You Don’t Have To Know What You’re Looking For

You Don’t Have To Know What You’re Looking For

by Kerry Scott on 15 August 2012

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You know that line, right?

You don’t have to know what you’re looking for. You just have to start looking.

In case you live under a rock, it’s from an ad. You don’t have to have actually seen the ad to know about the tagline, though. That’s because there are a number of genealogists who don’t love it. I constantly see snarky mentions of this line. It really seems to rankle even people who otherwise like

Why is that?

I actually like the ad. I thought it was clever when I first saw it, and I still do. When you’re starting out, you don’t have to know what you’re looking for. Once you get going, you’ll need to get your act together in order to be effective and efficient. But once you get going, you already have an account, so this ad isn’t aimed at you.

Enlighten me. What is it about this ad that makes you drink the haterade?

Disclosure: I own a tiny amount of stock. I’m pretty sure nobody cares, but don’t say I didn’t tell you.

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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Rox August 15, 2012 at 4:20 pm

I love that tagline. Even when I think I know what I’m looking for, I find the unexpected. One of the greatest things about genealogy is finding things I didn’t even think of looking for.


Ruy Cardoso August 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Does the picture represent looking for a needle in a haystack? Kind of tough with a pitchfork… :-)


Kerry Scott August 15, 2012 at 4:40 pm

If you keep sticking your tongue in your cheek, your face will freeze. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that?


Ruy Cardoso August 16, 2012 at 11:38 am

No, but she might have mentioned something about eye-rolls…


Yvonne August 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I like the ad too. One of the main problems I have with ancestry is that they’ve included so many ‘databases’ that appear to contain ‘accurate information,’ but upon closer inspection, they seem to be databases filled with others’ genealogy which may or may not be accurate. It’s driving me CRAZY! I think it’s contaminated our searches. If we don’t read the fine print, we’d never know these databases contain information with no sourcing.


Kerry Scott August 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm

I haven’t encountered that (although, admittedly, I have done so little work on recently that it may be something they’ve added in the interim). Can you give an example? I know there are the user-submitted trees (which are a mess, to be sure), but when I last used Ancestry, the results were sorted by database type, so I could ignore those when appropriate.


Beth August 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm

One she might be referring to is Findagrave. Ancestry now has Findagrave listings in its hints. Not helpful to me, as I ALWAYS have Findagrave open in the tab next to Ancestry. The only time this could be helpful to me is if Findagrave is down for server work. If there’s no gravestone photo, you don’t know where that person got that info from for Findagrave so you don’t know how accurate it is. Just as an example…


Kerry Scott August 15, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Does it still have the thing where you can ignore the hint, so it doesn’t pester you anymore? And this is part of the shaky-leaf tree thing, not the actual search results, right?

I totally agree that FAG results should be taken with a large grain of salt. I didn’t know they were integrating with Ancestry though. That’s very interesting.


Yvonne August 15, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Kerry, for instance the US and International Marriage Records Database would appear to be a primary source; however the fine print reads: ”

Original data: This unique collection of records was extracted from a variety of sources including family group sheets and electronic databases. Originally, the information was derived from an array of materials including pedigree charts, family history articles, querie.

Description: This database contains marriage record information for approximately 1,400,000 individuals from across all 50 United States and 32 different countries around the world between 1560 and 1900. These records, which include information on over 500 years of marriages, were extracted from family group sheets, electronic databases, biographies, wills, and other sources.”



Elizabeth Shown Mills August 15, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Yvonne, the conflict you point to, where a collection seems to be a “primary source” but is a hodgepodge of derivative “stuff,” can be resolved easily if we adopt genealogical guidelines for evaluating what we find. Rather than lumping things into “primary sources” and “secondary sources” and using those broad categories to decide what we can trust, it’s more helpful to think in terms of SOURCES giving us INFORMATION, from which we select EVIDENCE. Within this framework, we can differentiate between sources that are originals or derivatives, between information that is primary (firsthand) or secondary (secondhand), and information that directly answers the problem or is only indirectly relevant. Admittedly, this framework isn’t as simple as the basic “primary source: vs. “secondary source” that we learned as history majors, but it’s a LOT more reliable!

