Is the tail wagging the dog in your genealogy research? Resist the temptation to jump at each hint and online family tree. Instead, take the lead in your own research and follow the scent of each clue with genealogical best practices. Here’s how…
Almost as soon as you start adding information to your family tree on any of the major genealogy records sites (Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast) you will start getting suggestions. These suggestions are known by a variety of names on the various sites, such as hints, Shaky Leaves, Smart Matches, record matches, etc. No matter what they’re called, they can be a great way to quickly make even more progress in growing your family tree.
There’s an old saying: you get what you pay for. In the case of hints, you have technically paid for them by subscribing to the genealogy website’s service. However, you didn’t pay for them through careful research following solid genealogical methodology. You haven’t yet verified their accuracy, or in the case of suggested online family tree, verified their sources.
Online family trees are one of the most common types of hints you’ll receive. And it’s no wonder: there are billions of names entered in online family trees*, so your tree is very likely to match some of them.
However, with all those matching trees there are bound to be problems. If you’ve been wondering about the reliability and usability of other people’s online family trees being recommended as hints, you’re not alone. Keep reading to learn more about using information gleaned from other’s online family trees.
The question of trusting online family trees
Brenda is a Premium eLearning member, and she wrote me recently with a question about using online family trees:
“I’m just getting back into my genealogy research after 10 years of not having time. It seems that research has completely changed to online work! I’m getting [hints that link to other] family lines, but can I trust them?”
And this related question comes from Douglas:
“Weekly, I get emails with family tree matches, asking me to confirm the match. My problem is not with the matching but with when I dig into their tree, the source for their information is another tree. That info may be a clue but I learned way back that the info needed to be backed up by good primary and sometimes secondary sources, not what somebody thought was right. Info that I entered in my tree years ago and found subsequently to be wrong is still hanging out in a dozen trees. What is your opinion?”
My guess is that at some point you’ve had some of the same questions as Brenda and Douglas. Am I right? Well, even though it’s exciting to find someone who’s already built a family tree that includes your ancestors, it’s important to proceed with caution. Avoid the temptation to “graft” or copy the tree onto your tree.
That’s not to say you should ignore online trees. Instead, let’s discuss how reliable they are and how to use them wisely and responsibly.
How to use online family trees as hints
Douglas has stated the problem accurately. The researchers behind those tantalizing trees may have made mistakes or copied unfounded information without verifying it. Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence.
Once copied to one tree, incorrect information can easily get picked up by others and copied over and over again. And the problem is made worse because the more it’s copied, the more unskilled researchers may assume it must be accurate because they see everyone using it. It’s a vicious circle indeed!
Mistakes can happen in online family trees
Approach every online hint and tree as a clue – a lead – to be considered and scrutinized. You won’t know the accuracy of it for sure until you review the research and verify the sources. That being said, the next logical questions would be “how in the world will I have enough time to verify all of the information in all of these trees?”
The answer is, you don’t.
Instead, do your own genealogical research first, one person and one generation at a time. Work from the present generation backward and learn everything you can from known and trusted primary and secondary sources. If this idea sounds new to you, I strongly encourage you to start listening to my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast. It’s free, and available here on my website, as well as through all major podcast apps. If you’re new to genealogy or returning after a long spell, this podcast will cover the basics in genealogical research and help you get on track.
It’s easy to let other people’s online trees give you a false sense that you are quickly and easily building your own family tree, but it’s just not true. A tree worth having is a tree worth researching. Don’t let the tail wag the dog here. Follow the proven genealogical research process, and then tap into online family trees when you need a fresh new lead.
Automated record hints and matches
On genealogy websites, you’ll get two types of automated hints or matches. The first is for other people’s trees, which we’ve already discussed. The second is for historical genealogical records.
In order to deliver the historical record hint, the website has compared the data on your tree with the data available in the transcriptions of their records. Since many people share the same name and other distinguishing characteristics like birth dates, it’s important to look at each record closely and carefully.
Review both the record transcription and the digitized image of the document (when available), keeping in mind that not all the useful genealogical data is always transcribed. And in the process of transcribing, errors may have been made.
You first want to evaluate whether this document pertains to your relative. Next, you will need to determine what else it adds to your knowledge of them. Compare what that document says to what you’ve already learned about your family. Watch for multiple, specific pieces of evidence that support or are consistent with what you already know.
