In this post I’m going to answer common questions about the best strategy for creating and maintaining your family tree data.
Should I build my family tree online?
This is a question I get in various forms quite often from Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners. But there’s really more to this question than meets the eye. Today’s family historian needs a master game plan for how they will not only build their family tree, but where they will build it, and where they will share it.
On the podcast I describe it this way:
Plant your tree in your own backyard and share branches online.
I’m going to explain what I mean by this by starting at the beginning.
When You Start Your Family Tree
If you’re new to researching your family’s history, you probably started out with one of the big genealogy websites, such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, or FamilySearch. I refer to them as the Genealogy Giants because they have millions of genealogical records, and they offer you the tools to build your family tree on their website. (Learn more about what each of the Genealogy Giants websites have to offer here in this handy comparison guide.)
These sites make it easy to start entering information about yourself, your parents, and your grandparents either on their website or through their mobile app. But should you do that?
My answer is, “not so fast!” Let’s think through the long-term game plan for this important information that is your family’s legacy.
Family is Forever
Genealogy is a hobby that lasts a lifetime. It’s nearly impossible to run out of ancestors or stories to explore.
But have you noticed that websites don’t last forever? And even if they do, their services and tools will undoubtedly change over time.
And there are many, many genealogy websites out there. A large number of them will encourage you or even require you to start creating an online family tree on their site in order to get the most value from the tools that they offer for your research.
As you work with these different genealogy websites, you may start to feel like your tree is getting scattered across the web. It’s easy to find yourself with different versions of your tree, unsure of which one is the most accurate and complete version.
It’s this inevitable situation that leads to my conclusion that you build and protect a master version of your family tree. I’m not suggesting that you can’t or shouldn’t use an online tree. In fact, regardless of whether you do, you need a “Master Family Tree.”
Plant Your “Master Family Tree” in Your Own Backyard
What do I mean when I say that you should plant your “master family tree” in your own backyard? I’m talking about using a genealogy database software program that resides on your own computer. Let’s explore that further.
A master family tree has three important characteristics:
- It is owned and controlled by you.
- It is the final say on what you currently know about your family tree.
- It is protected with online backup to ensure it is safe.
1. Your master family tree is owned and controlled by you.
If you create an online family tree on a genealogy website (or in the case of FamilySearch’s global online tree, you add your information to it) you have given final control of that information to the company who owns the website.
In order to own and control your tree, you will need a genealogy database software program installed on your own computer. I use RootsMagic (and I’m proud to have them as a sponsor of the Genealogy Gems Podcast) but there are other programs as well.
A genealogy database software program is installed on your computer. The program and the data you enter into it belongs to you and is under your personal control.
Genealogy databases allow you to not only easily enter data, but also to export it. If you wish to use a different program later, or add your existing data to an online tree, you can export your family tree data as a universally accepted GEDCOM file. (Learn more about GEDCOM files in this article.)
2. It is the final say on what you currently know about your family tree.
As you research your family tree, you will come to important conclusions, such as an ancestor’s birthdate or the village in which they were born. It can take a while to prove your findings are accurate, but once you do, you need one location in which to keep those findings. And most importantly, you must be able to cite the sources for that information. That one location for all this activity is your genealogy database.
However, the nature of genealogy research is that it can take some digging to prove the information is correct. During the process of that research you may find information that you aren’t sure about, and it can be helpful to attach it to the online tree that you have at the same website where you found the information. That gives you a way to hang on to it and keep researching. You can always remove it later. We’ll talk more about strategies for using online family trees a little bit later.
Once you are convinced that the information is correct, then its final resting place is your Master Family Tree. You enter the information and add source citations. This way, whenever you need an accurate view of where you are in your completed family tree research, you can turn to one location: your genealogy database software and the Master Family Tree it contains.
3. It’s protected with online backup to ensure it is safe.
Your family tree isn’t safe unless the database file is backed up to the cloud.
Who among us hasn’t had a computer malfunction or die?
It isn’t good enough to simply back up your computer files to an external hard drive, because that external hard drive is still in your house. If your house is damaged or burglarized, chances are both will be affected.
