Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Look at Ancestry's Improved Search has made a huge improvement to its search wildcard functionality.

Previously, you had to enter the first three characters of a name and then the wild cards * or a ?.   Now you can use a wildcard for the first, second or third letter in a name.

The changes to the use of wildcards are:

  • You can put a wildcard in any character position including the first, second,  or third character, such as *son or ?atthew,  J?nes or Sm?th.
  • Either the first or last character must be a non-wildcard character. For example, Han* and *son are okay, but not *anso* 
  • Names must contain at least three non-wildcard characters. For example, Ha*n is okay, but not H*n 

Wildcards at work only with exact matches, not soundex matches (searches that look for sound-a-like names).

Why are wild cards necessary when doing a genealogy search?  Even though you know a surname should be spelled, it doesn't mean that the clerk who wrote the original records spelled it correctly and this can make it difficult to find a record.  For example, even on my own birth certificate, my mother's maiden name is spelled incorrectly and I have given up trying to get it corrected.  Using a wildcard helps search for spelling variations. 

I have also found that some official records will record a nickname for a first name.  John* will find both John and Johnny. However, if a first name is recorded as an initial, the new wildcard search will not help since you still need 3 letters to search.  If this is a possibility, (for example, many first names in the Social Security Death Index are just first initials), it is best to search with the first name blank.

Hint:  Start a search at without wildcards.  Only after your first search doesn't produce results, should you try a search with wild cards.  If a wild card search doesn't work, next try searching with only a last name in case the record is recorded with just an initial for a first name.

What is the difference between the two wildcards?

  • The ? matches one and only one character.
  • The *  matches zero or more characters.

  • M?yer will find Mayer and Meyer but not Myer, but M*yer will find Myer, Meyer and Mayer.
  • M*yer* will find Myer, Meyer, Mayer, Myers, Meyers, Mayers, Myerson, etc.

No longer will I have to make different search queries using the multiple Myer/Myers/Meyer/Meyers variations because of Ancestry's previous wildcard limitation in the first 3 letters. This is my gggrandfather's surname and I have seen his name spelled all of these different ways from document to document. 

This change will really help with Mc and Mac names also.  Now that we can put wild cards in the second position, it can be used to find both names in one search.   Search for M*Carthy to find McCarthy and MacCarthy.

The wild cards work on first names.

  • Jo*n will find names recorded as John or Jon.  Unless you specify gender in your search, Jo*n will also find Joan.
  • Jo*n* will find John or Jon or Jonathan as well as Johnny or Jonie.
Previously, we had to use a soundex search to look for name variations which often produced too many false results.  This new functionality will be a big time saver.

Look for to continue to improve its search this year with additional tweaks.

1 comment:

Kathryn Doyle said...

Great tips. I'm including a link to this article in the February issue of the California Genealogical Society's eNews.