05 October 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Going Digital – Online Family Trees

So you’ve been gathering all this valuable information about your ancestors and carefully filling out your family group sheets and pedigree charts. I bet you’re starting to get a little overwhelmed with the amount of data you’ve accumulated, right? Well, technology is here to save the day (and all your valuable information as well). There are so many place online to create and share your family tree these days. The biggest problem is figuring out which site is the best. I’ll try to give you some suggestions from my experience so far.

When I started to trace my family tree I went about it the wrong way. Instead of starting slowly I became what is known as a name collector. I just wanted to build a tree and fill it with names. That is obviously not the way to do things. But, you learn from your mistakes and in this case you can learn from mine. I found a simple site that let you easily create a tree by adding names and other information. I didn’t do any research and just started filling in names. It wasn’t that long ago and just to show you how bad it was – I don’t even remember what the name of that site was!

Since then I have used three different online family trees: Geni.com, MyHeritage.com and of course Ancestry.com – Let’s discuss each one in detail.


Geni.com is a fantastic site that is completely web based and allows you not only to build a tree, but is also a family social network. Inviting your family members is as simple as adding their email address. You start out by entering your first and last names, your email address and whether you are male or female. Yep, it’s that simple. You can also log in with your Facebook account if you wish. You can easily add parents, children, siblings and other family members and any information you have about them. You can add pictures, videos, stories and more. You can search for people who have a profile on the site and see if they are your relatives. If you find a profile (there are currently 90 million of these on the site) you can add it to your tree or ask the profile owner to merge your trees. This way you can create a much bigger tree with additional connections.

The user interface is very easy to navigate and while there are a lot of features and options, the basic use of the site is free of charge. Geni is obviously trying to somehow monetize their business and is doing so with ‘Pro’ accounts that have some additional benefits. I have a pretty big tree on Geni and have never used the ‘Pro’ features yet.

One thing that applies to all these online tree sites is that you have to make sure you set up your profile correctly and verify that your privacy settings are at your level of comfort. Most people don’t want complete strangers to be able to see their information and there are several levels of security that you can configure. It’s not hard, but worth doing.


MyHeritage.com – This is another collaborative online family tree website. Once again, you can invite your family members to join and add their relatives. It’s very large and boasts 633 million profiles and 16 million family trees. Don’t let these numbers scare or impress you, all you need to do to start is enter some very basic details about yourself and your parents. In my experience many of the profiles on this site are duplicates and there are a lot of small trees that have been abandoned by their users. Their tremendous growth has been mostly through acquisitions of other websites.

Some of the cool features that this site has is the ability to automatically recognize people in pictures you upload and tag them with the correct name. It’s a facial recognition technology that is fun to work with and makes it easy to find people in photos. And it works very well. Another big plus to this site is that there is an offline version that you can use on your computer as your family tree database and it will sync up to the online tree any time you want it to. This makes it very convenient to do your research and then update your shared online tree.

There are a lot of other great features like 35 languages, maps and smart matching technology which looks at your tree and tries to find similar trees in the system for you to merge with or grab information from. There’s also a smart research option that will try to find your ancestors in over 100 of the best genealogy websites on the internet.

The only drawback in my opinion is that the basic free account type is limited to 250 people in a tree. After that you need to start paying.

Disclosure: I have a Premium Plus account, which gives me unlimited use of the site. I helped the company with some user testing and recommendations and they enabled this account level for me in return. But since I already had my entire family on Geni.com, I was not in a position to move everyone over to MyHeritage. I wrote a blog article comparing MyHeritage vs Geni on my other blog. It’s a couple of years old at this point but it is still pretty valid today.


Ancestry.com Trees – I have several trees on Ancestry that I created during my research through my membership on the site. There is also another site called MyFamily.com that offers a similar service to Geni and MyHeritage, which I have not used but seems to be full featured and integrated into the rest of Ancestry.com.

Ancestry is a paid site but you can create a tree for free. The thing is, as soon as you create your tree, Ancestry will look through it’s billions of records and if it find information that matches your tree it will display a little green shaking leaf on that profile. By clicking the leaf you will be able to search that vast paid databases available to members – for a fee. You can get a free trial of the Ancestry.com US Deluxe Membership and see if you like it or not. Check out the membership page and see if this meets your budget. Or do all your research and cancel your membership before the 14-day trial runs out. Most US researchers will be able to find everything they need without paying for the World Edition.

Ancestry also has an offline version and the latest version is called Family Tree Maker 2011. It is a very powerful genealogy database tool and if your serious about your research you should definitely consider getting it. I will discuss other genealogy software programs in another post.


So that’s it for now. There are many other online family tree websites out there, but in my opinion these are the best three. It is becoming hard to differentiate between all these offerings so check before you commit to one of them because making the switch when you have a family network in place is going to be hard. You should check out Cyndi’s List under the Collaborative Family Tree section for a complete list of what’s out there.

What is your favorite online family tree site? Let us know in the comments.

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19 September 2010 ~ 0 Comments

GeneaGoogle – Google Finds Your Ancestors

In the last post I touched on the subject of using online resources to trace your family tree. One of the best resources to conduct these kinds of searches is obviously Google. The problem is, Google is so massive that you can easily get lost in the results and you need a way to minimize them so that you don’t waste your time.

