Thursday, July 7, 2016

Shaky Leaves and All - Are They Useful?

Michael John Neill said "Genealogy blasphemy #3 - I don't use the leaves" on Facebook and then followed it up with a blog post titled "Should You Leave the Leaves Alone?" today on his blog.  He gives his reasons for not using the green Leaves on, including "they make problem solving difficult" and "some things located manually aren't located otherwise."

I don't think it's blasphemy - I think it's Michael's choice.  He has his preferred research methodology and, based on his results, it is very sound.

1)  I use the Ancestry Hints, the MyHeritage Record Matches, the Findmypast Hints, and the FamilySearch Record Hints all the time.  They are part of my research methodology at this time in my genealogy research life.

These "suggested records" by the online record providers are "low hanging fruit" that tell me "you've missed this - want to see what we found?"  A researcher has the choice to use it or not.  I choose to look at them, and use many of them, especially for Hints for actual records.  I choose to not look much at the trees or photograph Hints - but I love to look at the Hints.  I also choose to not look at Hints from many of the authored works indexed databases, but I do use some indexed databases like Find A Grave, state or county vital record indexes, etc.

2) has said in discussions, classes and online videos that the Hints are obtained from searches in about 10% of their most popular and highest record count databases.  Since they have over 32,650 databases right now, that's about 3,265 databases - all of them indexed and many of them with record images.  They do it while I'm not looking and present them to me in a list.  It's a gift!

How they select the persons for Hints, I'm not sure.  For me, they seem to look at 5 to 10 persons each day in my Ancestry Member Tree.  I know that if I go to a portion of my Ancestry Member Tree in the pedigree or family view, then Hints are stimulated almost immediately for persons in that view.  If I add a new person to my Ancestry Member Tree, Hints are provided almost immediately.  If I upload a new Ancestry Member Tree, Hints are generated immediately for almost every person on the visible part of my Pedigree chart.  I can see the unresolved Hints in each Ancestry database using the hack described in Mining Hints by Specific Record Collection - Updated.

3)  Right now, I'm averaging something like 50 to 60 NEW record Hints each day for my Ancestry Member Tree (1,012 NEW hints in the last 18 days - I keep track of this).  

Why am I receiving this many Hints?  Is it because I'm a bad researcher and haven't done the necessary research for each person in my Ancestry Member Tree?  Perhaps.  Or it may be that I haven't performed a complete search.  Many of the Hints I receive from are for records I have already used, but I have not attached, accepted or ignored in my Ancestry Member Tree.  About 20% of the Hints that Ancestry provides in a typical day are useful to me.  About 90% of the Hints are for the right person in my Tree.  I am often amazed that can find some of the records, especially for females with multiple marriages.

When I work in the Hints list, I rarely accept therm to my tree, but I do choose to Ignore them, which puts them on the Ignore list in the Hints view for the tree person, and removes them from the "New" Hints list.

4)  As I've noted before, I have over 42,000 persons in my Ancestry Member Tree, which I uploaded two years ago as "cousin bait."  I haven't bothered to attach many records from the Hints because I know that I will replace this tree eventually.  My current RootsMagic database has over 46,000 persons because I keep adding persons, events and source citations to my RootsMagic database from my research and from all of the provider-supplied Hints.

My Ancestry Member Tree consists of:

*  My ancestral families back as far as I can trace them - usually to the immigrants to America, and sometimes back into the British Isles and continental Europe.
*  Ancestral families of my wife and my grandchildren.
*  Ancestral families of my first cousins
*  Families of specific surnames - Seaver/Sever, Carringer, Auble, Vaux, Buck, Dill, etc.  Most of these connect to me, but many don't connect to me yet.
*  Families that may connect to my "brickwall ancestors" that I have researched.  They are included so that I don't lose the research I've done.

