Need better ancestor search results online? Try using a wildcard search as part of your genealogy research
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Use A Genealogy Wildcard Search For Better Ancestor Search Results

Use a genealogy wildcard search in Google and genealogy databases to find more ancestor search results and grow your family tree.

It’s a wild, wild, wild(card) world of genealogy records out there!  Are your ancestors hiding in them?

As a researcher you perform genealogy searches daily to find your ancestors.  But you wonder….

Are you maximizing your search results? Getting the best results for finding your ancestors? Are your search results limited because of misspellings and/or transcription errors? Or are you searching for ancestors but unsure of what spelling they used in the records?

It’s time for a wildcard search! 

One of the best kept search secrets is the wildcard search that allows you to substitute the wildcard characters “*” or a “?” in place of letters you do not know or are unsure of. These wildcard characters tell Google or Ancestry or  whichever search engine you use, to count all letters in that position as a match.

The results you get will be more encompassing and diverse. 

In addition to Google, genealogy databases, FindMyPast, and MyHeritage allow for wildcard searches. 

Here are a couple of things you need to know before you start that genealogy wildcard search for your ancestors:

  1. The “*” is used to replace  zero to multiple characters.
  2. The “?” is used to replace just 1 character or letter.

Predominantly, I use the “*” , but if I know only 1 letter is in question for my search I use the “?”. That helps keep the results from being too broad and the list too long.

Need better ancestor search results online? Try using a wildcard search as part of your genealogy research. #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory

The Genealogy Wildcard Search In Action

Before you get started on a wildcard search, read the search tips section for the database you are using. Find search tips for the major databases here:

Genealogy Tip: Taking a few minutes to learn how to search on a specific site will help you be an efficient and save time. That means more time for researching!

In the following example, I’ll show you a wildcard search I used on Jesse Haley (b. 1803). **

The various spellings and transcription errors for Jesse Haley (b. 1803) of Halifax County, VA presented a challenge. Haley seemed like a straight forward “easy” name to search, but even simple names can be troublesome. 

A first search for “Jesse Haley” using returned the following results: search filters with red box around the Search filters box. Census Search for Jesse Haley

Only one Jesse Haley appeared in the results for all census years. Odd, since he lived his entire life in same county. [Upon closer inspection, that Jesse Harley was my guy, too!] Still, I was not finding him in early and later census years. 

I decided to try a wildcard search to see if I could find Jesse hiding in the records under a spelling variation I had not imagined yet.

A search for “Jesse H*ley” should provide more record options to consider.

Need better ancestor search results online? Try using a wildcard search as part of your genealogy research. #ancestors #genealogy #familyhistory Search Box for Jesse Haley

Below we see the  “*” returned results with “en”, “an”, “ud”, “ar”…. 

Need better ancestor search results online? Try using a wildcard search as part of your genealogy research. #ancestors #genealogy #familyhistory
Search Results on

I had my work cut out for me sorting through the results.

Once you have your own wildcard search results, read through the list and determine which results could possibly be your ancestor.  This can be a time consuming process, but you do not want to miss your ancestor simply because of a transcription error or he/she was listed under a spelling variation you had not previously considered.

Let’s take a look at another example: Mike Halcsisak…. or at least, I think that’s what his name was.

A search on Mike Halcsisak resulted in no results.

The transcription and spelling possibilities for Halcsisak could be endless. Searching on all of the possible variations would be impossible. Time for a wildcard search!

I struggled so much with this surname search, I opted to use 2 “*” in the search. Based on other records I had,  I decided to search on Mike Halz*i*k.

Search results on for a wildcard search
Search Results on

You can see the name variations returned. Interestingly, the search results also included one variation with the “*” in place of letters. That indicates the transcribers were unable to confidently transcribe those missing letters for the 1910 census. Everything else looked similar to the Mike H. I was searching for, so I clicked through. Yes, that was the Mike I was searching for!

Census record with one entry highlighted.
1910 Census for Allegheny Co., PA (Source:

Experiment searching for you ancestors using a wildcard search. Try using more than one “*” or “?” if you have a longer name. Just a word of caution, your search results will be broad and your results list long.

Reading through a long list of search results can be time consuming, but that’s okay.

Remember, a genealogy wildcard search is not the first type of search you will do. The wildcard search is  for when you’ve exhausted the more traditional search or you simply do not have enough information on your ancestor’s name for that regular search. The alternative could be you miss finding your ancestor’s record.

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***Please note that this post contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you decide to purchase a product/service. This does not cost you extra. Be assured I only recommend products/services that I use and think you would like too. Read my disclosure policy and privacy policy.

**I am actively researching the Haley family of south-central Virginia. If you are too, contact me

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  • Leslie

    Just wanted to say thanks for the article on finding your common surname ancestors. The timing was perfect as I have just returned to my search for Abraham and Isaac Adams in 1760s colonial Virginia. I’ll try your suggestions – wish me luck!

  • Linda

    Thanks for your post on using wildcards in searches. I hadn’t thought of it … ever … now I have found a record using this method that connects the dots formally on an assumed connected I was researching but not getting anywhere on. This simple change uncovered exactly what I needed! Thank you 🙂

  • Sarah Bennett

    I am searching for the death date and place for my great’?grandfather, Robert Ross Blair. Born 1815 in Fairfield?, South Carolina. He goes to Alabama. I find him in the 1880 census. Family records have him dying or being buried in Punta Gorda, Florida. But I haven’t been able to find real information. Anyone have any ideas?

  • Elaine Behrendt

    Thanx so much for the reminder about this way to search. I had forgotten about it and have been scouring census, and finding, names spelled wrong..much easier way to find!!

  • Clare

    Thank you for this valuable information. I found my 3x’s great Grandfather under John Henri instead of Henry and my 3x’s greatfather on the other side unde Nott instead of Knott. It was an amazing find.

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