Another problem with backing up to an external hard drive is that they can malfunction and break. And of course, there is the problem of remembering to back it up on a regular basis.
Cloud backup solves all these problems by backing up your files automatically and storing them safely in an offsite location.
Cloud backup is actually very simple to install and requires no work on your part once it’s up and running. (We’ve got an article here that will walk you through the process.)
There are many cloud backup services available. I use Backblaze (which you can learn more about here). As a genealogist I have a checklist of features that are important to me, and Backblaze checked all the boxes.
Regardless of which service you choose the important thing is to not wait another day to set it up. This protection is a critical part of your Master Family Tree plan.
Using Online Family Trees
Now that you have your own database on your own computer that is backed up to the cloud for protection, let’s talk about strategic ways that you can use online family trees.
First, it’s important to realize that you don’t have to create a tree on a genealogy website just because they prompt you to do so. While there are benefits for you to doing so, the company who owns that website actually benefits tremendously as well.
In today’s world, data is very valuable. I encourage you to read the terms of service and other fine print (I know, it’s boring!) because it will explain the ownership and potential use of that data.
While it’s not the focus of this article, it’s important to understand that other industries are interested in family history data, and data may be shared or sold (with or without identifying information, depending on the terms).
But as I say, there are benefits to using online family trees. These benefits include:
- Hints – Online family trees generate research hints on the Genealogy Giants websites and some of the other websites that offer trees.
- Cousin Connection – Online family trees offer you an opportunity to possibly connect with other relatives who find your tree.
- DNA – Online family trees can now dovetail with your DNA test results (if you took a test with the company where your tree resides). This can offer you additional research avenues.
These benefits can be helpful indeed. However, problems can arise too. They include:
- Copying – When you tree is public other users of the website can copy and redistribute your information including family photos.
- Errors – If you discover an error in your tree, you may fix it, but chances are it has already been widely copied and distributed by other users.
- Email – If you have your entire tree online and your email notifications are active, you may receive an onslaught of hints for people in your tree. Often these are very distant cousins that you are not actively researching. And let’s face it, the emails can be annoying and distract your focus from your targeted research. For example, as of this writing at Ancestry.com you can’t select which ancestors you want to receive email hint notifications for. You can only select hints for the entire tree.
So, let’s review my strategy:
Plant your tree in your own backyard and share branches online.
Now that you’ve planted your tree in your own backed up software, let’s explore the ways in which you can share branches online.
Targeted Online Family Trees
Many people don’t realize that you don’t have to add your entire tree to a website. You can just add parts of your tree.
For example, I may just put my direct ancestors in my tree (grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth). This can still be a fairly larger number of people. I may want to include their siblings because they grew up in the same household. But I can leave out the far-reaching branches and relatives that really don’t have a direct impact on that line of research.
You can also have multiple trees that focus on specific areas of your research that are important to you.
Exploratory Online Family Trees
Some genealogists also create trees that represent a working theory that they have. This type of tree can help expose where the problems or inaccuracies lie. As you research the theory and as hints arise it can become very clear that a relationship does not exist after all.
An exploratory tree is an excellent reminder that we can’t and shouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s intent or purpose with their online tree. I’ve heard from many people who are angry about inaccuracies they find in other people’s trees. But we can’t know their purpose, and therefore, it really isn’t our place to judge.
However, it is a fair argument that a good practice would be to clearly mark these exploratory trees accordingly to deter other users from blindly copying and replicating the inaccurate information. An easy way to do this is in the title or name of the tree. For example, a tree could be titled “Jonas Smith Tree UNPROVEN”.
Creating multiple, limited trees can be an effective strategy for conducting targeted online research that only generates hints and connections for those ancestors that you are interested in at the current time.
And remember, you can remove any of your trees at any time. For example, you can delete an exploratory tree that has served its purpose and helped you prove or disprove a relationship.
Plan Now for Success
A family tree can seem like a simple thing, but as you can see there’s more to it than meets the eye. A bit of planning now can ensure that your family tree stays healthy and growing.
About the Author
Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.
