Monthly Archives: February 2011

What’s your favorite online family tree site?

Once you’ve built a family tree, it makes sense that you would want to share it with other family members online. There are a lot of good reasons to share your family tree online, including showing it to family members scattered across the globe, which can help you to get updates on your information from those same relatives.

The idea of making your family tree public on the Internet scares a lot of people, however, and for good reason. There are a lot of privacy issues with sharing information on family members online, including legal issues in some countries with sharing any personal information of living persons.

There are also many different ways to share family trees online. You can output a static web site from your desktop genealogy program, you can upload a GEDCOM file to one of the online family tree sites, or you can build one from scratch online. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these approaches.

The biggest family tree hosting sites are Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, and Geni.com. All of them allow some form of free family trees, and all offer subscription services on top of those free options. There are also other sites, like AppleTree.com and WikiTree.com.

I want to start building a chart to compare these sites, from the perspective of hosting a family tree only. Do you use one of the above sites? Do you use another family tree hosting site? Do you build your own site using desktop software? Post in the comments what you like and don’t like about the sites you’ve used for putting up your family tree online.

Based on the input people give in the comments, I will construct a chart showing the features as perceived by users of each site.

I’ll start here by saying what I like and don’t like about the sites I’ve tried.

Geni.com

Geni.com probably has the slickest interface of all the sites. It’s flash-based and works fairly well. You can start from scratch and build a tree fairly quickly. You can also upload a GEDCOM file, although I haven’t done that on Geni myself. You can also download a GEDCOM of your tree (although I believe this is a Pro feature). There is no desktop software that can connect to Geni.com, but they have created an API to allow such connections, so perhaps in the future there will be support for connecting via desktop software.

Upside or downside depending on your perspective, Geni is really trying to be one big tree. That means it’s not really possible to have a private tree that only you and your family members can use. On the other hand, since everyone can find everyone, you can connect to distant cousins very easily. Once you find your cousin, you can merge your trees, but you can never un-merge your trees so you need to be careful. In my experience, I’ve found more distant cousins using Geni.com than on any other site. Geni.com also has some interesting features like Surnames and Projects, which let researchers work together on common topics.

Geni.com supports uploading photos and organizing them in albums. You can tag who is in each photo, and select the faces of each person so someone looking at the photo can see who is who. I don’t think there is any kind of limit on how many photos you can upload which is really nice.

Geni.com is big on the social-networking aspect of their site, where you other family members see what you’re doing on the site and can post comments on photos and send ‘virtual gifts’ on birthdays and anniversaries which sounds kind of corny but is actually nice. Of course, in a world where we’ve gone from sending real cards to people by mail to sending e-cards online, this might be an even further decline to sending ‘virtual gifts’ instead. I don’t know, but I get virtual gifts from relatives that never sent me a card, real or electronic, so I guess there’s something to say for that…

One thing which I really do think sets apart Geni.com is their support. I’ve had very good experiences with their customer support, and they’ve been able to fix various problems I’ve had in building my tree there fairly quickly.

Geni.com’s Pro paid account, gets you the following features:

- Tree matches (i.e. while viewing your tree a small icon will appear in the corner of a person’s box showing there is a match with other people on the site)
- Advanced search
- Forest GEDCOM exports (i.e. exporting a GEDCOM of your extended family tree including those people who you did not add yourself)
- No banner ads
- Priority support
- Unlimited virtual gifts

For pricing it seems their Pro account is currently $12.95 per month, $99.95 per year or $149.95 for two years. Geni.com used to offer a lifetime subscription for $299 but I don’t see it now. Perhaps now that they have enough income they don’t need to offer that anymore.

A sample Geni.com family tree

MyHeritage.com

MyHeritage.com works a bit differently than Geni.com. There is a concept of separate trees. People sometimes upload multiple GEDCOMs to the site making separate trees in one account. While this can be good, in practice there seems to be a lot of duplicate trees on the site. MyHeritage.com has a feature they call Smart Matching which looks for matches between the people in your tree(s) and other trees on their site. It then gives you a list of trees with matching people, and shows you how many matches there are. Recently they added a way to confirm matches between trees, although I’m not certain what that does considering the trees stay separate anyways. I guess it just lets others know that the people are the same.

