I’ve always been interested in family history and joined Ancestry in 2009 with a free membership. Since then, interest in genealogy has boomed and the landscape of places to build trees, explore DNA and find sources has grown to what sometimes feels like an untamed wilderness. In a recent return to searching after a long hiatus I’ve found myself sorting through too many choices and struggling to decide what are the best sites.
Over the years after my initial research on Ancestry I researched off and on using regular search engines and at one point received a huge family tree put together by distant cousins on my mother’s side, so I kept adding info to my Ancestry tree.
Having finally decided to get into DNA testing, I ordered a test from Ancestry and bought a 6 month membership so I could work with the results. I quickly ran into some serious limitations and issues with Ancestry and slowly started finding my way to other sites and making comparisons. With Ancestry you can’t really put results for several people on one tree and they only have one test. So I’ve wound up with two tests from Ancestry and a Y DNA from another site and am putting results on two other sites that allow me to put the DNA info together on one tree.
I’m certainly not an expert and there’s lots of high level stuff relating to DNA that I have yet explore at all, but I feel like I’ve gotten familiar with some basics as far as working with tree building and adding DNA. I’m also not claiming to give you a comprehensive view as there are a number of such sites I’ve not dealt with at all but this does give you an overview of some ins and outs associated with some of the major ones. This is my personal take, based on my research needs and desires…
Issues with Ancestry
I wound up having several issues with Ancestry that have me putting my tree together on WikiTree (see below for more) with plans to make it the main repository for any info I gather. I’ll leave the Ancestry tree up and at some future point it’s possible I’ll copy any additional material there but I’m disenchanted enough to want my tree elsewhere.
Research is one issue. For me, the main reason to ever pay Ancestry is their huge database and the ability to do research. Without paying you can’t see anything much except what’s on your tree. But the database has become so complex and their efforts to give you a broad spectrum so out sized that I found I’d get hundreds of thousands or millions of results and 99%+ of it was crap.
For instance, more often than not I’d fill in name, years of birth and death, and two or three places the person lived and the results would give me people with names not even remotely similar, people in far flung places unrelated to the ones I named and people whose lives were as much as 150 years off. There are people who’ve provided guides to refining your search criteria in order to get more precise results but every version I’ve tried has led to no results at all.
After a few weeks I started running my searches on engines like Google and Bing and coming up with mother lodes of info that took only minutes to reach (some easy-to-find sources had a lot of info that took far longer to comb through but with results so good it was worth it) and frequently did not appear to have been picked up on by Ancestry. Sometimes I found documents containing all the deaths or all the land sales or all the gravestones from a particular place where multiple ancestral families lived over a hundred years. Sometimes I landed on other genealogy sites — including finding the first proof of my paternal 5x great grandparents (who they were and where they lived) because they were named in someone else’s will!
Then came my DNA results and for a while I worked on looking through the matches. The way it’s set up there isn’t much to do with that info on Ancestry other than individually get in touch with all the cousins and they produced such daunting numbers I didn’t really know where to begin. I’d heard about GEDmatch (more below) and wound up deciding to upload the DNA results there.
I also kept running into trees on WikiTree with good info and slowly began to realize it’s free and interested in well-documented trees. Which leads to another beef I have with Ancestry. Hints and searches routinely lead you to other people’s trees. Initially I was pleased to be able to copy info from an already-complete tree but soon I realized people are just throwing together trees without really checking and putting up obviously incorrect links to branches that don’t belong, parents who were born after their children, cousins who wind up listed as siblings, etc. I’ve wasted so much time filling in parts of the tree and then having to go back through and research the real tree; at this point I reject more hints from other people’s trees than I accept. More on WikiTree below.
The final nail in Ancestry’s coffin for me was deciding to get DNA tests for my parents. First, I really wanted Y DNA for my Dad, who’s the only living direct male descendant and Ancestry not only doesn’t offer one but doesn’t let you upload results from a Y DNA test taken elsewhere. Then I ordered a test for my mother and it turns out you have to set up a separate tree and although you can become a manager on the other tree and get the results to show up on your DNA page there’s no way within either tree to display your results and/or how you match. My mother’s test info went up easily on my GEDmatch account and then I was able to use the GEDmatch file to add it to WikiTree.
