This past week it was my pleasure to be the instructor for six classes on Effective Search Strategies on Ancestry.com 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.
Iâ€™m not going to pretend to be an expert on creating search engines, algorithms, and all the technical aspects, and you donâ€™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, Iâ€™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, itâ€™s simply another option–another weapon in the arsenal. To be honest, I donâ€™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.
Letâ€™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 â€œExact Matches Only.â€ 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, youâ€™ll want to go past the homepage when youâ€™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 youâ€™re first searching for an ancestor, and in fact, when I did a search for my great-grandfather, I was able to locate himâ€”with one searchâ€”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 hereâ€™s what I entered:
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.Â
- 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. Iâ€™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 donâ€™t want to use your back button to refine your search. If you back-pedal, youâ€™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 youâ€™ll see a section on Categories. Click on the link that says â€œChoose which categories to search.â€ 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.
There is one very important thing I want to point out and thatâ€™s the concept of â€œsticky.â€ 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 youâ€™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, youâ€™ve changed the box that says â€œShow All Matchesâ€ to â€œShow only 5-star matchesâ€ (or 4-star, or 3-star, etc.), that is sticky as well. So, for example, if youâ€™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 wonâ€™t come back and wonder why youâ€™re getting hits in all but the database you searched, or why youâ€™ve inadvertently eliminated your ancestors in a database where they should be.
In upcoming columns, weâ€™ll explore Exact Searches, the various â€œbucketâ€ searches, searching by collection, and my favorite route–searching databases directly. Enjoy!
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.