Answers: My Problems with the Search Engine

A few weeks ago, I wrote three posts detailing my frustrations with and its search engine: My Problems with Search Engines, Part 1 followed by Part 2 and Part 3.

Imagine my surprise yesterday when I noticed that I had one more comment to each of those three posts and they were from Crista Cowan! 🙂 Crista is easily the most public face of and I’ve heard her excellent talks at genealogy conferences.

She lamented that I hadn’t posted the URLs from my search – and I tried several variations of searching for results related to my examples, so backtracking to try to duplicate those URLs wouldn’t be very productive at this point.

NOTE: I’d like to reiterate here, though, that I approached the Ancestry team at RootsTech 2019 and spent 15-20 minutes with a young man on their tech team. I gave him the same examples of my no results issues as those listed in my three blog posts. That young man had the SAME issues with no results when searching that I had experienced! Apparently, the tech guy doesn’t know any of Crista’s search tips.

However, Crista did provide tips for better success, two of which kind of surprised me. Here are Crista’s suggestions:

  1. It appears that (I – me) have typed Bourbon, Kentucky into the LIVED IN field instead of selecting Bourbon County, Kentucky, USA from the type-ahead list. When you enter your own location instead of selecting from the list, the search engine treats it as a keyword and because you don’t have it marked exact it is somewhat downweighted in the search results (see #2). [Yes, I did type into the LIVED IN field and, often I am so quick that I don’t bother to click and accept the name in the type-ahead list. It never dawned on me that this would make any difference as long as I spelled the place name correctly! Live and learn!]
  2. because you don’t have it marked exact it is somewhat downweighted in the search results [I have never marked anything EXACT because I thought it would limit results, omitting spelling errors, etc.]

Trying out the EXACT box did bring up variations in the Spears name, which often is found as Spear, Speer, Speers and even as Spire.

3. Next came the issues with the slave schedules. Crista’s reply: As for the the 1860 Slave Schedule, the problem you are experiencing there is due to the fact that the record is for the enslaved individual not for the slave owner. Ancestry created a record for the enslaved person listing their gender and age but, of course, there is no name. Technically, the name field should probably be removed from the search options. In order to bring up a list of enslaved individuals owned by a particular individual, you need to enter their name in the KEYWORD field, since they are not considered the primary person on the record. [I have to say I honestly think the way Ancestry indexed this collection is just weird. Why would anyone decide to index a census schedule by people who are not named??? However, knowing to add the owner’s name to the KEYWORD field is a critical bit of knowledge needed to find people compared to browsing each page looking for them.]

4. Another of Crista’s suggestions: I use wildcards OFTEN in my searching because so many of the older records (and looking at the image this one is no exception) are such poor handwriting with over marks and fading that is is easy to see how they could be misinterpreted when the transcribers were indexing the records. [I, too, often use wildcards. Sometimes, it is the only way a record will pop up.]

5. Lastly, since I know I am not the only one who has had issues with search engine results, Crista’s last suggestion applies to all of us with any future problems: If you could provide a URL of your search results page for any results where you are getting something you don’t expect, that would be really helpful. If we can see exactly what you are entering, how, and where, we can then see if we can make the entry form more intuitive or see if we can figure out where there might be a disconnect between your query and your search results.

I’d like to give a shout out to Crista Cowan for taking the time to post three lengthy replied with helpful suggestions to bring more success with Ancestry searches. After hearing from the young man at RootsTech that he personally reads all of the comments on Ancestry’s Facebook page, my own suggestion would be to follow Crista’s tip to save the URL of your search results page and then comment on the Ancestry page. You might then receive a reply about your own issues.

Thank you again Crista Cowan.




7 thoughts on “ Answers: My Problems with the Search Engine”

  1. Very good to have these tips. I really will keep these in mind as I search. Thank you for being so persistent and specific in asking questions and seeking answers.

  2. Proving yet again why I love Christa Cowan! She has been my”virtual mentor” since I started my genealogy research. Lunch times spent with her instructional videos have been like a private college course. Thanks for this series of articles. I’ve learned a lot from you too!

  3. I agree with you about the Slave Schedules, it’s about the stupidest solution I’ve ever heard of. This sounds like something they came up with because new researchers don’t understand that they’re not going to find an enslaved persons name in a Slave Schedule. They need to come up with something else, this is not a good idea.

  4. It’s 29 May 2019. Today Ancestry updated the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules database. It looks like they’ve added search parameter fields so you can search by Slave Owner now instead of having to use the keywords.

    Now if they’ll listen about the other databases that they’ve removed certain search parameters (NY Ship Passenger lists and Hamburg Ship Departure lists) or never had them.

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