Ranked or Exact Search of all of the databases in its collections. At the top of the search is a small box that says “Exact Matches Only.” If you check that box, your search will return only exact matches. Unchecked and you enter the realm of Ranked Search.

Understanding Ranked Search
The Ranked Search is a fuzzy search. It was created to address all those variables we tend to run across in our research–name variants, misspellings, mis-transcriptions, ancestors appearing in unexpected locations, and of course those ancestors who decided on a new birth date every time they were asked how old they were.

The Ranked Search wants you to tell it everything you know about an ancestor and then it queries all of the databases at Ancestry and ranks the results with the highest quality matches listed first. For this reason, you’ll want to go past the homepage when you’re doing a Ranked Search and click on the Advanced Search link just below the Search button.

I found that Ranked Search can be a real time saver when you’re first searching for an ancestor, and in fact, when I did a search for my great-grandfather, I was able to locate him—with one search—in four of the six census enumerations that he was alive for that are currently available. For those of you who want to play along, from the Advanced Search page here’s what I entered:

Raymond Dyer
born 1869, USA, New York, Kings, Brooklyn
married 1895, USA, New York, Kings, Brooklyn
died 1952, USA, New York, Kings, Brooklyn
father Edwin Dyer
mother Margaret Dooner
spouse Margaret Howley

A couple of notes on this search:

  • I entered maiden names for his mother and wife in the event that perhaps an in-law or another family member was enumerated with the family, hoping it would help bring the desired results into higher ranking. 
  • Had Raymond lived in other locations, I could have added addition residences in that field (up to four per search), which would have factored in ranking matches in those areas toward a higher ranking.

When we first do this search, the results are little cluttered. I’m getting a ton of hits in trees, most of them my own. But we can focus our search on specific collections by scrolling down to the search box at the bottom of the page. (One more note: From this page, you don’t want to use your back button to refine your search. If you back-pedal, you’re likely to lose some of your data, particularly locations. Instead, scroll down and use that box on the same page which will keep all your search criteria intact.)

At the very bottom of the search box you’ll see a section on Categories. Click on the link that says “Choose which categories to search.” From here you can select to search only historical records, only family trees, only stories and publications, only a particular record type, or any combination of the above. There is also a box towards the top of the page that allows you to specify a particular record type to search.

In my example, by simply de-selecting Family Trees from the box at the bottom, I was looking at the first four results being the census records of Raymond Dyer for 1880, 1910, 1920, and 1930. Not bad for only filling out one search form.

It’s Sticky
There is one very important thing I want to point out and that’s the concept of “sticky.” When you go into a Ranked Search or an Exact Search, the next time you come back to search again, it will remember your last choice. Whether you’re searching everything at once or even going directly to a database, it will retain that setting–it’s sticky.

In addition, if at the bottom of the results, you’ve changed the box that says “Show All Matches” to “Show only 5-star matches” (or 4-star, or 3-star, etc.), that is sticky as well. So, for example, if you’re an Exact Search person for the most part, and you play around with the Ranked Search, be sure to return to your settings by doing a quick search for Exact and showing all matches. That way, next week you won’t come back and wonder why you’re getting hits in all but the database you searched, or why you’ve inadvertently eliminated your ancestors in a database where they should be.

Upcoming Columns
In upcoming columns, we’ll explore Exact Searches, the various “bucket” searches, searching by collection, and my favorite route–searching databases directly. Enjoy!

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry 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 to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

16 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Ancestry Search Review, by Juliana Smith

  1. I would liked to have taken your class last week, but it sounds like we’ll be getting it in part. YAY! Thank you for a great and useful article.

  2. Thank you for undertaking to explain the mysteries of the current search process — which I do not find an improvement over the old way. One gripe I have (and have suggested to Ancestry that they could fix) is that we no longer are told how many hits the search received. It makes a big difference to know whether I’m looking at 1-10 of 200 or 20,000 hits! I look forward to your continuing “classes” on this topic. I have been a member for many years, and I very much appreciate all the things that you do.

