It's easy to focus on the searches and the results when we're using Ancestry. However, there are some features of the site that you might be overlooking — features that can make your research more productive.
1. The Card Catalog
Yes, we're talking about Ancestry, a company with billions of records not books, but their card catalog acts like the one for your local library: It helps you find resources. (And let's be honest: the card catalog at your library is probably misnamed, too. We ditched the cards a long time ago.)
To get to the card catalog, log into Ancestry and click the Search tab at the top of the page, then select "Card Catalog."
The card catalog will help you see the resources that Ancestry has available for a particular location. Because of the way their databases are titled, when you enter the name of the state or country (if outside the U.S.) in the Title field, you'll get a list of all of the resources that are specific to that place.
Once you have that list, you can click on a database and search just in that one database. Talk about focusing your search!
2. The "About This Database" Information
It's important to understand the resource that you're using, whether it's an original record, a book, or a database. Like you would read the introduction to a book, it's a good idea to read the "about" section of any database you're using. When you're looking at a particular database on Ancestry, scroll past the search box and you'll see information about where the data came from and more details about what is in that resource.
For example, "Michigan, Compiled Marriages for Select Counties, 1851-1875" doesn't have marriages for all of Michigan's counties. (You probably guessed that from the title.) But you might be surprised that it's only 5 counties (Branch, Hillsdale, Jackson, Kent, and Wayne) and not all of those counties are covered for all of those years.
3. Browsing Images
Sometimes a search isn't enough. Names can be misread or missed in the indexing. If the collection has images, it's a good idea to browse those images and have a look for yourself. When you're looking at a specific collection, look at the right-hand part of the page for "Browse This Collection." There will be a dropdown menu where you can select a specific portion of the images to look through.
This comes in handy when you want to look through a specific county in the census. It's also useful with collections like probate records or vital records indices where the original index itself would have been digitized. (Look at the beginning of most will books; there is almost always an index of the wills contained in that volume.)
Bonus tip about browsing Ancestry's probate collections: When you're looking at the collection for a specific state, use the "Browse This Collection" feature to uncover hidden gems: records that don't necessarily deal with probate, but were digitized anyway. For example, when you browse "Indiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1798-1999," you will find that they have Common Pleas court records and indentures for Whitley County and Coroner's records for Dubois County.
4. Who Else Attached Records and Photos
When you see a scanned photo or document show up as a hint for one of your ancestors, take note of who uploaded it. They likely have some connection to your ancestor. (Otherwise, why are they uploading it?)
But what about when you're the one who uploaded the image? Ancestry used to notify people when someone attached an image that you had uploaded. (Either they have ended that feature or the messaging system isn't handling them correctly because I haven't received a notice of that in I can't tell you how long.)
Go to ancestor's profile that you've uploaded an image or a scanned document for and click on "Gallery."
Once you're in the Gallery, click on an image that you've uploaded. I clicked on the image that I added of my great-grandparents Linton and Margaret (Kingery) Johnson. On the right, I can see everyone who has added that image to someone in their tree.
I can click on a user icon and get a link to that person's profile and to the tree that they attached it to (if it's a public tree).
5. Reference Books: Red Book and The Source
Ancestry's Red Book and The Source are two of the standards in genealogy research. The text of each is available for free... if you know where to look.
The Source was originally published in 1984; the third edition (the most recent) was published in 2006 and edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. It covers topics from the foundations of genealogy to urban research.
Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources is a great guide of what is available for specific states. Some of the information is dated (addresses and phone numbers of government agencies, etc.), but the basics are still very good. I'm particularly fond of the state maps which show the counties and the county seats.