We’ve put together our top tips for getting the most out of hints in your Ancestry family tree.
Want advice on separating the wheat from the chaff? Or do you actually want more hints? We cover a lot of bases in this article.
(1) Skip Recent Hints
“Recent Hints” are shown from the leaf dropdown at the top right of the menu bar.
My current list illustrates why I rarely look at these. The dropdown displays seven hints for one person in my tree (I’ve truncated the display), but I couldn’t remember this person at all.
Well, she’s the wife of a 3rd cousin twice removed. It’s easily predicted that I’m less likely to be interested in a distant in-law, but Ancestry chooses not to put limits on our potential interests. This is a bugbear to many users, including myself.
(2) Work (Occasionally) With All Hints
As it’s so important to use context when evaluating a hint, I generally advise to work with hints from a tree profile. That way you have vitals (birth, marriage, death) and family structure immediately at hand.
The alternative is to use the “All Hints” page, which is accessible from the Tree menu dropdown.
I periodically check “All Hints” to see if any new photos and stories have popped up. There’s usually only a handful so they are quick to review.
Apart from photos and stories, I tend to stick to viewing hints from my target person of interest. But I spotted an interesting strategy on social media that made sense, although I don’t personally use it. I usually take notes of the URL so I can mention the commenter’s moniker, but I didn’t with this one – if you spot the source, drop me a comment.
Ancestry does not provide a collection filter to hints, but this strategy provides a quick way to scan for particular collections.
Using “All Hints” to scan for a collection
Let’s say you’re looking for obituaries from Newspapers.com. You use the find box on your browser (ctrl-F brings it up) and enter the name of the collection. In our case, its “Newspapers.com Obituary Index, 1800s-current”.
You can see the browser is already telling you that there are four occurrences on the web page. Just use the down arrow to skip to each occurrence.
I like this little trick in principle, and I write it up here because it may work well for you. In practice, applying it on 40 pages of hints is not my idea of fun. If Ancestry allowed us to define the number of hints per page, then it’d be golden. But we’re limited to 20 hints per page.
(3) Don’t Try To “Clear The Board”
When I first started building my tree in Ancestry, I saw hints as a challenge to be completed. Learn from my mistake, and don’t bother trying.
Why? It’s a Sysyphean task (here’s poor ol’ Sysyphus, pushing that boulder up the hill).
Ancestry starts generating more hints when you update a tree entry. Simply by accepting a hint, you’ve edited the entry. And hey – there’s more hints!
(4) Block Hints When It’s Feasible
This comes up a lot on forums: is there a way to put restrictions on the hints you receive?
The top two on my wish nix list are:
- blocking hints and “potential parents” for the spouses of distant relatives
- filtering on geography for persons I know never left their home area
Unfortunately, the only restriction is either to turn off ALL hints for a particular tree or to turn off “tree hints”.
Block all hints for specific trees or all trees
Oddly enough, you don’t block hints from within a particular tree. Instead, there’s a master page that lists all your trees with a hint toggle. You reach it through “Site Preferences”, which is a menu item under your account profile.
The master page gives you several options for toggling your preferences. Scroll down to see “New Hint Notifications” and a list of your trees. By default, hints are turned on unless you come here and deselect the option.
Just tick the top box if you want to turn off hints for all your trees.
Turn off hints for family trees
I don’t turn these off, I just rarely bother looking at them. But if they’re wrecking your head, the toggle is helpfully at the top of the site preferences page.
(5) Recognize Boomerang Hints
I coined the term “boomerang hints” to describe hints to other trees whose sole source is your own tree. You’ve cast your research out into the Ancestry world, and now you get hit on back of the head by it.
Yes, they’re a waste of time. There’s nothing much you can do about their presence if you don’t want to turn off family tree hints.
You may find that one tree has copied a lot of your research and generates a lot of different hints on different persons. To avoid wasting time, jot down the name of the tree (or mutter it under your breath a few times). That way you’ll recognize not to bother clicking into the next hint.
(6) Resurrected Hints May Not Be What They Seem
You pounded the ignore button or clicked “NO!” when asked if a hint is correct. But here it is again for the same person? Before you get too frustrated, take a closer look. It may not actually be the same hint that you rejected before.
As Ancestry continually acquires new archives, it has some very similarly named collections with overlapping information. So, you may have ignored the record in a slightly different format. The new digitized archive may have additional information, so it’s worth checking at least once to see if you can glean more details from the different archive.
It’s also possible that a new tree has copied the same item, and so a new hint has been generated. I could say that this is a flaw in the algorithm, but it can be useful to know when another Ancestry user is researching a person that you’re also interested in.
Another reason is…it’s your own fault! You have more than one tree with the same person. If you ignore the hint in one tree, it may pop up like an eager puppy in your other tree. You can fix this by turning off hints for the second tree.
(7) “This Hint Is No Longer Available“
You click on a hint, only to see a message saying, “this hint is no longer available.”
This is so common that Ancestry has a dedicated support page.
Basically, the source of the hint has disappeared because the source family tree has been deleted or made private, or the tree owner removed the attached record.
To understand why the hint hangs around, you need to be aware that family trees are stored in two systems: the massive family tree database, and a smaller more efficient store called an index. Hints come from the index, which is why they may appear seconds after a you save a new entry in your tree.
These spurious hints fall out of the index when it is next rebuilt. You wouldn’t notice the problem if there wasn’t a significant delay between rebuilds.