Genealogy Giants guru Sunny Morton says that “record hints on Genealogy Giants FamilySearch and MyHeritage are especially known for a high degree of accuracy; Ancestry.com’s are generally pretty good, too, but the site is clear about reminding you that these are just hints. I don’t have data on how accurate Findmypast hinting is, but I do know that they’ve been adding more records to the pool of records they hint on, and that’s also good.”
After reviewing all the record hints you’ve received, conduct additional searches yourself for records about each ancestor. Use the same process described above to scrutinize and evaluate each record.
Remember that even a digitized record hosted on one of the major websites can have transcription, spelling, or other errors, and sometimes you’ll have to make judgment calls. There’s no substitute for your brain! And there’s no substitute for carefully verifying and documenting every discovery as you go.
Next steps for using hints and trees wisely
By using hints for online family trees and historical records as leads when needed rather than the main path to follow will help you build an accurate family tree.
We are here to help you take control of your family tree and your research every step of the way. For specific information about reviewing record hints, read Getting started on Ancestry.com.
When you do find errors in someone else’s tree, here’s some sound advice for How to approach someone about errors on their family tree.
And finally take a moment to read Don’t lose control when you post your family tree online.
If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning member like Brenda, I suggest Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 152. It features my audio interview with Sunny Morton on take-home strategies for using hinting tools at the Genealogy Giants.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning Membership – FAQ If you want inspiring and entertaining genealogy education on-demand, Premium eLearning is for you! World-renowned speaker Lisa Louise Cooke has built this program to be accessible for all ages, all skill levels,...
Show Notes: The FamilySearch Wiki is like a free encyclopedia of genealogy! In this FamilySearch Wiki tutorial, discover the wealth of information the Wiki has to offer, and learn the secrets to navigating it with ease. We’ll also cover the number #1 reason people get frustrated when searching the Wiki and how to overcome it.
Watch the Video
RootsTech has set the class video to “private”. You can watch it on their website by going to the video page in their on-demand library. You may need to sign in to your free FamilySearch account in order to watch it.
Enjoy this special free tutorial video which was originally presented at the RootsTech conference. Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video class. (Premium Membership required.)
What is a Wiki?
A wiki is a website that
- Allows collaborative editing platform for users
- doesn’t require HTML editing
- has links to both internal and external resource pages
- The FamilySearch Wiki is a lot like Wikipedia. It’s basically an encyclopedia of information. But the exciting part is that it’s specific to genealogy. This means you don’t usually have to worry about including the word genealogy in your searches.
What Does the FamilySearch Wiki Do?
The FamilySearch Wiki is focused on providing information for genealogy research such as:
- how to find data
- where to find data
- how to analyze and use the data
What are the sources of Wiki content?
- Original material was added from the old Family History Library research outlines.
- User added material in their areas of genealogical expertise. The Wiki is constantly being updated by LDS missionaries and other volunteers as new material is discovered or released.
Don’t worry about Contributor info.
You’re going to see many things about wiki creation and management. Not everything is relevant to you when just wanting to find information. In fact, the majority of the Help section is geared to people creating, editing and maintaining pages. Don’t worry about being a contributor. Enjoy being a user.
2 Ways to Access the FamilySearch Wiki
- Going directly to https://www.familysearch.org/wiki. Although you can sign into your free FamilySearch account on this page (in the upper right corner) it isn’t necessary in order to use it.
- Logging in at the FamilySearch website. In the menu under Search click Research Wiki. By logging in and you’ll have access to additional features like participating in discussions, posting and creating watchlists.
The FamilySearch Wiki focuses on records, not ancestors.
Keep in mind that the purpose of the Wiki is to explain where genealogical materials are located and how to get access to them. The Wiki does not have individual ancestor information. If you want to find records, start by deciding specifically what kind of records you want. Identify when and where the ancestor lived at the time the record was created. Then head to the Wiki to figure out what records are available and where they can be found.
The Wiki links to:
- Materials that available at FamilySearch.org or any other online genealogy website.
- Materials that are not available at FamilySearch.org or any other online genealogy site.
- Materials that were previously unknown or newly made available online.
- Strategies and techniques for finding and researching genealogical records.
