Tip: Searching with Wildcards and Boolean Operators

This post was most recently updated on January 25, 2019

Newspapers.com News, Finds and Tips

If a simple search on Newspapers.com for an ancestor’s name isn’t returning the results you want, try including wildcards, quotation marks, or Boolean operators in your search.

Wildcards are great if there are multiple spellings or possible misspellings of a name. Two common wildcards are the question mark [?] and asterisk [*].

  • Use a question mark to replace a single letter. For example, if the person you’re searching for has the surname “Johansen” but you aren’t sure if it’s spelled –son or –sen, you can search [Johans?n], and that will return results for both “Johanson” and “Johansen,” as well as other variations.
  • Use an asterisk to replace multiple letters. If you think there might be a double S in the surname “Johansen,” searching for [Johan*n] will return results for “Johansen” and “Johanssen,” in addition to “Johanson,” “Johansson,” and other possible spellings.

You can also make use of quotation marks to keep two or more words next to each other in the results

  • Use quotation marks to keep first and last name together. For example a search for [William D Johansen] results in 218,116 matches, while [“William D Johansen”] yields 8 matches.
  • Also, don’t be afraid to remove quotation marks from your search term if your not getting the results you want and try filtering by location and/or year to narrow the search results.

Boolean operators can help you focus your search. Two common ones are “or” and “not.”

  • Use “or” between your search terms to return matches that have either (or both) of your terms. For instance, if you are searching for news stories that mention either William Johansen or his brother, John, you can search for [“William Johansen” OR “John Johansen”] and the search will return results with matches for just William Johansen or just John Johansen, as well as results with both names.
  • Use “not” between search terms to help eliminate irrelevant results. If you are searching for “William Johansen” but you don’t want to see any results that also talk about his brother, John, you can search for [“William Johansen” NOT “John Johansen”], and that will get rid of any matches for William that also mention John.
  • Another example of using “not”  is for common phrases or places. A last name like Francisco may return search results for the city of San Francisco. Search [“Charles Francisco” NOT “San Francisco”].

So if you’re having trouble finding the right person in your search results, try using wildcards, quotation marks, or Boolean operators!

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36 thoughts on “Tip: Searching with Wildcards and Boolean Operators

  1. Does it also accept the Boolean expression John w/2 Smith (John within 2 characters of Smith)?

  2. Will “Not” work in a situation such as if I’m looking for a last name Francisco, but I don’t want results for San Francisco? Could I search Charles Francisco NOT San Francisco and get the results without the city San Francisco?

    • Should do. I tried the example you gave and it seems to be working. Since the expression you are trying to exclude is two words, you need to put that one in quotes (charles francisco NOT “San Francisco”.

      If you find an example where it’s not doing what you’d expect, please let us know. We haven’t spent a lot of time with booleans so, we’d love your feedback.

        • How do you do that with the surname “Pough” ?

          Pough and not “Poughkeepsie”. huge searching problems come when the city name in counter is a line break like Pough- or -keepsie.

          • The main search of the site doesn’t search within words, so Pough will not return a match for Poughkeepsie (the title search on the papers page does do that, but that shouldn’t cause a problem with name searching). In general the OCR handles hyphenated words pretty well. There will be cases where a line break with a hyphen is not recognized, but for the most part it should handle that. If you are running into problems with it, I would suggest pairing first and last names, Dorothy Hamill rather than just searching for the last or first name alone.

  3. Does the minus sign “-” exclude expressions? Is there a wildcard to search for a word next to a word? For example, Obits often have LastName FirstName. I would like to use wildcard to search for LastName next to FirstName so it will get: Smith, Ted or Ted Smith. As a wishlist item, it would be helpful to have a lexicon of first name variants and last name variants so, you could opt to search with standard variations of a name like Will, William, or Bill. Same would go for LastName Smyth or Smith. $.02 from some who uses your product alot.

    • Yep. Minus right before the word you want to exclude should do the same thing as the NOT.

      On your Ted Smith and Smith, Ted you should be able to put that in quotes and then use the ~ to indicate the proximity. So, “Ted Smith”~1 should return results for either order with one or fewer terms between your Ted and Smith. Results where Ted and Smith should be ranked higher than those with a word between them.

      A name variant list is a good idea, but might get a bit unwieldy with an OCRed index of 95+ (and growing rapidly) pages of newspapers. We’ll add it to the wish list. For now, you could use OR and wildcards to cover some of the cases you mentioned.