  3. thanks for your Article “Ancestry Sesrch Review” It will be a big help when I go searching again, Sure have come up against those frustrating things which happen, its good to have a good understanding of what one is trying to achieve. Looking forward to your next article.

  4. I plan to read all your articles on searching because I found the new search frustrating. I particularly don’t like the absence of maximum numbers and pages. Before, I saw that I was at 1 of 2400 and I could jump to page 10 or 20 to speed up my search. Now it appears we only have sequential and I have to go page by page and I don’t even know how many pages I have to go through. I hope some of your articles can pass on some tips to deal with this issue.

  5. Thank you for publishing the information presented at your classes. I desperately wanted to attend the FGS Conference in Fort Wayne, but was not able to do so. I look forward to reading all of your upcoming articles. Thank you so much for presenting the information to those of us who were unable to attend!!!

  6. Unfortunately, does Ranked Search within the Exact Search Census grouping. They no longer put the Census years in chronological order, and it can be very frustrating having to scroll through the census looking to see if the year you are hoping an ancestor will be there.

    I have asked why they changed the Census results, and all I get is an explanation of the Exact Search vs Ranked Search, and they don’t seem to understand that the Exact Search acts the same as the Ranked Search.

    I am at the point in several families that I am looking for descendants of ancestral siblings and exact names and years are not always feasible to search individual census records – and the current Census rankings add a lot of time to the search

  7. This was a great help! I was very frustrated trying to use Searches; this should really help. Mine seems to be stuck on 2 Star searches. So, now maybe I can change that. THANKS!

  8. Thanks for the detailed explanation behind the ranked search. I use ranked search all the time with census records. I often pick an unusual first name, and put both parents first names in along with county. It’s a good way to get around transcription errors and different spelling of surnames.

  9. Thank you. I think many people have had “trouble” with selecting the various “stars” search delimiter and did not realize HOW TO TURN IT OFF. should always revert the “stars” to 5 after each search.

    I agree with other that the “fuzzy” logic search results should also offer an option of an internal “sort” by census year, etc. It is very frustrating when you have thousands of names in a list and have to weed your way through them. This is not very database friendly.

    Good article…. keep it up !

  10. Nancy, I’m just another reader of this post, and the best answer for you requires more data than I have available.

    However one answer, if you have Adobe Acrobat (or one of it’s PDF-making “clones”, also standard on Mac OS X) — you could “print” the page to a PDF. Then, look at the PDF-document to see the appropriate pages and print only that range of pages (of course, you’ll probably get a little beginning of comments on the last page unless you further edit the PDF document).

    BTW, with Windows, pdf-CREATING software such as Acrobat is required — that is the free Adobe Reader permits reading but not creation of PDFs.

    Of course, another approach would be to just copy and paste the relevant part of the article into your word-processor and then print from there.

  11. 9.09.09 Juliana, I have enjoyed your article on Ranked because over the past year I have tried the specific data information and ended up ranked. So now I do not bother taking the time when I do have my information with me to put it in.
    I may try it again but will be aware of the sticky keys. Thanks. –Mary Forgette Dominguez

  12. Agree with Sharon’s comment. Search results are random at best. What is a 3 star rating? What is a 4 star rating? Why do census results display when the search criteria indicated that the person died 10 years earlier and it is a 3 star match? Why can we not sort results? Why do search results indicate a 3 star rank when you asked for person born in Ohio and your displayed results are born in Florida? I have asked ancestry before, but get FAQ answers with no substance.

  13. Like Nancy Tollefson I would like to print out an article on Ranked Searches which I missed. How do I do this please?

  14. If you’re searching for a George, be sure to also search for the spelling Geroge because has this typo 10,000s of times, on their census indexes and other indexes. When I pointed this out to them, they said they were unable to fix it but that I could make the corrections one person at a time using the correct menu. Sure… if I had several hundred hours to devote to the task. QUESTION: If I can do a search and replace on my database, why can’t do a search of their indexes for Geroge and replace with George? It’s not as if Geroge were a legitimate name — it’s just a typo brought on by the arrangement of the keys on a keyboard.

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