3 Things to Know 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.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 41

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 12 minutes.

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:​

John Starkey 1850 census hint

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.

Posted: January 23, 2020.

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  • Excellent points Amy. I proceed very much as you do and try to encourage others to do the same. Most importantly in my book is to never attach a person to my tree from someone else’s tree. I follow any leads in the tree and then manually add the person, if I find them to be family. I’m very glad that Ancestry provides the hints for us as I do find them useful.

  • Excellent points, Amy. The same goes for research hints in Family Search. The hints can be extremely helpful, but because of their ease of use, inexperienced or new genealogists may be attaching them indiscriminately. I’ve seen this happen a few times in my family tree.

  • Another couple of things Ancestry does: It will offer a hint if anyone else has ever attached a record, no matter how bizarre, such as a Civil War Record for someone who wasn’t even born yet; it offers as a hint your own gallery or data, either directly or as it was incorporated into someone else’s tree from your own. As for the latter, I never know if I should accept my own material and create duplicate information or reject and thereby intimate that the person in the hint and my own person are not the same.

  • This should be mandatory reading for any newbie on Ancestry. It would save everyone a lot of time and frustration.

  • Another problem with Ancestry Hints is that they are often copies of census reports, marriages, etc., that I already have on my tree. Because, like most trees, there are many names, I sometimes find it necessary to keep going back to look at my tree to be sure the information is either already there or whether I need to accept the hint. Also find sometimes that the hints are on information that I’ve just attached to my tree. Those problems drives me nuts. The up-side is that I have found some occasional treasures in the hints…..have learned to be careful and check my own records before accepting anything I’m not totally confident about. On all, Ancestry does an excellent job – it’s just complicated because the trees contain so very many people, many with the sane names. Oh well….it keeps it exciting! –

  • Can i share this blog posting on the Facebook page of my Society (Ontario Genealogical Society)?

  • One of the biggest mistakes I see on other people’s trees is that they haven’t calculated ages when accepting hints. I’ve found far too many instances where children were older than their parents, parents were past child-bearing age, etc. Keep an eye on the dates when you’re accepting hints…it can be a clue that you’re barking up the wrong branch.

    • This is truly a big problem with trees and the people who have just taken what everyone else has as facts. I have found in my own family some who have parents who were children themselves as parents for our ancestor. They do not look at the dates and don’t do anything about correcting these errors even when they are pointed out to them. This is so frustrating to me.

  • This was very useful information, especially for those of us who haven’t been using Ancestry that long. I had suspected some of the things you wrote about but didn’t know for sure. Thanks for all the great information you provide!

  • Another thing to watch for is when you “review” a hint, on the right side of the page is a list of Suggested Records that I’ve found to often be more useful than the hint. I’ve wondered why they don’t show up as hints themselves.

    • “Suggested records” are based on what other users have attached. It’s a different system than hinting.

  • bring back the original version of Ancestry as it was easier to add, research and navigate than this one.

    • I totally agree. I have been a member of Ancestry since it’s inception and the change-over was brutal.

  • Two things which REALLY get up my nose – (1) when a hint is to something I have submitted myself, eg a picture etc – yes, I know it’s there – I bloody put it there, you dill!; and
    (2) a hint to someone who is in my tree, with dates and places of birth, baptism, marriage(s), birth of children, death, burial, and sundry other things, ALL in Australia. I get a hint, to someone with a similar, but not the same, name, who has similar, but not the same dates, or some but not all dates, and who has NOTHING in their information outside the US. And this in the 1840s or somesuch.
    Why does Ancestry assume that everyone must be related or domiciled or have married etc someone in the US? There are other countries, you know!

    • If it makes you feel any better, I get hints for UK records for ancestors who were born in the United States and never left.

    • At least on Ancestry, if you find that a picture that you submitted is now in someone else’s tree, you can go to that picture and add your information in the comments section. I often put something like “This photo was originally posted to Ancestry (or Find A Grave, etc.) by Jan B. on 3 Nov 2014. It is a picture of Julia Frazier (1853-1923) taken in 1873 in Frankfort, Clinton, Indiana.” At least that way, the full information is available to anyone who will take the time to look. I was so frustrated when I was investigating using My Heritage, to find that a photo of my grandmother had been taken up from her Find A Grave page and attached to another woman with the same first name and birth year (no other similarities) on My Heritage. That photo was then attached to about 20 other trees of that other woman. There was no way other than messaging each tree owner, asking them to remove Grandma’s picture from the wrong woman. Of course, only 3 answered. And I chose not to become a member of My Heritage, so I now have no access to the messaging. I hate that a picture of my grandmother has been used for someone else!

  • Amy this is such a great article. I learned many of these lessons the hard way, actually having to undo some data that was incorrect. But you live and learn. They’re now the breadcrumbs I use and unless I can corroborate enough data with data I know, it goes to the Shoebox.

  • First let me say thank you for the 31 day excise. I have learned to look at hints as just clues/leads. I look closely at hints that are attached to records rather than attached to family trees. Still all in all they are helpful more than useful.

