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.
Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 41
1. 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:
“…hints are meant to provide basic information from our most-viewed records.”
When I worked at Ancestry, I was told that hints covered the top 10% of collections. I don’t know if that exact percentage is still true, but I suspect it’s close.
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.
In addition, some collections, such as the US Probate Collection, give much better results when you search them directly.
2. 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:
However, I’ve already found my John Starkey in the 1850 census, not in Monongalia County, Virginia, but several hundred miles away 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 first 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.)
3. 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.