MyHeritage.com supports many languages, although in my experience, if you live in a country that speaks a different language than yourself, this can be problematic as the site will always try to use the language of the country you’re in (which it auto-detects). That’s more of a nuisance than a real problem, but a nuisance nonetheless.

MyHeritage.com also supports image uploading, although it is limited on free accounts to 250MB. They have one feature that seems to be unique among all the family tree sites – they can automatically match people in photos to people in your tree using face recognition. Pretty neat.

Speaking of limits on free accounts, however, I forgot to mention the biggest problem with MyHeritage.com’s free accounts – you are limited to 250 people in your tree. You might be able to upload a GEDCOM that has more than 250 people and get it accepted, but then you automatically lock out your account so that you cannot add new people to it. You can, however, get smart matches on the people in your tree. Note that even if you sign up for a Premium account, you are still limited to 2500 people in your tree. You need to sign up for the Premium Plus account to get unlimited people in your trees.

MyHeritage.com also has a free desktop app (Windows only) called Family Tree Builder. There is no limit to how many people you can add to their desktop software. It can also do face recognition on photos, etc. and it can sync a tree to the MyHeritage.com site. I haven’t done this so I don’t know how well it works, and if it is a two-way process. If you have used this, I’d love to hear about it.

MyHeritage.com recently added the ability to print out charts, and added a Memory Game that uses photos of your relatives in the game.

A Premium account adds the following features:

- Tree size up to 2500 people (instead of 250 on free accounts)
- Storage 500MB (instead of 250MB on free accounts)
- Enhanced Smart Matching (not sure what the real difference is between regular Smart Matching)
- Priority Support
- Ad-Free
- Power feature: Timeline

Their Premium Plus account is the same as the Premium account, except you get unlimited tree size, unlimited storage and another ‘power feature’ called Timebook.

On the pricing side, MyHeritage offers their Premium account for $75 per year (or $120 for 2 years or $225 for 5 years) and their Premium Plus account for $119.40 per year (or $191.04 for 2 years or $358.20 for 5 years).

Overall I would say MyHeritage has more features than Geni.com, but they are less polished.

A sample MyHeritage.com family tree

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com is more than anything else a site for doing record research. They literally have billions of records on their site, and if you’re researching family members in the United States, it is a must-use site. Of course, they offer many other features – everything from family tree building to chart printing to DNA testing, etc. I’m going to focus, however, just on the family tree building aspect of the site.

Of course, one of the best features of Ancestry.com’s family trees are the tight integration with its research features. When you build a tree in Ancestry.com, it will show you if it thinks there are records for people in the tree by placing a small leaf icon next to their names. Moreover, you can use the profiles of people in your trees when doing records searching, automatically filling in information on birth and location, etc. to help narrow down searches quickly. These are nice features to be sure, but not something that can be compared to other sites very well.

Ancestry lets you set up unlimited numbers of trees, each with different permissions, so you could have some trees public and some private, etc. You can invite family members to your trees, and give them different permissions on editing the tree.

I don’t host my whole family tree on Ancestry.com myself, but what I do use it for is creating small trees for research purposes. For example, if I find a family that I think is related, but I haven’t found the link yet, then I create their tree to the best of my knowledge and make it public on Ancestry.com hoping someone else will find it in a search and say they are related so I can find the link. I can’t do that in Geni.com, since you only have one tree and I don’t yet know how they are related.

Ancestry.com also has a desktop application that can transfer data to their web site, Family Tree Maker. On Windows, where is has been around for a long time, they come out with new version annually, the current version being Family Tree Maker 2011. On the Mac, they just released a new version after more than a decade out of the market, simply called Family Tree Maker for Mac. It is based on their previous windows release (2010). I don’t believe it is possible to sync data in two directions between the desktop app and the web site, so this functionality is limited. You can, however, see hints on documents that might be relevant to a specific person in the tree from within the application, which is nice.

For pricing, I find the comparison a bit awkward since Ancestry.com is not primarily a family tree site. It’s almost like their free family tree building is a loss-leader to get people to sign up for the rest of the site. I’m not sure what family-tree specific features you gain by subscribing to Ancestry.com, except the obvious which is access to their records. For some level of comparison, however, I’ll list their subscription pricing. The US Deluxe Membership is $19.95 per month, or $155.40 per year. The World Deluxe Membership, which adds access to Canadian, UK, Ireland and other international records, as well as quicker access to new records, is $29.95 per month, or $299.40 per year.