Types of Searches
Topic Search: When searching for information on a specific topic such as probate records, type the topic into the Search box. As you type, a list of pages with the topic word or words in the title appears below the Search box. If one of the listed pages is the desired topic, highlight and press enter. If you don’t pick from the drop-down list you will get a results list of every page that includes the topic.
Vital records Search: FamilySearch recommends using the Guided Search for info on vital records.
Location Search in the search box: When only the name of any country, state in the U.S., province in Canada, or county in England is typed in the Search box you will be taken directly to that Wiki page. For example: If Texas is searched the result is the Texas, United States Genealogy page.
Page Title: If you happen to know the exact title of the Wiki article you want, type it in the Search Box.
How to Overcome the #1 Search Problem
Many people will search for something like marriage records, Randolph, County, Indiana, and they will get a list of results. The results don’t look as clear-cut as Google results, and they may not all be on topic. This is where we can get lost. I think probably the number one reason why people give up on the wiki is they get these kinds of search results. They realize, wait a second, this isn’t even Indiana, it’s talking about Kentucky! Why am I getting all these? It can be frustrating.
This happens because we tried to do it ourselves, with our own keywords. Remember, like most search engines, they’ve indexed their content to make it searchable, so that means they’ve already decided how they want to talk about a particular topic. Rather than just addressing marriage record first, the wiki focuses on the location. Where is this marriage record? So, focus first on the place unless you are just looking for general information on a general genealogy topic such as genealogy software.
Pre-filled suggestions will appear as you type because the wiki is going to suggest what it has in the format it has it. Again, you may want to first go to the country, state or county-level page and then look for the record type.
If you’re looking for marriage records but you don’t see them listed it might be that the word marriage isn’t the keyword the wiki uses. Or it might be that the type of record you’re looking for is a state or federal record.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see what you want listed in the table of contents. It may just be a keyword issue. Let the work that they’ve already done in organizing their materials guide you. You’ll be more successful and also avoid frustration. The FamilySearch Wiki is just too good of a resource to miss.
The FamilySearch Wiki Search box
You can run three main types of searches:
- Single key words,
- and search strings.
Resource: Wiki Search Help Page
- Quotes: Odd Fellows – 49 results versus “Odd Fellows” – 32 results
- Minus sign
- Word stemming applies: car will also find cars
- subpageof:”Requests for comment”
- Numrange doesn’t work on the wiki
- Use Google site search to search using Google’s engine and search operators!
Generally speaking, the map is the best way to search for records and information that is rooted in a location. Start by clicking the button for the continent, such as North America. From there, select the county from the menu, such as United States, then drill down by state. This will take you to the Wiki entry for that state.
Location-based FamilySearch Wiki Pages
If you’re really new to research in a particular location, start with the guided research link on the location’s wiki page. You may also see links to research strategies, record finder, and record types.
Getting Started section – links to step-by-step research strategies and the most popular records.
The county pages are where the real magic happens because many records such as birth, marriage, death, and court records are typically available at the county level. There you’ll find out how to contact or visit the current county courthouse. Look for Boundary Changes on the page. Use your computer’s Find on Page feature by pressing Control + F (PC) or Command + F (mac) on your keyboard to more quickly find words like Boundary on the page.
Exploring Record Collection Pages
Many record collections have their own page on the Wiki. As you type, these pages will populate in the drop-down list. Example: German Census Records. Take a moment to read through the page and you’ll discover some important information that will save you time and headaches, such as:
- When censuses were taken
- National versus local censuses and their various levels
- Censuses in areas where boundaries have changed over time
- Various types of census forms we may encounter
- The purpose behind the creation of census records in Germany
- The kind of information we can expect to find in the German census
- Other types of records containing similar information
- Resource articles (including a handout from a past RootsTech)
- Wiki articles describing online collections
There are a couple of actions we may want to take before going on to search for records. Here are a few:
Click on the Category to see what else is attached to this category – in this case we see some example images that are helpful in interpreting German census forms.
Click the Cite this page link in the left column if we plan to reference the page elsewhere.
Click Printable Version in the left column if we want a printable or PDF version of the page.
Explore related pages by clicking the What links here link in the column on the left. Notice it also shows if there are any other users watching the page.
Learn more about using Family Search
Videos at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems YouTube channel:
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In this episode we discuss the latest genealogy news, one listener’s fabulous use of Google Alerts, and Maureen Taylor’s new history film project.
