Thursday, August 20, 2009

Search Engine Woes and Wishes

Does anyone really like Ancestry's "New Search"? When I was in D.C. a few weeks ago, I was off the internet grid for about eight days. I was happily playing bridge, researching at the Archives, and visiting with friends. Near the end of the trip, I checked into a hotel with free internet access and decided to check on a few censuses for background on one of my new discoveries. Alas! When I signed on to Ancestry, my home page no longer came up with Ancestry's "Old Search". I couldn't find the records I needed with the "New Search," and I completely panicked. Eventually, I did get to a screen that showed those wonderful tiny letters, Old Search, clicked on the link, and found my people in about five minutes. As many problems as the Old Search might have, the New Search has been dumbed down to such a degree that I find it almost impossible to use. What will I do if Ancestry ever does away with the Old Search?

This experience got me thinking about what I'd like to see when it comes to searching Ancestry or any other web site.

1. Soundex surname searches are nice. Let's keep them.
2. Wildcards are a necessity in a good search engine, but why does Ancestry require three letters preceding the first wildcard? Why can't we start a field with a wildcard?
3. I had trouble finding a death record when I was at the Minnesota Historical Society Library. One of the reference specialists asked, "What year are we talking about? Oh. That was one of the poorly indexed years. You'll get better results if you search using the "Ends with . . ." option. I'd forgotten that the MHS birth and death certificate indexes offer the options, "Contains", "Starts with . . .", and "Ends with . . .". If I can't put my wildcard any where I choose, I'd like all of these added to the search possibilities.
4. The 1880 census search form allows us to search by occupation. Why don't all the 1850 and later templates allow the same option? It would be so useful!
5. Wouldn't it be great if the 1850 and later census search forms allowed us to search for households containing a combination of names? The 1880 plus censuses do allow the possibility of searching for households with father's, mother's, and/or spouse's given names, so why not a series of "Household contains given name ____" possibilities? And why don't all the 1880 plus censuses allow a search by parents' birthplaces?

The search options at the FamilySearch Record Pilot are interesting. The "Exact and Close Match" works reasonably well, but Footnote goes one step better, now that it allows wildcards in its initial search. With both sites, like Ancestry's New Search, you can narrow your results. The fact that Footnote's narrowing options are actually listed makes it more productive than the other two. You don't have to guess at what the indexer might have seen. FamilySearch, however, has the ability to narrow your results by Role. I think that option is fairly unique - and frequently very useful.

Although the Heritage Quest search options are rather primitive, they have one feature I love: the ability to sort the search results. Wouldn't it be great to be able to sort Ancestry's search results in any way you wished? By county, surname or given name, or birthplace? It would make search results so much easier to analyze. I must admit that I find Footnote's almost random listing of results frustrating.

I'm not sure letting a computer algorithm dictate our search results is the best way to go. People are so much more creative and imaginative - and sometimes our subconscious has streaks of brilliance that a computer may never achieve. What features would you like to see in a site's search engine?

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