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

This May Be the Most Important Genealogy Research Trick You’ll Ever Learn

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.

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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.

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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 can be found here. They offer many browse-only collections you won’t want to miss, as well as custom search fields for each searchable collection. It is usually best to search by keyword (the type and/or location of records you are looking for) and then filter for online availability.

Ancestry provides a card catalog of their collections and have done a very good job of developing custom search forms for each collection they offer. Find it here.

MyHeritage also offers a catalog of their 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.

Read for More Help With Your Genealogy Searches: Ancestry’s “Location Traps” Are Causing Researchers to Miss Important Records

By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor

18 thoughts on “This May Be the Most Important Genealogy Research Trick You’ll Ever Learn”

  1. This is something that might help, try googling the name of your ancestor. You never know what might come up. Also include birth and death date if at all possible. Adding a county and state address also helpful. For instance, I have an absolute who is famous dulcimer maker. I tried to find his birth and death data to no avail. Googled dulcimer makers I found a website listing all dulcimer makers and found the info I was looking for buried within.

  2. This maybe a shot in the dark, but I found info on one of my anscestors by finding a genealogist that works directly with the records in a county. Maybe this may help your search h. My inspector was a dead end, because I couldnt find any other record’s. They found a record I was unable to find.

  3. William Clifton McKinley

    I’m a member of My Heritage and I’ve found my great great Grandfather’s gravesite among others but I’m running low on Money and I want to find the easiest way to get documentation.

  4. MYHERITAGE My Heritage : How can any researcher trust their info ? Ican’t . I’ve discover numerous problems / faults send in by so called researchers to MyHeritagewith wrong information specafically on the sites (Surnames) where i am busy with my research i’ve send e mails regarding this problems to My Heritage in South Africa but they never got back to me ” maybe put the letters in file number 13 there maybe they dont like to be hit on the fingers”

  5. I am looking for my GG Grandfather William Hewitt. He was on the 1880 Upson County, Ga census working in the mill (approx age 56) . After that we have not found him or his wife Mary or their children anywhere. They were poor and living in the mill house at the mill site. We are sure they did not leave the area. The mill closed around the `1890’s. The archives in Thomaston, Ga do not have any information on the mill employees or the mill village. If we could find a newspaper write up on maybe his death. They did not have money to purchase a monument for a cemetery. I know they were just poor mill workers so maybe there would not have been a newspaper notice. Oh I wish we could find either William or Mary. We did look for all 6 children and only found one son living in the town in 1890 but they were not living with him. Any ideas you can provide will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for this site.

  6. Great article, Melanie. With regard to the browse only databases, folks will find a wonderful surprise once they get into these records. Many of these databases are indexed to some extent; some right down to names of individuals. Land records show grantor/grantee within county by date for example. I have easily found many records within these browse only databases.

  7. Ancestry sucks. They are making absolutely no effort to get Scottish or Italian Parish or civil records. If they did a joint venture with Scotland’s People, Roots ie and the Archivio di Statos they could vastly expand their online records collection with baptismal, marriage and death records. All they have now is crap from the 1800s and very little from the 1700s that they are happy to charge hug fees to access with crap search engines. If your whole family was in America from 1800 to the present, you can find some good leads but that is about where it’s usefulness ends. I prefer Ellis Island, Archivio di Stato di Cosenza, Roots ie, Emrald ancestors, and Scotland’s people. On these sites you can view actual records that have been properly transcribed.

  8. Mis-transcribed names are a Super Pet Peeve of mine. As a person having done, & assisting in doing, Italian records this is an especially painful part of genealogy. I always feel that the transcribing is being done by people with no familiarity of the language, names, places and especially the handwriting of the period. So many errors from Ellis Manifests, Ancestry and on Family Search. Once on a manifest the mother was on one page while her children were on another, so when the children were transcribed they were parentless and with no surname. This was not someone I was searching but just on a browse. There was a time when a person could fill in a correction form which I did, then I wrote to Ellis about the correction, received a reply, checked for awhile, but don’t know if it was ever finalized. I used to keep a record of corrections because there were so many I felt it important. It is terribly frustrating. I often use use different spellings, phonetics, and reverse the names (had this experience personally) and have sometimes been successful.

  9. I am looking for a John Irwin and Lavina or Margaret Forsythe Married in Ireland 1845. Probably Presbyterian.

    The families lived in around Limavady, townland of Ballyleagry parish of Balteagh Co. Londonderry. Samuel Forsythe was an intermediate lessor from the marquis of waterford and his daughter Lavina married one of his tenants John Irwin.

    I have seen her name written Labina and Robina on the old age pension forms when her daughter applied. On all the Scottish records when her kids got married they wrote it Lavina or Lavinia Forsythe. Her grandson wrote her name as Margaret when filling out his father’s death record in Scotland. In New York, her daughter wrote her name Lovina Forsythe, and when that daughter died it was written Lavina Forsythe on a Canadian Death Record.

    How should I search databases?

  10. This is really good to know. It is easy to think that they are correct and go with it….ugh So glad to have this information. Thank you.

  11. Ancestry has an entire collection of marriages before 1700 incorrectly transcribed. The transcribers did not follow the instructions in the beginning of this collection of about 80,000 records. The author used b to document when a couple’s first child was born and that year has been transcribed as the marriage date. When I emailed HQ about this problem, which affect 10’s of millions of descendants (an estimated 20 millions descend just from the Mayflower alone) ancestry HQ informed me that they were interested in things that affected most their customers and were not interested in correcting this database–even though I pointed out that something as simple as explaining this on each page of the collection would at least inform people of the problem.

    I am constantly correcting directories and other things that are nothing more than sloppy work. Many of the things I submit corrections for are typed! There is NO excuse for incorrect transcripts.

    Beware there are so many documents on ancestry.com that are incorrectly transcribed. NEVER attach a document without seeing the original if possible. If not possible try to corroborate what their indexes say in some other way.

    Transcriptions on ancestry are a big thorn in my side. Too many people trust them without even looking at the source, and ancestry creates errors on our trees by these sloppy transcripts.

    Also if you find something wrong, submit a correction PLEASE. Ancestry has made it perfectly clear they have no intention of correcting these problems themselves. It is up to US to do so. Correcting errors helps all of us.

  12. 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!

  13. Kathleen Flanagan

    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.

  14. 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!

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