Search engines pick up steam
I have written recently about the increasing sophistication of online searches. In the "old days," you had to search for exact spellings and fill in the last name field even if you didn't know how to spell it. You also had to search for every ethnic variation of the first name--which might include, for example, Maria, Mary, Marian, Marianna, etc. In short, it took many tries and much frustration.
Both ancestry.com and familysearch.org have taken great strides to make searches more flexible without a flood of results. They have also improved how results are sorted based on accuracy.
Let's say you're searching for Giuseppe Russo, born in 1910 in Chicago. You're searching for four things at the same time: First name, last name, birth year and birth city. Any one could be accurate or off by a little, or even a lot. The web pages performing these searches have to find all possible results and sort them based on how many of the four fields are exact and by how much.
The search we just did will dig through 4 billion records in many different databases. But I think it's fair to say we won't find any results in the Virginia 18th Century migrations database: wrong location and time. Besides, how many Giuseppe Russo's are in 18th Century Virginia anyway?
So which databases have a chance of revealing our uncle? The Social Security Death Index perhaps, along with Cook County births or U.S. Census results from 1920 1930 and even 1940. Many other databases might hold information--too many to count on these websites. So the sites break down the results to make things easier.
When Ancestry.com returns its results, it lists the four fields we searched for and a sliding scale for each, from vague to exact. Obviously, when we slide the scale all the way to the right, for "surname" to "exact," it will ONLY show "Russo" and no other variations. If you slide the scale to the left a little, it might show Rossi, Rossa, Russa, Rasso, etc.: maybe one letter off at the most. Slide to the left a little more and you get Rossini, Rossanna, Grossi, Russian, etc.; slide all the way to the left and basically, you get any surname. The key is to remember that even if you slide to the left, the closest matches come up first, so Russos come before Grossianis.
Now let's slide the first name. "Exact" will only find "Giuseppe." A little to the left will pull up "Guiseppe," "Giuseppi," and "Guiseppa," and little more includes "Joseph," "Jos.," "Joe," and "Giuseppina." All the way left gives you any first name.
Years are more precise: They ask "exact," "+/- 1," "+/- 2" etc. So "exact" only finds 1910; a little left finds 1909 and 1911 also and still more and you get 1908 through 1912. All the way left gives you any year.
Locations are really cool! The sliding scale doesn't care about the spelling as much as proximity. So if you search "exact," you get Chicago only. Slide to the left and you get Cook County and all suburbs. Slide to the left a little more and you get Illinois. Slide more and you get the adjacent states to Illinois (Indiana, Wisconsin etc).
Now that you know how the scales work, let's use them to best advantage. Sliding all the scales to the right may leave us with no search results. Every field has to match exactly and perhaps they don't. Sliding the scales all to the far left gives you millions of search results you have to plow through. You have to use some judgment in the results you peruse. For example, you may have two results near the top of the list. "Giuseppe Russo, born 1910 in Pittsburgh," and "Joseph Rossi. born 1912 in Chicago." From researching your family, you know that Zi' Bep' and his parents never lived in Pittsburgh--so you skip that one and look instead at the 1912 entry. You thought he was born in 1910 but now you're not sure. His grave says 1910. It's carved in stone, so it must be right…. Hmm.
Now that I examine the record, it shows Nonna and Pop as his parents and he was born in 1912, even if the name is a little off. So why does his grave have the wrong year? You may know enough to ask that question and guess the answer. He might've he lied about his age to get a job and kept that age throughout his life. It was easier than lying again to change it back. A little additional searching might track down an older brother, also named Giuseppe/Joseph--born in 1910 and spelled even less accurately--who died at 3 months old. The second Joseph used his brother's birth certificate. Wow, what a great story!
So when you use Ancestry.com's scales, experiment with what you know to be definitive (they ONLY lived in Chicago) and what you're not sure of (how old was Zi'Anna?). As you slip back in time, you can slide your way to success!
Write to Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org and please put "Fra Noi" in the subject line.