Interestingly Ancestry.com has been beta-testing a new site called Mundia.com which seems to be intended as a direct competitor to Geni.com and MyHeritage.com. As it’s still in beta there is no pricing set up yet, but they do have access to the trees on Ancestry.com, so it will not start out without anyone to match to when they launch. Perhaps when this comes out of beta, it will be easier to compare to Geni.com and MyHeritage.com.

A sample Ancestry.com family tree (note the leaves indicating record matches)

Other Sites

As mentioned, there are many other sites out there for building family trees online, including AppleTree.com and WikiTree.com, both of which look promising. AppleTree.com seems to be going after the Geni.com model of one big tree, while WikiTree.com is free and very focused on privacy concerns. I haven’t used either of these sites extensively so I won’t comment on them now, but if you’ve used them please comment on them.

So go ahead and tell me the best and worst of all the family tree sites you’ve used. What categories do you think are fair to compare against all of them? What is truly unique about any of the sites you’ve used? Feel free to champion the site you use.

If you work for one of the above mentioned sites, I welcome your input as well. Did I make a mistake in describing your site? Are there features I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.

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Using FindAGrave.com to…

…find a grave. Well yes, you can carry out FindAGrave.com‘s namesake function and find graves online, but there is a lot more to the site as well. During the fifteen years or so that I’ve done genealogy I’ve come across the site many times, but I have to admit I never really gave it a close look until recently. Once I had taken a look, I was surprised that many people I know who are involved in genealogy had also never really taken a close look at the site.

That’s not to say the site is not popular. In fact, according to compete.com, a web analytics company, FindAGrave.com has had more unique users in the past year than FamilySearch – over one million unique users in fact. Of course, neither site is close to Ancestry.com’s traffic, but that’s not really a fair comparison.

Unique visitors over past 13 months to Ancestry, FindAGrave and FamilySearch

There are other explanations than FindAGrave’s usefulness for genealogy that explain its popularity. In fact, it was founded for a somewhat different purpose – to help people find the graves of famous people. I suppose the same group of people that always read the obituary section of the newspaper first might also find this kind of site interesting. That said, however, it is immensely useful for genealogists and I’m going to explain a bit about how it works and how it can work for you.

Finding Graves

FindAGrave has information on over 57 million graves in over 300,000 cemeteries in over 170 countries. You start by just going to their search page and trying to search for a specific person, or just by surname, etc. Keep in mind that in most cases, the graves that are added to the database are added manually by real people. That means if no one added the person you’re looking for, then they won’t be there. There are exceptions to this, as some databases of graves have been added, in particular lists of military graves. If you don’t know which cemetery your relative is buried in, and are using FindAGrave to help you locate the grave, try to add as much information as you can to the search – for example, if you know that your relative died in a specific state in the US, then add the Country (US) and State to the search, to make the search more focused.

Adding Graves

What if you search for the grave of a particular relative and you don’t find him or her? You can add them. To add a grave, you need to join the site (this is free), add biographical information on the person, and then add them to a cemetery. If (and this is rare) the cemetery is not on FindAGrave, then of course you can also add the cemetery first. The site actually has a few options for adding graves, including using an Excel spreadsheet to upload large numbers of graves in one cemetery at once.

Why, you might be asking, should you add graves to FindAGrave?

Well, first there is obvious purpose for many of creating a permanent memorial online for the person. Once you add a grave to the site, people can add content to the grave’s web page, like leaving virtual flowers and leaving notes in memory of the person.

If you know the location of the grave, and other relatives do not, then you are also helping your relatives to locate the grave. When a distant relative searches the next time on the site, they will now find the grave of the person you added.

It might seem odd, but these graves can also bring distant living family members together. If you list the grave of your great-grandparents, there may be many many cousins who also descend from the same people, and will find the memorial you placed online. This offers a way to connect with such cousins.

So let’s say you know which cemetery your relative is buried in, but not the specific location within that cemetery? You’ll want as specific a location for the grave when adding it to the site, meaning you should try to find out the specific section name/number, row number, plot number, etc. for each grave you add to the site. The quickest way to find out such information may be to simply call up the cemetery and ask. Most currently used cemeteries will have an office and will have the ability to look up the locations of graves. You should have as much information about each person you want to have looked up as possible – including names of spouses, maiden names, date of birth, date of death/burial, etc. as you never know how the grave information is indexed in the office. Also, if the name you are looking up is fairly common, or similar to other names, you will need the additional information to help the office worker to differentiate between different records.

