A suggestion for how Ancestry.com could vastly improve its “List of All People” search function

Spoiler  alert: This post will be marginally in the realms of the genealogy anorak. Or to Americans, the realm of the genealogy nerd/geek. I know, I know, there’s already the patina of geekiness associated with genealogy already. How could things possibly get more geeky? Well..  😉

I’m hoping Ancestry.com developers will read this and take much of what I’m going to cover on board for future development of the service.

I’ve spent the past 3 weeks working my way through the All Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014 records database on Ancestry.com.  When you have a family tree the size of mine – nearly 30,000 people – applying the information contained in a death certificate to the correct person isn’t always straightforward or easy on Ancestry. For me, this has to do with numerous people born around the same time in the same county or state bearing the same name.

Rather than just whinge, I think I’ve come up with a pretty straightforward ‘fix’ Ancestry.com could implement.

I’ll elaborate.

For those of you with family trees on Ancestry.com, the image below will be familiar to you. It’s the list of all people area on Ancestry.com.

This is the landing page area of the ‘List of Individuals’ for my main family tree

This is the area of Ancestry that could definitely, absolutely and positively benefit from some additional programming. Specifically, the search  functionality. For those of us with very large family trees, additional filtering options would greatly aide our efforts in finding specific individuals in large family trees – or at least filtering out a larger number of individuals.

For example, look at what happens when I try to find William Roane using the existing search function in this part of Ancestry.com:

150 William Roanes is a LOT of people to try to assess for relevance for a specific record you are trying to attach to a specific individual.
150 William Roanes is a LOT of people to try to assess for relevance for a specific record you are trying to attach to a specific individual.

150 William Roanes! Depending on why I’m looking for a specific individual, a list like this can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to go through to (hopefully!) find the specific William Roane I’m looking for. While knowing and using middle names can cut this list down dramatically, I can still end up with quite a number of individuals to sort through while looking for a specific ancestor or relation. Using the list above, if I searched for William Henry Roane, I would still have around 15 individuals. If that doesn’t work, then it’s ‘Plan B’ time and I can do a search for all William H Roanes – which can bump the number of individuals up to 25 or so.

Yes, you can scan these results and use dates of birth and counties  of birth and death as a guide – but these aren’t always helpful. Actually, the death records I’m pouring through provide this information, which is missing from a number of individuals in my tree. Lol not that this is always helpful as death record informants can provide misinformation.

And yes, one can always use a middle name or initial to further filter results. However, if middle names and/or initials aren’t known or already given, you’re limited to using just a first and last name. Again, the death records I’m looking at are providing even this fundamental bit of information.

What I’m suggesting is a far more finessed search function as shown below:

Image for illustrative purposes.

In trying to apply information gained from marriage and death records, I’d like to be able to search using a number of filter data:

  • Names of parents: for this. I’d probably use the father’s full name (if known) and the mother’s first name. I’m finding that a significant number of women in my tree remarried or were married before they married one of my ancestors or relations.
  • Name(s) of spouse(s)
  • Birth year (with +/- number of years option)
  • Place of residence (this would pull individuals based on their birth place, place(s) of residency, place of death and burial location for any individual in your tree)

Sticking with my William Henry Roane example, I have a scenario that still presents some researching issues. A staggering number of William Roanes married Elizabeths – or women with common derivations of the name Elizabeth: Bessie, Betty/Bettie, Lizzie, Liz, Liza, Eliza, Lettie/Letty, etc.

Now, if I could filter a search to look for A William Roane born around 1850 and was born in and/or lived in  King and Queen County, Virginia with Jack Roane as a father and Mary as a mother and Lizzie for a spouse…I’d have a list of 5 men to look at. By the way, that took me around an hour-and-a-half to work that one out using the current search functionality. Five people is a far easier number of people to investigate than, say, 25.

Remember, this search function would only search for individuals who are already in your tree.

There is another use for this more finessed search functionality, especially in my research for African American ancestors and relations who were enslaved and separated through that system.

There are certain families my African American relations seemed to prefer marrying into than others.  I’d like to search my tree to see how many Roanes in Virginia married people from the Quarles family. Filtering on this kind of criteria would better enable me to assess family relationships within the various broken Roane family lines. For those ancestors who were enslaved, it could help pinpoint slave owners.

At the moment, this kind of analysis is difficult, given the size of my tree. I know the information is locked away within the details of thousands if individuals. Being able to do a very filtered search would make such an analysis and investigation far, far simpler. And quicker.

One of the reasons why my tree is so huge is my attempt at bringing together what 300+ years of slavery tore apart. And what 300+ years of living in the margins of society as free people of colour also wrought. I am re-connecting lost and forgotten genealogies stretching back to the mid 1600s. I do so in the hopes that other African Americans can benefit from my research, find their place in the family tree that I’ve built over the years – and understand who they come from, who they are related to, and re-connect with lost and forgotten lines of the family.

Or, as I put it in another post, giving slavery and the marginalization of people of colour the finger.

So Ancestry.com developers, I hope you can take these pointers on board. And if there’s a job at Ancestry.com going…I have all kinds of UX (user experience) ideas  😉

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