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!
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 27
Original air date: 10/1/20
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
What is Google Lens?
Google Lens is a free technology that Google says helps you ”search what you see.” It uses the latest in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and artificial intelligence to accomplish tasks.
In this video and article we’ll discuss where you can get Google Lens and how to use it for a wide variety of tasks.
Hang on tight to your phone and let’s jump in!
Google Lens is in Google Photos
Google Lens is doing much of the work in Google Photos. It can detect the faces in your photos, and allow you to search by face. It can also detect objects and text, making it a super fast way to search the photos and images you store in Google Photos.
If you’re not interested in storing all of your photos on Google Photos, that’s OK. As a genealogist, you could still use it for more strategic purposes. You could use it just for family history photos and related genealogical images like documents and photos of tombstones. All of the content you add can then be quickly and easily searched for and found. It can even help you identify a known ancestor in other photos where you may not have recognized it was the same person.
We will talk about specific ways to use Google Lens in Google Photos. But first, let’s talk about all of the ways you can get your hands on Google Lens.
Where can I find Google Lens on my phone or tablet?
Google Lens is available on most mobile devices but not all. Some Samsung devices don’t currently support it. Here’s where you can find Google Lens.
Google Lens is built into Google Photos – Download the Google Photos app to your phone. Pull up one of your photos and look for the Lens icon at the bottom of the screen. If it is there, your phone supports Google Lens.
Google Lens in the Google Search app – You will see the Lens icon in the search bar if your phone supports Google Lens.
The Google Lens app – On Android devices look for the Google Lens app in the Google Play app store.
Where can I find Google Lens on my computer?
Google Lens is primarily a mobile tool although Google Lens is built into the functionality of Google Photos. (It works behind the scenes – you won’t find a Google Lens icon.)
However, you can use your phone to user Google Lens to capture text and then send it to the Chrome browser on your desktop computer.
Using Lens in the Google Photos App
To use Google Lens on your photos in the Google Photos app, you’ll first need to give the app permission to receive the photos you take with your phone. You can then open the Google Photos app and select a photo. In this episode I used the example of a potted plant (Image A below).
Tap the Google Lens icon at the bottom of the screen and you will receive search results that include the name of the plant, photo examples of the same plant, possible shopping options, and web pages providing more information about that plant.
Here’s another way you can use the Google Lens feature in the Google Photos app:
- Take a photo of a business card. (I used Google’s PhotoScan app to do this. The app does a great job of removing glare and other distortions that can occur when you photograph something with your phone. You can download the free Google PhotoScan app from your device’s app store.)
- Access the photo in the Google Photos app.
- Tap the Google Lens icon.
- Lens turns the information on the card into actionable buttons:
- Add to contacts
- Call now
- search on the web
- go to the website
Google Lens is in the Google Search app
On many mobile devices such as the iPhone (but not all devices) the Google Lens icon will appear in the search bar. If you’re not sure if you already have the Google Search app on your phone, go to the app store app on your phone and search for “Google Search.” You will see the app listed with a button that either says “Open” (because it is already on your phone) or “Install” (because it is not yet on your phone.)
You can also check to see if they app is on your phone by searching for “Google Search” in the search bar of your phone.
Here’s what the Google Search app looks like on a phone (Image B below):
The Google Lens App
If you have an Android phone, search the Google Play store for the Google Lens app. Here’s what the app looks like (Image C below):
What Google Lens Can Do
Once you start using Google Lens the possibilities for its use can seem endless. Here’s a list of the kinds of things Google Lens can do:
- Identify Objects
- Copy Text from printed materials or objects
- Search for Text on printed material or objects
- Solve math problems
- Read text to you
- Translate text
How to Use Google Lens to Read a Book
Before you buy that next history book or go through the trouble of requesting it through inter-library loan, why not let Google Lens determine if it is already available for free online? This next tip works really well for old books that are likely to be in the public domain or printed before 1924.
- Open the book to the title page
- Open the Google Search app on your phone
- Tap the Google Lens icon
- Hold your phone over the title page
- Tap the search button
- If the book is available on Google Books, the title will appear along with a blue “Read” button
- Tap the “Read” button to access, read and search the book on Google Books for free!
