Did a friend tell you that she joined Ancestry and you want to look her up? It can be surprisingly difficult to find members on Ancestry whose names you know.
This article shows you how to use the Member Search feature on the website. We explain how searching for members on Ancestry doesn’t always work properly.
We also give you two alternative ways to search for Ancestry members that are more likely to be successful.
Where Is The Member Search Feature On Ancestry?
The Member Search feature is a search page that lets you find members by their name, their username, or by their research interests.
It’s easy to miss this feature, so let’s first look at where it is.
- Log into Ancestry.com or your local platform.
- Expand the Search menu at the top of any page.
- Click on the “Member Search” item at the bottom of the list.
The picture below highlights the item under the Search menu.
The Member Search page has two tabs with different types of searches. The default tab is to search by name or username.
If you’re not sure what the difference is between these names, we’ll look at that next.
Difference Between A Member’s Name And Username
When you create an account on Ancestry.com, the company expects you to use your real name.
If you have concerns about privacy, the website lets you display a different name to other members on Ancestry. This is known as your username. I’ve also seen it referred to as the “display name”.
My name is Margaret O’Brien. But my username is something like mags_11641.
Here is how to check your settings:
- Expand the menu under your account name at the top right of any page.
- Click the “Account Settings” menu item.
Your name and username are displayed on the Account Settings page. Here are mine:
I joined Ancestry years ago. I honestly don’t remember where the meaningless numbers at the end of my username came from. Perhaps Ancestry suggested them as an option.
If you’re ever not sure which name other members see, you can view your public profile. This can be accessed in different ways, but let’s do it from the Account Settings page.
- On the Account Settings page, click on the “Public Profile” link in the left pane.
- Click the “View public profile” link near the top of the page.
Ancestry now shows you your public profile page in the left pane.
If you’ve uploaded a photo to your Ancestry profile, you’ll see it here.
The username that other members see is below your circular picture.
How To Search For Ancestry Members By Name Or Username
If you are looking for someone with an unusual name, then this feature may work for you. I’ll show you how to use it and then explain why it may not be useful.
The interface for member search is quite simple. There are far fewer options than with other search features on Ancestry.
Unless someone you know has told you their cryptic username, you’ll probably start by searching for their “real” name.
One of the challenges with Member Search is that Ancestry has millions of members. This means that you could get hundreds of results.
When I search for “Margaret O’Brien” (my name, but not my username), there are about 260 results.
Ancestry displays the join date whether the person has a tree or not, which may be useful in narrowing down the list.
However, I would still need to click into many of the results to check if it’s the person I’m looking for.
Results aren’t ordered
One of the drawbacks is that the display doesn’t seem to be ordered in any logical way.
I think it would be more useful if it was ordered by join date, but it isn’t.
Results are capped to 500 members
The other main limit is that Ancestry puts a cap of 500 results on this search.
I know this because I searched for “John Smith” and for “Anne Smith”. Both showed 500 results.
What if the person you are looking for isn’t in that 500? Tough luck. You’re not going to find them this way. I’ll get into this more in the next sections.
Problems With Member Search By Name
If you look back at old posts and messages on genealogy forums, you’ll find people complaining that Ancestry’s member search isn’t working properly.
But some of those complaints are several years old. So, I decided to test it with a variety of members I know are on the platform.
I could find myself using my exact username. I was also successful in finding several other people.
But I still found three main problems with recent searches, which I’ll review next.
Problem 1: Short names are difficult to find
Has a friend told you that their username is “Lee”?
Unlike other search features on Ancestry, the Member Search doesn’t allow exact-match searches. So, a search for a short name like Lee produces all kinds of names including those letters.
I see multiple names of:
- Lee Lee
- Jee Lee
- Cee Lee
- Fee Lee
- Kee Lee
But I just want “Lee”? I tried putting quotations around the name in the search, but that has no effect.
I mentioned that there is a cap of 500 members in the results. The problem with a short name is that it’s even more likely that the one you’re looking for is not in those 500.
Problem 2: Common names are difficult to find
Looking for Anne Smith? You’ll get plenty of results. In fact, you’ll get exactly five hundred.
The list of results doesn’t seem to be ordered (let me know in the comments if I’m missing something).
That would make it unreasonable to work with the feature even if the person you are looking for was guaranteed to be somewhere in that haystack.
But because the search feature has a cap of 500 results, your person of interest may not be there at all.
Problem 3: Some Ancestry members are not in the directory
The member directory has an odd history.
When Ancestry created it, they decided to add everybody who signed up to post on their forums.
If you’re not familiar with the forums, check out our article on using the Ancestry message boards.
For a period of time, Ancestry didn’t automatically add people who purchased a DNA test. I know this because an Ancestry support staff member said so in 2020 to explain why people couldn’t find some of their DNA matches through the search feature.
I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it should be clearer why the member directory seems to be a bit of a mess.
It originated partly as a way of finding members of the Ancestry forums. Finding DNA matches or tree owners was tacked on, and not very well implemented.
The Feature Does Not Work For Some Members
I have messaged with many Ancestry members over the last few years, which means that I know their usernames.
To see if the feature was working better than it used to, I tested the name search with a series of rarer usernames and their “real” names.
The search worked for the first three names that I tried.
The fourth member used the same username as their real name. His first name is “Stephen” which is relatively common. But his second name is unusual (I won’t mention it here for privacy).
So, I was searching for something like: “Stephen Fiddle” (not the real search).
I got exactly three results, which looked like this:
- Stephen Fiddledee
- Stephen Fidd
- Stephen Fiddum
None of these was a correct match to my search.
My conclusion is that this feature still doesn’t work properly all the time. It’s worth trying as you may find whom you are looking for.
But if the member doesn’t appear in the results, don’t assume that you are doing something wrong. Don’t assume that the member has left Ancestry.
The problem may be that the search system isn’t working for that member’s details.
What About Searching For Research Interests?
The second tab on the Member Search page lets you search by research interest.
This can be a last name, location, or year.
I have never found this feature useful to find a specific person I’m looking for. I prefer to use alternative methods to search for members.
The next sections go through these methods.
Alternative Way To Find Ancestry Members With Family Trees
If the member you are looking for has a family tree, you will have better success using the standard Ancestry Search features to find people in the tree.
This works best when you are looking for a cousin and you know your common ancestors.
Did you know you can restrict your searches to family trees on Ancestry? Follow these steps.
- Use the Search menu to go to the standard “Search all records” page.
- Scroll down to the bottom of the page to restrict the search to family trees.
I’ve highlighted the options to set in this picture:
The search results come back with links to family trees. When you open the tree, there is a link to the owner’s profile page.
Alternative Way To Find Ancestry Members Who Are Your DNA Matches
If you are looking for a DNA match, you can use the search features on the Match List page.
These features are slightly hidden. To access them, click the “search” link at the top right of your DNA match list page.
I’ve marked it in the picture below.
You have several options for searching for a member among your DNA matches:
- Member name
- Surnames in their family tree
- Birth locations in their family tree
Are People Notified When You Find Their Profile?
Unlike platforms like LinkedIn, other Ancestry members aren’t notified when you find them in a search.
However, there are some actions you could take that might let another member realize you are looking them up.
I review these actions in our article on whether Ancestry shows who viewed your profile.