P.S. to Kerry: I like Ancestry’s ads, too. And I don’t own any of its stock. :)


Yvonne August 15, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Elizabeth, thank you for your comment and advice! So many times I’ve heard, “but there is a marriage record…!” and it’s been one of these records. Perhaps we’ve been conditioned to accept nothing less than primary and secondary sources; I understand these are ideal, but it’s been my experience that when we venture off the beaten path to search for ancestors who were not prominent or those who did not leave a paper trail, we end up with more clues than these ideal sources. BTW…I want to tell you that I LOVE FANS! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! This method of research has been my saving grace and has brought results (even if my well-documented tree went from 500 to 30,000 less-documented friends, neighbors, and associates)!

Elizabeth Shown Mills August 16, 2012 at 9:21 am

Yvonne, you’re right about the false comfort of labeling something a “primary source” or “secondary source.” Too many genealogists do think that if something can be called a “primary source,” then they can just run with whatever they find and give it no critical thought. The reality is that finding a pair of names, with a date attached, in an Ancestry database that is called “U.S. Marriages” does not mean we’ve found a marriage record. We’ve only found an assertion that a marriage took place between two people whose names are said to be Thus and Such. The actual record, when we track it down and assuming its locatable, often tells us a different story– different names or dates, parental info, or even that the marriage never took place.

This, of course, is why it is so much more reliable to evaluate the strength of our “proof” on the basis of whether the information comes from an original source or a derivative of some sort. It’s also why we’re appreciative when providers such as Ancestry tell us exactly where data comes from–and so important for researchers to do as you did and seriously consider the nature of those sources that Ancestry cites.

As for those nice words of yours, thanks! Sorry about increasing your database from 500 to 30,000.

JL August 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I don’t have an Ancestry account right now. O, shame. Because my Cuz does and if she can’t find it, it ain’t there. And many things aren’t there which is why she also has subscriptions to British newspapers, Fold3 and god knows what. She’s comfortably retired; I am not.

I think what people hate about that line is that it makes genealogy seem click-click easy. All you need is an Ancestry account and your family history will magically appear before your eyes. And the hate might have something to do with Ancestry Trees.


Kerry Scott August 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm

I get this. I saw that Gabby Douglas flipping around and vaulting off of things. She made it look easy…and when I tried it, I hurt myself and nobody gave me a medal. Harrumph. Gabby Douglas is totally banned from my TV now.

Not a true story…but it does amuse me when people get mad because other people think genealogy is easy. People think all sorts of dumb things. Whatever, y’know?


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith August 15, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Starting the search… that is the important thing… period. Thanks for the reminder… I’ll let others debate They do a fine job doing what they do. Take it or leave it, it’s a business, providing a service. ;-)

P.S. I always smile when your new post show up – even before I read them… how is that for a reputation! ;-)


Caroline Pointer August 15, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Absolutely nothing. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Haters gonna hate.

We should all be a little more welcoming and accepting of those folks new to the genealogy world ~ no matter how they start.

Let’s not scare them off.

Cuz we might be related to them. And? It’s just not nice.



Kerry Scott August 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm

This is interesting. I had always interpreted this particular issue more as Ancestry-flavored haterade rather than newbie-flavored haterade. Maybe it IS about the newbies though. If so, that’s even more irksome.


James Aylard August 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm

I understand the tag line, and I understand the grumbling.

You’re exactly right: starting out, as you say, you don’t have to know what you’re looking for. You just plug a surname into the Ancestry search box and click away. Not that Ancestry is the only web site that enables this, of course – in fact you could say the same thing about a Google search. But at what other epoch in genealogy research could one honestly make such a claim? It is quite amazing really – and I don’t blame Ancestry for showing a little leg in its advertising.