We each, of course, get a list of matches that shows one another as the top match with a probability of parent and child, but no way to confirm the match, make it show up as true on our trees, etc. I find that a ridiculous omission.
As mentioned, WikiTree is free, which for me is big. Other than searching through other people’s trees, they don’t provide a research database like Ancestry, but since I’m getting more from general internet searches anyway, the lack of a database doesn’t bother me.
To join, you have to sign up to be a volunteer, although I haven’t found that I’m called on to do anything so it hasn’t been a burden. WikiTree is anxious to make sure the trees are well-documented so you are asked to provide sources for everything. I have gotten away with some pretty vague sources (like, “she’s my mother I’ve always known when and where she was born” 🙂 ) so they’re not policing too closely and some of those incorrect trees (that are everywhere) have been copied there too but since the focus is on documentation, I find less in the way of errors and many members are either fairly vigilant about checking info they encounter or happy to receive a note pointing out an error.
You can also load as many GEDmatch DNA test numbers as you have and the family relationships show up. My mother and I are already in there and I’ll get the GEDmatch # for my dad’s test when it’s finished as well. They consider testing for at least 3 family members to be important so they’re well set up to have multiple family members all on one tree.
The volunteer community network is great and people are really good about answering questions, responding to comments you make on mutual family members, etc. So far I haven’t needed much help as I’m just copying info from my Ancestry tree to my WikiTree tree, but I’ve seen examples of the great helpfulness of members toward others; whatever help you need in putting your tree together, people will try to provide.
You don’t have to pay anything to be able to see whatever source material you attach and others in the family can see it all as well (depending on your privacy setting choices you may have to give some of them special status; if you leave it public, anyone can see). This is thrilling for me because I’ve become the main chronicler for the family and I have cousins who don’t belong to Ancestry so have limited views. Once I’ve completed copying to WikiTree, any of them can see it all.
As far as filling in info, their tree is pretty easy to use. They don’t offer as much in the way of suggestions based on what you’re typing but I often find Ancestry’s suggestions are just in my way so I haven’t missed it too much. The forms themselves are easy, and organize the tree just as well as Ancestry.
I landed on this site just because they have Y DNA and I happened upon a sale offering the best price I’d been able to turn up. You can do some tree work on their site but I find it so confusing and non-user friendly I just intend to get the raw dna file when the test is complete and use it elsewhere.
They also lose points for making it apparently impossible to follow along on the progress of your DNA test. Ancestry gets points here, because as soon as you buy one you can go to a time line that shows where you are in the process and then e-mail updates when they receive the test and then when they complete the results. It may be too early to tell whether I’ll get e-mails but I sure can’t find any place on the site to determine whether they’ve gotten the test back yet or are in process.
[Update: I did eventually click on the one link I hadn’t tried “Order History” and discovered there’s sort of a time line there. Right now it’s been stuck showing the test as “received” with the date “pending”. Not sure how you can receive something and not have a definitive date for that and there’s no explanation. But you can try to follow along on the progress.]
You can upload a gedcom file but the tree shows up as a one inch wide column in the middle of an otherwise empty page. Their instructions for how to accomplish tree building made no sense to me and you don’t seem to be able to do much with the gedcom file after you upload it — particularly when you can only see an inch-wide swath of it.
I gathered they’re connected somehow to Family Search though the DNA portion of things is also (or instead?) somehow connected to National Geographic. Family Search is the Church of Latter Day Saints family tree site. The FamilyTreeDNA site is some sort of Beta so possibly will improve.
I did join Family Search some years ago but I don’t find it adds anything helpful enough to what I can do on Ancestry or WikiTree to take the time to build my tree there (looks promising if you don’t already have a tree and want a good place to start) and, mysteriously, there seems to be no way to connect an already-existing Family Search account to the FamilyTreeDNA account. I really have no reason to want to build a site from scratch again… Because of their connection to the Mormon records Family Search is a good place to do research.
My plan is to download the raw DNA file once completed, put it up on GEDmatch so it gets one of their #’s and then add it to WikiTree. I doubt I’ll have anything to do with the Family DNA site after that except to potentially take a gander at matches.
GEDmatch is not really a site for trees per se. It’s more about DNA data and has lots of tests available you can run your DNA through to figure out nuances of ethnicity, etc. They also match DNA and, since people can upload tests from multiple sites, you can get matched to family members whose trees are on different sites than yours.
