Online family trees can either be a boon or a bust. In either case, the huge number of family trees can be daunting. In my own case for example, I have several published online trees in different programs. Many of these companies send me frequent email messages about potential "matches" with other users' family trees. If I followed up on every one of these potential matches, I would have time to do little else. As it is, I ignore the vast majority of these suggested connections. For example, in Ancestry.com right now, I have 116 "shaking leaf" suggested sources and connections. Most of those are connections to other family trees and not real "source" records. In MyHeritage.com the situation is even more dramatic. I have 273 pending "Smart Matches" and 789 new "Smart Matches."
How do I tell whether or not examining this multitude of suggested matches with the work of others is going to be productive or even useful? What motivation do I have, other than the constant notification, to make such an evaluation? How many of these connections will I have to plow through to find something useful?
All of these questions are really hard to answer. The existence of all these potential connections can be viewed a wonderful opportunity or a dreadful burden. Most of the time, all that is really happening is a graphic confirmation that I am related to a whole lot of people. But I do have some suggestions.
Both Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com have their own local genealogy programs. Ancestry.com has Family Tree Maker (both Windows and Mac) and MyHeritage.com has Family Tree Builder (Windows only). If you are seriously considering taking advantage of either program, having the local version of the program on your own computer will help tame the tangle. In both cases, the local program synchronize with your own online tree. So rather than spending a lot of time search around for potential matches at random, you can concentrate on just those people you are presently interested in. For example, even though I have a rather large number of potential "sources" including links to other family trees from Ancestry.com, when I go into the program on my computer, I am presented with those same "shaking leaf" indicators on my own database locally. So then, If I am interested in sources for a specific person, I can look at those suggested sources and ignore the rest. It doesn't really matter, other than for promotional purposes, what I have as a "total" of all of the suggested sources, all that really matters is what I am working on right now and whether or not there are any sources available for that person or family.
In a sense, you have huge field and you need to put on blinders so that you focus on what your own objectives are and ignore the larger field of suggestions. If you simply take every suggested link, you will soon be lost in the online world equivalent of the wilderness. When I focus on the lines I am interested in researching, granted, I am missing out on potential connections that may be more valuable than those I am researching, but if I let that "gold fever" mentality rule my research, I will soon be off in the "gold fields" and lost to anything productive.
So let's suppose I follow my own advice and begin the process of looking at the suggested sources on Ancestry.com. Here is a screenshot from the Family Tree Maker software showing part of my pedigree with some suggested sources shown by green leaves:
It is pretty hard to see the leaves, but they are there for James Springthorp and Frances Springthorp. If I examine the leaf for James Springthorp, I see a long list of potential matches. Here is a screenshot of the matches;
It would be really tempting to start in and add some of the information from these other family trees to my database. But I note that few of them have any sources attached and they don't all agree on dates or places. Perhaps there is more that needs to be done rather than simply copying the records and moving on? Yes. I need to verify the sources and decide for myself if the information is sufficiently persuasive to add to my own records. This may be a case where someone else has done all the work that I have not yet done, so it will be a benefit to me. But it might also be the opposite, just another case of sloppy copy work that has no value. Just because the names are in someone's family tree, gives them no validity at all. But the additional sources are certainly worth looking at and evaluating.
So, family trees can be helpful, if used as a tool rather than as a copy source.