With over 30 years of experience as a genealogist, Else Churchill, from the Society of Genealogists in London, knows a thing or two about searching online indexes. With these five top tips, you'll soon be searching as efficiently and effectively as the best of them!
Else's five top tips for mastering online searching
1. Less is more: You may not need to complete all the boxes
One of the most important tips to remember if you're having trouble finding your ancestors is to remember that less is more. 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 wildcards or character replacements
Be aware of possible transcription errors, or mistakes when the original clerk may have spelled your name. To ensure you don't miss a possible match try using the wildcard function (*).
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 misrecorded 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 made errors too!
4. Search all indexes available
Search all versions of indexes available, as results can differ between databases and websites. Local expertise may recognize 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 unfavorable 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.