      Thanks for the great feedback.

  4. what i need is a way to limit to a specific phrase or name. Quotes don’t seem to work. If i put in “summer fair” i get lots of hits with summer and fair alone or widely separated. What i want is the specific phrase or name.

    • I agree putting a phrase in quotes doesn’t work for me either and I would also like to be able to search for an exact phrase. Even in quotes the search engine seems to break it up into separate words as well as searching on the phrase. Some family names I want to search on are also common words (e.g. Key).

    • Jim and Penni,

      That’s interesting. Quotes should work just the way you describe and they do for me. The “summer fair” example worked for me and have used quotes for other successfully many times. Are there other specific examples of searches where quotation marks are not limiting your search to results with your terms right next to each other?

      • If your Boolean expressions work in a progressive logical fashion (since I don’t have a list of your Boolean expressions to work from), the Boolean expression for summer fair should be
        “summer” AND “fair”. That should explicitly tell the search program to look for both summer and fair, and eliminate any terms that don’t have both those words in them.

        • The default connector is AND, so summer fair will return pages where both summer and fair appear somewhere on the page and it will rank the matches primarily by proximity, so pages with summer and fair next to each other should come at the top of the list.

    • I put phrases in quotes and it pulls up. The problem is it also pulls up articles with just summer or fair in them. I use the Best Match option but then the problem with that one is they are not in chronilogical order.

      • Can you give us an example of a search you are doing where you are having this problem?

        When I search for “summer fair” I only see results where summer and fair are there and next to each other.

  5. Trying to locate my ancestor who came from England to North Carolina in 1796

  6. This is a great start. Would you please think about adding to your FAQ, all your available boolean operators? This would be extremely helpful.

  7. I called to update my data to renew my membership, but had to leave a message and did not receive a call back. I called again and had the same result. I called Ancestry.com and they were unable to help. We do not put our card information on the internet. My membership has now expired. Do you have any other suggestions about how to communicate with the customer service personnel? 3/13/15

    • Sorry you never heard back. Leaving a message should have worked. I’ll pass this along to the support team.

      If you send an email to support@newspapers.com, let them know the situation and include a phone number where they can reach you, they should get back to you.

    • The support folks said they have tried to call a couple of numbers for you, but neither is working. Perhaps you could try calling one more time and leave them the best number to use again. Thanks. Sorry for the trouble.

  8. I tried to locate my ancestor’s obituary who Passed in Phila.,Penna, on Aug.10, 1928. I could not find a newspaper that was in existence for that year.

  9. Trying to find out about my grandfather Kemper Munson Byrd his military service in Germany
    1941 – 1945

  10. My maiden name is Friend,when doing searches in newspaper or other articles looking for obits marriages etc it pulls up every phrase with friend in it,how can I eliminate this,it takes hours to find meaningful information.
    Thanks
    L simmons

    • For me, the best solution when searching for a name that is also a common word is to pair first and last names, e.g. Linda Friend. That should return matches where Linda and Friend are next to each other at the top of the list. If you are getting results at the top of your list where the words are not next to each other, that should mean we don’t have any where they are next to each other, but you can test that by putting the names in quotes, “Linda Friend” which will limit results to those pages where Linda and Friend are within one word of each other.

  11. Is there a way to search for a woman who has been married twice plus her maiden name? Example; Eunice Gill, Mccarron, King. ?

    • You should be able to use the boolean OR to search for a woman with multiple last name options, i.e. Eunice (Gill OR Mccarron OR King). This may give you more results than you want. It may turn out to be easier to just run three different searches.

  12. I just received this email and link. I am relatively new here, and have been trying to figure which combinations work to narrow results. This helps a lot, even though I have discovered many of these on my own. My biggest concern can’t be fixed with these however. Your files do not include my local papers from before 1866, and currently searching for civil war vets and news from Harrisburg, PA. There are other papers in not so far away towns–but will not likely have the specific names I am looking for. Are you continually expanding your collections? Now to make sure I subscribe to this blog. Post these questions and answers on FB please if you have not already. I am sure I am going to send a few subscribers your way from my FB posts.

    • We do add to the site all the time. We are currently adding 2-3 million new pages a month.

  13. I have never been able to search through Newspaper.com even though I’m suppose to have a subscription using my ancestry.com password. Who do I need to contact?

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