Lessons Learned

When I heard about the recent toppling of graves by New York City sanitation workers when they were cleaning up the first big snowstorm last month I noticed that the cemetery sounded familiar. I checked my records and indeed my great-great-grandparents were buried in that cemetery. A further search on the cemetery showed that even worse, in the month prior over 200 graves had been vandalized in the same cemetery. I immediately called the cemetery, to find out the status of the graves. I didn’t know the specific location of the graves, but the person who answered the phone was able to locate them fairly quickly. It turned out, thankfully, that they were buried in a section of the cemetery that was unaffected by either the sanitation workers or the vandalism the prior month. This incident illustrated a few important points to me. First, that even though I have a record in my family tree file where some of my relatives are buried, I don’t actually have the exact plot location for most of them. Second, that cemeteries do not stay static, and unfortunately vandalism and other negative actions do occur in them that can mean the damaging or even complete destruction of one’s ancestor’s gravestone. Lastly, that although I do know the locations of some graves, I don’t know what is written on many of them.

I’ve mentioned in the past that information is only as good as the source, and that while information on a grave is probably accurate in terms of the death date, everything else would probably need to be confirmed elsewhere. Besides the dates of birth and death which are common on most graves, one piece of information that is common on Jewish graves is the name of the father of the deceased. Sometimes this is only written in Hebrew, while the English inscription if it exists only lists the name and dates. Sometimes a Jewish grave, especially of a person that was born in a foreign country, will list the town where the person came from as well. From a genealogists point-of-view, all of this information is very important (although it must also be confirmed with other sources).

Interestingly enough my great-great-grandfather’s grave in the Netherlands lists him as being ‘from Reisha’ which is not exactly true. Reisha (which is the Yiddish name of the town) is the current Polish town of Rzeszow. It was a major Jewish center for the region of Galicia in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. My great-great-grandfather did indeed live in Rzeszow and had a couple of kids there (on either side of the rest of his children which were born in NYC). If you would thus assume that being ‘from’ Rzeszow meant he was born there, you would be wrong. He was born in the nearby town of Kanczuga and only moved to Rzeszow later. Why was he listed as being from Reisha on his gravestone? Perhaps there was more respect for those from Reisha? Maybe his children and grandchildren who buried him didn’t know which town he was from originally? I don’t know the answer to that, but in any event if you were to find the grave and assume the town listed was his birth town, you would be mistaken.

Finding Grave Information Online

Sometimes the best way to find information on graves is to look online. Some cemeteries or towns that administer cemeteries have posted information from their records online. Each cemetery obviously has different policies. Some cemeteries, especially famous ones, have had their graves indexed by volunteers and put online without coordination with the cemetery itself (in some cases the cemeteries no longer have active management). Even before calling a cemetery office, I would try to see if the cemetery or the cemetery owner (which could be a town or a religious organization, for example) has a website and if they provide information on the graves in their cemetery online.

As an example, I have relatives buried in Augusta, GA. A search for ‘augusta georgia cemetery’ on Google shows me a list of cemeteries in Augusta (generated by Google Maps) and then the web site search results which include a Rootsweb site and then the second result which is ‘Augusta, GA – Official Website – Cemeteries‘. That sounds promising. Clicking on that link brings me to a web site managed by the city of Augusta, and includes a list of the cemeteries in Augusta as well as a link to their ‘Graveside Database‘. It turns out that Augusta has put information on every grave in their cemeteries online in a database. Now, obviously, you will not always be so lucky as to find such as resource, but my point here is that you might find something similar and it’s definitely a great resource to have, especially since you can’t expect an office worker on a phone to answer unlimited questions about graves in their cemetery, but you can do as many searches on a web site as you want.

Let’s continue with the example. If I search for the name ‘Silver‘ in the database I get a list of 28 graves, all of which are in the Magnolia Cemetery. Looking at the list of graves indeed there are many of my relatives listed. An excerpt is below:

Excerpt of search results from the Augusta, GA cemetery database

So first of all, I now know which cemetery my relatives are buried in. I could have also found this information from other relatives, but now I don’t need to ask. Clicking on an individual grave gives me information on the grave. In some cases it is very basic, just what is on the grave itself. It usually lists the name of the funeral home, which if I didn’t know much about the person might be an additional avenue to pursue. The detailed page also lists the location of the grave, but in this case the locations are relative, not specific – i.e. ‘Buried in the new Jewish section at 15th St.’. That could be a problem if the cemetery is very large.

