Let me begin with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose we roll beck the years and I was just now starting my genealogy research.
What I did to begin my research back 30+ years ago was fairly simple; I began the survey process, that is, reviewing the existing records to determine what research had already been done on my family. In those days, my very first efforts consisted of searching through the patron files at the Family History Library, as it was then constituted, in Salt Lake City, Utah for Family Group Records submitted by my family members over the years. This involved working my way page by page through hundreds of huge genealogy sheets in heavy binders. Although the sheets were in alphabetical order, I would have to jump back and forth to complete a family with spouses with different surnames. As a result, I ended up with a two-foot high stack of copied family group records.
When there were differences between multiple family group records, I began the process of searching for original records to reconcile the differences. I spent the next 15 years or so, working my way through the documents and family group records and entering the data into computer programs. I am still in the process of reviewing, correcting and adding sources to that huge survey pile.
Now we can fast-forward to today's high pressured online world. That multi-year task of doing a survey can be compressed into a matter of a few week's work with online family trees. The job of finding out what others have added is now automated in huge online database programs such as Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. There is no more guarantee of accuracy than there was with my paper family group records, but the process has been immeasurably accelerated. Present-day genealogists have no idea of the previous difficulty simply to determine the work other researchers had done. Granted, there are still huge caches of paper genealogy floating around but finding these is still a major problem. That huge collection of Family Group Records at the Salt Lake City, Family History Library are all digitized and online also.
So the first step I would take today to begin my genealogical journey of ancestral discovery would be to start looking at online family trees. It would help to subscribe to one or more of the large database programs. The cost of subscribing today is much less than I spent in travel, copy costs and time at the Family History Library so long ago.
During the past week or so, I have had several opportunities to help people add their family information to these large online database programs. In many cases, the programs immediately begin adding source records and suggesting additional family members. It is so surprising as to be almost magical.
The traditional approach to starting out involved filling out a pedigree chart with some basic information about your family. This same step now takes place online when starting a family tree on one of the online programs. The reason why I suggest the two subscription services, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, is simple. They both do an excellent job of automatically suggesting sources and people to add to your basic knowledge. All online programs have limitations and the online family tree programs with automatic search capabilities are no exception. If you have a difficult family relationship setting or no knowledge of your parents, you might find it is still a challenge to get started. You may have to do some research to get back to people found in these large database programs. Young people today may have to go back to the first generation with dead people and this may be back to great-grandparents to get started.
But I think that the paradigm for starting out has shifted. Today, there is a real reason to take advantage of the automatic search functions in the two large database programs. If you are still not convinced to pay for these services or don't have the money, you can use the semi-automatic search function on FamilySearch.org Family Tree, a completely free program. What is probably the best tactic is to use all three and benefit from three large online collections of source documents.
When you have the first indications of your family, the programs will then begin to show you what other people think about your ancestry. This puts you years ahead of my own experience. I had been searching for years before anyone even gave me an alternative theory or proposed link. You will also begin to get an idea of what is missing and where you have to start doing research.
I realize this concept will be counter to almost every basic book and online source for instruction about how to do genealogy. You will still benefit from following the traditional methods but you may be wasting a lot of time if you fail to also add the newest technology to your search. You will quickly find yourself in the mode of reconciling differences and doing original research, much of which will not be easily found in any of the online sources.
Now a final note. Most seasoned genealogists will immediately think about the need for a local, individual controlled database program. All three of these online database programs have associated programs that can copy and synchronize your online information with a local genealogy program. In some cases, these programs have free versions.