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!
Recently we heard from Julie who listens to the podcast overseas. She is weighing the pros and cons of having her online family tree be private or public. Public trees can be searched and viewed by the general public and/or other members of that particular website. Private trees are just that. They are generally only searchable and viewable by individuals who have been invited to see them by the owner.
Julie shares some great observations about what it’s like to work with other tree owners and how it feels when information is freely taken from her–but there is no sharing in return.
On working with other people’s public trees:
“If it wasn’t for [other people’s] trees being public–even the ones with sketchy information–I would not have made contact with distant cousins or made many of the discoveries I have. Some of the dodgy information has helped me to improve my search and analytical skills and I always contact the owner if I have found something that doesn’t ring true (hopefully diplomatically!). Most of the time the tree owners are grateful and we then exchange more information.
When information is copied from my tree I will often contact the person to see how we are related and to see if we might be able to collaborate some more. (I don’t post everything I have on my online databases.) If I get no response it does leave me feeling uncomfortable (especially when it is photos) about having posted the info and it being taken without any communication. I do also contact tree owners when I copy photos or documents, even if it is just to say thank you. Maybe it is because photos are that much more personal.”
On working with private tree owners:
“I find it even more frustrating when someone with a private tree copies things from my public tree without making any contact. This is then exacerbated if I contact them and they don’t respond. Maybe I’m being unreasonable – or maybe I’m missing something. It comes across to me that they are willing to take but not that willing to share. One person I did contact who responded very kindly shared some information with me but was very blunt about the fact they did not want to see any of the information they provided on the internet, yet they had happily taken some of the documents/photo’s I had posted. I found that interesting.”
So…private or public?
“I am now feeling unsure about which is the best way to go as I can see pros and cons about both. In the meantime I have stopped adding media to my online tree, and I’m considering removing some of what I have posted and instead include a note saying if you want the document/photo please contact me. However, I am not convinced about this as I love it when I find photos/documents on other trees.”
Family Tree Etiquette:
I do wish for a more communal genealogy world, in which information is shared freely and all branches of a family tree intertwine themselves in love. Of course that’s not how things are. But I feel like every person who “puts things out there” brings us closer to that ideal.
That said, I admit I’ve copied photos and documents from other people’s trees in the past without contacting them. I didn’t mean to be rude. It just didn’t occur to me to contact them, especially if they clearly weren’t closely related and I had no immediate questions about their sources. But you’re right. Photos feel more personal. In the future I hope I will always remember to send a “thank you” message whenever I snag someone’s images for my tree.
I appreciate Julie’s compromise: she keeps a public presence but encourages others to be respectful and communicative by telling them to contact her for images. You’d likely have to look closely at her tree to find those messages from her, which will reward the most intrepid researchers. Beginning or more casual researchers might miss her invitation and therefore an opportunity to collaborate.
For everyone, whether to post a private v. public tree comes down to our priorities. Do we most want to meet distant relatives? Collaborate with other branches of the family to learn the most possible about our shared past? If so, public trees are the way to go. If personal or family privacy is paramount (especially if your tree holds family secrets that aren’t ready to share), or the research is still very tentative, make it a private tree.
You may even split things up: have public trees when you’re reaching out to others and private ones when you’re not. Lisa says if she had to do it all over again, she would not upload her entire tree but just the “trunk,” or her direct-line ancestors. (Lisa always keeps her master tree on her home computer, not in online genealogy databases over which she has no control.)
Whether your own trees are public or private, Julie’s thoughts are a good reminder about using our best manners when communicating with other tree owners. Here at Genealogy Gems, we do believe in the value of collaborating on your genealogy. In fact, we ran a series of posts on how to collaborate. Check out the first one here! And we have a brand new free video on using the free program Evernote to share your sources.
Do you ever find yourself scratching your head about which of many local place names to record for a family event? A question on this comes in from podcast listener Joanne K.:
“On FamilySearch I found birth and marriage records of a direct ancestor, then other ancestors and potentials. The records show they were christened or married in Gossersweiler, Bayern. I subsequently obtained a New York marriage record of the direct ancestors wherein both husband and wife list their place of birth as Volkersweiler, Bayern. A search shows this is ½ mile from Gossersweiler. I assume Gossersweiler is the parish church for the village of Volkersweiler. So therefore, for these two people, I can record Volkersweiler as the place of birth and Gossersweiler as the place of baptism, correct?
My bigger question is, what do I record as the place of birth for all the other family members I have found? Can I show a place of birth if all I have is a christening record or marriage record from Gossersweiler? I believe I would find that they were mostly born in Volkersweiler but know I can’t record this as a fact. I also have no wish at this time to get documents from Germany for all these family members.”
Joanne, I can’t speak to whether Gossersweiler is where the folks from Volkersweiler went to church: you’d have to ask a German expert. But you got the basics right: record each event separately as you found it. For the couple, this means the birthplace in Volkersweiler and the christening and marriage in Gossersweiler. For the other relatives, you don’t have residence information yet–just christening and marriages in Gossersweiler. Enter those specific events and let the data stand alone. That way, in the future when you–or someone following in your footsteps–return to research these other relatives in more depth, you’ll know exactly what is what. It doesn’t hurt to enter your guess on the birthplaces (and why) in notes in individual records. That can provide additional clues to future research without confusing anyone.
Not sure you’re using the right place names on your family tree? It can be tricky to determine local place names when there’s a village and a parish or other overlapping jurisdictions. Check out this post to learn about a great online tool for determining standardized place names.
Genealogy industry giants MyHeritage and FamilySearch have just announced a strategic partnership that promises to be a win-win for genealogists everywhere. It looks like FamilySearch’s billions of historical records will get a searchability boost with MyHeritage search technologies and users of both sites will have access to the results.
According to MyHeritage’s press release, “MyHeritage will receive more than 2 billion global historical records from FamilySearch, spanning hundreds of years. Collections include vital records (censuses, births, marriages and deaths) as well as hundreds of other collections from many countries.
Over the next few months, we will add this important content to SuperSearch and unleash MyHeritage technologies – such as Smart Matches and Record Matches – on the new content. This will bring significant new opportunities for MyHeritage users to grow their family trees and enrich their family history.”
FamilySearch users get something great out of this, too. “FamilySearch members will benefit from MyHeritage’s unique technologies which automate family history discoveries,” says the FamilySearch press release. “Smart Matching™ automatically finds connections between user-contributed family trees and Record Matching automatically locates historical records relevant to any person in the family tree. By receiving accurate matches between FamilySearch’s Family Tree profiles and historical record collections, such as birth, death, census, and immigration documents, FamilySearch members will be able to more effectively grow their family trees in size and in depth and add conclusions supported by historical records.” This technology is slated to be applied in 2014.
Got questions? Check out MyHeritage’s official blog post and FAQ regarding the partnership.