Tag Archives: search strategies

Search to Failure

Wilbraham Public Library Session III

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been providing guidance in family research, both on- and off-line. For quite a while, I’ve advocated particular strategies that I find effective. Last night I spontaneously described it as “search to failure.” It just rolled off my tongue. Here’s why I think it’s a good strategy and a good description.

Just a few years ago, most genealogical search engines offered dozens of fields to be filled in so that you could locate the records of your ancestors. Early in my own research, I felt it necessary to offer up as much information as possible. After all, the fields were there waiting to be filled, right? Just like a job application or a mortgage application, the questions were there for a reason. But what I soon learned…or maybe not to soon…was that less is more. And the websites seemed to finally agree with me. Today, you’re offered far fewer fields to fill which, in my opinion, is a good thing.Let me explain the strategy that I teach.

Linnie Otto Peace Robison (1880-1954)

First, Grandma may have said that her grandfather was born on such-and-such a date, always used the name “Thomas” (for example) and he always, as far as Grandma knew lived in a certain town. My response is this: Well, Grandma, we love you but we don’t necessarily believe you! New researchers will go to great lengths to use exactly that information without deviation. Contrary to the “job application” strategy, I demonstrate my “search to failure” strategy using the name “Smith.” That’s it, just “Smith.” And I never ask for an exact spelling. As a matter of fact, in Ancestry.com for example, I ask for “Sounds like,” “Similar,” and “Soundex” in order to get every possible permutation. That’s the only field I fill and I use “Smith” because I already know the dramatic results. Tonight, I got 146,696,564 results. That makes me happy. Why? Because I know I’m on the right track. Be patient, I’ll get the results down to a manageable number and in a very short amount of time.

Now, I’ll ask the audience to give me any first name. It doesn’t matter what they give me, but let’s say someone says “Michael.” My response is “Do you know if it’s really Michael? Or perhaps it’s Mike, or just M or what if Michael was his middle name because he didn’t like his first name. How can we be sure?” The answer, of course, is that we can’t be sure about anything at this stage. But let’s use Michael, making sure we also use “sounds like,” “similar,” and “initials.”

Now we’re down to “only” 4,102,786. That’s significant even at the volume of returns. It’s only about 3% of what our original search brought. I explain here, that “Michael” is a filter and the filter, in this example, worked. Or so we think at least! Now I add another filter and then another. In literally no time, our 146 million number can be reduced to 6 or 8 results. But I want to end up with NO results. “Search to failure.” Why? I want to make sure that I’m using the most efficient filters. That last filter that wiped out all my results is not the end of the search, it’s the first “failure” that will force me to eliminate that filter then go back and refine, refine, refine what I’ve done so far. The point is this: I’m starting out my fishing in a big pond. If my first search includes so many filters that my first at-bat gives me nothing, what have I gained. But if I start out with huge results then whittle them down with one filter at a time until there are no results, I can by-pass Grandma’s data (without telling her, of course!) and hopefully come up with enough results that through principle #1 of the GPS, a thoroughly exhaustive search, I can determine which of the results is the target ancestor.

My point is “search to failure,” then begin to massage the filters in order to “search to success.”