Search Secrets: Using Wildcards as Search Filters

One of the great online genealogy search secrets is the use of wildcards. The following methods give you the ability to improve your search capabilities greatly.

Wildcards might be one the least-utilized search features, which if used properly can produce excellent results. In genealogy research, we must be as specific as possible in our searches or else deal with hundreds of results that don’t match what we’re seeking. Wildcards are used to tell a search engine or database (such as on Ancestry.com) exactly what you want. If you haven’t used wildcards before you will seldom work without them again once you understand the power this method delivers.

What is a wildcard? Wildcards are special characters and symbols included in your search text used to filter the search results before returning them to you. You can specify exactly what you want to see, and tell the search query what you might know or don’t know ahead of time.

If you’ve searched Google you’ve undoubtedly noticed literally millions of search results for a general search. Using wildcards you can filter your search down from millions of results to dozens of results. This method can be used almost anywhere a search function is offered.

What this means for you is eliminating hundreds of records to review and potentially saving HOURS of research time per project. If you rely only on the filtering mechanisms offered on the sites you’re using, you’re easily missing out on half of your search capability.

Often in genealogy work we come across the names of individuals that are not a match for the person we’re looking for but shares the same name or has a similar enough name to keep confusing us. Many times a wildcard can be used to filter out the results that keep popping up that we’re not interested in.

To use wildcards effectively, we must first understand the language that databases use. There are certain characters and symbols that will tell the database query to handle our search is a specific way. The most common of these characters and symbols are the asterisk (*), question mark (?), parenthesis (), and quotation marks( ” ).

The asterisk can be used to replace one or more unknown characters, to allow variant endings to keywords, or to include results with everything before and/or after an asterisk with anything in between. For instance on Ancestry.com, you can use an asterisk to find variations of a keyword or a name.

The search keyword “Smith*” will return the names Smith, Smithe, and Smithson. The asterisk is telling the database to return anything matching the name Smith plus variations of Smith using additional letters. By placing the asterisk ahead or behind a name or partial name you’ll be searching for the name itself, with all variations of prefixes and suffixes. The search for instance “*Donald” will also return results for McDonald.

The question mark is used on Ancestry.com to insert a single wildcard letter. For example, if you were to search for “East?n”, you will receive results for the names Eastin and Easton.

Similar conventions are available when searching in Google. In Google, the asterisk represents one or more words. When using the asterisk in Google, enclose the query in quotes, and place the asterisk wherever a wildcard letter, character or word might be found. For example if you were to search for “Martin * Connerty”, you will return all results that include a middle initial or a middle name in the order specified.

This wildcard will also return results containing several words in proximity, so a potential result could be a list such as: “Martin, Jones, Dawson, Connerty”. Another way you might try to search: “Connerty, Martin *” is not useful because it will include anything that follows the name Martin.

Another useful Google trick that will work selectively in other search engines is the (-) minus sign to narrow the search. You’ll quickly narrow your search by eliminating frequent duplicates of the same result you don’t want to see. Entering your search term in Google usually returns thousands of unwanted results.

Enter a search term and view the results. When there are numerous results for something you’re not looking for you may go back to the search box and add a space behind your original query and then type -word. “Word” being the term you wish to exclude from the search. For more information on using wildcards in Google visit http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?answer=136861.

Give them a try and you’ll be happy you did. Just remember that the operators or Boolean logic may be different for each website so it may take some getting used to, and a little bit of time to gain an understanding of how your favorite websites handle wildcard searches.

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