Google Earth 7
Google as just released Google Earth version 7. Google Earth is an amazing tool for genealogy so new enhancements are always welcome! This new version enables you to explore a number of cities around the world in 3D, from Long Beach, California, to Rome, Italy. The 3D imagery uses the enhanced modeling capabilities, previously found on only mobile devices.
In my video CD Google Earth for Genealogy Volume II I go into detail about 3D models and even give you resources for how you can get your own 3D models of everything from your house, to your ancestor’s home.
Download the new Google Earth 7 and get even more 3D imagery. You’ll find comprehensive and accurate tours of more than 11,000 popular sites around the world, including our growing list of cities where new 3D imagery is available.
A big change with this new version is the tour guide feature which serves as sort of a virtual local expert that suggests places nearby that you might want to explore and providing you with background information on the location. You’ll find the tour guide along the bottom of the screen, and it looks like sort of a film strip of thumbnail images representing various tours that are available. These change based on where you are on the Google Earth globe.
List of updated Google Earth imagery
What’s new in RootsMagic 6 Video
And there a favorite genealogy program that just got a new fresh update. RootsMagic 6 is now available, and you can see what’s new in the newest version of the genealogy database program in a brand new video they’ve published on their website at http://www.rootsmagic.com/webinars/
In the video you will see new features in action such as:
- Online Publishing
- Find Everywhere feature
- Live Timeline View
- CountyCheck Explorer
If you are a current paid user of RootsMagic, you can upgrade for just $19.95. New users may purchase RootsMagic 6 for only $29.95. Order online at http://rootsmagic.com/RootsMagic/
Special Holiday Offer Now through Dec. 20, 2012
Order gift copies of RootsMagic 6 for just $19.95 (plus shipping). You can also order other RootsMagic products at that same $19.95 price. Order the special holiday at http://www.rootsmagic.com/holidayoffer or order by phone at 1-800-ROOTSMAGIC (1-800-766-8762).
The next item here is that the Family Tree Service coming soon to FamilySearch.org
According to a FamilySearch press release, “Within the next few months, FamilySearch will make Family Tree available to everyone on its website. The first of many updates planned for FamilySearch.org, Family Tree will provide a free and engaging way to discover, preserve, and share your family history. Family Tree will also offer specialized tools to make temple work for your ancestors even easier and more convenient.
Watch an Introduction to Family Tree that shows 7 reasons to be excited about Family Tree.
Family Tree will enable you to:
- Save family information into a genealogy tree
- Edit and delete incorrect data, including relationships
- Connect and collaborate with others on shared family lines
- Show where information came from
- Link to online photos and documents
If you have questions about what Family Tree will be like or how it will work, you can log in to a special training website that offers online courses, how-to videos, informational handouts, and step-by-step training.
Get started with Family Tree today by watching the introductory video or reading about it on the training website. Family Tree will be open to everyone in the next few months.
RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City
The Early Bird price for the full 3-Day Pass which gives you everything RootsTech has to offer is $149, discounted from the regular full price of $219
Students: One-day only pass for $89 and students can get a 3 day pass with their student ID for just $39
Getting Started 3 Day Pass for beginners: gives you access to over 30 classes in the Beginner track is just $39 for the early bird price, and the regular price will be $49
Getting Started one-day pass giving you access to a selection of fundamental classes for just $19
I will be at RootsTech 2013 teaching a variety of classes in addition to my booth in the exhibit hall, and some free demo classes I’ll be doing in the Demonstration Area of the Expo hall. So I hope you get RootsTech 2013 on your calendar because I look forward to seeing you there.
Ireland – National Archives launches new website
The National Archives of Ireland has launched a new genealogy website at http://www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie/ which will initially host the 1901 and 1911 Censuses, Tithe Apportionment records from 1823-37, and Soldiers’ Wills from 1914-17.
New at ScotlandsPeople
Scottish wills and testaments from 1902-25 now online at the ScotlandsPeople at http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/
Millions of Old Newspaper pages added to FindMyPast
findmypast.com has just published millions of pages of historical newspapers from not only England, but also across Wales and Scotland as well. This collection contains local newspapers for the period 1710-1950. More than 200 titles are included. Go to http://www.findmypast.co.uk/search/newspapers
Ancestry.com launches newspapers.com
On November 29, 2012 Ancestry.com Inc., announced the launch of Newspapers.com, a web site designed to offer a collection of more than 800 U.S. newspapers dating from the late 1700s into the early 2000s.
