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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