Some of the listings even show which company the person worked for, list family information (including married names of children and where they lived), as well as other biographical information. Now you might be asking yourself if you find such as site, why bother to add the graves to FindAGrave? First, not everyone looking for these grave many come across this web site. It’s possible the information on the web site will be removed at some point, etc. Those are all good reasons to add the information you’ve found on the web site to FindAGrave, but indeed there are two features of FindAGrave that give even better reasons – photo requests and virtual cemeteries. 

Request a Photo

Once you find a grave on FindAGrave, or add it yourself, there is an amazing feature of the site called Request a Photo. Basically, for any grave that is in the system, you can request that a volunteer go and photograph the grave for you. When you register on the site, you have the option of adding your zip code and volunteering to take pictures of graves for other people. When someone wants a photo, the system e-mails all the people who live within a certain distance from the cemetery, and volunteers can accept the request and then they go to the cemetery, take pictures, then upload the pictures to the memorial page for the grave you selected. If you have relatives that are buried far from you, this is an great feature. Of course, there are many factors that will determine whether or not the graves will be photographed – how many volunteers are available, how busy those volunteers are at the moment, what the weather is like outside when you send the request, etc. but in many cases you will find photos uploaded within days of your request.

Virtual Cemeteries

As you research your family, you will frequently run into cousins that are researching the same line as you. You might share common great-great-grandparents, for example, and are both trying to research back further. You may also want to fill in their section of the tree, if for example, each of you are descendant from a different child of the same great-great-grandparents, they can provide information on their branch, and you can provide information on your branch. One way to connect with these other branches is to set up what FindAGrave calls ‘Virtual Cemeteries’. Basically, you can great a cemetery that is based on whatever criteria you decide. This could be ‘Descendants of Joe and Jenny Smith’ for example, and then you could add all the graves of the descendants that you find on the site, no matter where in the world they are located. If you know of others you can add them to the site first, then add them to this virtual cemetery. You can then share this virtual cemetery, which is really just a list of graves that you determine,  with other relatives that are researching the same family. They can then fill in other graves of people they know about.

To continue my example from above where I searched for and found relatives with the surname Silver in the Magnolia Cemetery in Augusta, I added those graves to a virtual cemetery called ‘Pinchas and Breindel (Tanenbaum) Silver and descendants‘. This contains seven graves and looks like:

A Virtual Cemetery on FindAGrave.com

If you look closely, you’ll notice that everyone in this ‘virtual’ cemetery are actually in the Magnolia cemetery. That’s okay, it’s just the beginning. The goal from this point on would be to continue adding other descendants to the virtual cemetery as I find or add them. Other relatives can also help to add to this cemetery.

If you look closely you’ll also notice that six out of the seven listings have a list grave icon next o the name. That indicates that the grave has a photo associated with it. In fact, I requested photos of all seven, but one of the graves is not yet engraved because the person passed away too recently. The volunteer looked for the grave, then realized that it has no inscription yet, and instead of uploading a picture was able to indicate that it was impossible to take the picture right now.

Memorials

Just to give you an idea of what a memorial on the site looks like, here is one of the graves listed in the virtual cemetery:

A memorial page on FindAGrave.com

Looking at the page, you can see birth and death information. You can see other close relatives that are also on FindAGrave.com (his parents and his spouse). The same family information and grave location data from the Augusta site is listed, and there are three photos shown.

Note that the bottom photo is just of the entrance to the cemetery. If there is a photo of the cemetery, FindAGrave will show the photo of the cemetery. This is true even if there are no photos of the grave itself, so at least the cemetery photo will be shown.

The top two photos are photos that were uploaded by a volunteer who answer the Request for Photo. you can see the name of the volunteer who uploaded the photos as well.

So go check out FindAGrave.com,  search for graves of your family, add those which you know about but are not on the site, and if you have the time volunteer to photograph graves as well. Adding grave to the database and photographing graves for others are both great ways to give back to the genealogy community at large.