  • Great article and comments! Another thing to watch out for are the records that are indexed by the first name on the page when your ancestor could be halfway down the list. I have found this in census records as well as city directories. Seems like the Ancestry indexer was a bit lazy!

  • In addition to talking about how I should use ancestry’s hint, why don’t we put it right back on ancestry! They could create hints like I get on My Heritage. Hints do take time to work through, so don’t waste my time, as mentioned above with a hint to something I have submitted myself, eg a picture etc, a duplicate find a grave because ancestry has duplicate name for the FG database, records that completely ignore when and where my ancestors were born.

    Ancestry stop telling me with pride “check our card catalog” when they could increase the efficiency in which we use their website hints. Ancestry are you asking me to manually research that your computers could be programed to do?

    I wonder if ancestry is mainly interested in the attention economy. How much of my time can they suck up.

    Word to the wise, have EVERYTHING you have on ancestry.com somewhere else. Have the data and media you found on desk top software, transfer copies of your dna tests to My Heritage and GED match for starters. You need permission to transfer tests you just administer.

    • There are definitely some things that Ancestry could do to improve their hinting system.

      And you are exactly right when you say to have your data someplace else. Of course, that’s true no matter where you have your research. Never have it in only one place.

      • Good point. Having your data, in general, in more than one place. I encourage other genealogist to have a New Years goal to ‘back up’ your DNA results 2 other places. Since I tested at ancestry.com I chose My Heritage and GEDmatch.

  • what records are “image only” and how can you find those data bases? When I look in the card catalog or view the historical record collections I see only those that have been indexed (indicated by number of records in the collection).

    • They do appear in the Card Catalog. I’m not seeing any in there currently, although some that have very few “records” are essentially “image only.” Also keep in mind that some collections, notably the new probate collections do not have very extensive indexes. You really need to browse those images to get all of the pertinent records.

  • Great blog!!! I always compare the hint to the information I have in the research I’ve done and collect in my RootsMagic Tree before accepting or rejecting a hint. Since I do a lot of research in both FamilySearch and Ancestry it seems to me that when I match a source to a person in FamilySearch a hint for that same person seems to pop up in Ancestry in a few days. Also I’d agree with others that Ancestry’s hints seem to come from matches others make whether they make sense or not. The best thing we all can do is to follow your advice and just match the hints that are appropriate — and also to see if we can find time to contact others who may have attached incorrect records and nicely let them know that they might have an error that many others are seeing.

    • I have been a genealogist for over 50 years and tried to assist a person who had a person in their on-line tree who didn’t even belong in that family and sent my proof. Her reply, “i inherited this tree from my aunt and it is correct.” so much for trying to be helpful.

    • Hi, Brooke. Thanks for asking! Yes, the society may republish this as long as it’s in full and includes my name and the URL for the site (www.amyjohnsoncrow.com).

  • I think ancestry.com should take more responsibility in warning its users not to blindly follow hints. For example, it could post sidebars to inform users. This would improve the quality of its customers’ family trees. So many people using ancestry.com were never properly trained to question sources and really think they are doing the right thing..

    Also, I think more of us might at times politely inform fellow researchers if they have the wrong info on their trees and provide them with the sources that prove the point. However, I know this is an impossible task, as it’s so common to see multiple family trees that blindly accepted the wrong hint. But if they are responsible family archivists, they would welcome the corrections.

    Another gripe I have is ancestry.com’s We’re Related app. I’m grateful that it provides me with possible family lines to expand upon, but unless we substantiate the info, it’s a parlor game.

    • I worry that some people will blindly add all this info as truth and really screw up trees. Some will do anything to be able to say they are related to someone famous. “It’s from Ancestry, it must be true”

  • I have no problem receiving ‘corrections’ on my grandfather’s records. It seems my grandfather was quite the scalawag in the very class-conscious old New Orleans and Biloxi families. I heard about it RIGHT AWAY, and I made necessary corrections. However, some info I wrote to an Editor of an historical society was never used to correct the editors records, which he accepted from family submissions as gospel. I wouldn’t care so much if it were my scoundrel-he really did do some bad things-but it was regarding my dear great uncle who was truly a kind man. And it was character impugning I thought. Was contacted by the granddaughter my age to say “Oh that was grandmother. You know how she was!!!???”
    Some things don’t change in the old South.

  • Looks like I need to go back through my Trees & “learn” what I should have been doing. Thanks so much for putting me on the straight & narrow.!

  • Hi there, just read your wise article & agree about Ancestry hints. I never ‘accept’ any info unless I’ve checked and rechecked on several sites. I’ve found that people have used info from hints in a common tree, added it to their tree just because one family member has been ‘hinted’ & it’s completely wrong, with siblings being way, way out in the d.o.b. or children being born to parents who were long past child bearing age. I know that some parents raise grandchildren as their own children but sometimes it is obvious that this is incorrect. Fortunately the surnames in my tree are not very common so it’s relatively easy for me to carry out multiple checks. But my point is, it is wise to either note the hint on a record card or add it to your shoebox but be very careful of just accepting it.