Open the camera on your phone and point it at the QR code above (Image D) to be taken to the book in the Genealogy Gems store.
Use coupon code LENS to get 20% off!
Premium Video & Handout: Solving Unidentified Photo Album Cases. (This video features using Google Photos.)
Book: The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke. (Includes search strategies, Google Photos, and Google Translate.)
Bonus Download exclusively for Premium Members: Download the show notes handout
Answers to Your Live Chat Questions
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Rosalyn: Lisa are the old photos hanging on your wall the originals or copies? They are very nice.
Lisa’s Answer: I always put copies in frames when I hang them on the wall because light can fade originals. They are all my family.
From Jn Rollins: Does it do the same identification for birds?
Lisa’s Answer: I haven’t snapped a photo of a bird, but I’m sure it could. I used it on a photo of a bird, and it identified it perfectly.
From Susan: I have to download an app to get the lens icon?
Lisa’s Answer: If you have an Android phone, you may be able to download the free Google Lens app from your app store. Otherwise, you will find the icon in the Google Search app or the Google Photos app on supported devices.
From Patriva: Is Google Go the same as Google Search?
Lisa’s Answer: Google Go is a “lighter faster” search app. I think it may be geared more toward Samsung devices. I have a Samsung Tab and it doesn’t support Google Lens.
From Carrie: Does this work with the Google Chrome app?
Lisa’s Answer: The Chrome app doesn’t have the Google Lens icon.
From Jn Rollins: I installed Lens a while ago on my Android phone, but when I open Google search the lens icon doesn’t appear next to the microphone icon. How can I change that?
Lisa’s Answer: Some Android devices (like Samsung phones) don’t support Google Lens so you won’t see the icon. Check the app store to see if they offer the Google Lens app for your phone. However, I’m guessing it probably won’t be offered since it sounds like your phone doesn’t support Google Lens.
From Christine: I love this technology for speeding up research! But I have some reservations—what privacy are we giving away? How will Google use our search history?
Lisa’s Answer: I would not use Google Lens for anything I consider “sensitive.” Go to the privacy settings in your Google MyActivity to learn more.
From Lynnette: Can you put the text into Evernote easily?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely! Tap to copy the detected text, open an Evernote note, press your finger in the note and tap Paste to paste the text.
From Colleen: I see you are google searching. Does doing this with photos allow others to access my google photos when searching for an item? For example, the example you used with the purse?
Lisa’s Answer: To the best of my knowledge your photos are not searchable by others online. However, it is possible that Google uses the image internally to “train” the machine learning. Go to the privacy settings in your Google MyActivity to learn more.
From Christine: Lisa, can this be used to compare photos to determine if they are the same person? Thanks for sharing all your wisdom!
Lisa’s Answer: Yes! Watch my Premium membership video called Solving Unidentified Photo Album Cases.
From Caryl: Don’t know what a symbol is on a headstone? Now this would be oh so helpful!!
Lisa’s Answer: Yes, indeed!
From Susan: I quickly took a photo of the book cover, so now I can get your book! Is it better to buy directly from you or go to Amazon?
Lisa’s Answer: The book is available exclusively at my website: https://www.shopgenealogygems.com
From Debbie: Will FamilySearch’s app be independent, or will it work / integrate with Google?
Lisa’s Answer: FamilySearch would not be integrated. However, as handwriting technology is developed I’m sure you’ll find it in use in both places.
Please Leave a Comment or Question
I really want to hear from you. Did you enjoy this episode? Do you have a question? Please leave a comment on the video page at YouTube or call and leave a voice mail at (925) 272-4021 and I just may answer it on the show!
If you enjoyed this show and learned something new, will you please share it with your friends? Thank you for your support!