There are some Ancestry glitches that I don’t document here because I assume that they’ll be fixed at some stage. The index delays have been ongoing for years, so I don’t think this general problem is going to disappear any time soon.
(8) How To Get More Ancestry Hints
You may feel overwhelmed at times by your hints. The more you review, the more they seem like Lewis Carroll’s oysters:
“And thick and fast, they came at last, and more and more and more.”
But what if the opposite is true? You may have loads of hints in one branch, but none are appearing for the branch you’re interested in right now.
To generate targeted hints, you need to know how new hints are generated. The engine kicks in when:
- You add or update a tree entry
- Ancestry adds a new collection
- Ancestry changes or improves a piece of the Hints software
So, the first thing to do is open the person of interest and make some change to it. Ideally, you’ll add a new record you found through a manual search.
If you can’t find any “real” new information, try adding a residence fact that corresponds to your existing details. For example, you may have added a census record and let Ancestry generate a residential for that year. You can simply add another residential fact with the same details for the next year. This is a guess, of course, you’re just trying to kick Ancestry into spawning new hints. Once you get what you need, remove the unverified fact.
An alternative that takes a bit more work is related to a “problem” situation I’ve already discussed. People see hints that they’ve already ignored, but don’t realize they ignored it in a different tree. You can take advantage of hints being per tree and create a new tree with your branch of interest.
This is a bit more work, because you do need to add a good level of detail to get quality hints. You may only be interested in hints for a single person, but don’t just recreate that entry. Add their parents and children, so that the family structure can guide the hints system towards accurate records.
(9) Suggested Records
When you review a hint to a particular record, you will usually see a list of additional links on the right side of the screen, headed “Suggested Records”.
This means that another Ancestry user has
(a) attached the record you’re reviewing to a person in their tree, and
(b) attached the suggested record to the same person.
The Ancestry genealogist, Crista Cowan, put it like this at the 2017 RootsTech conference: “…we’re saying, well, these other three records got attached to that same person. Maybe you want to go look at them.”
The example I’m showing were beside my most recent record hint at the time. I’ve mentioned that my tree entry getting the hints was the wife of a 3rd cousin twice removed – and I wasn’t particular interested. But my curiosity was piqued by the suggested records, which have three different surnames for this woman.
In my own tree, I have this Helen as maiden name Wyss, married to my genetic relative Thomas Orr. The actual hint is to a FindAGrave entry for Helen Orr.
So why does a census record appear for Helen Schmal? I have nothing associated with the Schmal surname in my own tree.
It’s quite possible that several different Ancestry users have incorrectly added the 1930 Schmal census record alongside the 1920 Wyss record. But I took a look at the obituary linked to the FindAGrave hint. Sure enough, Helen married twice. The suggested records are correct.
Be sure to do your own research and verification before grabbing suggested records into your tree. You can add to record to the Ancestry shoebox while you’re unsure whether it is relevant.
Don’t go round in circles
When you click a Suggested Record link, you will continue to see a list of suggested records on the right side of the page.
But the order of records may not be the same as in the prior web page. So, it’s easy to go around in circles. You’ll start noticing that you’re looking at the same record again.
Here’s the trick to get off that hamster wheel.
Keep the original hint open in a browser tab. This is your anchor page. From here, right click on the first suggested record link to open it in a separate browser tab. You will get another list of suggested records on this new page, but don’t use these links.
When you’re finished reviewing the first suggested record, go back to the anchor page and right-click on the next suggested record link. Rinse-and-repeat, and you’ll get to the end of the list without duplicating your effort.
(10) The Hint Feedback System
Ancestry launched a new hint feature in 2019. You’ll see it when you ignore or reject a hint: you’re asked to tick the boxes for the reasons you did not accept this hint.
The chapter on “How do Ancestry Hints Work?” described how the basic feedback of “Yes, No, Maybe” is used to improve the quality of future hints.
The additional feedback in these boxes give the Ancestry algorithms more information to work with. If every Ancestry user filled in the forms every time, then there’s no doubt that the quality of hints would eventually improve.
Do I fill in the forms? No, I do not, it’s too much work for a hobby. But that’s just me, you should make up your own mind about it.
(11) A Hack To Filter Your Hints
The main reason I rarely use the “All Hints” page is because the filtering system is so basic: you get to filter on name only.
Questions keep popping up on social media on how to do more sophisticated filtering. I’ve seen people raising requests on Ancestry’s own blog for years.
There’s a hack that’s been around for some years to let you filter on a specific database collection. It relies on using a specific URL (web address), and every now and then it stops working when Ancestry changes its web structure.
So, I won’t document it here as specific instructions may not work. If you’re interested, take a look at this post on Randy Seaver’s Blog. Scan down through the comments to see if anyone has recently said “this isn’t working any more“, and someone has replied with a fix.
More Articles About Hints?
We have more in-depth articles on Ancestry hints. Check these out:
Looking For An E-book On Building Your Ancestry tree?
Check out our e-book on building your family tree with Ancestry, available on Amazon now!
Ten chapters packed with practical strategies and techniques for using Ancestry features to build out your tree.
- Setting up your DNA-linked tree
- Using your tree to find connections with DNA matches
- Best practices for entering names, dates, and locations
- Strategies for getting the most benefit from Hints
- Tips for using powerful Search features
- Sending messages that get replies
Like Video Tutorials?
If you would like to watch some short video tutorials that walk through using Ancestry features step-by-step, browse through the DataMiningDNA YouTube channel.
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