Of the 42,000 persons in my Ancestry Member Tree, I estimate that I have performed a Reasonably Exhaustive Search for just a few of them (perhaps 20 to 50?) because I had to resolve conflicts.  I have researched "fairly well" about 3,000 of them, mainly my direct line ancestral families, and I have confidence in the names, relationships, dates, places, events, etc.  I have reached a "high  confidence level" judgment on these conclusions.  The rest are persons in my cousin and surname studies that I have added over the last 28 years.  The information for these may be from published source material, and many conclusions are lacking source citations.  There are not enough days in my life to research every person in my database to the Genealogical Proof Standard level.

In general, I rarely receive Hints for my direct ancestors that I have not found before, but the Hints I receive are for the third group of persons in my tree - the ones in my cousin and surname studies.  When I find a Hint to use, I add the event to my database, add the source citation, and add a note if necessary.  It's not unusual for me to go through 100 Hints in an hour, add perhaps 20 to 30 events, and add 50 to 100 source citations  in that time.  So the Hints are used to improve my family tree database.

5)  Once in a great while, I receive a Hint that really helps me with an ancestral family.  The best recent example is probably the Hint for Elizabeth Auble's (1814-1899) will that I received three months ago - see Making Progress on My Auble Cousins - Post 10: The Strubles for the list of posts on this line of research.  I never thought of looking for a will for Elizabeth Auble - and Ancestry dropped it right in my lap.  Lucky me.  This Hint resulted in adding a number of relatively close cousins to my family tree.

6)  I greatly appreciate the Hints that the record providers push to me - they help me add content to my RootsMagic family tree database.  The online family trees I have provide information for other researchers ("cousin bait") to find and use, and provide links to ancestors of potential cousins found from DNA matches.

7)  Michael stated in his blog post that the Hints don't provide every search result for a person.  He's correct.  Searching an online data provider is an art and a science.  There are records in Ancestry databases that are only found in a search with specific search parameters and trial and error.  There are records in Ancestry databases for a specific person that may never be found because the information may have been originally entered incorrectly, or were transcribed incorrectly, or were indexed incorrectly.

My thanks to Michael for providing thought provoking blog fodder.

8)  Your thoughts?  Do you use the Ancestry Hints?  If so, how do you use them?  Why do you use them?


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Russ Worthington said...


I think you know the answer to that question from me. It's one word. ABSOLUTELY.

Because this has come up again, the use of Hints, I took a look at a new file that I am working on. There are 130 people in my file, right now.

I started with ONE NAME and location. I knew where this person lived in 1940, so my first search found him where I expected in the 1940 Census. I created my file from that Census Record. I know the family, so I know it is the right person. Most of the rest were from Hints.

I have 54 Hints To Go. But I have had 36 Good Hints and 4 bad ones. I think that is about 90%. But let me talk about the 4 "bad ones". I looked at the hint and I looked at my database, and ALL that I had for those 4 hints was a name, they were females, so I didn't have enough information in my database to get me a good, solid hint.

By following the from that first Census Record, I have 130 people in my database.

I do take a break from the Hints and do some Find A Grave research. I especially follow those Find A Grave INDEX hints, to KNOW that there is a Find A Grave Record. I do NOT work the Find A Grave website right from the Index, because my process for working the Find A Grave website is different is different than from or other websites. I did a blog post, several of them, including the most recent blog post.

The Hints I am following and have in cue are ALL in FTM2014 and I have EXCLUDED, in my settings, all Ancestry Member Tree's in my hints.

Michael Thomas Neill talked about how Ancestry does their searching when providing hints. I really don't care, as long as the hints that I get are good ones, and mine are. I also know that those hint go beyond what I might have to manually enter into an Search screen. I just love it, when I enter a new person and a Shaky Leaf Hint shows up for that person, based on the relationships, dates, and places that are in my database.

I'll let capture the Low Hanging Fruit, but I don't Just accept them, I evaluate what is presented BEFORE I merge the information into my file.

