Friday, March 16, 2018
Observations on the Large Online Genealogy Database Websites
While the various online genealogy companies are not actually blind, they do have individual disparate views of genealogy and genealogical research. Although the differences may not be readily apparent, they exist none-the-less. As I was thinking about these differing philosophies, which seem to me to be fairly obvious, I was wondering whether to identify the websites in question or leave that task up to the readers to determine from my descriptional analysis. Since the whole idea is totally mine, I decided I would have to identify which website was which so there would be no misunderstandings. I am not going to indulge in value judgments. There will not be a series of "star" ratings or anything like that. I am merely writing about my perceptions concerning how each of the large websites works. I am also writing this without the benefit of using any explicit references to the websites' own corporate missions or objectives.
Disclaimer: My observations are not intended to be critical of anything done or not done by the various websites but I cannot guarantee that you may think that some of my observations are intended to be critical.
I will start with Ancestry.com. Nearly every promotional statement made by Ancestry.com refers to the claim to be the largest online genealogy company. A quick look at the basis for that claim indicates that in at least some categories it is the "largest." But since detailed information about collections, records, users, members and other factors are not readily available in a format that can be compared to the other websites, the claim cannot be accurately substantiated. Ancestry.com certainly has the lion's share of the online market measured by internet traffic.
The first question that is raised by a claim to being the "largest" in any field is to determine whether large equates with useful, good, helpful, etc. In short, what good does it do to be large if large isn't the main issue? Which immediately brings up the question of what is the main issue. Simply put, the best website is the one that has what you are looking for. Like many other online commercial websites, Ancestry.com is fee-based. There is a significant level of "blow-back" from genealogists about the whole idea of charging a fee for what is essentially information about their own families, but the reality is that all of the large online databases incur substantial costs and those costs have to be paid from either donations or revenue. I think it is time to write about this subject again, so look for a post in the near future.
Back to Ancentry.com. I have been watching the website (and all of the others) for years now. In the past, Ancestry would participate actively in large and small genealogy conferences and support local genealogical societies. That involvement has been dramatically curtailed. In addition, because of the dramatic increase in DNA testing, Ancestry has begun emphasizing DNA testing at the expense of any mention or promotion of their genealogical records. According to iSpot.tv, "In the past 30 days, Ancestry has had 5,041 airings and earned an airing rank of #123 with a spend ranking of #76 as compared to all other advertisers." See Ancestry TV Commercials. My perception of those commercials is that almost all of them are promoting Ancestry's DNA testing kits. What happened to the rest of genealogy? Well, DNA is the part making a lot of money right now.
It is also my perception that this emphasis on DNA testing has been at the expense of any significant growth in their online database records. I used to get notifications about new records but that has almost completely stopped. The current records on Ancestry.com are extremely valuable for genealogical research in some areas of the world and there have been some notable acquisitions such as in Mexico. But by and large, even though record collections are continuing to be added, there is little promotion of that aspect of the website.
In addition, there has been little or no changes or improvements to the family tree program on the website for some time now.
Ancestry.com will likely continue to promote DNA testing. It is too early to tell if the testing itself without a major involvement with a family tree supported by genealogical research will keep the company growing.
Next, FamilySearch.org. FamilySearch is the only one of the very large online database companies that is completely free. Its main limit is the reduced number of indexed records compared to the huge number of unindexed records. FamilySearch is growing very rapidly due to the digitization of its vast microfilm collection and its ongoing digitization projects around the world. The number of records online and available increases every week. Currently, many of the digitized records are only available through searching in the website's Catalog. Over time, however, there is no doubt that the website will continue to grow at an increasing rate.
From a genealogical standpoint, the increased availability of the records, especially those from many parts of the world not covered by other easily available, free websites, will keep FamilySearch at or near the front in the area of providing genealogical records. There is no indication whatsoever that FamilySearch intends to "get into the DNA business." But there are some indications that they might begin to support DNA testing results in the huge cooperative Family Tree program. It is interesting to me that many "serious" genealogists will travel across the country and around the world to visit the famous Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah but those same researchers are sometimes less than knowledgeable about the huge offerings on the FamilySearch.org website. It is an interesting experience to sit in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and show people how to find records on the website when I could do that from anyplace with internet access.
The FamilySearch.org Family Tree is somewhat controversial because of its collaborative nature, but as it develops it will become the "go to" place for genealogists to determine the status of research in any particular family line. Currently, there are over 910 million source listings in the Family Tree and over 1.2 billion individual records. There is still a lot of work to do in "cleaning up" the existing records, but that work is being done at an extraordinary rate of progress. The main limitation of the website is its growing pains. Use of the website and the number of records being added constantly taxes the ability of the developers to keep the website working well online. This is a good problem to have and will be solved as time goes on.
Findmypast.com is the British offering of a huge online genealogical database. It is a relative newcomer to the family tree business but it has an extensive and very valuable collection of records of the British Islands, Ireland and the former British Empire countries. Its record collections in the United States are also growing rapidly. The website's search engines lack some detail, for example, the limited number of options when searching for an individual. When you search for an individual, you cannot add a spouse to assist in finding a match. In other respects, however, their search engine is wonderfully efficient in focusing research on a particular county or parish.
One limitation of the website is not at all the fault of the developers. The limitation lies with the unavailability to see original British records online without paying for copies. The Findmypast.com website has some transcriptions of these original records, but it is always a good idea to look at the original if you can. This problem is caused by the fact that most of the records from the British General Register Office (GRO) are only available by paying a rather substantial fee. Sometimes you cannot determine if a person is a relative without looking at the original record and since digital copies of the records cost money, you may expend quite a bit of money without finding the right person.
Findmypast.com is an excellent online example of an aggressive and rapidly growing genealogical collection. New records are added almost weekly and the website constantly increases in value.
I am constantly amazed that so many people in the United States who have British ancestors are unaware of the resources of this vast website. I helped a man recently who had done extensive research on his Virginia ancestors and was trying to connect his immigrant ancestor back to England in the 1600s. But he had never really looked at Findmypast.com to do any research. His loss.
MyHeritage.com is in a class by itself both because of its size and membership but also because it is the obvious leader in genealogical technology in the world. Genealogists in the United States who would be greatly assisted by using the website are, for the most part, totally unaware of its existence and benefits. The website is aggressive pursuing records and recently added 325 million new records in one week to its collection of over 8.9 billion records. Based in Israel, the website has over 93 million registered members in every country of the world.
MyHeritage.com is also aggressively promoting DNA testing and is also implementing and developing the infrastructure of the website to take advantage of the relationships discovered through DNA testing. During the week of the recent RootsTech.org conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, MyHeritage.com dominated the news with the innovative announcements it made. I have recently written several blog posts about the new developments from MyHeritage and you can be sure there will be more coming.
One example of the breadth of this website is its large online newspaper collections. My family came from a small town in Eastern Arizona. MyHeritage has a connection to the Library of Congress's Chronicling America, Digital Newspaper Project. Because of this connection, MyHeritage provides automatic Record Matches to individual newspaper articles from the local newspaper with references to my ancestors.
If you consider the number of records available from using all four of these websites, you can begin to appreciate the huge impact these website are having and will continue to have in the future of genealogy.