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Part of the confusion comes from mixing up how ancestral records are stored in libraries, archives and other physical depositories versus how they are stored on the internet. They are not the same.

The internet is a virtual depository. Internet records are often stored in what are known as fields. The field that holds the first name is usually next to the field that holds the last name. When you read a genealogy record on a computer screen, it may appear that the first and last names are next to each other, but in fact they are often stored in separate fields. Why? Because on the internet, many genealogy records come from databases and databases inherently split first and last names into different fields.

An easy way to think about this is to look at how names are typically presented in an Excel spreadsheet. Each cell in the spreadsheet is essentially a separate field. Often the first name and last name are in different cells in the spreadsheet.

The concept of fields may seem pretty subtle, but it can play a big hidden role if you put your ancestor's name in quotes. For example, by entering a name in quotes like <”john smith”> you force the search engine to look for records where:

• <john> comes before <smith> .

• <john> is next to <smith>.

• <john> and <smith> are in the same field.

Putting names in quotes is not necessarily a bad thing to do. In fact, it is often a very good thing to do because it can eliminate many extraneous records. But it is the third point above that can really trip you up, namely the need to have the first name and the last name in the same field.

Quotes also introduce another interesting bias into search results. In particular, it favors records where a name is buried in the middle of a lot of text. This will include such types of genealogy records as newspaper articles, historic letters, biographies and forums.

Quotes are not so great if you are looking for birth, marriage or death records. In these kinds of records, the first name and last name are often split into two separate fields even if it is not apparent when you read the text on your computer screen.

By all means you should try to find your ancestors by putting their name in quotes. Just be aware that it will constrain your search results. You should always search for your ancestors without quotes as well.

The real advantage of searching for your ancestor using quotes is to avoid a common problem with how some online genealogy records are displayed on the internet. Especially on older genealogy websites, ancestral records are often just long chains of names strung together like pearls on a string. This is a real challenge for a search engine.

Consider the following hypothetical list of three names that are part of a long chain of ancestor names found on a page of a genealogy website:

Mary Abbott
Robert John
Smith Benson

This is how you see the names. Below is how the search engine will see the same list of names:

Mary Abbott [break] Robert John [break] Smith Benson

If you search for <john smith> without putting the name in quotes, then the sample page above will get flagged by the search engine because the label <john> is next to the label <smith>. Realistically, you probably don’t want this page.

If you search for <”john smith”> then it will avoid pages like the above example because <john> and <smith> are broken apart. So searching for a name in quotes doesn’t necessarily get you closer to good genealogy records. It does, however, gets you farther away from record sets containing long strings of names.

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Further Resources

Ten Innovations in Online Genealogy Search - Part II

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