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08 December 2016

Automated Searches: Dealing with the Wrong Person

Last week I wrote about using automated searches as a shortcut instead of a cheat. This week I want to go into detail on how to deal with records for the wrong person.
Saving the wrong person to your online tree can actually save you some time, if you do it correctly. Why would I save the wrong person? Glad you asked.


I use Ancestry.com's online trees so some features might be specific to that site. In general you can do this for any online tree (and even adapt the concept for offline).


In case you're wondering, I only maintain trees on Ancestry.com because of the way I use automated searches. Last week I told you they are great for the basics like census records. I create most of my online trees for the purpose of saving time with automated searches.

Ancestry.com is where I usually start new research because they have so many of the "basics." It's too time-consuming to create trees on multiple sites AND maintain them, so I keep it simple with one site.

I rarely do non-U.S. research so if you're looking for a shortcut for non-U.S. research, use the site that will work best for you. I can't provide you with a suggestion since that's outside my area of expertise.

If automated searches don't help you save time (or don't provide correct suggestions you might not find otherwise), use a site that gives you a specific advantage. Or don't put a tree online at all, it's completely up to you.

Who's This Post For?

This post is focusing on dealing with records for the wrong person found by automated searches. If you use "hints" for any tree you have online, this post is relevant to your research. If you don't use online trees, this post can help you see one way to use them (instead of having them "use" you, I know that's a reason some people don't use online trees). You can also adapt this to an offline strategy.

you can't always do research under the best circumstances... this technique...is one of the best ways to do quality research under less than ideal circumstances
Now you understand there are different ways to use this technique depending on the type of research you do. I understand you can't always do research under the best circumstances. I've found using this technique, keeping the wrong people, is one of the best ways to do quality research under less than ideal circumstances. I've also found it a great shortcut even when I'm doing everything "right."

I've found it a great shortcut when I'm doing everything "right."

How Do I Use This Technique?

Let's jump back into the scenario I had described that led to this post. I suggested creating an online tree for the purpose of using the automated search while you do something else. An Ancestry.com tree can be completely private (even excluded from appearing in search results) and this will still work.

This post picks up where your tree has gathered some SUGGESTED records for a person. You've reviewed them and determined they are for a different person, not the person you are searching for.

Some of the "hints" are generated by the records attached to other Ancestry.com users' trees. Say you attach a 1910 census record and user X also attached that record to person Y in their tree. You will then get suggestions for the other records X attached to Y.

If Y is the same person you are searching for and X is a good researcher, great! If X is completely clueless and attaches every suggestion they get, you'll get a lot of hints for the wrong person. You may also get suggestions for very common names or commonly misspelled names, or names that soundex to something common. There are lots of reasons you might get incorrect but possible suggestions. That's the job of the algorithm providing the suggestions.

There are two main reasons I would "keep" the wrong suggestions.

  1. I've determined the records are for the wrong person, but it took some work to figure it out (i.e. it's not obvious).
  2. I'm getting a lot of hints based on research by someone else that is wrong.


BIG DISCLAIMER

The "correct" way to deal with either of these situations is to take good notes and write a report to yourself that is fully cited (it doesn't have to be formally cited if it's just for you). The report should describe the situation and your findings.


This blog is called "The Occasional Genealogist" for a reason. Your occasional research might have been a "quick" peek at Ancestry.com, and it turned into a situation where you ended up reviewing hints for someone in your tree. Now you've really got to run and there is no way you'll be writing a report immediately.

What do you do? 

This technique is suggested as an alternative to just shutting your browser window and losing all the work you just did.

If you are not in the dire "Occasional Genealogist" situation where you have to stop researching NOW, write a report. Even if you do a lousy job, you've made the effort. Next time it will be easier, and you'll start to see the advantages of reporting to yourself.

Create the "Wrong" Person

Back to our scenario, you've figured out the records look like they are for your person but are not. Make this work for you. Add the "wrong" person to your tree (as a separate individual, i.e. as who they actually are).

As an example...
You're looking for John Smith, age 32, born in Pennsylvania and moved to California. You may get suggestions for John Smith, age 30, born in California living in a county you know he lived in and John Smith, age 34, born in Pennsylvania, living in an adjoining county. These are about all the details you'll get without reviewing the record.

If you've reviewed the records and determined the first record is the correct one for your John Smith, you don't want to waste time later thinking, "did I attach the wrong record? have I looked at this [second] record?" Note that this isn't a problem if you are following established practices for good genealogy (you will ask yourself this question and check your notes for the answer). But let's talk about reality.

Lots of times we poke around in online records just for the fun of it. If you're an Occasional Genealogist, that may be the majority of your research. As long as you know that's not the best way to do genealogy, it's ok. This is supposed to be fun. If you can achieve some real results and not waste time, even better!

The shortcut (not a best practice but not the worst) is to add the second record to a new person. If you can identify additional records for this other John Smith, attach them to him, too. I think of this like digitally filing the records. Attaching them to someone is like putting them in a file folder. The records for your person are together, other records are filed separately.

With a physical file cabinet, you'd have to know to look into the "wrong" folder. With online records, you'll see the record is attached to someone in your tree when you come across that record again. You can easily click on the link to the person and see who it is. Simply add notes to yourself about it being the wrong person so you'll see the fact quickly.

This is particularly important if you are prone to midnight searching. You know, laying in bed, no notes in sight, searching genealogy sites. I know it happens.

A Shortcut for Everyone

I use this same technique intentionally to save myself the time of having to check my notes when reviewing Ancestry.com records. 

