Use wildcard searches to save time and get better results. Here's how

In our mission to reconstruct the lives of our ancestors, it seems that we encounter errors at every turn. Misspelled first names, incorrect transcriptions, evolving surnames - the list goes on and on.

It's an understandable problem - many documents we're working with were written at a time when literacy was not common, and in almost all cases, the record keeper didn't realise how careful they needed to be - who would have thought that hundreds of years later, people would be using something called "the internet" to judge a poor scribe's handwriting?

But just because these mistakes are understandable doesn't make them any less problematic. So what can you do?

If you have never heard of wildcard searching, this is a must-have weapon for your genealogy arsenal. And even if you have, we find that most people don't deploy this tactic as frequently as they should.

Let's take a look at why wildcard searching is such a worthy tool.

What is a wildcard?

A wildcard serves a similar function in genealogy searches as it does in card games - essentially, it can count as anything you (or the search engine) wants.

A wildcard character placed in a name tells the search engine to count any letter as a match and will return a diversity of search results.

Wildcards are designed to help get around some very common genealogical problems - names that were misheard or misspelled at the time the record was made, or mistakes resulting from faulty transcription or poor handwriting on original documents.

For example, searching the last name Folkes with a deployed wildcard character in place of the letter L (Fo*kes) will return results that include last names Foakes, Fokes, Fookes, Forkes, Foukes, Foulkes and Fowkes.

Two varieties of wildcards

Keep in mind that each search engine handles wildcards a little differently, and some do not have this ability at all. The following will work at Findmypast, but isn't guaranteed to work elsewhere on the web.

When you want to use a wildcard, select a character in the word you're searching and replace it with either an asterisk (*) or a question mark (?).

By using an asterisk, you're telling the computer that the * can represent more than one letter. Going back to our previous example, we can see that entering Fo*kes sometimes returns results where there is more than one character in place of the *, such as Foulkes.

On the other hand, using a question mark instead limits the wildcard to just one character.

It's best to use the * in most cases, but if you're sure that only one letter may be mistaken, you can narrow your results down a little bit by using the ? instead.

For instance, if we think one of our Smith family members may have been recorded as a Smyth, we can use Sm?th instead of Sm*th.

Wildcards for more than just names

It's important to consider that you can use wildcard searches for more than just names - they'll work for keywords too. When placed at the end or beginning of a word, a wildcard search can return some really interesting results.

For instance, if you're searching occupations in the 1911 census for England and Wales and you enter the search term piano* you will receive all occupations with the word piano in them. We see results for pianoforte (believe it or not, piano is short for pianoforte) tuner, pianoforte teacher, pianoforte stringer and more.

Next time you're getting frustrated with a lack of results, try using a wildcard for either the name or keyword and things may open up for you.