Why General Genealogy Searches Are NOT the Best Way to Find Your Ancestors

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Why General Genealogy Searches Are NOT the Best Way to Find Your Ancestors

The first thing most family history researchers do when they encounter a genealogy website is to begin searching for their ancestors in the general (main) search form provided by the site – which is often located on the homepage or in another easily accessible area. All large genealogy research sites center around these main search forms which are designed, generally, to look for records in all searchable collections at one time.

General search forms that dig through millions, or even billions, of records are certainly handy. If you have never used a site before – or have not searched for a specific ancestor – these forms can be a great way to gather the low hanging family history fruit, so to speak. They provide a fast way to turn up easy-to-find records with little effort. But, despite this obvious convenience, they may often be stifling your efforts.

No matter how convenient search technology is, it does have its limitations. Seasoned researchers know that even the best search algorithms will not turn up every possible and reasonable result. Even when advanced and focused search techniques are used, a search form that is asked to sift through seemingly limitless records can easily exclude or bury results.

For this reason it is very, very easy to miss records that exist on a site without even knowing it. We cover the reasons for this and how to overcome this hurdle extensively in our online genealogy courses.

The absolute best way to begin overcoming this limitation is to use the general search box sparingly (especially on large genealogy websites) and focus instead on searching individual record collections.

Searching individual collections allows you to educate yourself about the records being searched, to use creative techniques more effectively, to more easily make use of limited browsing and to uncover records you may very well have never discovered otherwise. This is especially true when you are facing obstacles in your research.


Let’s look at a few reasons why the general search form on a site is usually not your best bet for uncovering the records you need.

1. Using individual record collections, which are focused on a specific topic, location and/or time period will allow you to make better use of advanced search techniques since you are sorting through so many less records. You will be able to more effectively use wildcards, keyword and no name searches and combine these searches with some level of browsing to find what you need.

This is especially true when trying to find records where a name or other important detail was recorded or transcribed incorrectly. The simple act of narrowing down your records to a more targeted and limited number will greatly increase your chances of finding that needle in the digital haystack. Just remember to take the time you need to educate yourself about the record collections you are using. Don’t be misled by titles – read the description provided by the website to fully understand what data is, and is not, included in each collection and how to best search it.

2. In addition to limiting your search to a more targeted group of records, individual collections often also have their own custom search forms giving you more options to work with in your search. You will be able to more easily know what information has been indexed and is therefore searchable, and what information is not. By educating yourself about the collection and using the custom search fields to your benefit, you give yourself a big head start on locating the records you need.

3. The third main reason to use individual collections instead of a general search form is that you will be able to more easily discover and utilize the browse-only collections available on many sites. Because browse-only collections are not indexed they are not included in general searches and are somewhat invisible to many everyday users. Searching through individual collections allows to find and take advantage of these important offerings. This article covers in detail why this is so valuable on FamilySearch and we dedicated a whole lesson on how to do this for Ancestry.com in our Ancestry Crash Course.

How can you find these individual collections?

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MyHeritage is offering 2 free weeks of access to their extensive collection of 7.7 billion historical records, as well as their matching technology that instantly connects you with new information about your ancestors. Sign up using the link below to find out what you can uncover about your family.

Many large genealogy websites offer an online catalog that will allow you to view each collection individually. In the catalog you will find information about how many records are included and a link to the collection itself where you will discover just what can be found in it. Look for a link to the catalog in the main menu of a website if you don’t see it mentioned on the homepage. If no catalog is offered, other methods may be provided so that you can find individual collections. It is worth the effort to seek these out.

Here are a few catalogs you can start with now. Please note that we are an affiliate of some of the companies mentioned below and may earn a small commission if you make a purchase via these links.

FamilySearch’s catalog of over 2000 collections can be found here. They offer many browse-only collections you won’t want to miss, as well as custom search fields for each collection.

Ancestry provides a card catalog of their more than 32,000 records here. They have done a very good job of developing custom search forms for each collection they offer. Find it here.

MyHeritage also just announced that they are offering a catalog of their 6500+ collections. Use the advanced search for more options to increase your search potential on this site. You can get a two week free trial to MyHeritage here if you want to explore these collections before committing to a subscription payment.

Take advantage of the power of individual collections to do some serious creative searching and uncover some of the records you’ve been missing in your tree. 

By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor

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  • Kathleen Flanagan
    May 23, 2017 at 6:05 am

    Lots of Census names have been wrongly transcribed because people cannot also read the writing used in the Census. I have Flanagan which Has been transcribed as Hanagan, reading the the F and l as one letter, Featherby transcribed as Heatherly or Geatherby. Sometimes you have to use your imagination as well. And regional accents which the Census writer didn’t understand resulting in strangely spelled place names Guiton should be Gayton.

  • Rachida Djebel
    May 20, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Collections, like records, are not infallible, not are they necessary correct. And companies who offer them too often do not vet the information causing those who don’t know the history to mislead themselves as well as to misinform others. Case in point, my 7th great grandfather arrived in th Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 with his wife and 7 children from England.

    Genealogy 101

    Rule #1: PAY ATTENTION! Below is a screen shot of a partial page from a volume entitled ‘Colonial Families of the USA (??? USA? It was the 16th & 17th century- England, Wales, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony)…regarding the lineage of a family surnamed Averill … And People wonder why I scream at my computer or at so-called documentation …

    Rule #2: Never trust a ‘document’

    Rule #3: If you don’t know history of an area, do NOT attach anything to your family tree until you vet it and learn the dynamics of the family-and the politics and events of the time of the ancestor.

    This is a transcription provided by Ancestry.com … Read very carefully….How could William leave Britain in 1637 and die in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635?

    “From ”Colonial Families of the USA ‘ It reads, in part:

    William Averill came with his wife Abigail [ from Milford Haven, Wales in 1637, settling in Ipswich, Mass ] b ca 1990; d Ipswich, 1635] …… Sarah m at Topsfield, John [WELD] 23 Nov 163]” from Ancestry.com

    a) Wm Averill was born in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England ca 1600 and died in 1653, predeceasing his wife by 2 years. Both died in Topsfield, Massachusetts Bay Colony New England (as subject to th British Crown.

    b) William’s daughter, Sarah, married John Wilders in 1663 at Topsfield. In July of 1692, Sarah, along with 4 other women and 2 men, was hanged for practicing witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony at age 65.

    The ships plying the Atlantic Ocean between 1600 and the early 18th century were many, and none appear to have departed from Wales. I spent 8 ours one night ploughing through ships passenger lists and was able to find a Thomas Avery who sailed on the Mary and John from Plymouth England on 26 March 1634 , arriving 6 mos. later In May of the same year.

    Averill/Averell/Averye/Avery/and even Haverhill et all are variations of the same name. There is a lot of misinformation about this family. This is just one example of how collections and records can mislead due to their inaccuracy.

    My advice is to be cautious because one wrong addition will send you and others on a rocky road. William is my direct ancestor. For an adoptee who was never supposed to know her own birth identity I’ve done quite well to discover my gr gr gr gr gr gr gr gr aunt Sarah who was a martyr, not a witch!

    • Lisa
      August 23, 2017 at 2:36 am

      As a fellow adoptee, I can totally relate! Isn’t it really exciting though to finally know your heritage! People who are not adopted do not understand how this feels. Best way to explain it is: WOW! & Gratifying! With a bit of closure. Good luck to you!

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