Asking For Help The Right Way

In general, genealogists are very helpful people.  Most genealogists love putting on their detective hat and helping others solve a mystery.  
I belong to several genealogy groups on facebook.  There are groups for technology, DNA, photo restoration, blogging, specific locations, and ethnicities.  Most of these groups have some of the most notable members of the genealogy community as members.  I have not only gotten help from these groups but offered help as well.

I continually see posts on these groups that are, for lack of a better phrase, set up for failure.
Let me first say that I do not claim to be an expert in the subject of social media requests.  But because of the amount of time I spend on these groups, I see a lot requests that get wonderful responses and others that are a train wreck.

I also see mentions from people that are afraid to post in groups because they are intimidated.  Hopefully, these tips will lessen that feeling and help you to post a request that will get more positive or helpful responses.

Be specific.

  • Include as many details as you can without writing a novel.  Requests like “I am looking for John Smith from Maryland.  Can you help?” require too many questions from the people who are trying to help.  I read a post like this and usually scroll right by it because there is too much missing. Even if you only have a date range or a location guess, include it.  Was John married?  If he was, did he have any children?  What have you already found about John and his family?  Any details you include can help those who are volunteering their time.

Punctuation and capitalization counts. 

  • I saw a post the other day that was about 20 lines long with no capitalization or punctuation.  AT ALL.  I tried to wade through the question but after 3 minutes I gave up.  I understand that often the people posting requests are not native English speakers, but Google Translate does a pretty good job at translating the punctuation.

    “Which is best” posts.
    I think it is these posts frustrate me the most, not because they are bad questions, but because you are asking for an opinion, and everyone has an opinion!  The four “which is best” posts I see most often are:

    • Which genealogy software is the best?  You will get LOTS of responses to this post, but unless you base your final decision by counting “votes” for each program mentioned, not a good answer.  Most genealogy programs have either a free version or a free trial.  You may have to spend a few weeks playing around with a few different versions in order to make your final decision.  But don’t you want to use a program that fits the way you research, not a program that someone else said is best?
    • What newspaper subscription site is best?  This answer isn’t an opinion, it is determined by your research location and time period.  For researching my York County, PA ancestors I have found the papers available on to be great!  However, it isn’t great at all for researching my Baltimore, MD ancestors.  Visit the subscription sites and see what papers (don’t forget to look at the date ranges) are available.  Also, you may want to pop for a month subscription (be sure to check for the renewal policy first) to see if you find the service worth the cost of a full yearly subscription.  Lastly, including a location and date range may get a response mentioning a free resource, such as a library or other repository.
    • What DNA company is best?  This one is tough because again…it depends on several things.  What are you hoping to find out with DNA?  Also, who are you testing, yourself, another family member?  This will determine which test you should take.  Once you decide on a specific company and test, the success you have in finding matches is basically out of your control.  It is all going to depend on who else out there is getting tested.  I see posts where people say things like, “don’t test with [Company A] because I did and I only have 4 matches”.  Unfortunately, the most likely reason you only have 4 matches is because people who are genetically related to you haven’t tested.  I have one branch of my family with hundreds of matches.  I have another branch that I only have a couple matches.  Hopefully that will change as more people test.  Also, taking a DNA test isn’t going to fill in your entire family tree.  But hopefully it helps you make some “cousin connections” to help fill in some blanks.
    • I can only afford to pay for one subscription site, which one should I pick?  Again, there are too many determining factors to adequately answer this question.  What is your research concentration area and time period?  What type of information are you looking for?  Even with that information the answers will be largely subjective based on the success other researchers have had with their own research. It is a common question, just hard to give one solid answer.  Also, many public libraries, genealogy societies and family history centers have subscriptions that you can access for free at their location.  In my area, the public library has a world subscription to  I have to go to the library but I can access it through my own laptop as long as I am connected to their wi-fi.  The only drawback is that I have to comb my hair and put on pants.

    Be respectful. 
    The more respectful you are to other members of the group AND to the administrators, the more pleasant your experience will be.  Everyone, from the admins to the other members are donating their time on these groups.  They don’t “owe” you anything, but will most often jump in to help if you are respectful.

    • Be patient.  Many groups are “Closed groups”.  This means you have to request to join and an admin has to approve you.  These groups have administrators that donate their time to moderate the group.  It may take a day or two for the admin to get to your request.  The more popular groups may get lots of requests a day from people.  They will get around to you.  Also, different groups have different criteria for their members, but nothing outlandish.  They don’t want trolls.  They want people who have a genuine interest in the topic of the group.  In the genealogy groups, they will generally check your profile to see if you have an interest in genealogy.  Depending on your security settings they may not be able to see what other groups you belong to or what your interests are.  In this case, it may take longer to get approved.  But don’t sweat it.  Sometimes there will be a pinned post from the administrator on the group page.  You can send them a message if you are worried that you may not get approved, for example, if this is the first group you are joining.
    • Before you join, read the rules.  Most of the groups on Facebook have rules.  This is to make sure the page just doesn’t end up being a big advertisement page. Make it easier on the admins and follow the rules.
    • “Someone deleted my post.”  I see this many times on the RAOGK group.  99 times out of 100 the post was not deleted, there have just been so many posts that yours may fall way down on the page.  Search the group to try and find your post before accusing the admin of deleting it. Every group has a search field you can use.  It is located on the right side, at the bottom of the group cover picture.
    Search this group field
    • Don’t hijack someone else’s thread.  Do not ask your own unrelated questions on someone else’s post.  This can lead the thread off of the original topic which is not fair to the original poster.  Also, your question will probably not get the attention it deserves because it is buried in someone else’s post.
    • “Close” your thread once you get an answer.  If you post a question or request and get a resolution, please go to your original post and edit it to by adding “SOLVED” before or after the question.  This will prevent people from trying to help with something that has already been answered.  Don’t delete your post though.  Others may come along with a similar question and be able to read through the thread of your post for the answer.

    Be appreciative.
    Remember, people have volunteered their time to help you out.  You don’t have to buy them a new car, but a thank-you can go a long way.  Maybe when you close your thread instead of just putting SOLVED, you can write “SOLVED-Thank you to all that helped!”   If someone has gone above and beyond, send them a message or post a thank you to them in the thread. 

    Don’t rely on others to do all your research.
    I see people that will post 10 requests for research help in a row.  Sometimes it is obvious that the original poster hasn’t tried to do any research on their own.  These groups are created to provide help, not do all of your work.  I will tend to bypass posts from people who post multiple requests and never supply any “known” information or information on where or what they have already researched.

    “I sent so and so a message but they never responded.”  On facebook, if you send a message from someone who is not your FB friend, the message goes into a folder called “Other”.  Messages that go into the Other folder do not show up in your notifications.  Many users know not of this “other” folder.  So they may not be ignoring you, they just don’t know that message is there.  The few times this has happened to me I have posted in the group something like “Hey so-and-so, I sent you a message.  If you have not seen it, please check your “Other” folder.”  Also, if you never checked this folder before you may have some invitations from some very nice young ladies…LOL

    The “Other” folder

    Some questions may not get a satisfactory answer.   Sometimes I see a post about how a group “isn’t helpful at all”.  Then I will go to the group, search for the post and read the replies.  Even though the facebook groups have smart, resourceful and experienced researchers, it is possible that you just won’t get a clear, definitive answer.  This may be no fault of your own or the group, the answer just isn’t there.  Put that question away for awhile and try again in the future.  Again, be thankful for any clues you may have gotten but don’t automatically think that the group isn’t helpful.

    Hopefully these tips are helpful to those who may be a little intimidated when it comes to using facebook groups or for those who scratch their heads because they aren’t getting responses.