I have chased the wrong man when doing client work before. Occasionally, someone appears so close to the correct person, it took quite a bit of research before I got to records clearly indicating it was someone different.

Part of genealogy is following up on clues that appear to be for the right person. It is normal and expected that you will sometimes research the wrong person. You need to determine they ARE the wrong person and sometimes it requires serious research to do this.

When I was doing this client work, I made notes indicating all the records that were for the wrong man. I would have wasted some time if I hadn't created the wrong man in my (fully private) online tree and attached all of his records.

The records for the wrong man would come up again when working on the correct person. It is much faster to tell myself I looked at those records and know they are for the wrong man by having the records attached to an online tree. If I need details, they are in my notes and I can easily find them.

If you use online trees but mainly use paper notes (printed or handwritten), this will be a huge time saving technique. I do everything digitally and can find notes almost as fast as possible and this saves me time.

I know the reality is, many hobbyist genealogists will use this technique instead of writing a report. That's technically a cheat, not a shortcut. However, this is a better option than just doing the same wrong research over and over again. If you're in a time bind and can't write a report now, this will make it easier to write it later, too.

If you do everything "right," keep a complete research log, take quality notes, and report, this technique can be a shortcut. Consider working it into your process so you save a bit of time when you research online.



There's a variation I want to mention because it can get you into trouble if you're not careful.

You can also create a wrong person and attach all the wrong suggestions to him/her, even if they are for different people. You might do this because you can tell (with a little time spent) the records are not for your person. You want to avoid spending time reviewing these records again later (as I've described above). You may not be able to determine if all these records are for one person, though.

Make sure it is clear to you that the "wrong" person you have created is a catchall for wrong records and not a real person. I usually use the suffix field on Ancestry.com, so this will show up with their name. At some point you might need some of these records and you don't want to think this person is a real person and start researching from there.

I strongly advise only creating a catchall if your tree is completely private (doesn't appear in searches) or public. The point of it being public is so someone can see your note that the records are not for one person but a catchall of records not for your person. It's not technically your problem but remember, the records you attach will be used to make suggestions. This has surely driven you nuts so don't do it to someone else.

You don't need to attach every wrong record to someone. You will end up wasting time doing this because of the volume of suggestions. This is just an option if you need the indication records are not for your person. If it's obvious as soon as you see the suggestion, no need to attach them to a tree.


Creating "Temporary" People

Creating an additional person in your tree is also a way to hold on to records you aren't sure what to do with. Sometimes you know a set of records are for one person, but you don't know if that is your person. Creating that person in your tree let's the automated search work, plus it alerts you when you stumble across that record later.

My way of creating this real person with an unknown relationship is to put "temp" in the suffix field. I include this for every person created for that family (because sometimes it takes in-depth research to determine if this is the right person and that can mean research the family; if it is the right person, that will be your family).

If I do a lot of research and create a lot of people, I might want to delete some/all of them if I determine this is not my person. I can download my tree to Family Tree Maker and archive a copy (including splitting that branch of the family into their own tree). This let's me clean up the tree I work in without literally throwing away all that research. Should I need it, it's there.

By having a suffix entry for everyone related to that research, I can tell if I want to remove the family (they might turn out to be distant cousins I want to keep, that happens a lot in my personal research).

In my personal research what has happened is I'll check my tree for a name (often found when working with DNA matches). I will discover I do have that name entered and now I'm interested in them. If I want to keep them, I just delete "temp" from the suffix field. They are no longer a temporary part of my tree.

A Filing Cabinet with a Search Engine


To determine if records are for one person, several, and/or your person, you will likely need to use correlation and analysis. That topic is several posts in itself. It takes time to do so you might prefer to attach records to an online tree rather than downloading or printing them to store until you use them later.

Once again, this is just treating the tree like a file cabinet plus getting the automated search to work for you while you're doing something else.

RELATED POSTEvernote Form for Census Comparisons (and its follow-up post about correlating records you aren't sure are for the same person)

Sometimes the automated search will find an additional record that clarifies the situation without you needing to do anything. I had a client project that sat for two years with no new information, it wasn't clear if I had identified the correct man. Two new sets of records became available on Ancestry.com and it was suddenly obvious I had records for one man, not two, and it was the man I was looking for.

I've covered several different scenarios so here it all is in a nutshell.

To save yourself time repeating a search or having to hunt through your notes, create the "wrong" person in your tree. The best way to do this is create a real person and attach records that initially appeared to be for your person but you determined were for this other person. If necessary, you can do the same thing with an imaginary person you've labeled with the name suffix, "catchall."

You should be taking notes, keeping a research log, and reporting to yourself. However, if you spent the time determining a record is not for your person and don't have time for sufficient notes or a report, creating the wrong person in your online tree will keep you from wasting time doing the same thing later.

If you do take notes, keep your log, and write reports, this technique is faster than having to look through your notes to determine if a record is for your person or a different person (your notes will give you the details, though). From the "wrong" person in your online tree, you should be able to easily find the relevant notes and/or report. You can provide a link or include the file name or another indication, whatever works for you.

Automated searches can be a valid shortcut in your research.

Automated searches can be a valid shortcut in your research. If you have an online tree, you should make the most of it and use it as an appropriate shortcut. Creating the "wrong" person in your tree and attaching appropriate records can save you time whether you are following genealogical best practices or barely practicing genealogy.

Know what you should be doing for quality genealogy but don't throw away valid research you did when a research situation was less than ideal.

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