The grumbling stems from two factors: experienced genealogy research does require forethought and awareness, even though it may lead to some surprising, unexpected discoveries. The other factor is snobbery: the desire for self-described “experienced” genealogists to distinguish themselves from the hunt-and-peck amateurs. It’s a way of saying, “I work for every genealogy find I make!” And, granted, there is a difference between the individual who responds to the tagline by performing a shot-in-the-dark surname search, and a genealogist who maintains research logs and sifts available information to find gaps and clues for further research.

But since most all of us started out as ignorant hunt-and-peck genealogists, we’d probably do just as well without the extra calories from that ice-cold bottle of haterade. Besides, it doesn’t taste very good going down – and even worse if it comes back up…


Marian Pierre-Louis August 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I don’t care. I’m just happy to see you blogging again. :)


Kerry Scott August 15, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Thanks! The kids start school soon. Then I can finish unpacking, and I’ll have more time for online stuff.

Of course, I totally jinxed myself by typing that, and a meteor is probably hurdling toward me right now.


Sierra Pope August 16, 2012 at 12:15 am

I am totally going to start using the phrase “drinking the haterade.”


Debbie Parker Wayne August 16, 2012 at 9:09 am

That tag line drives me nuts. I both love and hate Ancestry and many of the other record providers.

For me, it has to do with a fundamental difference in approach. I don’t try anything new without trying to learn how to do it right first. When I needed to know how to change the oil in my car I got someone who knows how to do it to show me. I didn’t raise the hood and start pouring oil into unidentified engine orifices hoping for the best. When I want to try a new dish I read a recipe. I don’t just throw random spices and food items into a pan and cross my fingers. When I needed to sell my house I read about real estate sales. I did not believe everything the agent told me until I confirmed it elsewhere. When I wanted to research my family I read about how to do it right and I attended presentations and institutes.

Maybe you don’t need to know what you’re doing to get started. In the long run, finding out HOW to do something right saves time and money, makes you more productive, and makes your family history accurate enough to proudly pass to the next generation.


James Aylard August 16, 2012 at 10:58 am

Debbie, I applaud you as your approach to life is very thoughtful and rational. I suspect, though, that you are the exception. I sense that most people just jump in, with one foot if not with two, to “see what happens”. There is a common, profanity-laced phrase about “reading the manual” that comes to mind.

And to be honest, the “just do it” approach is not a bad way to find out if something is interesting enough to invest the time to learn to do it right. And that is the type of lure that I think Ancestry is using. After all, their monthly and annual subscription rates are a big pill to swallow, and most newbies won’t pay it without first getting “hooked” by trying a few scatter-shot searches that produce some tantalizing results. At least if you don’t own stock in the company… :)


Elizabeth Shown Mills August 16, 2012 at 11:21 am

James, one line of yours comes close to being the best assessment I’ve seen of the Ancestry-ads issue: “the ‘just do it’ approach is not a bad way to find out if something is interesting enough to invest the time to learn to do it right.”


Debbie Parker Wayne August 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Hmm, James, maybe all those years I spent writing the manuals nobody reads and answering the telephone to help those same people colored my perspective.

If those people attracted by the tag line get hooked and then learn better ways, I am all for it. But the number of people I have met who think the only thing you can do is fill in your tree and wait for little shaky leaves to pop up to tell you what to do next is scary. I was recently asked, “How can you do research if you don’t have a tree on Ancestry?” And the person who asked had been doing research well before Ancestry even started and knew how to research in original records – at least at one time.

I’m not knocking whatever it takes to get people interested in family history. But I definitely would like to see more encouragement about how to learn more. I don’t consider myself a someone who drinks the haterade, just skeptical of making people think everything is easy as pie and doesn’t require some work.


Debbie Parker Wayne August 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm

I had a smiley face in the comment above that got stripped out. I’ll have to learn how to get one accepted as I see it worked for James.


