Skip to content
  • Sign up
  • Start your family tree
  1. Blog Home
  2. Help Hub

5 Smart Search Skills You Need to Know

Else Churchill from London's Society of Genealogists shares her top five tips for making the most of online indexes.

With over 30 years of experience as a genealogist, Else Churchill knows a thing or two about searching online indexes. Follow her expert advice and you'll soon be searching as efficiently and effectively as the best of them.

1. Less is More

This is one of the most important tips to remember if you're having trouble finding your ancestors. You may not need to complete all the boxes or narrow your search down.

If you enter a date that isn't included in a record, such as a birth date that isn't included in a military record, it could stop the correct record from appearing in your results. Start with less detail and filter or narrow down if there too many results.

2. Use Wildcard Character Replacements

Be aware of possible transcription errors, or mistakes when the original clerk may have misspelled a name. To ensure you don't miss a possible match try doing a wildcard (*) search.

The * can be used to replace any letter, such as searching "Sm*th" will bring up results for Smith or Smyth. Searching for Church* will bring up surnames with alternative endings, such as Churchill or Churches.

- First letters are often misread

The first letters of names and places are the most often misread or mis-recorded item in any transcription.

- Abbreviated forenames may not come up

Play around to see how abbreviated forenames such as Wm for William or Jas for James or Jn for John have been dealt with. Variants may not come up. Be sure to keep both "Name variants" boxes ticked.

3. Try Alternative Search Terms

When looking for an elusive ancestor or cross-checking existing research, try searching with alternative search terms, such as forename, age, place of birth etc. rather than with a surname. It's good to remember that enumerators and clerks copying the records would sometimes make errors.

4. Search All Indexes

Search all versions of indexes available because results can differ between databases and websites. Local expertise may recognise local names and places better, so look out for indexes compiled by local family history societies.

5. Don't Rely Exclusively on Indexes

While an index result may seem like a solid source of information, bear in mind that these records can vary greatly depending on who kept them. There are cases of enumerators putting unfavourable information down for people who they thought badly of, or they could simply have misheard a piece of information. To guard against this kind of confusion, be sure to follow the rules of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Where to Next?