You can upload a gedcom file here and that will show up as your tree. If you upload one, matches will also show some info based on trees you and your matches have both uploaded. I have yet to do more than upload the two completed DNA tests, look at my mind-bogglingly long list of matches and run my DNA through some of the tests.
If you want DNA results on WikiTree, the easiest way is to upload your results on GEDmatch, which assigns a number, and then input the number on WikiTree.
I think this site is worth joining if you’re into DNA because of the ability to compare tests from lots of genealogy sites, the many tests you can run and the ability to upload multiple family members to the same account. They even have a match deal for which you can input two of your family member’s DNA tests and see the list of folks both match.
Because it’s free their server has limits so they do log you out after very few minutes of inactivity — you wind up logging back in a lot. It’s the one annoyance — but in exchange for free I don’t find it that bad 🙂 [You can pay in order to have access to running even more tests and a bit more info, but it’s mostly free]
I actually think I joined Geni before Ancestry and then was enticed away by Ancestry’s free trial; once I had more stuff on Ancestry through their database, I didn’t go back. They are now a collaborative tree site but I don’t remember that they were then.
I landed back on my tree there when a Geni listing showed up in a search and I was somehow logged into the site when I got there. Because of the collaborative piece, other people can make connections on your tree and add whole branches. If you put a name in for someone who’s been hooked to your tree, a chain of connections shows up at the top when you’re logged in, showing how you connect to this person.
At first I was excited when I saw a chain to the subject of my search but quickly realized there’s a huge downside. The “curators” who add these branches are volunteers and not necessarily trained. Lots of tree information on the site is full of the same mistakes people are making on their trees in other places and the curators often don’t seem to look closely enough at whether it makes sense or is correct before adding it to all the trees they think should link.
The big problem is, once a curator has added a branch to your tree that doesn’t belong there, you can’t personally change it. Your only recourse is to go into this page in a forum and ask one of the curators to fix it.
Eventually I came to dread arriving at a search page and seeing one of their chains to me at the top because it means someone has already added it to my tree and it’s been an incorrect addition more often than not. While the collaborative idea sounds great in theory, I’m not finding it works out so great in practice because too many people have copied flawed trees from other sites and too many curators pick those up unknowingly.
A lot depends on what your goals are in building a family tree. If you only want a tree and don’t care about adding DNA info, you probably want to visit a few different sites, join on the free membership and try out their tree building software with just a few entries of immediate family.
I find in general with software that what’s intuitive and easy for one person can be incomprehensible to another and you want to work with software that feels usable to you. There are some pretty big differences in how the software works, so be sure you sample at least a few and see which seems easiest to use while accomplishing what you want.
If you want to work with DNA on your tree, there’s kind of an odd twist to it. Most (possibly all but I haven’t checked everywhere) of the sites that sell the tests are not set up to have multiple samples all on the same tree and/or do only one or two types of analysis and many sites only sell one kind of test.
If you want one of those all-important Y DNA tests, for example, you only have a few choices and none of them are from sites that also have major tree software and/or a database of materials. You will probably have to do as I have done and buy tests from different places (all of whom seem to require you to register as a member) and then download the raw data files and upload them to WikiTree and/or GEDmatch.
If you want a big searchable database, Ancestry is probably your best bet but, as I said, unless you want to have to study up on how to get decent results off their very oddly set up search system, you may be able to get better info from general internet searches*. One nice thing about using search engines has been that they give me results from any of the genealogy sites as well as city, county and state archives and miscellaneous web publications.
As the field of possibilities has grown, the array you face is bewildering and you have to make some decisions about what you want to accomplish. If you’re just starting, take a good look at the possible sites for placing your tree and also check out family tree software you can buy so that you have your own copy — some of them can be linked to on-line trees.
If you’ve already started and now you want to get into DNA you may have to do what I’ve done and juggle around to different places and switch over to a site like WikiTree that lets you work with DNA from family members more readily.
It will really help in the long run if you give serious thought to what you want to achieve with your tree before you commit. Even if you don’t plan to work with DNA now, do a little research about it so you can be sure you won’t want to add it in the future – once you’ve chosen a site with limits to what you can do with DNA it’s a time-consuming slog to have to move your tree.
*I have a friend who has more success than I do with searches there and disagrees with me, so you may find it works out differently for you.