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 GiantsFamilySearch 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.
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!
Lisa shares her experiences Down Under in Australia
Enjoy Lisa’s exclusive RootsTech 2018 interview with Findmypast CEO Tamsin Todd;
Military Minutes contributor Michael Strauss shines a spotlight on women who have served in the U.S. military;
Your DNA Guide Diahan Southard introduces the MyHeritage chromosome browser; and
Genealogy Gems Premium membership gets its biggest boost ever.
NEWS: ROOTSTECH 2018 RECAP
Click here to watch the short RootsTech 2018 official recap video.
NEWS: GENEALOGY GEMS PREMIUM eLEARNING
Update: The Companion Guidebook has been discontinued.
Lisa Louise Cooke uses and recommends RootsMagic family history software. From within RootsMagic, you can search historical records on FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com.
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more at https://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.
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MILITARY MINUTES: CELEBRATING WOMEN IN U.S. MILITARY HISTORY
Military Minutes with Michael Strauss
Click here to see the full article (and plenty of images!) on the Genealogy Gems website.
INTERVIEW: TAMSIN TODD AND BEN BENNETT, FINDMYPAST.COM
Findmypast.com is the Genealogy Giant best known for its deep, unparalleled historical record content for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Tamsin Todd is the Chief Executive Officer of Findmypast.com. She “has worked in the travel, retail and technology sectors, and brings with her a track record of leading successful growth businesses. She spent the early part of her career at Amazon and then Microsoft, where she led the introduction of ecommerce and search products into the UK and Europe. This was followed by stints as Head of Ecommerce at Betfair, and Managing Director of TUI-owned Crystal Ski Holidays. She joins Findmypast from Addison Lee, where she was Chief Customer Officer of Europe’s largest car service company. Tamsin lives in London with her family, and is Digital Trustee of the Imperial War Museums.”
Ben Bennett is Executive Vice President, North America and International at Findmypast.com, “focused on helping families stay connected in the United States and other markets across the globe.”
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YOUR DNA GUIDE: MYHERITAGE CHROMOSOME BROWSER
Just last year, if you had asked me if I thought anyone could catch AncestryDNA in their race to own the genetic genealogy market, I would have been skeptical. However, it is clear that MyHeritage intends to be a contender, and they are quickly ramping up their efforts to gain market share and your confidence.
MyHeritage began 2018 by making a much-needed change to their DNA matching algorithm, which had some errors in it. They were able to adjust it, and now it is humming right along, telling our second cousins from our fourth. Another development, launched in February, is the addition of a Chromosome Browser.
THE NEW MYHERITAGE DNA CHROMOSOME BROWSER
Much like you would browse the library shelves for the perfect book, or browse through the sale rack for a great bargain, you can use a Chromosome Browser to look through your chromosomes for the pieces of DNA you share with your genetic cousins.
Chromosome Browsers can be everything from a fun way to review your genetic genealogy results, to a tool to assist in determining how you are related to someone else. Let’s go over three tips to help you make use of this new tool.
NAVIGATING TO THE CHROMOSOME BROWSER
There are actually two different kinds of Chromosome Browsers in MyHeritage: one to view only the segments you share with one match (the One-to-One Browser), and a browser where you can see the segments shared with multiple matches (the One-to-Many Browser).
To get to the One-to-One Browser, head over to your match page and find a cousin for whom you would like to see your shared DNA segments. Click on Review DNA Match, then scroll down past all the individual match information, past the Shared Matches and Shared Ethnicities until you see the Chromosome Browser.
USING THE ONE-TO-MANY CHROMOSOME BROWSER
To find the One-to-Many Chromosome Browser, you can use the main DNA navigation menu at the top of the MyHeritage homepage. Click on DNA, then on Chromosome Browser, as shown below.
In the One-to-Many Chromosome Browser you can compare yourself, or any account you manage, to anyone else in your match page. To choose a match to evaluate, just click on their name and they will be added to the queue at the top, as shown here.
Clicking on Compare will then allow you to see the actual segments you share with each person:
In this One-To-Many view, each individual match gets their own line for each chromosome. Since we have added 7 people to the Chromosome Browser, there are seven lines next to each chromosome number. Each match not only gets their own line, but also their own color. So you can easily match up the lines on the chromosome to the match that shares that piece of DNA with you. For the majority of people the majority of the time, these Chromosome Browsers are just another fun way to visualize the connection you have with your DNA match. In the end, it doesn’t matter where you are sharing on the chromosome, just how much DNA you are sharing. You can obtain that information from your main match page and never look at this Chromosome Browser image, and still make fantastic genetic genealogy discoveries.
THE TRIANGULATION TOOL
Another feature of the Chromosome Browser on MyHeritage is the Triangulation tool. To understand how this works, you first need to understand that you actually have two copies of each chromosome. Two copies of chromosome 1, two copies of chromosome 2, etc. One copy is from mom, and the other from dad. However, in the Chromosome Browser image, you see only one line for yourself (in grey). Therefore, when you see someone matching you on chromosome 14, for example, you don’t know if that person is matching you on the chromosome 14 you got from your mom, or the chromosome 14 you got from your dad.
Likewise, if you see two people whose shared piece with you looks to be in the same location on the same chromosome, you can’t tell if they are both sharing on the same copy of that chromosome, or if one match is related to your dad’s family, and the other match is related to your mom’s family. However, this is what the Triangulation tool does for us. It tells us if two (or three or four, etc.) matches are sharing on the same copy of the same chromosome. Be careful when you use this tool, though. Many erroneously assume that when they see a segment shared between multiple people, that indicates the presence of a recent common ancestor for all of those people. However, that is not always the case.
Ready to start exploring what the MyHeritage DNA chromosome browser may tell you about your family history? You have two options. Click here to upload your autosomal DNA test results from another company to MyHeritage for FREE. Or click here to order a MyHeritage DNA test kit. Either way, you can start using all the great tools at MyHeritage DNA!
PROFILE AMERICA: FORD LAUNCHES ASSEMBLY LINE
Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Sunny Morton, Editor
Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor
Michael Strauss, Military Minutes Content Contributor
Hannah Fullerton, Production Assistant
Lacey Cooke, Service Manager
Disclosure: This page 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 this free podcast and blog!
New North American genealogy records online this week! Featured are U.S. military, passenger and yearbook records (including WWII film footage); regional collections for New England and Great Lakes; Congressional statutes; and over 63 million Mexican genealogy records...