Google offers a variety of ways to help you find and search for images. In fact, there are so many different ways it can get a little confusing. In this video and article I’m going to show you how to find images and photographs that apply to your family history. Who knows, we may even find an ancestor’s photo. I’m also going to show you how you can use Google Images to even help identify some of the images and photos you have in your family scrapbooks. These are my best image search strategies and they come my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 49 Show Notes
Follow along in the show notes below. The step-by-step instructions are available in an ad-free show notes cheat sheet which is downloadable in the Resources section at the end of these show notes. (Premium Membership required.)
How to Find Photos and Images with Google Images
When it comes to searching for images, part of the confusion comes from the fact that the search experience on desktop and mobile are a bit different. So, let’s start with running a basic image search on computer desktop. There are actually two ways to do that.
#1 Google search for images at Google.com on desktop:
- Go to Google.com
- Run a search
- Click Image results
#2 Search for images at Google Images on desktop:
- Go to https://images.google.com or go to Google.com and click Images in the top right corner (Image 1)
- Run a text search: Example: John Herring
- Images results will be presented
If I’m in a hurry, I’ll usually just search from Google.com because I’m probably over there anyway. But if I really want to find the best image, or I expect to do some digging, I go directly to Google Images.
How to Get the Best Google Images Results
Searching for a name is fine, but chances are there are and have been many people with that name. You’ll need to narrow things down and provide Google with more specific information about what you want.
There are a several excellent ways to refine and dramatically improve your results. The best place to start is by using a few powerful search operators.
The first search operator is quotation marks. By putting quotation marks around a word or a phrase you are telling Google that it must:
- Be included in each search result,
- Be spelled the way you spelled it,
- And in the case of a phrase, the words must appear in the order you typed them.
You can also use an asterisk to hold the spot for a middle initial or middle name. This is important because without it, Google may pass over these since the name was presented in quotation marks which means its to be searched exactly as typed.
Notice in the following screen shot how this refined search appears. The search operators have made quite an improvement in the image results. I’ve located four photos of my great grandfather! (Image 2)
Google might restrict how many images it shows you. Click See more anyway at the bottom of the screen to reveal all the results. (Image 3)
You may need to scroll down to see even more results. Click an image to preview it. (Image 4)
Click the enlarged preview image again to visit the website where it is hosted. I’ve got my fingers crossed that since this website is hosting a photograph of my ancestors, it just might have more. And indeed, it does – genealogy happy dance! (Image 5)
How to Narrow Down an Image Search to Old Photos
One of the ways you can zero in on old photos is by filtering down to only Black and White images. This makes sense because most of our older family photos are black and white.
On the Google Images search results page click the Tools button. This will cause a secondary menu to drop down. Click the Any Color menu and select Black and White. (Image 6)
Now all of your image results will be black and white. It’s easy to tell that most of these are older photos. (Image 7)
Permission to Use Images Found with Google Images
If you want to use any of the photos you find, you’ll need to ensure that you have permission to do so. Start with the FAQ at Google Search Help. This page will help guide you through issues like Fair Use and how usage rights work. In the end, the best thing to do when in doubt is to contact the person who posted the photo and explore any requirements they may have regarding use of the image.
How to Use Google Images to Identify Images and Photos
Do you have unidentified photographs, old postcards or other images in your family scrapbooks or photo albums? Google Images just might be able to help!
Start by first digitizing the image (I use a flatbed scanner) and saving it to your computer hard drive. Then head to Google Images on your computer and click the camera icon in the search field. This will give you two options:
- Paste URL (we’ll get to that in just a bit)
- Upload an image (this is the one you want – click it)
Click Choose File and grab the photo you saved to your computer. Google Images will search the Web for that image. It may find an exact copy, or it may deliver visually similar images.
Notice on the Google Images search results page that Google has added keywords to the search field at the top of the page. You’ll also see a tiny version of the image you searched. The keywords may be rather generic such as gentleman, family, etc. Try replacing these words with more specific words about the photos and what you are looking for. For example, you could replace the word gentleman with your ancestor’s name in quotation marks, or replace the word family with the family surname and the town where they lived. Experiment and try different variations to see what provides the best results.
How to Upload an Image to Google Image Search (Reverse Search):
- Digitize the image and save it to your computer.
- On your computer, go to https://images.google.com or google Google Images.
