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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Another Way of Dealing with Incorrect Hints

image of robot using ancestry online tree

Some of your hints for your online tree are wrong. You can get mad that you have to actually do your own genealogy research or you can use those incorrect hints to help you do even better genealogy. (If instead, you're looking for information on why you get so many incorrect hints and how to get better hints, check-out this post on our sister blog.

Previously I wrote about using genealogy hints or automated searches as a shortcut instead of a cheat. In this post I want to go into detail on how to deal with records for the wrong person. In particular, why you'd WANT to keep hints for the wrong person.

Note: 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.

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 the inaccuracy of hints is  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. 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'll discuss how each of these situations work.

I maintain trees on Ancestry.com because of the way I use automated searches. Last week I said automated searches are great for the basics like census records. I create most of my online trees for the purpose of saving time with automated searches and that means taking advantage of basic records.

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. You want to try and keep up one tree (not half-maintain multiple trees) so pick the site that works best for you.

Why Would I Keep Records for the Wrong Person?

Note: An Ancestry.com tree can be completely private, meaning excluded from appearing in search results, and this will still work. I recommend doing this in your private, search excluded tree.

I want to jump back into the scenario I described in the previous post

I suggested creating an online tree for the purpose of using the automated search, or the "hints," while you do something else. 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.

Important to Know

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

If Y is the same person as your person A 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 (or wrong people, more likely).

You may also get suggestions for very common names or commonly misspelled names, or names that soundex to something common. People are most perplexed by getting understandable hints for some people in their tree and then wildly inaccurate ones for others. Hints created based on someone else's tree usually explain the wild hints.

There are lots of reasons you might get incorrect 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.


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, see this post if you don't understand the difference). 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, "keeping" the wrong person, 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. (FYI, a report is just a summary of the work you just did. You should have taken notes that contain all the details and the ideas and questions you came up with as you worked. The report summarizes those notes, using citations as needed.)

How to Create the "Wrong" Person in Your Online Tree

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 (I mean: create them as a separate individual, i.e. as who they actually are).


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 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 while 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 by seeing they are attached to my tree. I know they are for the wrong man by looking at the tree. If I need details, the details 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 but 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 when I'm misusing online trees in these ways. Notes in the suffix field 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).

You can also do this with a public tree. The point of creating the "catchall" wrong person in a public tree 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. I recommend against putting this in a public tree because most Ancestry users don't check carefully and won't see your note, no matter how prominient it is. They will copy information and you're back to getting wild suggestions based on someone's badly researched tree. Don't do this with a private searchable tree for the same reason.

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.

To save yourself time repeating a search or having to hunt through your notes, create the "wrong" person in your online 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 as long as you clearly label them so you know the attached records aren't all for one person.

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 hint is for your person or a different person (your notes will give you the details so try and keep them!). 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. 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.

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.