How To Search (For Beginners)

This article takes a detailed look at the basic and advanced search forms that let you perform the most common type of searches on

These are global searches through most of the Ancestry record collections.

The Five Types of Ancestry Search

There are five main ways of searching through for records in Ancestry.

Five? Yes, there may be several you weren’t aware of. This is the list:

  • Ancestry Global Search
  • Category Search
  • Catalog Search
  • Special Collections Search
  • Place Page Search

You’ve probably used two of these extensively. You may not recognize one at all.

I encourage you to try them out as you go through this tutorial series.

Some may be less useful than others. But they may provide the little extra push that gets you through that brick wall.

Hints are not on the list, because they are generated by the Ancestry software, not by you. These five types are searches that you initiate.

The most common type of Search performed by Ancestry users is known as Global Search.

What is Ancestry Global Search?

A global search is a search across all indexed collections at the same time.

Global Search itself has two forms. Without using additional filters, you get the Basic search form:

Basic search on Ancestry

The only thing you can’t do with the Basic Search Form is enter a search with no details.

But if you stick in a First Name of “John” and you’ll get back over 1.5 billion results.

I get “Jno”, “Juan”, “Johnie”, “Jonn”, and “Jeanne” in the top twenty.

That’s hardly useful. Are there any circumstances when the Basic Search is useful? Yes!

Basic Search

A dual combo of Last Name and Place can be a great overview of a family line, particularly when the surname is not particularly common.

Try to keep the place fairly specific, down to a town or district level. By leaving out the year, you’re searching records across many generations in and around the same area.

This may seem odd at first, but I advise you to come back every now and then to a Basic Search after you’ve done detailed research on a particular branch of your tree.

This means you’ll be familiar with a lot of the records that show up in the top results. So the “outliers” should stand out for you.

Surname and Place

Let’s say you’ve already examined and gathered sources for a great-grandparent in a town or village. Throw in a surname and a detailed location, and then hit Search.

You’ll see that Ancestry has set the location to its broadest possible. That’s okay: what you’ve specified will influence the order of results shown.

So here’s why I recommend doing this every now and then for your ancestral surnames in known places. My recent search for an ancestral surname and place returned 2 million results, but I didn’t need to move past the first page for a good outcome.

Familiarity is key here. I recognized many of the records from detailed research I’d done over the years. Nothing new there.

But two records jumped out at me, as I eyed the source in surprise: Ireland, Petty Session Court Registers, 1818-1919. Oh, I thought. That’s new.

And yes, it was new to Ancestry. They acquired this collection two months previously, so these records weren’t available when I started my family research.

Sure enough, some of my ancestors were turning up in court quite often. Mostly for late payment of rent, a sad reflection of difficult times.

Don’t miss out on new collections

Ancestry has a page that shows the collections that have been added or updated within the last few months.

When I look at it now, there are new and updated records for Australia, Canada, New Zealand, eight European countries, seven states in the U.S., and more.

This is where the most basic search can throw up unexpected gold.

I wish I had time to track new collections and do detailed searches across my tree. Basic Search provides an alternate fast-track.

Basic Filters

You may notice as you scan your eye down the results that the Residence gets less relevant to what you entered. That’s because of the filter settings for a Basic Search:

Ancestry has set these filters for you. See that the location is broader than the name?

By default, there is no filter on the location – despite what you entered. Instead, Ancestry assigns a score to the results based on your entry and ranks the results downwards.

Now take the power of filtering into your own hands. You can use the slider to narrow down to the country and lower levels. Or hit “Edit Search” to go the Advanced Search Form.

Advanced Search

When you’re hunting a specific person, you’ll want to use Advanced Search.

Newcomers may think from the name that you should start with Basic and graduate to Advanced. Not at all.

You should spend most of your time on the Advanced form, and occasionally do a Basic search to change things up!

The Advanced Search Form

My own searches tend to include one or more from these “advanced” options:

  • Birth/marriage/death/lived in/any event
  • Father/mother/sibling/spouse/child
  • Collection focus

Let’s break down the additional events and go through some dos and don’ts.

Suppose you know the year and place of your ancestor’s birth, marriage, and death.

In the example, I’ve kept it at Ireland county level – the equivalent of State in the U.S. So far, I’ve added no additional filters.

The results bring me back birth, marriage, and death records – and lots of other categories I mightn’t have thought of. Census, court records, land valuation, military and so on.

And I notice that the locations for some of these results are way off what I know. I’m getting death, wills and probate records from England and the United States! That’s not what I want.

Filtering – how much is too much?

So I decide to narrow down the death location to Country. I mean, that’s still pretty broad, right?

But here’s the kicker: now there’s no birth, marriage, court, land, or military records in the results. Suddenly, the results only include records that mention a death event.

A similar restriction happens if you take out the death filter but add a country or date filter to the Marriage event. There’s even less results, as any record must mention a marriage event.

So here’s how this search thing works, and it’s not particularly intuitive until you understand what’s going on under the hood.

Under the hood – filtering with Ancestry Global Search

When you enter date and place details for events, and leave them as not exact: only the Last Name is used to filter your results.

So, what the heck happens to the other great info that you entered?

Because Ancestry by default treats the additional information as “Broad”, they are used to score and rank the filtered results.

So, records with birth or marriage or death events that match the specified locations and places will rank higher in your results list.

But if a marriage record doesn’t have a death event (which of course it doesn’t), it won’t get kicked out of the list.

A very reasonable misconception is that if you enter a birth date, you’ll simply reduce the date span of birth and marriage results being returned to you.

No! That’s reasonable, but it’s not how the Ancestry Search filters work.

If you’re trying some examples, you may notice that the birth event seems to be the “safest” as a filter that still gets catch-all results.

So, how come its picking up census, death and marriage records that’ don’t specify a date of birth?

These records usually specify age at the time of the event. Ancestry calculates an approximate date of birth using the age, and “creates” the associated birth fact for the record.

But you could still miss out on some categories of records if you add a filter on the birth record.

Family Members

The spouse entry can be a great help to narrow down marriage records. Parents can also be useful here, although mothers may not be recorded.

Adding children is useful to narrow down census records.

My own research deals with Irish families where cousins gave their many children similar names in similar order.

So when one Gorman family had John, Mary, Patrick and Joseph in 1901, while the other only had a John, Mary and Patrick: I rely on the presence of Joseph to nudge the right census record up the results page.

Again, be very wary of adding additional (narrower) filters to these options.

If you specify a parent or spouse as an exact match, then records who do not have these details will not be returned.

Strategies for Advanced Search

Your starting point is usually a First and Last Name with a guess at a birth year.

If you know the marriage and death details, then do enter them. That shuffles the more relevant marriage and death records up the list. But leave them at the default level of no filter.

When you’re still getting an overview of what’s out there – don’t add filters on the marriage or death events.

Instead, use the categories on the left-hand side to focus down to specific types of records.

Other Articles On Searching

The first article in our mini-series looked at how the Ancestry Search Engine works.

The next two chapters look at other types of Ancestry search, specifically:

We also have a round-up of 24 of our best tips and tricks for Ancestry Search.

More Articles And Tutorials?


Margaret created a family tree on a genealogy website in 2012. She purchased her first DNA kit in 2017. She created this website to share insights and how-to guides on DNA, genealogy, and family research.

7 thoughts on “How To Search (For Beginners)”

  1. Great stuff to take our searches to the next level – especially when you have the low hanging fruit/leaf hints and start asking yourself “now how exactly does this search engine work?”

    Many thanks


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