- Click the camera icon in the search field.
- Navigate to and select the digitized photo you saved to your computer.
- Google will attempt to find that exact image. If not the closest visually. You will see words in the search field along with your photo. These words describe what Google AI noted about the photo. For example, when I upload a photo of Margaret Scully sitting in her rocking chair, Google note “sitting” and delivered old photo of people sitting. When I upload a photo of the John Herring family Google notes “family” and provides old photos of family groups. Neither Margaret nor the Herrings are well-known, so this isn’t a surprise. If I upload a postcard from an ancestor’s scrapbook of a well-known or famous location, Google will likely find additional copies on the web and provide background information on the location and a website address for it if there is one.
- You can revise this search by replacing the words that Google noted (i.e. family) with the person’s name of the surname. In the case of the John Herring group photo, I replaced family with Herring and then John Herring.
Remember the option to Paste URL? Use this when you find a photo on a website, (or if you have posted a photo on your own website or blog) and you want to find more like it. Right-click (PC – or Control Click on a Mac) on the image and Copy Image Address. Next, head back to Google Images, click the camera icon and paste the URL. Google will use that image to run your image search.
How to Search an Online Photo with Google Images (Reverse Search):
- Right-click on a PC (Control Click on a Mac) on the image on the web page.
- In the pop-up menu select Copy Image Address.
- Go to Google Images.
- Click the camera icon in the search field.
- Paste the image URL that you copied to your computer clipboard (on a PC use Control V on your keyboard.)
- Click the Search by Image button to run your search.
Searching with your own image or an image you find online can help you discover many more website that have the visual content you need. In this episode I searched using an Elevenses with Lisa viewer’s old photo and revised the search with the name of the town. This resulted in a wonderful assortment of websites to look at that also hosted photos from the same town and timeframe.
The initial Google Image results added the keyword gentleman to the search field. But you can see by the visually similar images it found that it was able to target photos that included more similarities than just gentleman. These photos also matched in other important ways (Image 8):
- Multiple People
- White dress
- Old photo
Who might have photos online of your family? Here’s just a short list of possibilities:
- Historical Societies
- Genealogy Websites
- Social Media
How to Use Google Image Search on Mobile
The Google Images camera icon allows you to conduct reverse image searches. However, whether you use a browser app like Safari or Chrome to go to Google Images or you use the Google search app, you won’t find the Google Images camera icon in the search field. Google Images is different on mobile than it is on computer desktop. The main difference is that there is no camera icon for uploading images to search. However, there’s a little secret for getting around that problem.
On an iPhone / iPad you can switch your settings for the Safari app so that it behaves more like a desktop computer. And for our purposes, that means getting the camera icon in Google Images.
How to Search Your Own Image Using Google Images on an iPhone or iPad
- Open the Settings app
- Scroll down and tap the Safari app
- Scroll down and tap Request Desktop Website
- Tap the slide to activate All Websites
- Close the Settings app
- Open Safari
- Go to Google.com – if you’re signed into your account you can tap the apps icon (9 dots) and open Images or just google Google Images
- Now you have the camera icon in your search bar ready to reverse search images!
How to Reverse Search a Web Image on an iPhone or iPad (Reverse Search Images)
- When you find a photograph on a website in Safari, press and hold the image
- Tap Copy
- Go to Google Images (after changing your settings to Desktop Website)
- Tap the camera icon
- In the Paste URL field press and hold and tap Paste
- The web image URL will appear in the search field.
- Tap the Search by Image button to run your search.
How to Reverse Search an Image on Android:
- Open the Chrome browser app.
- Go to google.com.
- Tap the three dots at the top right to open the menu.
- Tap to check the box for Desktop Site.
- The Google Images page will refresh and you will now have the camera icon ready to run reverse image searches.
How to Reverse Search a Web Image on Android (Reverse Search Images)
- In the Chrome browser, go to the web page hosting the image.
- Tap and hold on the image until the menu pops up.
- Tap on Search Google For This Image.
- You’ll be taken to Google Image results for that image.
- Watch past free episodes of Elevenses with Lisa
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