Oh, and It's now all the easy stuff, I have one New Jersey Fill in the list of hints that I have in cue.

As I mentioned, there are 130 people is this new file (less than a week old), with 51 marriage, 7 generation, with 41 surnames. (mostly local, to this day, surnames)

1,114 Facts, 75 Place Names, 29 Sources, 94 Citations, and 41 media files.

Oh, and some of those Media files are Cemetery Headstones that I took 5 years ago, and a number just this week.

Not to mention that I sent you a couple of photographs of your folk in one of those cemeteries.

Bottom line, Yes, I absolutely use those Ancestry Shaky Leaf Hints.


ps - a previous study of 250 Hints, was 95.7% accurate

James Alexander Knighton said...

I'm British and all of my ancestors are British, so Ancestry does a very good job at providing hints. You have the Birth, Marriage and Death indexes after 1837 and all the censuses from 1841 to 1911, so it's very easy to cross reference and find out the truth. Many of my lines have been researched purely from the shaky leaves. My practice is to find a birth, marriage and death index record and all relevant censuses the individual was alive for. I verify the index records by ordering the certificates, and if it all matches up, then I look into the more obscure databases on Ancestry, as well as other sites such as Find My Past and FamilySearch. Then I move on to searching on Google, and of course I go out into the real world and look for records there.

I think people who are so against the shaky leaves that they refuse to even look at them are obviously researching ancestors who lived in areas with sparse records or lived a very long time ago. It's the only way I can explain such an aversion to a brilliant resource. I also think it's unfair to point to all the poorly researched user trees as if it makes Ancestry unreliable. There's a reason why they're called "hints".

Leah Smith said...

I also use Ancestry's Shaky Leaf Hints. I have found that they are sometimes the quickest way to find vital record information. especially when it is from a newly added collection. I, too, have excluded all Ancestry Member Trees from appearing in Hints. I know if I want to look for a tree, I can do that, but I do not want trees in my Hints. I also ignore a good many hints from data collections which do not contain images.
I most often search Ancestry outside of the Shaky Leaves and Family Treemaker. I have found that not all collections appear in Ancestry Hints; at least not initially. I tend to search for probate records, naturalization records, and some others using the Ancestry's search function outside of Family Treemaker.
Following hints is just one small part of my research strategy.

Delbert Ritchhart said...


I agree with you. As long as you understand and use the hints correctly, they can be extremely helpful. If nothing else, they are a good lead that you can examine to determine if they are valid ancestors. It is certainly better than nothing! It has also been my experience that if I am looking for John Doe and one of the hints if from the Doe Family, the data tends to be fairly reliable. Like you, I also look to see what source information the tree has. I will also, normally choose the Family Tree information from the trees with the highest number of sources and media.

Darren Price said...

When Ancestry first introduced the shaky leaf hints, I tried keeping up with them. At the time, my database included abt. 5,000 individuals. It was just barely possible to keep up, if I didn't do anything else. At that time, a LOT of the hints were incorrect(at least 1/3, maybe 1/2). I suspect that early uncritical acceptance of shaky leaf hints introduced more errors into Ancestry member trees than any other single factor (even though the hints are partly driven by what people accept and reject, they seem to be much improved today).

Now I find that, like Randy, the hints are most useful when I've either added someone new to the tree, or when I'm looking at part of the tree I haven't worked on for awhile (where the act of viewing makes the hint engine kick in). The "find hints by database" trick is also very useful (thanks, Russ!), it made very quick work of mining the recent "SSA Applications & Claims" database. The hint engine mostly finds things I would have found anyway, but it does it with a lot less effort on my part, and there are the occasional "aha!" moments that make it absolutely worthwhile.

I also agree that member tree hints are mostly unhelpful, with one specific exception - sometimes I find a member tree from the spousal side of one of my families that has information about maiden names and/or spousal parents. As it's usually unsourced, it still needs to be verified, but it does help.