Kerry Scott August 16, 2012 at 5:06 pm

I actually do that too. When I decided to learn to knit, I bought a ridiculous number of books, videos, magazine subscriptions, etc. before I ever bought yarn. I read the manual for everything. I even read the directions for assembling IKEA furniture.

But I think most people aren’t that way, and while I don’t really get them, I acknowledge their right to bumble around trying to figure out how to work the new washing machine until I smugly come and show them how because I read the instructions. Not that I’m saying that happened in my household recently. Even though it totally did.


Deb Brunt August 16, 2012 at 11:17 am

I don’t hate the tagline – we all had to start somewhere. But I also understand how it can irk some people because it implies that genealogy is easy. And it does not really talk about sources, citations etc. – all the hard stuff. But if it gets people started, that’s really all that counts, in my opinion.

Kerry – welcome to Albuquerque! I’m originally from Massachusetts but when I moved to ABQ, I came from Oregon. Talk about culture shock! But ABQ really grows on you.


Kerry Scott August 16, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Thank you! I like it already. I will like even better when it is about 20 degrees cooler…but even with the heat, we’re really enjoying it. It’s gorgeous here.


Harold Henderson August 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Good question, Kerry. I agree with Debbie Parker Wayne and disagree with you and Elizabeth. The slogan is literally false, and it glorifies ignorance for profit. I hope Family Tree University will not adopt it, and I sure don’t recall Elizabeth promoting that philosophy in her lectures or in Course Four at Samford. Some products pretty much have to be advertised deceptively. Genealogy surely is not one of them.

But the slogan, while a terrible place to start genealogy, does have a kernel of truth. Research is surprising — but the more you know, the more and better your surprises will be. More tomorrow at


Kerry Scott August 16, 2012 at 5:01 pm

For the record, I left Family Tree University when I moved across the country, so my question doesn’t relate to them or any plans they may or may not have.


dannieb August 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I don’t hate the tagline, but I do find it annoying. And, lately, on the ancestry message board there has been a noticeable number of frustrated newbies, who whine that they were told it would be easy and now it’s not. These poor subscribers then are inundated by a wave of responses from long-time members – some kind and some, well, not so kind.

Then there was the person who said “I don’t know anything about these people. I just click on boxes, because that’s what you on ancestry.”

Somewhat off-topic, but I think ancestry makes it TOO easy for someone who is new or not careful to create a total junk tree. For me, the best new feature is the ability to “turn off” tree hints! Thank you!


Elizabeth Shown Mills August 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Harold, that’s why my Samford IGHR class is the Advanced Methodology & Evidence Analysis class, rather than the beginning genealogy class. I’d scare off the beginners.


h mccaa August 16, 2012 at 8:22 pm

I take only what looks like the sources were from census, or actual documents. I don’t just add anyone in that is on someone’s “tree”
I have a lot of common names in my family and that would never work.
I because of ancestry “found” cousins I knew existed but would never have connected with them across the country. I have additional photos that are really part of my family and have 10 transcribed letters from a gggg grandfather serving in the Civil- he died in Andersonville with his son.
I think it depends on how you use what they have including the links to family.
Once I see new information I go out an look in the area for newspapers and other sources. They are meant to be “hints” I believe.


Jenna August 17, 2012 at 9:45 am

It’s a marketing message plain and simple and I think it’s brilliant! Don’t agree? Look how much you are talking about it! Not only is it brilliant its effective. People ARE looking. Ancestry spends millions of dollars for their advertisements and have 8 seconds to capture the attention of the audience. If their message was “Sources, you must cite them” very few would listen to the rest of the commercial!

I also do not agree that Ancestry does not promote education or performing sound research. Right on their main navigation tab is: Learning Center. That tab contains a wealth of information. I feel Ancestry has made a valiant effort to promote education in conjunction with using their databases. If the user doesn’t take advantage of the resources and educational opportunities that should not be a mark against Ancestry.


