From paid subscription services to free records searches, the Internet has revolutionized the way that amateur genealogists can research their family history. However, anyone who's done some poking around on the web knows that not all genealogy sites are created equal. The key to finding sites you love and will use on a regular basis is making sure they have the features and information you really need.
Eight Features to Look for in a Great Genealogy Site
Genealogy websites can perform a lot of functions, including putting you in touch with long lost relatives, helping you access records for free, and giving you the tools to break through that brick wall. Unfortunately, the wrong site can provide incorrect information or waste your time with searches that turn up no results. The very best genealogy sites have a few features in common.
Easy to Use
One of the most important things to look for in a genealogy site is usability. You shouldn't have to have a degree in computer science to find your way around. Instead, beginners and those with limited computer experience should be just as at-home on the website as those who've been using it for years. Look for the following:
- Search boxes and other important features easily accessed from the home page
- Ability to hide or display advanced search criteria as desired
- Readily available help, either from a live representative or a drop-down menu
- Logical layout of menus and features
Reputable Sources for Information
In Internet genealogy, a little information can be a bad thing. Not having all the facts can lead genealogists to jump to conclusions, and the same problem goes for genealogy services and websites. A good genealogy site needs to provide the sources for its information. It must have a great reputation to back up any claims it makes. Look for these qualities:
- Primary records, such as birth certificates and census records, to support all assumptions
- Well-researched articles and features
- Professional writing and photography
- Links or information marked as an assumption if no records back it up
Useful Records or Tips
Family history websites come in all shapes and sizes, from huge research databases to individual family sites. The scope of the information covered isn't as important as whether that information is useful to visitors. Truly useful genealogy sites have these qualities:
- Records you need and cannot easily find elsewhere
- Tips and insights about family history research that change the way you view your genealogy work
- Oral histories, photographs, and other hard-to-find information that isn't included in searches
- General content that really enhances your research
The best sites offer new records and information all the time. Since the study of Internet genealogy is changing on a regular basis, a good site needs to stay up-to-date to be useful. Technological advances, such as DNA testing, must be represented as quickly as possible. Look for these features:
- New features and records highlighted from the home page
- Recent technology and records reflected in articles and data collections
- Real-world interpretations of new developments
Although it may not seem as important as some of the other important features, a great genealogy site needs to have an attractive interface. You'll be spending a lot of time on this site, and you don't want an interface that makes your head hurt. Look for these qualities:
- Attractive color scheme for the home page and any other pages
- Contrast between the text color and background color
- Fonts that are easy to read
- Pictures that are nice looking and don't load too slowly
Ability to Share and Save Work
It's one thing to be able to look up information online and find answers to your family history questions, but it's another to be able to import that information into your files at home. Many sites offer GEDCOM files or some other universal record transporting system. This allows you to upload and share your own information and take advantage of the work of other genealogists as well. These features are helpful:
- Some method for downloading information
- Ability to download attached documents and photographs
- Ability to work on your tree offline and upload your work
- Sources included for all uploaded and downloaded information
Good Value for Cost
In some cases, researching your family history can get expensive. Although there are many free sites out there, they don't always have the information you need. Whether you're paying a monthly fee to access records or are spending some of your precious free time on a site, the information you gain should be worth it. Only your individual needs and budget can determine whether this is the case.
Most websites have advertising. These ads help to support the site; however, they should not interfere with the user's experience. A great genealogy site has ads about things you will really use, and those ads don't get in the way of your research on the site.
- Ads are in the sidebar or other locations that aren't disruptive
- Products and services are targeted toward you, rather than a generic user
- Doesn't have an overwhelming amount of ads on a page
- Ads don't pop up when you don't want them
How Popular Sites Measure Up
A site's popularity is often, though not always, a measure of how well it meets the user's needs. GenealogyInTime did an exhaustive study of genealogy websites to come up with a list of the 100 most popular. Here's how the top four measure up.
Ancestry.com is the ultimate paid genealogy site. With millions of records and the ability to save primary sources to your tree, it's the go-to resource for advanced family history researchers and beginners alike. In addition to being a reputable source of useful information, this site is easy to use and has an attractive interface. You can share and save your work with others, and you can even include the results of DNA testing in your files. Because Ancestry is a paid site, the only advertising is for Ancestry's own products.
The only downside to Ancestry.com is its cost. Depending on the subscription plan you choose, the monthly fee can be anywhere from about $20 to almost $35. Although many people find that the site offers a great value for the cost, this may not be true for those on a budget.
MyHeritage is a free site designed to help users share information and connect to one another, and it accomplishes this goal, even allowing sharing of pictures. The user interface is attractive and intuitive, perfect for beginners. The site is updated on a regular basis with new information about DNA testing, recent census releases, and more. There's an integrated software program to allow you to save records on your computer, and the basic version is free. Advertising is limited to MyHeritage products and services. This site offers great cost-to-value, since the basic plan is free.
The disadvantage to MyHeritage is that records are limited. You can search those records already in the public domain, as well as other users' trees, but harder-to-find records aren't part of the free plan.
Since FamilySearch.org is a not-for-profit service supported by the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints, it's free to use and has no outside advertising. There are lots of great free records on the site, and it's search functionality and layout are easy to understand and use. The information is mostly from primary records, but there are some searches that result in information from others' trees. You can download a GEDCOM file for your records, but it will not include photos.
On the down side, you won't find all the records you need here. Expect to access free records only. Additionally, newer advances, such as DNA testing are not included on the site.
Find a Grave
Headstones can be great primary resources for genealogy work, and Find a Grave makes it possible to search through headstone transcriptions for your ancestors. The search form is easy to use. The appearance of the site is a little plain, but it is easy to read and navigate. This free site does include advertising, but it is well-placed and does not interfere with the site's functionality.
Find a Grave has a couple of important disadvantages, despite being a useful site. The information on the site is transcribed by volunteers, so the accuracy of the records can be variable. Often, a picture of the tombstone is included with the records, so this can help to authenticate the information. Additionally, there are many graves not yet included in the service, but the records are being updated all the time.
Decide for Yourself
Ultimately, the best genealogy sites are those that meet your specific needs at that moment, so they may not be part of any popularity list or have received awards. The best way to find great sites is simply to continue your research. Sometimes, your search will lead you to a great site that may become your new favorite.