Comprising more than 25 million pages, Newspapers.com offers a historical and present-day newspapers ranging from the New York Times to small town and local newspapers throughout the United States.
According to Ancestry’s press release “The search capabilities on Newspapers.com are specifically designed for newspapers enabling users to easily search by keywords, location, time period and newspaper name.”
The yearly subscription rate is $79.95 for subscribers and $39.95 for Ancestry.com or Fold3.com members. Newspapers.com also offers a 7-day free trial that can be activated at www.newspapers.com.
Ancestry has launched a new Community Support site at Ancestry.com
You can access Community Support by clicking on “Get Help” at the top of the Ancestry.com homepage. Once on Online Help, you will see a button for “Ask the Community” on the right hand side. That link will take you directly to Ancestry’s new Support Communities.
MyHeritage Buys Geni.com
MyHeritage have just bought our long-term rival Geni.com – and also raised $25million in new funds. As a larger community, the users of MyHeritage and Geni.com will now receive matches with the other website family trees, and MyHeritage’s Record Matching, will benefit Geni’s users, who will get access to historical records never available before on Geni.com.
Jessica has a new blog and a question about photo storage: “…after about the 10th podcast in a row where you encouraged us to start our own blog, I finally got the message. I started my very own “geneablog” a couple of weeks ago. I only have three posts so far, but I’m pretty proud of it. Please check it out and let me know what you think. I’d love you to let your listeners know too, because that would be even more feedback! I am writing my blog from the perspective of my relentless quest to better understand the life of one particular ancestor of mine, William Park. I call it “Knowing William” and it writing it really makes me happy.” Visit her blog at http://williamparkfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/
“I recently listened to episode 119 where you talked to Michael Katchen from 1000memories. I went to the site, signed up, and uploaded pics to my first shoe box. In the interview I remember words like “social networking”, “memorials”, and “genealogy”. I am confused. All I saw on the site was my shoe boxes and some not-very-informative FAQs. I know it has been a while, but have they changed the whole premise of the website in less than a year?”
Lisa’s Answer: Congrats on your new blog! Remember posts can be short and sweet, and pack them with searchable keywords so other researchers can find you in Google Search.
RE: 1000Memories. They have indeed changed up the website since the interview. I agree with you, it seems watered down now, and not as obvious as to how to make the most of it. They seem to be focused on “simplicity.”
Barbara Shares A New Use for Google Alerts
“My Great Grandfather, Edmund Charles Clark, was a builder in Bendigo, and many of his houses still stand in Wattle Street Bendigo today. I spent a lovely day photographing them, but I cannot go up and knock on all the doors however! So I have a cute way of finding out just what those houses look like today especially on the inside. I have an alert in Google for “Wattle Street, Bendigo” and it works a treat. Every so often one of the homes goes up for sale or rent, and one of the real estate websites has pictures of both inside and outside. These come up on my search and I get to see inside the homes that are still standing. One is up for rent at present and here are the pictures from Realestate.com.au of 172 Wattle Street. Isn’t it lovely? It is still much in original condition.
The Google alert function is really useful for genealogy, and I first found out about it from Genealogy Gems – so thank you very much for the gem.”
GEM: Maureen Taylor’s new gig – bringing revolutionary war history to film
Pamela Pacelli Cooper, President, Verissima Productions at www.verissima.com
Maureen Taylor, Author of The Last Muster
Revolutionary Voices: A Last Muster Film, Directed by Maureen Taylor with Verissima Productions
Visit Film Site: lastmusterfilm.com
New Gem for Premium Members!
Sign in to your Membership and go to Premium Videos to view the brand new video Genealogy on the Go with the iPad (and tablets too!)
The iPad is built for hitting the road and is ideally suited for family history due to its’ sleek lightweight size, gorgeous graphics and myriad of apps and tools. In this class I will teach you “the tablet mindset”, the best apps for the tasks that genealogists want to accomplish, and my Top 10 list of iPad Tips and Tricks. By the end of class you will be able to turn your iPad into a family history powerhouse!
Become a Premium Member Here
Check out this episode