Why Use a Genealogy Search?
Discovering where you come from and the stories of your ancestors is like being a part of your own personal detective story. Genealogy websites help you find your family members by connecting you to verified resources for information such as birth, marriage and death dates. The best genealogy sites have information from sources overseas, including parish, military and immigration records. After helping you find your ancestors, some genealogy websites allow you to build a family tree or connect directly to your genealogy software and download the files there.
Ancestry.com is our Gold Award winner because it has the most extensive collection of information, especially in areas outside of the United States. Finding ancestors overseas is challenging because these records are kept in different languages, country boundaries change, many records have been destroyed during conflicts, and cultural differences result in different record-keeping practices. Ancestry has done a lot of work in transcribing these family search records into English and many other languages to make finding and understanding family histories much easier.
Our Silver Award winner, MyHeritage, includes family tree builder tools that are appealing to look at and easy to work with. After you search billions of available records, information you find can be instantly included in your working family tree. You can give other family members access to either your account or to an online webpage created specifically for collaborating with others who are just as enthusiastic as you about family history research.
FamilySearch is another top genealogy site that is free for anyone to use. This site is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, making archives from all around the world available at any time. With hundreds of physical locations throughout the world where genealogists can sit with you and help you learn the ins and outs of the site and of family tree research in general, FamilySearch is our Bronze Award winner.
If you already have family information that you wish to organize and save in a pedigree chart, check out our review of the best genealogy software or Mac genealogy software. We also have several articles on genealogy services that have additional hints and ideas for researching your family history.
Researching Genealogy Services
We searched family records using each of the ancestry websites in our comparison and discovered that not all family tree searches are the same. While many draw information from important sources, such as census records and the Social Security Death Index, others work more as genealogy search engines, providing you with links to other ancestry websites that you will need to register as a member with before accessing the final source of information. Here is a bit more on how we researched genealogy search sites and arrived at our rankings of the best.
We used our own family names to find information, starting with verifying the information we already knew to see if the transcriptions of certain records were correct, and then using that information to find more connections. We were able to locate the same census records using most of the genealogy sites. The Genealogical Research Library organizes its research sources by location, so we were able to find marriage records from a specific area by following convenient links, and it connected us with cemetery records to help us further locate ancestors who may have been buried close together.
The Archives site provided us with a variety of surname spellings, which helped us discover when census records were spelled wrong, or instances where the parents’ surname was spelled one way in their native country and the children’s were spelled differently when they were born in the United States. Using this new information, we were able to plug more information into larger search sites, such as Findmypast, that pull from even more resources.
The majority of the family search sites we used pulled from the same sources. OneGreatFamily was a little different. It acted more like a search engine with a family search filter. The results of the search were links to other family tree sites in our review and links to more questionable sites, such as ones that are primarily for searching living individuals or conducting background checks. This means that, on top of purchasing a subscription to this site, you also need to subscribe to another site in order to view the primary source.
Family Search Tools
In addition to searching for family history records, we looked at the tools that help you organize and save this information, connect with existing family files, and share your findings with family members and other genealogy enthusiasts. The two most common features we looked for and tested are the ability to create and export GEDCOM files, and a way to create a family tree with the ancestor search site.
Two of our top picks, Ancestry and MyHeritage, have both of these options available, as does MyTrees. This makes it easy to find information and immediately populate your pedigree chart with it. Creating GEDCOM files is necessary if you decide to forgo the online family tree and import the information to a genealogy program on your desktop. You can likewise create a GEDCOM file with your desktop program and import that information to the online pedigree chart.
FamilySearch is a little different. While you can import GEDCOM files into FamilySearch, the program creates a different type of file that you can only imported into FamilySearch-certified genealogy software. However, FamilySearch does have an easy online program where you can add your findings to a family tree and save it there.
Other research tools include family hints that alert you to possible matches without you actively searching for information, and mobile apps that allow you to search and collect family names and information while you are away from your desktop. Because these sites are subscription based, and the best ones tend to cost a bit more than those with less tools and resource connections, services like GenealogyBank that offer gift memberships are appealing to help others get started in family history or to add to your own wish list.
Additional Genealogy Equipment
Many genealogy enthusiasts need additional equipment for building their family trees. For example, digital audio recorders, such as those we reviewed here, allow you to record your living relatives sharing stories and information about their lives and their family members, which you can then enter into a family search site or pedigree chart.
Another important device is a scanner. While there are billions of resources online, sometimes you may have the only physical record available, such as a pedigree chart in an old family Bible or an early christening record. Scanners are an easy way to make a digital copy of these documents to attach to your family tree or to share with the genealogy site so others can take advantage of that information too. We tested and ranked the best portable scanners, including the Apparent Doxie, our top pick.
USB flash drives are helpful if you wish to access your online account on a genealogy research site but are not at your own computer, perhaps accessing the information at a library or family member’s home. Flash drives connect to any computer and will save search results in a GEDCOM file that you can then transfer to your own computer once you return home. This allows you to quickly keep tabs on information without having to worry about writing it down or trying to remember it later.
Our Final Word on Ancestor Databases
All of the genealogy sites we researched provide valuable information. We were able to gather information from each site that wasn’t quickly found on the others, leading us to believe that it may be necessary to have more than one subscription in order to easily gather all the family information you need.
Our top picks – Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch – have the most comprehensive reach when it comes to information available, along with powerful organization tools such as family tree makers, mobile apps and hints that search information on your family even when you’re not logged on. Ancestor search sites, genealogy software, and equipment like portable scanners and voice recorders all work together to help you create a beautiful story about yourself and the family that came before you.