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Genealogy Hints for the Wrong Person : What Should I Do?

image showing title Ancestry hints for the wrong person

While researching your family history, you will come across hints on that seem to be for the wrong person or are for the wrong person. There are several reasons this happens. Read on to learn more about what to do when you encounter this situation.

Why You're Getting Ancestry Hints for the Wrong Person

The main reason you are getting hints for the wrong ancestor (or other person) is that computers are doing the research for you. When computers do genealogy, they are comparing "data points." Humans look at this information, also (data points can be a date, a place, a first name, a last name---these are fields in the computer database being searched, or what the computer thinks are equivalent data points when using OCR to "read" a document that doesn't have a database). The big difference is a human sees obvious mistakes a computer misses and also considers subtle clues the computer can't be programmed to take into consideration (we also sometimes miss valid hints the computer sees because of our preconceived notions but more often in genealogy, the computer misses things we easily see).

It's incredibly important to understand that hints come from a computer which is different than how a human does genealogy. Online tree hints are very useful but they should be considered hints and a shortcut. They should not be treated as facts and they are not how you do genealogy. They are one tool you can use. You need to do your genealogy research, not let a computer do it for you (let the computer help you much as you might let a 4-year-old assist you, with much oversight by you!).

Computers are not good at doing genealogy. They are very good at comparing data points, though. In the other reasons below, you will also see how the computer's ability to do genealogy plays a part (and when YOU are playing a bigger part in incorrect hints).

Related: You can learn more about using hints, instead of letting them use you, in this post from our sister blog.

Problems with the Record

The other most common reason genealogists get hints that are wrong, or appear to be wrong, is due to issues with the actual record or with the information the computer is comparing. These are two similar issues you need to deal with in the same way.

The records may be hard to read. They may have been transcribed incorrectly. This may mean the record is correct but what was put in the computer database is incorrect (imagine if someone mis-typed a first name "Georgia" into the database instead of "George"---you would think the record was for a woman when you were looking for a man).

Problems with the record can also relate to how the information in the record was created. This is especially common in online family trees where anyone can submit information and it is not checked for accuracy. Most often, people mix-up an ancestor with someone of the same name. This is very common when you let the computer do the genealogy for you instead of only letting it help. You might be doing this but if the hint comes from an online tree, the tree owner may have also done this.

Problems In Your Ancestry Tree or Starting Information

Another reason you might get incorrect genealogy hints is that there are problems with the starting information. This is your fault, not the computer's. The hint probably comes from your family tree which means the information in your tree is "responsible" for the quality of the hints. This also applies when you use a search form but is an issue for all of genealogy. Imagine you open a book and look for Sam Smith b. 1872, your starting information is "Sam Smith b. 1872." Do you think you'll find the right person if the correct name is actually Fred Smith and he's born in 1827? Your starting information affects everything in genealogy. If you want to find the correct person, try to start with the most accurate information you can.


The final reason you might get genealogy hints for the wrong person or more likely, that you think is for the wrong person, is that you misunderstand the results. There might be something you don't understand about the type of record. You might not understand how the computer finds the results (think of that example where the first name is mis-entered as Georgia instead of George, the computer most likely compared all the data points it could, whereas you might be focused on the name, only, thinking the hint for Georgia is incorrect, when it is correct).

What to Do When You Get Incorrect Hints

Look at the Document Image!

The first thing you should do when you get a genealogy hint is to look at the actual record. Notice that's not a qualified statement of "when you get a genealogy hint you think is wrong" or "...think is right." When you get a hint or search results, look at the image if it is available.

Don't just look at what the computer shows you as the initial hint or result. This might be an incorrect transcription that was put in the database. Look at the original record the hint comes from. This gives you the best chance of determining if the hint is for the person you are seeking or not. Some records only have a database entry, so you should look at that, but always double check if an image is available.

(Note: there isn't a rule for determining if you've looked at the "original." Today, most sites have multiple links that can go to different presentations of the same information. You might get a hint notification and then go to a hint summary. Then you might see the database entry and then click to see the image. You might also be able to go directly to the image from the hint notification. Take some time to become familiar with any site that presents hints to you so you know if you've gotten to the best available information. For census record hints at Ancestry, this is definitely true. There is an image, a database, as well as a summary presented from the hint. The hint summary gives less information than the database entry. The image contains tons more information than either).

Remember, these are called "hints" for a reason. You want to research in the image if it is available. Often there's more information in the record image than presented in the hint. Plus, there's always the possibility the information abstracted into the hint is wrong. Even if you only have a database, take a look at it.

Review What You Know

You should regularly review what you know. That's another unqualified statement. You just need to do it but it also is the best way to get the best hints. When you are starting out, you make mistakes. We all do. You might have incorrectly copied information from one place to another. You might have misread information (or accepted the mis-entered information from a database instead of looking at the image yourself). Routinely review your information and update it.

Automated genealogy hints or search results start with the information YOU provide. If you provide the wrong information, you're lucky when you get hints for the right person.

Related: Learn more about reviewing. Check out this post on our sister blog.

Get Some Genealogical Education

The best way to reduce the number of poor-quality genealogy hints is to learn about genealogy. The more you learn about genealogy, the easier it will be to find information for your person.

  • You'll understand how to let the computer help you (instead of letting it do your genealogy for you).
  • You'll learn to recognize red flags in your own research and also do better research so you make fewer mistakes (fewer red flags).
  • You'll avoid most misunderstandings. Even though you won't know everything, you'll soon recognize when you need to learn something new so you can correctly interpret the information you find.

You'll soon have less need for genealogy hints as you get better at finding information yourself. Soon, you will be using the computer to do what it does best (and what it does fastest) while you work on the parts of genealogy that require a human brain. This is a lot more fun than skimming through pages of incorrect hints because you don't know what else to do.

Related: Learn more about getting your genealogy unstuck, including tips for reviewing, with our Brick Wall Solution Roadmap. It includes emailed support material to help you learn more every few days instead of all at once.


There are several reasons why you might be getting genealogy hints for the wrong person. First, computers aren't good at genealogy. They are only good at comparing data points. Second, the computer is only as good as the information you give it. If you give it incorrect information, it will find incorrect information. That's why it's important to look at the records yourself and not just rely on what the computer tells you. It's also important to review your information regularly for the same reason. Reviewing your information regularly will help you catch and fix mistakes.

Finally, learning about genealogy is the best way to improve the genealogy hints you get, or improve your use of genealogy hints. The computer should be helping you, not doing the research for you. There are a limited number of correct hints out there but the computer wants to provide pages and pages of hints. If you continue to rely on the computer (instead of learning what you can do, and do better) you will naturally get mostly incorrect hints at some point. That doesn't mean you're genealogy is stuck. It means the computer is!


AncestrySupport: Ancestry Hints for the Wrong Person 


  • Before you accept the hint, review it carefully (look at the image if there is one, or the database entry if there is no image).
  • Be familiar with what historical records should have been created for the time and place your are researching. Most of them will not be online!
  • Familiarize yourself with the relevant record collections at the site you are using. Many of these will not come up in hints or search results.
  • Make sure you use a mix of online records such as (or another paid subscription) and FamilySearch (which is 100% free), but also specialty sites like Find A Grave, online newspapers, and the archive or library for the location you are researching.
  • There are tons of free online genealogy records but aside from Family Search, they are not in one location. Most can't be easily searched, either. Learning what should exist and then doing research to figure out how you can access a record is part of genealogy research.