The Truth About Ancestry’s Hints

Ancestry’s hints — those shaky leaves that pop up — can be useful to our genealogy research. However, there are some limits to them that can really trip up researchers. Here’s what you need to know to avoid the pitfalls of Ancestry’s hints.

Ancestry Does Not Give Hints From All Record Collections

Ancestry lists more than 32,000 collections in its Card Catalog. However, you won’t receive hints from all of them. Per Ancestry's support article on hints:

"Not all databases are included in hints; hints are meant to provide basic information from our most-viewed records."​

So even if you "run out" of hints for someone, Ancestry could still have lots of records pertaining to that person; they just don't show up as hints. You'll have to do a search. 

Something else to remember: some collections on Ancestry are "image only," meaning that the images are there, but they have not yet been indexed. If it isn't index, it cannot show up as a hint (or in a search, for that matter).

Hints Are Not Necessarily Correct

Here’s where labels can mess us up. When we think of a hint, we think of something factual that leads us to the right conclusion. Think about when a friend has teased you about getting you a gift that you can’t open yet.

Your friend: I got you a gift.

You: Really?! Tell me what it is!

Your friend: I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll give you a hint.

You’re expecting your friend to tell you something truthful about the present she got for you. Unfortunately, Ancestry’s hints don’t always work that way.

Consider the hint I received for my 3rd-great-grandfather John Starkey:​

John Starkey 1850 census hint

However, I’ve already found my John Starkey in the 1850 census, not in Monongalia County, Virginia, but in Perry County, Ohio, where he had been living since the late 1820s. Yes, people can be listed on the census twice and I did look at the one in Monongalia County. The birthplace was correct, the age was approximately right, the wife’s name was correct, but the kids weren’t even close. Unless my John had a “second family” in a different state at the same time (and in a completely different place that I have ever seen him before), this is not my John Starkey.

The hints from other family trees definitely need to be reviewed for accuracy. Take them as clues. Don't just hit "accept" on everything you see. (In fact, I never hit "accept" based on a family tree. I'll look at the tree, make a few notes if something seems promising, but I don't accept the hint or attach it to my tree.)

You Won't See All Hints at Once

Ancestry doesn’t show all hints for all people all at once. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by hints if they did. (It can be overwhelming enough as it is!) If you aren’t seeing “new” hints for a part of the family you haven’t worked on in awhile, go do some activity in that part of the tree. Add some facts, attach a record — do something. That will tell Ancestry that your interest now is in that part of the family tree and will jumpstart the hinting for those people.

(If you feel overwhelmed by Ancestry's hints, check out my tips for how to use them without going crazy.)​

The Bottom Line

Ancestry’s hints can be useful. I’ve found numerous records by following them. However, hints are not the “end all and be all” of researching — not even researching on Ancestry. We can get better use out of them when we realize what their limitations are and work with them accordingly.

The Truth About Ancestry Hints

3 Things to Consider with the End of Family Tree Maker

3 Things to Remember with the End of Family Tree MakerAncestry recently announced that it would retire its Family Tree Maker genealogy software. They will cease sale of it 31 December 2015. However, they have pledged to support the program and its functionality (including TreeSync) through 1 January 2017. Not surprisingly, this news has been met with strong reactions. Here are 3 things you need to remember concerning the end of Family Tree Maker.

[Note: I do some contract writing and video production for Ancestry. However, I am not being compensated for expressing my views on this subject. These opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Ancestry. Also, I don’t have any further information about the future of FTM or anything else Ancestry does.]

1. You Can Use Ancestry Without Family Tree Maker

Thousands of people every day use the databases on Ancestry without using Family Tree Maker. Their trees on their computer do not automatically sync with a tree they have on, but they still do research.

People also put trees on Ancestry without using FTM. (You can do this using something called a GEDCOM file that your software program can export or you can create one manually.)

It isn’t an “all or nothing” situation.

2. Family Tree Maker Will Still Work on Your Desktop

Ancestry is supporting Family Tree Maker “at least through January 1, 2017,” per the announcement. In addition, as long as your computer’s operating system will allow it, it will keep running on your computer after that. (It just won’t sync your online tree or do other things that interface directly with Ancestry.)

3. Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe

Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe — the LOCKSS Principle — means just what it says. Having multiple copies raising the chance that at least one copy will survive. As I’ve advocated before, don’t put all of your genealogy eggs in one basket — real or virtual.

No matter what software you use or what cloud-based solution you have, don’t let that be your only copy of your tree. Make copies and have them in multiple locations. (Making a backup copy of something on your computer is great, but don’t have your computer and your backups all in the same place. What happens if your house gets broken into and all of your equipment is stolen? Or if a disaster destroys your house? If all of your backups are in the same place as your computer, you’ve still lost everything. Don’t let that happen to you.)

Software Recommendations

What genealogy software program do I recommend? The one that works for you. Seriously, just because your friend uses XYZ program doesn’t mean it’s the right program for you. If you try to force yourself to use a program that isn’t a good fit for your needs, you’re going to end up frustrated. Nobody needs that.

Whenever you’re in the market for new software, see if there is a trial version. Download it and put the program through its paces. See if it has the functionality you need and if it’s easy to use. If it is, that’s the right program for you.

As the saying goes:

Keep Calm and Genealogy On

3 Things to Consider with the End of Family Tree Maker

Exploring the Hidden Features of Ancestry’s New Image Viewer

Ancestry has changed its image viewer. If you’ve a long-time Ancestry user, you might be wondering where some features went. If you’re a new Ancestry user, you might thing the image viewer is a bit lacking. It turns out that some of the most powerful features of the image viewer are hiding behind a simple icon.

If I’m looking at an image like this one for George Nevins, it isn’t immediately obvious what I’m looking at:

Ancestry's Image Viewer

I can see that it’s from the Kansas State Census Collection, 1855-1925, but which year? What county?

Ancestry Image Viewer menu iconThat information (and more besides) is hidden behind one of the icons on the right-hand side of the page. Look below the green “SAVE” button and you’ll see several icons, including one that has a straight vertical line with an arrow pointing left.

When you click that icon, you’ll get an expanded menu with more information and more options. On that expanded menu, you’ll get three tabs:

  • Detail
  • Related
  • Source
Expanded menu on Ancestry Image Viewer

Expanded menu on Ancestry’s Image Viewer

The Detail tab gives the information that was indexed for that record. (Now we can see that this image is from the 1885 Kansas State Census for Scott, Linn County.)

The Related tab has links to other records that Ancestry thinks pertains to that person.

The Source tab includes a source citation, information about where this image came from, and the ability to browse other years and locations in this collection. (The options for browsing vary by collection.)

Ancestry Image Viewer Source tab

Source tab on the expanded menu. The drop-down menus allow you to go quickly to other sections of the collection.


You can see this in action in the video below:

Do you have other questions about the image viewer or have ideas for other videos or blog posts you’d like to see? Leave a comment!