In the United States, there are three big genealogy companies with huge online databases. I am often asked which is the "best" or which one should the research use. Most researchers seems disappointed to find out that I use them all, plus dozens (hundreds) of other online resources. But I have been wondering: is there any real way to compare the three? I recently examined the three different search engines and wrote a post comparing them to each other. So, I went back to see what I had written. Hmm. Must be advancing age. I was sure it was recently, but it turns out it was in March of 2013, almost five months ago. Time passes when you are having fun.
Back to the idea of comparing the offerings of the three U.S. online mega-databases. I am purposely omitting references to findmypast.com, not because they don't have a huge and valuable database, but they specialize in United Kingdom and related records and so their focus is different that the three U.S. based databases that go head-to-head with information for U.S. researchers. All of these databases have records from other places around the world, but the other three have historically focused on the U.S. with some U.K. records.
One of the first questions is are the three duplicative? Oh, by the way, I am talking about Ancestry.com, WorldVitalRecords.com (aka MyHeritage.com) and FamilySearch.org. I am going to ignore the fact that FamilySearch.org is free and the other two cost money to use, because I am going to assume that you use all three for free in a FamilySearch Center. This, of course, brings up another interesting fact; finding a link to the available FamilySearch Centers is practically impossible through FamilySearch.org. In addition, the program cannot find me a local Family History Consultant, when I am the local Family History Consultant. But that is another post and another day's work. Perhaps FamilySearch should put the things people really use and need on their startup page, instead of the things they want people to use and need?
Back to the comparison. All three of these databases are moving targets. They are always adding new records and new services. FamilySearch.org adds millions of new records from its established microfilm collection and on-going digitization projects. Ancestry.com adds new records every so often. For example, here is a link to a blog post about new Ancestry.com collections.
So here is the first comparison; how many other countries are covered by the databases? Now here is another issue. Do we discount the entries in user submitted family trees? For this comparison, I am doing just that. I will do another comparison of the family trees but not this time.
This one is easy. FamilySearch.org wins hands down with this one. Try looking for records in Luxembourg for example. FamilySearch has six collections with millions of records and Ancestry.com comes in a dim second with a handful of records although looking in the Ancestry.com Card Catalog would seem to indicate otherwise, unless you examine the offerings one by one. In a search for records in Ancestry.com, the Card Catalog (list of all databases) shows 24 items for Luxembourg. If you take out the general ones, such as the Public Member Family Trees and the Holocaust records or New Zealand World War I Records, you end up with less than 2000 actual records. WorldVitalRecords has no listing for Luxembourg.
I could go on with records from FamilySearch.org because its collections are very broad with millions of records from Africa, South America, Central America and other locations including Chinese records by the millions.
But let's go to newspapers in the U.S. for another example. Here, FamilySearch.org drops off the map entirely with only one collection dedicated to newspapers and that is for cuttings from Australia. See Australia, New South Wales, Alphabetical Index to Newspaper Cuttings, 1841-1987. Ancestry.com appears to have extensive collections of newspapers with 1,413 collections in its Card Catalog, but again, this is a list of holdings in individual newspapers, but pretty impressive none the less. WorldVitalRecords.com seems to come out on top with a large number of individual newspapers and the Newspaper Archive Collection of over 2 billion estimated names.
This points up an important issue: aren't I trying to compare apples, oranges and pineapples? Don't each of these huge collections have their own strengths and weaknesses? Yep. That is an issue alright. Usually, I end up telling people who ask to try out all four of the big databases and see which one has the most records from their area of interest. What it boils down to is that each of these databases have huge amounts of data about people all over the world and since they provide this for genealogists to use, we might as well use all of it.