Comparing Time Machines – Online Genealogy

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com (Photo credit: LollyKnit)

Online sources for family histories have grown over the past 10 years, made popular by TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are and Heir Hunters. I got hooked back in 2006 whilst playing around on FriendsReunited and getting redirected to their offshoot, GenesReunited. Like its daytime TV inspiration, I could think of nothing more dull than checking out one’s family tree. Watching those drones looking through microfiche on Heir Hunters was pepped up for the cameras, of course, but seemed boring nonetheless. It is deceptive, though. Once you find a previously unknown family member on some obscure list, you can get quickly hooked. Knowing very little about my father who died when I was young, it was perhaps inevitable that I would be driven to check it out. I got interested very quickly. The fervour lasted for a year or two before I came to a stop. I returned to it recently as my partner and family started doing their own research. I resurrected my account on GR and then discovered that I had also signed up with Ancestry. I recovered my login details and I was away. It proved interesting to see how both sites / services had evolved since 2007 and I soon realised the mistakes I made in my earlier research. I thought it worth passing on some tips / experiences, as well as reviewing these two leaders of the online genealogy game. Be warned – this family tree stuff can be seriously addictive and time-consuming !

Researching your family history

I recovered my family trees from both GenesReunited and Ancestry. It became clear very quickly that I had jumped to a wrong conclusion and was researching a bunch of ancestors who, er, weren’t. In 2007 I was limited to registers of births, deaths and marriages, plus the census material that was available (then it went up to 1901 – the government releasing the original, raw census returns only after 100 years – today, you can also see 1911 online). Both providers had significantly upped the level of reference material available against which to do research. Blessed with this larger pool of documentary wealth, I deleted the errant branch and restarted my research, following the advice given on Ancestry. The most important lessons I learned are:

  1. Don’t jump back too quickly –  make sure you research the family members near you thoroughly first – only move to their ancestors when you are sure you have a clear, referenced and proven link to them
  2. Don’t jump to conclusions – it is so easy to assume your ancestor is the only person in the world with that name, initials, spouse, father, mother etc. Be sceptical. Assume that there are millions of Winifred Lumbago Bottomley-Smythes in the world and make sure you have the right one.
  3. Don’t jump to somebody else’s conclusions – both Ancestry and GR allow you to cross-reference with other people’s trees and research. Again, be sceptical. They may have jumped too quickly to a faulty premise or lead.
  4. Cross reference wherever possible –  online resources can be extremely useful in cross-referencing. For example, for each marriage entry you find on, say, the FreeBMD index (free births, marriages and deaths indexes for England and Wales – see freebmd.org.uk)  you should be able to find the corresponding entry for their spouse.

It is worth reviewing what these two services have to offer. There are others such as FreeBMD but these two have proved most useful and consistent in my research. Yes, they charge and are relatively expensive for an online service. Before committing your dosh, it is worth making sure they do what you need. Ancestry provides a deeper, better written and more searchable set of FAQs and free resources so you can realistically understand what you get for your money. GenesReunited, by contrast, is much less open; not as slick and is prone to send you up a blind alley – asking you for money before you even know if what you are reading is relevant to your research.

GenesReunited

An offshoot of the FriendsReunited website – a well conceived and arguably the earliest example of online social networking, these are the people who missed the boat by not capitalising on the idea. Purchased by ITV (the UK’s main independent television producer and operator), its new owners lacked the vision to make the site the Facebook it should have become. No-one saw the potential at the time, although FriendsReunited was instrumental in getting me back in touch with former schoolmates. It worked, as far as it went. Wanting to squeeze more out of the brand, the owners added online dating and family trees. GenesReunited has a free element – you can register and start creating an online family tree – but you really need to subscribe or purchase ‘pay-as-you-view’ credits to get much out of the service. It has a good GEDCOM interface, allowing the exchange of family tree data in a standard format both into and out of the service. It also has a decent collection of datasets against which to search and – where it scores against Ancestry – a good archive of British newspaper articles. The site provides an electronic filing box for collected information – the Keepsafe. The website and user interface is poor, however. The site layout tries to maximise advertising revenue with banners above, below and within the user area, smacking of both desperation and a lack of attention to usability, although the ubiquitous Ajax elements work fine. GR is expensive – ranging from £6.67 to almost £20 for a month of their Platinum service which provides access to BMD and census data only. Subscribers do get ‘social’ functions like being able to message other members but it is hard to see the value. Newspaper archives and other datasets cost extra regardless of the level of subscription – requiring the purchase of credits at the rate of 10p each. The price drops to 9p per credit if you buy 200. This sounds appealing but you need a minimum of 5 credits to view a single item – and you can’t know if the item contains the information you want beforehand so you have to speculatively use your credits. Most datasets require 5 credits to see the transcribed index for a particular entry and then another bunch of credits to see the image of the original document. It is an appalling and greedy way to offer a service, noting also that credits expire after a month or 90 days depending on which purchase option you used. GR is worth a look for its newspaper archive but that is all. If you purchase a few credits to try this out, do take a snapshot of any relevant articles and save them to your PC so you can use them offline. Otherwise, steer clear of GenesReunited.

Ancestry

I started with GR because of its FriendsReunited heritage – avoiding Ancestry because of its slick advertising campaign. I expected them to be all puff,  no substance and expensive. Not so as the Ancestry subscription option is £8.95 per month on the 12 month plan (this compares to $6.67 from GR but you don’t need to purchase additional credits on Ancestry to view the data !). The user interface is well designed and easy to follow. The online Family Tree viewer is intuitive to use and displays much more information when compared to the GR equivalent. Of particular note is the ‘comparison’ tool which lines up your tree records against the sources, citations or other users’ trees and highlights the differences in a way that makes checking extremely easy. This is particularly effective in extending your tree without sacrificing accuracy. Where the service does fall down is in its lack of tree export options – you cannot send a GEDCOM file to other applications once it is in Ancestry – a major drawback. A neat iPad app is available, as well as online print and gift services through their partnership with MyCanvas. This does offer a free facility to output a version of your tree on your own printer but it would still be useful to have an export facility. Otherwise, Ancestry has nailed it. Good datasets with the added advantage of a global network so, for an additional subscription, you can hook up with the US, European and Australian sub-sites. I have not tried this but I will certainly be purchasing a few credits for New Zealand dataset access (although I was able to access USA immigration records for free using my UK subscription). Ancestry.co.uk reports having 1,537 different datasets, compared to what appears to be a few hundred on GR.

Both services have won awards over the years. GenesReunited is the poorer option, in my view. I was itching to slag off Ancestry because of their corny TV ads but I have to say the service is well thought out, reasonable value and fun to use. Worth a look but do be prepared to get hooked and to sacrifice whole days to your research !

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