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Using wildcards to search databases

Using wildcards to search databases
magnifying glass searching for the correct person
© Jirsak,

A wildcard is a character that substitutes for another character or string of characters when searching a database.

A ‘character’ in this context is a letter, number or graphic symbol (such as an & or $ symbol).

Wildcards can be used in genealogy and other types of databases but can also be used when using internet search engines such as Google. However, they might not act as you might expect with search engines, for example in Google an * stands in for an entire word.

These wildcard characters are often the ‘*’ or ‘?’ symbol but other characters can be used. They vary by database so check the help area of the database to discover what the wildcards are for that database. We’ve given a few examples below to get you started.

Be careful with using wildcards with searches that might return a large number of results such as Camp* which would return names beginning with ‘Camp’ and finishing with a huge number of possible endings. You might get a response from the database saying there are too many results possible to show or the name you are looking for might be returned but be lost amid thousands of other results. The key is to be selective when using wildcards but also to try different possibilities if you are getting too many results or not enough.


Where a Mc surname may have been recorded as Mac, or vice versa, use a wildcard * to locate it. M*CDONALD will find both MCDONALD and MACDONALD entries.

ANN* will capture ANN, ANNE, ANNIE, but also ANNABEL, ANN-MARIE etc. It will also usually return entries exhibiting extra forenames, such as ANN ELIZA.

In the Ancestry and FamilySearch databases:

  • If you want to search for names that differ only by one letter, use the question mark (?) wildcard. A search for Johns?n will return both Johnsen and Johnson.
  • You can search alternate spellings with the asterisk (*), which represents 0 to 5 unknown characters. The query Bolan* will return results for Bolander, Bolanger, Bolandre, etc.
  • A query for Smel*er will search for Smeltzer and Smelzer, among others.

In the Scotland’s People’s database, you can: Substitute * or % for zero or more characters. Substitute ? or _ for one character only.
These characters can be substituted anywhere in the surname or forename and can be employed in various combinations.

A few searching tasks

Give using wildcards and other searching techniques a try through answering the questions posed in the document which can be found below in the Downloads section. These are totally optional. They use free online databases so no subscriptions are required. We suggest discussing your answers in your Study Group’s discussion area – to access that, click on the Study Group icon at the top of the page.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic.

© University of Strathclyde
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