Elizabeth Shown Mills August 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Jenna, you nailed it. Even if Ancestry blared “SOURCES! SOURCES! We’ve got SOURCES!, the channel-flippers would be gone before the first exclamation mark. Without that effective marketing, Ancestry would not have the funds to provide serious genealogists with all those SOURCES they’re offering. That’s the bottom line for all of us.


James Aylard August 17, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Not to be cynical and all – who would ever accuse me of that! But are you saying, in a roundabout and genteel way, that “serious” genealogists (drawn to “SOURCES! SOURCES! SOURCES!” like the rabble to disreputable parts of town) are essentially the genea bourgeoisie who prosper from the subsidies of the naive, tree-dwelling proletariat? Sweet! :)


Harold Henderson August 17, 2012 at 5:31 pm

I call straw man. I can deplore this particular commercial without being opposed to marketing. Ancestry has lots of effective advertising that doesn’t encourage the bad habits that we all start out with.


Queen Bee August 20, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Don’t mind the tagline, but there’s so much more to genealogy research than what happens at Ancestry. Part of the fun of family research is doing the work yourself. Taking trips to courthouses to search for records and finding a real “gem” when you least expect it. Ordering documents from Archives/Libraries and anticipating the arrival of the package in the mail. It’s more satisfying to do the research myself, to have the actual sources and know they are documented. Back in 2003, I had a two week trial period of Ancestry and wasn’t impressed so I didn’t sign up. Last year I tried the trial again and liked it so well I joined. I use Ancestry as a way to connect with other researchers and in the process have found wonderful vintage pictures of my direct ancestors that I would never have known about otherwise. It’s also fun to invite family members to view your tree and that’s a nice Ancestry feature. The lesson I wish genealogy newbies would learn is you can’t do all your research online. It requires getting away from the computer sometimes to find the records you need.


Heather Bates August 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I Have used Ancestry in the past, but stopped. I never uploaded my family info, and became very frustrated at the leafs. Oh you have 8 possible connections and they are all non-sourced. YaY?
There search results are abysmal. I became angry when I’d say exactly what the state and city was, and the sort would pull in many more outside of the US answers than what i’d asked. If I say VA. NY. whatever. THAT is only what I want. Now I go to the library of VA in Richmond or my local branch in Leesburg. I’ve become much more adept. over the last two years. Google Digitizing old books has also been of immense help as well as the SWEM indexes. God bless the very old timers that spent so much time gathering information. It can be overwhelming at times, but my specialty is research, as that’s how my mind works, so I bust through or around walls…i refuse anyting less. I’ve tried using TMG, but it’s a pretty unwieldy beast…So now I’m reading the manual:)


James Aylard August 29, 2012 at 11:27 am

One feature of recent versions of Family Tree Maker is that you can disable the “shaky leaf” (although, in fact, it doesn’t actually shake in FTM) for user trees, so that you are only notified of potential new records in other collections. I’m not sure whether the Ancestry trees also have this feature, although I don’t recall having seen it the last time I looked at the options (quite some time ago).

Also, in Ancestry searches, you can typically check the checkbox for exact matches only on most primary fields. This should allow you to restrict your Virginia results to Virginia.


Heather Bates August 29, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Well Yes, it should do that, but I always do exact searches, and the sort function doesn’t only choose VA….even when All the info I have is in there.

Nuff said…I no longer use it, except to pull my file up and bring information over. I’m working a my family blog on Wordpress, which fleshes out the family stories as well.


dannieb August 29, 2012 at 11:42 am

On Member Trees, you can now disable hints from other trees, which is a great improvement. You can now, depending on the database, view hints just from that database – for example the 1940 census. And, there is now a subset listing on your tree hint page, showing the number of hints for
All hints
Member Tree (unless you have turned it off)

Within each subset, you can also sort hints by first name, last name or most recent.

One of the best new features in quite some time.


Jim September 4, 2012 at 5:37 am

I like the line from They also do a fantastic job with what the offer for the genealogy subscription. You always have to check for primary sources yourself of course, especially if you look at the trees on

Regards, Jim
Genealogy Blog at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets


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