  • Good information. Wished I had it a couple of years ago. I did have a problem with my computer and lost my FTM backups and many files. Inadvertently, I somehow synched bad files to Ancestry. Fortunately, enough people copied many of the items I had submitted so I was able to recover much of it. So, the rule is: Keep back ups not only on a back up drive, but in another place be it the cloud or thumb drive or other.

    Thanks for the great advice!

  • I think the way Ancestry advertises on tv leads to the magical approach where people think all the hints apply to their ancestor. My grandmother was born in Australia, lived her whole life here and gave birth to all three sons in Australia. Yet I have found her in some American family trees! She wasn’t having children in two countries at once! Some Hopkinson families in America…you’ve added the wrong Edna! Check place of birth before accepting hints please!

    • I’ve seen some trees like that, too. I don’t think we can put all of the blame on Ancestry’s advertising, though. I remember back in the pre-Internet days when people would copy anything out of a published family history because the name was the same. Same behavior — we can just do it a lot faster now!

  • I did Ancestry (paid subscription) every time I entered any details I would get it back as new hint, it also went onto other family history sites. They also keep any photo’s that you put on the website.

    • It sounds strange, but it makes sense that you got hints based on the facts you entered. Those facts made your ancestor’s profile more specific. Since hints are based on collections (databases) rather than events, Ancestry could find more specific hints for you. (So if you entered a death date, Ancestry might give you a hint from the FindAGrave database, even though it has the same information in it.)

  • Ancestry’s transcribing also leaves a lot to be desired. My great grandmother, Mary Boyd, was transcribed as Wang Bozel. My dad, James McKinnon, became Royal Markusson!

  • great advice…I will be sending people to this article. I was amazed last night when, after entering the birth and death of a 2nd great uncle (born 1885, died 1886) in England, that Ancestry gave me 10 hints…curious, I clicked through to the Hints page… most were for people in the US! And the ones from England were in Lancashire.. Given that he never appeared in a census with the family and that three other children in the family died while young, I’m about 90% certain that the 1886 death entry is the correct one…and yet Ancestry tried to convince me that he moved to the US… LOL…it’s not often the hints are so far off. Maybe the algorithm went a little haywire 😀

    • My biggest frustration with Ancestry is their search process, specifically the slide bars to indicate a board search versus an exact match. If I am searching for my great grandfather Charles Hirum Johnson, who came from New Jersey, and I slide the bars to “exact” or “similar”, I will get no hits, with the suggestion to broaden my search. So I slide everything over to “similar” and “broad” and instead of getting Charles Hirum Jonson in New Jersey, I get Steven Michael Jones who lived in Oregon. So I get ether no results or erroneous ones.

  • It is ancestry’s interest NOT to give you all the hints at once so that you have to keep looking and paying their membership fee. They don’t want you to ever finish your tree.

    • I didn’t think it was possible to ever finish your tree. Find one ancestor and you set yourself up to go look for two more. 🙂

  • This is great Id love to see more pod cast on topics like this, I belong to many groups and so MANY people depend on hints only not realizing they are short changing themselves and their research.

  • I have learned over the years I have been “enjoying” my climb up my own family tree – brick walls aplenty! – that information from *most* other family trees can and usually is terrible. I rarely look at hints or anything from other trees unless I have some experience with that tree…and there are a couple of reliable trees from people to whom I am probably related looking at the same people I look at.

  • I got a hint for one of my ancestors – a photo of his tombstone that I had taken and posted on findagrave.com. They had attributed it to somebody else with nothing to indicate that it was my photo.

  • So true and I have found lately that Ancestry’s hints aren’t near as good as they were in the past. I think they are having server problems also. I click “back” and it goes to another page entirely. Some of my hints “disappear” as I am working through them. For example, the other day it showed 24 hints. I chose one and worked through it. After I finished with that hint, I then have 11 hints. So where did they go? Their searches in the census records are leaving a lot to be desired now also. I believed they have “improved” their system, but it has really gone a couple of steps back.

  • I have never understood why people add other people’s trees to their own. There are so many errors out there! It only takes a while to glean clues from other trees, go and find the records yourself, and add them to your own tree if they work out.

  • I have been working on WikiTree quite a bit since the first of the year. I have been surprised at the number of sources that have been added to Ancestry in January, February and a few days March before I was looking for a new source for someone. Just a reminder to keep looking again at a site that you used to build your tree.

  • Hi Amy, Thanks! Your posts are very helpful. I have a question: When one selects HINTS we are given 3 Ancestry Member Trees to view. Years ago it was more like ten. Is there a way to see more than the 3 trees recommended? Sometimes it’s the members who have fewer sources who are the more careful and accurate researchers and I’d like to see what they have too. Thanks, Trish in Seattle

    • The Hints page limits the trees to 3. However, if you’re on a person’s profile page and click the “search” icon in the upper right, you’ll see more trees that are possible matches. Important note: I advise *not* attaching anything directly from someone else’s tree. Review them for clues, but don’t attach the tree. You’ll end up with a big mess.