Many websites let you use wildcards in your searches. Wildcards are symbols that take the place of one or more letters in a surname or given name. Since the spelling of these names is arbitrary and indexing is not perfect, wildcards can make the difference between finding your ancestors and not finding them. It’s really handy to use wildcards in two specific cases.
The first place wildcards are handy is when a database does not automatically use soundex in its searches. The second place is when searching through records that use the “old” typeface that makes the letter “s” look like an “f” and “ss” look like “ff”.
The wildcard “?” replaces a single letter: Priscilla becomes Pri?cilla and Jessica can be Je??ica. The asterisk replaces multiple letters: Jessica becomes Je*ica. The asterisk is on the “8” key or on the numeric key pad. You may use either one.
The “*” wildcard is very handy at the end of surnames when you’ve seen letter combinations like: ski, sky, sk, ick, etc. I was able to use this wildcard when searching for my Gottschall ancestors. I was surprised at some of the variations of this surname even in the same newspaper article!
Many databases require at least three letters in a word before you can use the “*” and some databases require that you have the first three letters. So check the database you are using for its rules first before you get frustrated with errors.
Just a reminder – don’t put these symbols in your data files, though. Gedcom files need to have letters (except for the special symbols discussed in my earlier entry on Getting Specific with Family Tree Maker.)