More Effective Searches on Ancestry and FamilySearch

Both Ancestry & FamilySearch have billions of records to search. When you search their entire website in one general search, the results you need might be on page 26, so you never see them. Here are some suggestions on how to improve your results:


Vary Your Search Parameters

  • Vary the additional facts used in your search, and vary when use choose “exact” or “match.”

    • Examples: birth date, birth place, family member, occupation.

    • Try searching for just the middle name or just the initials.

    • For common names, use the “exact” or “match” option.


Remember Spelling Was Not Standardized for Most of History

  • Both Ancestry and FamilySearch include phonetic and similar spellings in their results, but these do not cover all the possible spellings, nicknames, abbreviations, and transcription errors.

    • Example: William, Will, Bill, Wm.;

    • Example: Polly is a nickname for Mary, and Ann is a nickname for Nancy.

    • In the FamilySearch Wiki, enter “Nicknames” to find several lists, or use Google.


Try Using Wild Cards

  • Both Ancestry and FamilySearch support the use of “Wild Cards.”

    • Instructions from Ancestry’s Support Center:

    • Wild cards are special symbols used in searches to represent unknown letters in a word. Ancestry uses the asterisk (*) and the question mark (?).

    • The * represents zero to five characters, while the ? represents one character.

    • When searching with wild cards, at least the first or last character must not be a wild card

    • All searches containing wild cards must contain at least three non-wild card letters.

      • For example, though searching “*ohnson” and “Johnso*” would work, “*ohnso*” would not; and while “*ill” would work, “*ll” would not.”

    • Wild cards can be used in various ways:

    • To replace a single unknown letter

    • To find names that begin with the same letters; “Fran*” will produce results for both “Frank” and “Francine.”

    • To find first letter(s), as in “*aylor” and “*ompson”

    • To find alternate spellings of the same name; searching for “Lac*” will produce results for “Lacy,” “Lacey,” “Laci,” and “Lacie.”


Search Without a Name

  • Try using only other information which uniquely identifies an individual.

    • Examples: age, county, occupation.

    • Searching for just the parents’ names on FamilySearch is a great way to find siblings.


Search for Other Family Members Instead (especially those with unique names)

  • If you aren’t finding a record, search for the same event for other family members.

    • Example: If there are too many results for Tom Jones in a census search, try searching for his son, Thaddeus Jones.

Search Individual Databases on Ancestry

  • Find under “Search” and “Card Catalog.”

  • Then enter in the [State] and the [record type] you need.

  • Then click on one of the results and search just in that database.

Search Individual Databases on FamilySearch

  • Find under “Search” and “Records”

  • Then under “Find A Collection,” enter the name of the [state] and [record type] if necessary.

  • Then click on one of the results and search just in that database.