Genealogy owes its meteoric rise in web rankings and billions of dollars in revenue over the past few years to the scores of profitable websites, television shows, best selling books and top-rated podcasts out there in the world — all of which revolve around studying one’s family lineage. As someone obsessed with family history and genealogy research, I’ve witnessed firsthand how quickly the genre has gained momentum.
There is no shortage of things to satisfy the serious family researcher in the past decade, from small sites that gained enormous followings after being acquired by global companies to sites that folded under the pressure of the competition. Because we’ve ventured into the creation of new tools after more than 20 years of personal hobby research, I’ve become familiar with many of the top sites and tools out there. And I still get asked this question every day: “where should I go to find out about my family?”
Here are the sites that we use every day. Some are free, and some would pay for a new vacation home if we could ever entertain the idea of discontinuing whatever price we must pay to use them!
(Subscription; $19.99 to $49.99 per month)
I’ve been a member of Ancestry.com since they launched in 1996. For more than 10 years prior to putting their records and search tools online, Ancestry published family history books and magazines. So in my opinion, no one does historical records research better. Most genealogy experts agree that Ancestry is one of the best — if not the best — site to start your family tree research.
Why we like this site:
- They’re in more than 30 markets around the world
- They hold the largest consumer DNA network in the world
- More than 20 billion diverse records from 80 different countries
- Their members have created more than 100 million family trees
- More than 330 million photographs, scanned documents and other biographical details uploaded by users
- Certain record collections on Ancestry date back to the 13th century
One of the biggest problems I experience with Ancestry is that family trees there have a lot of errors. And most newcomers to family research haven’t thought that far ahead. Though this isn’t really Ancestry’s fault, their design simply feeds the instant gratification kick most consumers have. User-submitted data can be loaded without common sense or without validation sources. This generates the wrong data across the internet. Worse than the old urban rumor. I shudder to think what this will do to genealogy in 100 years.
This is an easy fix, though. Instead of assuming family trees are factual sources of information, we always suggest using a tree as a lead and cross referencing with primary sources. Always use primary sources in your research. (Let me repeat, “Always use primary sources in your research.”)
It’s impossible to understate the contribution that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made to genealogy. They have one of the largest collections of genealogical records on the planet, from census materials to birth and death records and marriage licenses. All of this data is housed in the Granite Mountain Records Vault, behind hundreds of tons of rock and the type of nearly impenetrable steel doors you’d find in a bank vault.
While the public may not have access to this mountain lair, anyone can use FamilySearch.org, their website. All of that stored up genealogical bounty is there available for free if you know how to find it. The only site that provides access to more records than FamilySearch is Ancestry. But that doesn’t mean if you subscribe to Ancestry, you shouldn’t use the LDS site. In fact, genealogy pros say they love using FamilySearch.org as a backup source for the info they dig up elsewhere. In fact, there are often searches that just don’t yield anything on Ancestry for me, especially in foreign countries, and VOILA, upon one more search FamilySearch will deliver up the goods.
Why we like this site:
They have miles of digitized historical records and it doesn’t cost you a penny to wade through them. In addition to billions of records, FamilySearch.org has two apps. These tools are great for when you’re away from home and come across photos, data or even audio recordings that you want to upload. And then the site conveniently organizes everything and saves the files to your account.
FamilySearch’s tree is a universal tree. This means, that you don’t control your ancestor’s profile. Even those you create. When an ancestor’s record is created anyone else related to that ancestor or helping someone related to them can make edits. Many times this results in trashing all your hard work. I’ve had to change things multiple times on the same ancestor and this can be aggravating.
They site also does not have user forums. This is usually where we’d go to get tips about how to parse through a site’s data. Of course, there are lots of online forums where you can connect with people who are familiar with FamilySearch.com’s tools and are happy to help out. Also, users can create just one family tree per account.
(Free basic plan; four paid subscription plans)
MyHeritage boasts more than nine billion historical records, which makes it a runner-up when it comes to giving users access to census reports, immigration records, birth, death and marriage certificates and much more.
Why we like this site:
To set itself apart from competitors, MyHeritage offers subscribers a few neat bells and whistles.
The “Show Neighbors” button that appears when you view the U.S. Public Records Index can lead any researcher down a rabbit hole. Knowing who your grandma shared a driveway with in the 1980s, for example, may not help you fill out your family tree, but it’s useful if you’re compiling stories about their lives like members of FamilyScrybe do using our family website creator.
MyHeritage has searchable high school and college yearbooks, which are great for verifying cold, hard dates. They’re also good sources for cross referencing information like where a relative lived, how someone spells his or her name or the name a relative was known by. (Think about whether distant cousin Robert James Smith, Jr, went by Rob, Bob, Bobby, James, Jim, Jimmy, or even June.)
MyHeritage has several innovative features that tech-savvy genealogists like, and many are free. The site also regularly releases new tools. There’s a “Genealogy” button that links to a page with an overview of the site’s features, like build your family tree, run simultaneous searches across major genealogy databases, create a family website and find help on message boards.
Find A Grave
At Find A Grave, ancestral burial information and millions of tombstone images are just a click or two away. Their search function is intuitive and information is sorted by individual or cemetery name.
Here is some of the information you are likely to find on a Find a Grave listing:
- Cemetery name and location
- Grave photo (or the ability to request one from a local volunteer)
- Information on the headstone, such as birthdates, military service, or occupation
- GPS coordinates
- Links to memorials for family members or others nearby with the same surname
What we like about this site:
To help the site grow, users are encouraged to upload tombstone photos and submit biographical information for memorial pages. You can even create and share virtual cemeteries to connect friends and loved ones buried in different places.
This is not a research site like FamilySearch and MyHeritage, but rather, it’s a repository of burial memorials. Because users add photos and links and even biographical data, it’s a great place to find research leads for filling out branches of your family tree, and also verifying dates.
Getting a photo of your potential great grandmother’s headstone 24 hours after asking for one is a kick. Any member can submit corrections to the page manager. Blood relatives are given preference in page management upon request, too.
Find a Grave is 100-percent run on user-provided submissions. So as always, verify everything! There may be a significant amount of incorrect information on this site, but what is usually accurate is the description of the data from the actual burial locations and headstones.
Consider Cyndi Howells’ website a kind of “table of contents” for online genealogy research. You’ll find lists of sites dedicated to researching particular places, types of records, ethnic and religious groups and more. Check out the “Beginners” category to see guides and tips compiled specifically for newbies.
What we like about this site:
Many genealogy experts say that Cyndi’s List is a perfect jumping-off point for conducting online research. When you’re at an impasse on a site like Ancestry or MyHeritage, Cyndi’s List can help you track down tips for getting unstuck. It’s also a great place for finding elusive sources.
There are not a lot of downsides to Cyndi’s List, especially since it’s supposed to be an informational site. But if we had to come up with one, the interface is a bit clunky. While it’s easy enough to find category subjects since they’re sorted in alphabetical order, if you’re new to genealogy research, you won’t always have the vocabulary to describe the information you’re looking for.