Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, October 21, 2013

Subscription vs. Free Website for Genealogy

I received the following comment from a recent post about "The Benefits of the New Online Genealogy Alliances." 
Where is the benefit of subscribing to a site if the document I need is on a free site? Won't I find it on the free site? Won't I have access to it? Won't the free site search engine find it?
There are obviously multiple issues in these four questions. I decided I would address each of the questions separately. Here it goes:

1. Where is the benefit of subscribing to a site if the document I need is on a free site?

 This question makes several assumptions. The primary assumption is that the user would know that the document was on more than one website. Let's suppose that I had a subscription to a commercial website. Let's further suppose that in working on the website, I found a document I needed for my research. Why would I then go out and look for the same document on a "free" website? My point is that how are you going to know whether a document can be found in multiple locations on the Web once you have found what you are looking for? I suppose that you are subscribing to the commercial website because you have found it to be useful for your research. I guess I would view the question in the context of an analogy to having a product I wanted in a store near my home. If I go into the store, find the product and buy it, am I going to then go home and search around to see if I can get the same product for free?

I think the real question here is whether or not having some of the databases or collections on two different websites, some free and some by subscription will cut into the subscriptions paid on the commercial website? I think not. That is the case presently with U.S. Census records and many other records. For example, has the U.S. Census records from 1790 to 1940 online as part of their subscription service. At the same time, has the same records from 1790 to 1930 online for free. Has anyone stopped their subscription to because those records were available on I seriously doubt it. Does it matter that at least five other websites have a copy of the U.S. Census records? Again, I seriously doubt it. Duplication of the records, free or by subscription, does not seem to cut into the growth of and I doubt it will affect the other online genealogical subscription services either.

2. Won't I find it on the free site?

The answer here is maybe yes and maybe no. My answer would be similar to the one I gave for the first question. But here the issue is taken a little further. Will I look for my record first to see if I can find a free copy before I go to the website I have a subscription to? I think not. If you have a subscription to a website, you will probably go there first.

By the way, if you are working with one of the subscription websites, I always suggest doing an online search for any documents you find to see if another website either has more of the same records or something closely related that might apply to your ancestor.

3. Won't I have access to it?

I think this question is directed specifically at the issue of the agreements between and the other online database companies. The answer is a simple, yes you will have free access to's records.

4. Won't the free site search engine find it?

This question cannot be answered directly. Each individual genealogical database program online has its own search engine. I have previously written about a comparison between some of them. It is apparent that some search engines are better than others at finding relevant documents. But here the variables are too great to answer the question. It is entirely possible that making a search in a free site might turn up the particular document you are looking for. However, the question seems to presuppose that there is a generous amount of duplication between the various programs. It is true that some large databases are duplicated such as the Social Security Death Index, but each of the larger companies has its own unique set of documents.

I hope this answers the questions. I don't see the agreements between the various large genealogy companies as adversely affecting their user base. I assume all will benefit from the agreements.


  1. I would also point out that none of the sites have all the records. so no mater what you are going to need both payed and free. for instance I personally have access to both payed and free sites and there are times where I can only get an index on one site but I can get scans of the document on the other and there are times where the document is not on one payed site but is on some other payed site so one may need access to more then one payed site and/or free site.

  2. Even if the information is available for free somewhere online, the benefit of the payed site is reduced time spent searching around the web for the records. How much time do I want to spend? If I have more time than money, I might decide to skip the payed sites, or hang out at a location with free access to payed sites.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think it is more a balance of the cost of finding the records on your own or spending the money for the work done by the commercial company.