Friday, October 16, 2009

Using Wild Cards for Searches

Many researchers use wild cards routinely to search for elusive ancestors in genealogy databases such as I do, and have come to love the use of wild cards. permits the use of wild cards for its searches, but the rules are a little different. From their Footnote Search Tips page:

"It's always a good idea to try your search with variant spellings to make sure you catch any errors in the records or in the index. You can use the asterisk (*) wild card to replace any number of characters (e.g. Anders*n = Anderson, Andersen, Andersson, etc.) "

When I first read that, I thought "well, OK, it works like the wild cards on Ancestry does." But, actually has a more versatile wild card capability (I could not find this description on their Help sites though!):

* A wild card asterisk (*) can be used before or after any two characters.

* More than one wild card can be used in a search field

Why would I want to use a wild card? Because many names were spelled differently, or written differently, than what we expect.

Let me demonstrate some of the wild card capabilities with some examples. One of my ancestors is Martin Carringer (1758-1835), a Revolutionary War veteran. His last name can be, and was, spelled several different ways in the records. In the Person search field I entered the names "martin" and "carringer" and got matches:

But that is for just the exact spelling of his name as I input it. What if I use a wild card for both names, say "mart*" and "carr*":

Oops, too many! I'm not going to look through all of those. Nearly every record I've seen for Martin ends his surname with "ger" so I'm going to put a wild card in the middle of the name using "mart*" and "car*ger":

A few more than the first search, and the matches might include the first name spelling of "marten" or "martinius" and the last name spelling of "caringer" or "carrenger" or "carriger."

Some records might have a different first letter for "Carringer" like a "G" or a "K" - so what happens if I try "mart*" and "*ar*ger"? Note that I have at least two letters before or after the wild card symbols:

This search found a lot more matches, but I need to check some of them out. I can refine my search by choosing one of the Categories - I chose Revolutionary War Pensions because that's where most of the matches occur for the time period I'm interested in. Then I'm going to refine my search by looking at the last names available - I clicked on the "Last Name" link and then typed "Car" in the query box, and it found 12 different names that start with "Car" in this database:

One of the results was for "Caringer" which was missed by the first Search because it wasn't spelled exactly the same as my search terms. Below the "Last Name" entry box, you can see some of the other names that the search found - Barringer and Springer. It also found a number of "Blank" matches - I'm not sure what those are!

My next step was to use the "Last Name" box to search for similar "sound-alike" and "look alike" names that might refer to my Martin Carringer - names starting with "Cer" "Cir" "Cor" "Cur" "Ger" "Geh" "Gor" "Gur" "Kar" "Kor" "Kur," etc. I didn't find any.

This illustrates two more points about the searches:

* They use an "Exact Search" algorithm, and there are no "Fuzzy Search" capabilities (for sound alike names using Soundex rules like uses).

* The user cannot use a wild card to denote a whole word, like a middle initial or a middle name. Only Google will allow something like that, I think.

I keep learning new things about as I become more experienced with it. I'm passing them on so that other researchers can learn from my misteaks and experiences.

Researchers can be a lot more creative with wild cards using's rules. I appreciate that they can be used this way. My hope is that more database providers will expand the versatility of their wild card searches to match or exceed that of

Disclosure: I am not an employee, contractor or affiliate of I do have a paid subscription. All thoughts and opinions herein are my own.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

THANKS for this info. I never realized Footnote allowed wild cards. Even more flexible than Ancestry. Good news.