Tag Archives: geni

How do you do genealogy online?

I have three simple questions for all the readers of this blog:

1) Do you use one or more online family tree websites such was MyHeritage.com, Geni.com, Wikitree.com or Ancestry.com (their family tree features, not necessarily their databases)? If so, which one(s) do you use?

2) If you use a family tree web site, list what you like best about it – and what you like least. Also, for sites that offer subscription plans, do you pay a subscription or only use their free features? If you don’t use any family tree website, is there a reason you don’t – and is there something that would change your mind (i.e. if they only offered X I would use their site)?

3) How do you interact with other relatives when doing your genealogy research? If through a website listed above, how does that work? If you intact in a different way, such as via e-mail, explain how well that works.

I hope you will share your experiences with the various services available online, so others can learn about how different readers of this blog are using those services, successfully or less so.

If you have a twitter account, please tweet this post to your followers so we can get as many responses as possible. You can find my tweet of this post at twitter.com/bloodandfrogs and re-tweet it.

Please post your answers in the comments to this post on the blog.

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.

The Future of Sharing (Genealogical Data)

It’s no secret that the current standard for sharing genealogical data, GEDCOM, is woefully out of date. The last official revision to the GEDCOM standard, 5.5, was completed in 1996. A minor update, 5.5.1, was released in 1999 but never officially approved (even though some of its provisions have been adopted by various genealogy programs). Revision 5.5.1 added one very important feature – support for UTF-8 character encoding, which is a form of Unicode, which support multiple character sets (including, for example, Hebrew).

GEDCOM has, for all intents and purposes, been abandoned by the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) which created and owns the standard. The church has indicated that they will not be updating it, and indeed are replacing the need for it with a new API (Application Programming Interface) which will allow genealogy programs to exchange data with their website (FamilySearch.org). One problem with this approach is the need to go through their website, and the fact that they have not made this API publicly available (i.e. it’s not a public standard, just a private interface to their web site). Another major problem is that there is no data format that allows one to create a family tree that can be shared independently, like GEDCOM is used today. FamilySearch in no way needs such a format, since their mammoth size and importance in the genealogical world will force genealogy program to support its API, as many have already done.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to either upgrade or replace GEDCOM. These efforts have all failed. In general the problem has been that the companies that create genealogy program need to agree to adopt any new standard, and they really haven’t had much incentive to do so. Supporting the import of GEDCOM files allows them to support a basic file interchange, which never will support the full feature-set of their programs which have become much more sophisticated since 1996, but is enough to allow customers to exchange information with their relatives. If they supported a fully-featured GEDCOM replacement (that for example would better support photographs and evidence management), it would only make it easier for customers to try other programs. Thus the disincentive for the companies to support a modern replacement for GEDCOM.

Another problem with replacing GEDCOM has been arguments over the data model used. GEDCOM is based on a nuclear family data model (i.e. one mother, one father and their children). It assumes a nuclear family structure, and other forms of families are harder to support. This problem has caused some to support a data model based not on the family but on the individual. This is philosophical debate, and as you might imagine different people take very strong positions in this battle.

Even with this history, there are a few new initiatives to come up with a replacement for GEDCOM. One initiative that has garnered some attention recently is BetterGEDCOM. The BetterGEDCOM initiative came from the frustration of many genealogists over the lack of updates to GEDCOM and is an attempt to create an open forum for the creation of a new standard. Like many attempts at ‘openness’, however, it has run into its own in-fighting and conflicts. It remains to be seen how successful this attempt with be. Another recent initiative is the International OpenGen Alliance (OpenGen). This effort is a bit more of a top-down approach, being managed by the company that runs AppleTree.com, an online family tree web site. OpenGen is, however, a non-profit organization that is supposed to include more than just the team at AppleTree. There have been some attempts between BetterGEDCOM and OpenGen to coordinate, or at least follow each others’ efforts closely. Time will tell which effort, if either, will be successful in creating a new genealogical data sharing standard.

In case you think it isn’t complicated enough, other web sites beyond FamilySearch.org are also developing their own APIs for exchanging genealogical data. OneGreatFamily.com last year introduced an API called GenealogyCloud. It seems that no third-party applications yet support this API.

Geni.com, which boasts nearly a hundred million profiles on their site, and nearly 50 million that are interconnected in what they call their World Family Tree, just yesterday introduced their own API. Unlike FamilySearch.org, however, they are releasing documentation and sample applications on their web site. This will allow anyone to write applications that interact with Geni.com, similar to the way Facebook allows outside developers to create application that access information on Facebook. This is a very positive step. It’s not coincidence that one of the other large family tree web sites, AppleTree.com, is pushing another initiative to replace GEDCOM (OpenGen). These large sites need to create ways to exchange data and interact with other programs and web sites in order to maintain their growth rates.

MyHeritage.com, another one of the big family tree web sites, has taken a slightly different approach in that they have their own application (Family Tree Builder) that runs on a computer, which can sync data to their web site. While this approach allows them more control over what modifies data on their platform, it has its shortcomings as well, not the least of which it requires Windows to run (this coming from a Mac user). I suspect that MyHeritage.com will release their own public API in the future, if only to compete with Geni.com, their biggest competitor.

We can always hope that FamilySearch.org, Geni.com, MyHeritage.com and AppleTree.com will all come together and create a single API and data format for sharing data, but unfortunately if the past is any guide, this is unlikely to happen.

One indication of the direction the wind is blowing in this regard will be the upcoming RootsTech conference, taking place in February 2011 in Salt Lake City. This conference is the first RootsTech conference, although according to the organizers it replaces three earlier technical conferences – The Conference on Computerized Family History, the Family History Technology Workshop and the FamilySearch Developers Conference. Note that these previous conferences were all connected in some way to the Mormon church. It’s unclear how open this new conference will be to new ideas, or if it is really only looking for input for the existing Mormon church efforts such as FamilySearch.org. I imagine representatives from most of the genealogy software companies and web sites will be in attendance at the conference, as will people associated with the BetterGEDCOM and OpenGen efforts. During the week of the conference there will probably be a lot of blogging about what is going on, but the real test will be after the conference if companies announce intentions to seek a common API or data format to move forward with, or whether everyone will just continue the same disjointed approach that has been pursued for nearly 15 years.