Thursday, October 15, 2009

Learning new Search Tricks

I am as stubborn as most people about "reading the ..... manual" - I seem to try things out myself, stumble along and learn, and eventually figure out my "best way" to do things. In this case, to check out and use genealogy databases.

I've had a subscription this past year and enjoy the website and the results - they have been very helpful to my own genealogy research. But I never really figured out the best way to search the website for my ancestors or other people of interest. Let me explain by showing you some typical results:

On the home page, there is a search box that invites the user to enter a Person or Keyword (the user has the choice - see the "Keyword" and "Person" words above the search box?). The default seems to be "Keyword."

I entered by grandfather's name "frederick seaver" in the search box in the screen above, and clicked on the orange "Search" button:

There were 4,213 matches ... and the list is provided by database category and specific database titles.

When I checked some of these matches, I found that they were for documents in the database that had the terms "frederick" and "seaver" on the same page - not necessarily "frederick seaver." That makes a lot of sense - it's similar to what other search engines do. Frankly, this is how I've been searching for people for many months! Dumb! Is there a better way?

Well, still using the "Keyword" search, I decided to try using quote marks around the name, using a search for "frederick seaver." Here's the home page search screen:

And here's the results for the quote mark keyword search:

Aha! Only 90 matches. That makes much more sense...all of the matches are for persons with the name "frederick seaver."

What about people named "Frederick * Seaver" with a middle name or middle initial? Nope - the wild card search requires at least two letters before or after the wildcard symbol. Oh well.

Is there another way? Yes! The "Person" search on the home page is shown below:

I entered "frederick" in the first name box and "seaver" in the last name box, and received these matches:

91 matches using the "Person" search box. Why are the number of matches different from the "Keyword with quotes" search? On the "Keyword with quotes" search, it found 6 matches in the Poughkeepsie Journal and 4 matches in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) using "frederick seaver" as the search criteria. On the "Person" search, it found 6 matches in the SSDI, and 3 in the 1930 US Census. Why? Because of the search criteria and the indexing. The newspaper matches were not found in the "Person" search for some reason. The additional SSDI matches and the 1930 census records found on the "Person" search have a middle initial in them, so the "Keyword with quotes" search didn't find them, as expected.

So I've learned that different search criteria produce different search results. Duh! Learned something old...again. Could I have learned this earlier? Yep!

Right there on the home search page is a link to Search Tips. It is that little question mark just on the right edge of the orange "Search" button (but only on the "Keyword" screen). See it? I didn't until last night! I clicked on it to see what came up:

Ah, some search tips, with some examples. Cool. Although it says "It's generally better NOT to use quotes when searching for names." Hmm, I'm not sure that I agree with that, based on my experience above! I'm going to do both tyhpes of searches rather than trust one or the other to return all pertinent matches.

There are several Help functions available for users:

* There is a link to a two-minute video on this "Search Tips" page (it's also on the Home Page), and it is useful. Here's the video screen (you can make it full screen):

* Back on the "Search Tips" page, there is a "Learn More" link also, and when you click that you get a helpful page that explains the Search process in much more detail - discussing Basic Searching, Reviewing Your Results, Narrowing Your Search, Advanced Search and Searching Within a Title or Part of a Title:

* There is also a "Take a Tour" link near the bottom right of the Home Page which provides a page titled "How to get the most out of Footnote." This is a very helpful set of pages.

* Finally, there is a "Help" link up in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page next to "Sign Out," and down at the very bottom of the Home Page under Site Links, that leads to a "Help" page with Frequently Asked Questions, "Take a Tour" (actually the "Search Tips") and "Getting Started" (the "How to get the most out of Footnote") and Customer Support pages.

Based on this experience of mine, I recommend that make their "Help," "Search Tips," "Learn More," and "Take a Tour" pages much more visible on their Home Page. The user should not have to bumble along like I did or get frustrated by having to find a small question mark icon to get help with their searches.

In the ideal genealogy database world, each user would say "I want to find the explanation of how this website works" and be able to click on an obvious button or link that takes them to all of the Help information, including the videos, the "Getting Started" and the "Learn More" pages.

Disclosure: I am not an employee, contractor or affiliate of I am a paid subscriber. These thoughts and opinions are my own and I was not paid to express them.

1 comment:

Greta Koehl said...

Thanks for posting this. I plan on subscribing to Footnote before too long, but I need to know more about searching on the site, since the searches I have done at the FHC took forever to get me to where I wanted to go.