So let’s go through some really basic stuff to get started.

1. Simply type in the name of someone you are trying to research. Yes, it’s that simple. You will get a lot of results, but don’t despair. I ran a search for my wife’s 2nd-great-grandfather, Jesse Travis Brannon. Google shows that there are about 734,000 pages with this term. That’s going to take some time to go through. How can I narrow this down?

2. Use quotes. Instead of search for Jesse Travis Brannon I did a search for “Jesse Travis Brannon” and got only 8 results! This is because I used an exact phrase search which means all three names have to appear in this order on the page. So this is a bit too narrow, because there may be a lot of pages that called him Jessie instead of Jesse or they may have dropped his middle name. So what else can I do?

3. I don’t know how many people know this trick but it can be very helpful. Add ~genealogy to your searches and see what happens. Now I “only” have about 295,000 pages to go through. That’s a little better.

4. Add a location. In my case Jesse was born and died in Georgia. So when I add Georgia to my search I get 18,200 results.

5. Add other family members. I know that Jesse married Isabella Elizabeth Atkinson, so if I just add Atkinson to my search I will be able to narrow it down further.

So as you can see there are a lot of way to experiment with Google searches. Of course this is very basic and there is a lot more you can do with Google. Don’t forget that you need to search for name variations (think Brannon, Brannan, Brannom, etc) and don’t forget that not everything is online (yet).

If you plan to use Google like I do to trace my family tree you should pick up Daniel M. Lynch’s terrific book aptly named “Google Your Family Tree.” The book goes through a lot of the different search operators and filters as well as goes into more detail about the other Google products that will become your best friends in your family history journey. Here’s a short video of Daniel talking about his book:

One thing I have to caution about is being organized and careful in your searches. It is so easy to constantly search for the same phrase and go to the same sites if you don’t keep a good research log. And since most of us don’t have all the time in the world, we really want to focus on the good search results and not wander off aimlessly around the internet, right?

In future posts I will discuss using Google Books (your ancestors are in them), Alerts (Google will tell you when it finds something new), Maps (you can sometimes see your ancestral homes), News Archive (because they were in the papers too) and Language Tools.

I am also in the process of trying to figure out how the new Google Instant search will impact genealogy searches. More on that later.

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03 September 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Filling Out Pedigree Charts


Download Pedigree Chart

Now that you’ve collected everything you can about your family and interviewed family members, it’s time to make some sense of all the information you have. That means you’re going to start filling out genealogical forms. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds!

Most people start with what’s called a pedigree chart. This form gives you a quick overview of your family and makes it easy to track your research progress. You will usually start with yourself and then go back in time filling up the branches as you go and eventually you’ll have a family tree showing your direct ancestors. By clicking the image on the left you will be able to download a five-generation pedigree chart.
Pedigree charts will normally have room for four-six generations, and will include have room to enter names (first middle last) as well as important dates and places of birth, marriage and death for each person.

So start with yourself in the number 1 spot (or whoever the person is that you are researching). This should be a snap since you probably know most of this information, right? From there, the male lines follow the upper track and the females follow the lower track. The idea is to enter biological parents and while there are all sort of discussions about same-sex partnerships, adoptions and other relationships, I won’t get into that here.

So your dad goes in box number 2 and your mom in box number 3. Other than the first person, all the males will have odd numbers and women will have even numbers. Makes it easy to remember, right?

After filling out the chart with 4 or 5 generations, you’ll need to create additional charts for each of the individuals included in the last generation on your first chart. Each person will become the first ancestor on a brand new chart and you’ll reference their number on the original chart so it will be easy to go back and figure out where everyone fits and follow the family through all generations. Don’t forget to give the new charts new numbers and this way when you want to reference the other charts fill out the bottom where it says “Person 1 appears on page __”.

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the information or even all the people who are supposed to be on the chart. That’s what you’re going to be doing later when you try to find your elusive ancestors. When I started to trace my family tree I had huge holes in my charts which I am still slowly filling out today. Each new find makes you do a little genealogy happy dance!

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19 August 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Trace My Family Tree – Up Next: Interviews

Probably the most important step is interviewing your relatives. Start with your parents and then move on from there. If you still have grandparents or even great-grandparents don’t waste time! It’s not pleasant to think about these sorts of things but while your oldest relatives are going to be the ones who can link you further to the past, they are also the ones who are the most likely to forget. My own grandmother has given me three different variations to the mother’s surname when I started to trace my family tree.

You can do these interviews while your in the collection phase. Don’t wait until you have everything to get started. It’s always a great idea to interview your relatives while gathering documents and photos because you will likely be able to relate better to their stories. You should try to collect stories and not just random facts and try to ask open-ended questions. Here are a few questions to ask during your interview:

How did you meet your spouse? How did your parents meet?

What do you remember from your childhood?

What do you know about the origins of your surname?

Do you know any family stories that have been passed down?

Are there any heirlooms that have special stories associated with them?

What are you most proud of and would like people to remember about you?

Here’s a great list of 50 questions to ask during an interview. And don’t worry too much about being nervous. These are your family members! You’ve probably known them all your life and they will be happy to share their stories. People love talking about themselves!

In the next post we’ll go through some steps for the actual  interview.

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