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 fastest 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. It is the best way, hands down, to immediately increase the number of relevant records you discover about your ancestors.
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?
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.
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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.
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By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor