Deciding which genealogy website you should use doesn’t have to be difficult. Lisa Louise Cooke will show you how to figure out which genealogy site is right for you.
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Which genealogy website should I use? (Episode 80 Show Notes)
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So, you’re intrigued by the idea of finding out more about your personal family tree and family history, and you’ve heard about genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch. Pretty quickly, though, it can get confusing deciding between them. And frankly, it just may not be in your budget to try and use them all. So which genealogy website should you be using? In this episode of Elevenses with Lisa we’re going to answer that question!
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Which genealogy website should I use?
So not too long ago I got a question from Seymour. See if identify with his situation:
“I have been a member of Ancestry.com for about 6+ years now & use them as my primary genealogy site for my family tree. I also last year became a subscriber to FamilySearch.com. I was able to merge my tree from Ancestry.com into my FamilySearch.com. Now here’s where I am second guessing myself. I am having some difficulty getting used to how FamilySearch works.”
I’ve read some posts on different sites that mention that they don’t have the most accurate information in their hints, etc.. But with that said, I understand that things change & technology can make some sights easier to operate within them than they were before.
I have kind of noticed lately that you seem to be referring to MyHeritage.com more & more so not knowing anything about MyHeritage.com
My big question is would it be advantageous, in your opinion, for me to switch over to MyHeritage.com now before I get too involved in FamilySearch.com? Or is it just that MyHeritage.com just has the newest technology working in their favor right now & this could change…”
I totally sympathize with Seymour’s concerns here. I’m going to share with you my opinions and strategies on this question of which genealogy website to use, and how they compare. But keep in mind there are no right and wrong answers. Everybody’s situation is a little different.
I’ve been at genealogy for a long time – since I was eight years old. I’ve been in the genealogy industry for over 15 years. Like all of us, I’ve made mistakes, so today I want to share with you what I’ve learned and how I do things in the hopes that it will help you have fun and be successful!
Is there one best genealogy website?
All the big genealogy websites would absolutely like you to use theirs as the primary if not sole website. But that’s not practical, because in reality, they all have strengths and weaknesses.
I think it helps a lot if we step outside the genealogy box and look at if from a different perspective.
Let’s think about a carpenter. A carpenter who’s really serious about building great furniture is going to have a shop full of tools! If you asked him which one is the best, he would probably come back at you with an important question: what are you trying to build?
That’s the right question because a hammer is perfect for driving a nail but terrible for determining if a shelf you are installing is level.
We’re trying to build out our family history. This involved many tasks and will require many tools. In the end you want to pass that family history onto the future generations. That’s why I’m an advocate or building your tree, saving the genealogical documents you find, writing the stories, creating videos and anything else you’re doing, on your own computer. If we just put that all on somebody else’s website – no matter how big they are right now – then we really don’t have control over it. We want to build family history that lives in our home. The genealogy websites are just tools to help us get that job done.
Keeping this in mind, the answer to the question “which genealogy website should I use?” becomes pretty clear. You use the right one for the task at hand.
What kinds to tasks do you need to accomplish as a genealogist? Here are just a few:
- Find genealogical records and information (evidence)
- Analyze what you find in order to get answers (conclusions)
- Create a family tree (pedigree and descendancy chart)
- Write up family stories
- Create shareable content (scrapbooks, videos, framed art, books, digital database.)
Resources for Budget-Friendly Genealogy Websites
Since the best website is for the task at hand, we could and often do end up using several genealogy sites. However, it isn’t practical to think we can subscribe to every genealogy website resource. Doing so would be cost prohibitive for most people. Therefore, we need to find a way to evaluate whether a website can meet our needs.
We also need to determine if the content provided by the subscription website might be available for free elsewhere. If you’re on a tight budget or just want to get the most for your money, there are definitely ways to do that in genealogy. Watch this video (Episode 21 Free Genealogy – How to Find Free Genealogy Records) which describes my strategy for first identifying if free records are available.
Once you have exhausted those avenues, it’s time to determine which of the biggest genealogy websites has what you need, and the costs involved.
Know Your Genealogy Website Options
You have several excellent genealogy website options to consider. I often refer to the large, popular genealogy websites as the Genealogy Giants. They are the largest and best-known genealogy websites in the industry. They include Ancestry and MyHeritage which are paid subscription websites, and FamilySearch which is free.
All of these websites offer historical records, online family trees, mobile apps and more. Some of the content that they offer overlaps with some of the other sites, but each also offers unique content available only at their site. And sometimes that’s going to be the deciding factor when picking which one to use. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.
I do want to acknowledge that I often include Findmypast in this list of top genealogy websites because it is growing quickly and offers many of the same features. However, it is still primarily focused on British Isles genealogy although lately they’ve been working hard to add to their U.S. collection. The other three, (Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch) are much more international in scope while offering a primary focus on the U.S. if my task was to dig into my husband’s British roots, I would turn to Findmypast first for sure.
There are also excellent genealogy websites that focus on other countries too like Sweden, France and so on. But for this episode, we’re going to focus on comparing Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch.
All of these genealogy websites offer the following to their top-tier users:
- billions of historical records from around the world;
- powerful, flexible search interfaces with lots of extra features;
- family tree-building tools;
- automated record hinting (if you have a tree on the site);
- Help/tutorials for site users.
They also have unique strengths and weaknesses within these areas. Understanding them can help you make your decision today. But your genealogy research needs are bound to change over time as you research different parts of your family tree. You might be working on ancestors from North Carolina for the next 6 months, and then suddenly discover where they were from in Germany and find yourself looking for German records. And at some point you decide that DNA testing is the only way you’re going to be able to confirm a family relationship. Change is inevitable as you climb your family tree and that’s why it’s so important to stay flexible and know your options.
Comparing the Top Genealogy Website Subscriptions
Here’s a high-level comparison of Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch.
Ancestry is a US company that started as a publisher. Over the years it has grown tremendously, often through acquisition, and not it also owns Find A Grave, Fold3.com, and Newspapers.com. You’ll need to sign up for a free account to access a limited number of free collections, and they offer a variety of paid subscription tiers.
FamilySearch is a nonprofit sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and affiliated with the Family History Library in SLC, UT. The site is free but does require that you set up and log in with an account.
MyHeritage is an Israeli company that was started as a family tree website. It has a strong international user base. You’ll need to sign up for a free account to access a limited number of free collections, and they offer a variety of paid subscription tiers.
Each of the three largest genealogy websites offers free online family tree building tools. Online trees make it easy for others to search your tree, are convenient to refer to while on the website, and facilitate hints. These websites review your tree around the clock and suggests possible record matches. It’s really important to evaluate and verify each hint, and remember that hints do not cover all records. In fact, you only get hints from a small percentage of the entire historical record collection.
Ancestry, and MyHeritage users can build their family tree on the website and can set them to private or public. In fact, they can build multiple trees which many people do. This is in stark contrast to FamilySearch which has a single community tree where users contribute to common ancestral profiles and is entirely public.
I recommend building and keeping the master version of your tree on your own computer and set up an automated cloud backup service to protect it. (I use Backblaze cloud backup.) This is the only way to retain full and total control of your own family tree. That being said, online family trees are excellent research tools and can be used in conjunction with your master family tree. I cover this concept in-depth in the Premium Membership video How to Take Control of Preserving Your Family Tree Information.
Ancestry and MyHeritage both offer DNA testing, while FamilySearch does not. Ancestry entered the DNA industry first and therefore has the largest number of DNA profiles at well over 15 million. MyHeritage is growing quickly with several million DNA profiles.
All three have free mobile apps for iOS and Android. Just like on their websites, Ancestry and MyHeritage require paid subscriptions to access subscription content.
It’s not easy to compare historical records apples to apples. One of the main reasons is that each of the sites has a slightly different way of defining what constitutes an historical record and they don’t necessarily publish that information. This can make it very difficult to then compare how many records they have.
At first glance you might look at a death certificate and think “that’s an historical record.” However, one certificate may name several people – the person who died, the informant, the physician and so forth. The information provided about each could be considered a “record”.
The good news is that all three sites have such vast collections that include billions of records that the specific numbers aren’t as important. (And the numbers change quickly as new records are added daily.) What really matters is if they have the collections and records that will be helpful to your genealogy research.
MyHeritage offers some wonderful and unique tools for working with family photos including their enhancer and colorization. They also have a huge amount of international users so you have a better chance of making a connection with a distant cousin in another country through their family trees.
How to Determine if the Genealogy Website Has the Records You Need
1. Identify Your Research Goal
Start by identifying the family lines you want to work on and then determine when and where they lived.
2. Evaluate the Collections
When it comes to genealogy records, the bottom line is whether or not a particular website has what you need. By browsing the collection catalog of each website you can get a better sense of if what they have to offer is worth the subscription price.
A little-known secret about all three websites is that you can evaluate these website’s collections without having to even sign up for a free account! Here’s how:
- Ancestry search.ancestry.com > Explore by Location > click a place
- FamilySearch familysearch.org/search > Research by Location > click a place
- MyHeritage myheritage.com/research/catalog > click a place under Refine by Location
Subscribe to One, and Gain Free Access to Many
FamilySearch is free so it should automatically be on the top of your list to search when looking for historical records. However, if only one of the major subscription genealogy websites is in your budget, there are other creative ways to gain access to a variety at no cost. Here are my recommended strategies:
Free Access through Library Editions
Ask your local library if they have Library Editions of Ancestry, Findmypast and/or MyHeritage available. Library editions are typically available onsite at the library though you may be able to gain home access through with your library card. They provide free access to most records although exclusions may apply and tree-building is not available.
Free Access through Family History Centers
You may be able to gain access to all three websites at a Family History Center. You can find the Family History Center or Affiliate Library closest to you by visiting https://www.familysearch.org/fhcenters/locations/ and using the interactive map. Click on the location pin to get more details.
Free Collections at Ancestry
If you don’t have a paid subscription to Ancestry.com you can still take advantage of their many free collections available here.
Free Collections at MyHeritage
To find free records at MyHeritage.com, go to https://tinyurl.com/LisaMyHeritage. In the footer menu of the website, click on Historical Records. Then fill in your search criteria. (Update: If you don’t see Historical Records in the footer, go to Research > Collection Catalog and search on the keyword “free.”) Scroll down the search results and look for the green free tags.
Schedule Specific Research Around Holidays
Many genealogy websites allow free access to specific historical record collections throughout the year. Typically, free access is tied to a holiday. For example, if you have some military research to conduct, schedule it around Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. Need marriage records? Keep an eye out around Valentine’s Day. Subscribe to my free Genealogy Gems email newsletter and follow Genealogy Gems on Facebook for notifications of specials like these.
When One Website Subscription is Not Enough
Sometimes the free strategies we just mentioned just won’t meet your research needs. If you are really yearning to have a paid subscription to both websites at the same time, here are some strategies that may just help reduce the cost.
Call for Specials
If your account has expired or is about to renew, it might be worth taking the time to call and see if there is special reduced pricing available. You can find the phone number for MyHeritage by clicking the Contact Us link at the bottom of the home page. To reach Ancestry, the fastest way to find the phone number is by googling ancestry customer service phone.
Do you have a favorite way to save a few dollars on your genealogy subscriptions? Leave a comment below and share it with the Genealogy Gems community!
Additional Genealogy Giants Website Resources
- FREE TRIAL to Ancestry
- Click here for my step-by-step introduction to getting started on Ancestry.com.
- Click here to learn why everyone should have a free FamilySearch login–and use it!
- FREE TRIAL to MyHeritage
- Do your DNA with MyHeritage DNA! You can also upload your DNA results from other testing companies to MyHeritage for free and enjoy free matching and analysis tools!
- Click here to read what Genealogy Gems loves about MyHeritage.
- Download the ad-free show notes (Premium Member log in required. Not a Premium Member? Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member.)
- Subscribe for free to our Genealogy Gems YouTube channel so you’ll never miss another episode.
- Subscribe to my free email newsletter to get notifications of new videos and articles.