Using Wildcards to Search Genealogy Databases

Some online genealogy databases allow you to search on names using wildcards—characters that can stand in for any letter of a name—to catch alternate spellings of the name.

A wildcard is a character that substitutes for another character or string of characters when searching a database.  Using wildcards will find different spellings and name variants.

On most sites, an asterisk * stands in for zero or more letters in a name, and a question mark ?  stands in for exactly one letter. Various websites have different rules for using these wildcards, though.

Ancestry – you must have at least three non-wildcard characters in a name. You can use a wildcard as the first or last letter, but not both. After an initial search, you can change your wildcards using the Refine Search panel on the left side of the results screen, but what you’re really doing is performing a new search.  (Ancestry’s blog post has more in-depth instructions) – you can use a question mark (?) to represent one missing letter. An asterisk (*) can replace zero or more characters. You can use both wildcards in the same search if desired. You must have at least one letter in the search box, and you can place the wildcard at the beginning, middle, or end of a search field. Search alternate spelling with the asterisk * which represents 0 to 5 unknown characters. The query Bolan* will return results for Bolander, Bolanger, Bolandre, etc. A query for Smel*er will search for Smeltzer and Smelzer among others (read more on the FamilySearch blog).

Scotland’s People – can substitute * or % for zero or more characters. Substitute ? or _ for one character only. These characters can be substituted anywhere in the surname or forename and can be employed in various combinations.

The FindMyPast database is similar to Ancestry and Family Search as it recognizes both the ? mark and asterisk*.   You can use an asterisk* in a search field where you suspect there may be an alternative spelling. This will pick up places where a letter may be missing, repeated, or incorrect.

If wildcards aren’t giving you the information you need there are other ways to search.  Three methods you may want to try are:

  1. Try leaving out a surname when searching and just use a first name with a known attribute such as an occupation or place of birth. Not all databases allow this type of search but it is worthwhile trying if possible.
  2. If you are fairly sure where someone lived, then try browsing through images of the records for that area to look for possible matches.
  3. If you have found a possible match for a person on a database but the name presented just doesn’t look correct (or even probable) try saying the presented name out loud. For example “Marilous” could be Mary Louise.

Last, but certainly not least, be sure to keep a Research Log while you are searching.  Write down who you searched for, where you searched for them, which search variations you tried, and what your results were. This will help keep you from spinning your wheels and duplicating your research time as you move ahead with your research.

Good luck with your searches!