Why I switched to online single-tree sites to record my genealogy research

The background

Before Ancestry.com, there was Rootsweb.com. Rootsweb allowed you to upload a gedcom to make it publicly available. And you could do the same thing on the FamilySearch.org website. But you couldn’t edit them.

Then, in 2006, Ancestry launched the feature allowing individuals to create their own family tree on the website and served up the iconic “shaky leaf” hint (which, after a very short time, became extremely annoying – at least to me).

While I’d been using desktop software to record and store my genealogy research (starting with Family Tree Maker, then graduating to The Master Genealogist), I realized that maintaining my research on Ancestry.com would allow me to access it from anywhere, as long as I had an Internet connection.

So I uploaded my gedcom to Ancestry to get started, joining the ranks of what is today over 100 million individual family trees on that site. The beauty of using the Ancestry site was (and still is) that I could easily attach source records published by Ancestry to individuals.

Then WikiTree.com launched its single family tree site in 2008. While it didn’t have the plethora of online records like Ancestry, it was built strictly for the purpose of the single world tree and collaboration.

Fast forward five years, and FamilySearch launched One World Tree. While that site kept the individual family trees that had been uploaded by gedcom, One World Tree, like WikiTree, was meant to be just what it says – a single family tree for the entire world, to be grown and improved upon by both individual genealogists’ research and by collaboration among them.

Except for just looking at the big trees on FamilySearch and WikiTree for possible resources and research notes posted by others, I didn’t use them. I simply maintained and kept adding to my tree on Ancestry.

So why did I switch?

Over the years, I’ve researched in depth several problematic ancestors, adding a great deal of new information, correcting major errors that have persisted for decades, and breaking down brick walls. All this I’ve added to my tree on Ancestry. Then I’ve had to sit back and hope someone stumbles across the information and actually edits their own family tree to reflect the new, corrected information. Lemme tell you, it’s rare to have that happen. It’s a very slow process to see all the bad genealogies get corrected. I’ve posted some important research reports (on Ancestry, they’re called “Stories”) attached to ancestors. Some of these reports have been posted for well over a year, and no one has “attached” them to that person in their own family tree on Ancestry. While I know the corrected information, it’s not getting around like it should.

In a nutshell, I made the switch because by confining my research to my personal tree on Ancestry, I had to simply hope someone would run across it and make corrections to their own tree. By using WikiTree and FamilySearch, the information is published to that particular ancestor – and there is (theoretically) only one instance of that person in the tree, so everyone who looks at the ancestor sees the research reports and corrected data.

And before I go any further, I must add that both these sites are free!

FamilySearch – About three years ago or so, I started making contributions to One World Tree on FamilySearch — adding all my reports, correcting erroneous data, and adding new information. And citing sources. With the wealth of primary sources available on FamilySearch, those sources are easily attached to the appropriate individuals in the tree. Plus, you can “follow” ancestors and receive notifications when changes are made by others, or you can head straight to the “Deceased People I Am Following” page to see them.

One drawback to publishing reports and analyses to FamilySearch is that each entry is limited to 10,000 characters (not words, but characters). An extensive analysis may have to be uploaded as a document or posted in multiple parts in order to publish it all (see the report entitled “What Happened to John Flanagan?” for an example).

Working on the tree, you’re bound to find incorrect lineages, but because the tree is collaborative, you are in the perfect position to make corrections and cite your sources. Citing your sources and adding research notes make it much less likely that another user will change the information back to the incorrect data.

WikiTree – I’m a true believer in – and complete convert to – WikiTree! I used it as a research guide for a number of years, but only this past summer (2022) did I start contributing to it. The single collaborative family tree is what’s so appealing. Plus, part of the membership process is being asked to commit to their Honor Code, which “encourages collaboration, accuracy, and the use of sources and citations.” In the event of disputes between members, WikiTree has a team of mentors to manage them. They also have a user forum, G2G, which is a terrific tool and which is something FamilySearch lacks. Trolling, flaming and all forms of harassment are strictly prohibited, and anyone who engages in them may find themselves booted out of WikiTree.

Like Ancestry and FamilySearch, the tree does have its share of incorrect lineages, often created by gedcoms that users uploaded to the site before processes were put in place to help curb the influx of problematic trees. Fortunately, WikiTree has Arborists who work to improve the accuracy and health of the tree and look for duplicate ancestor profiles which they then propose for mergers.

WikiTree doesn’t have its own set of databases and online records like Ancestry or FamilySearch. Remember, it’s free, so it doesn’t have stockholders like Ancestry or the power of the LDS church behind it, like FamilySearch does. WikiTree is all about source citation (you can insert hyperlinks to online data that’s on other websites) and honoring copyrighted material.

Other one-world-tree sites

Two other websites come to mind – werelate.org and geni.com. From what I can tell, both are wiki-style websites, like WikiTree. I’ve actually edited an ancestor or two’s pages on werelate.org, by copying and pasting my research into it and correcting known errors. I haven’t used it enough to know how well administrators (top level admins and others, like WikiTree’s Arborists and Mentors) are tending it, so I can’t give an opinion at this time.

Regarding geni.com, my opinion is that it’s a waste of money. First, they charge $120 a year just to edit ancestor pages. And second, they don’t have their own set of source databases and documents to go with the price tag. Seems to me it’s just a money-maker for the people operating it. And it consistently gets bad reviews online.

The takeaway is…

… at this moment, WikiTree is the clear winner. My jury of 1 is still out on werelate.org, but I’m definitely giving a “guilty” verdict to geni.com. With WikiTree, I love the collaboration and emphasis on source citations – something that FamilySearch lacks. The plus side of FamilySearch is the ease of attaching their primary source records to an ancestor in the One World Tree – if only the researchers take the time to do it (which isn’t often enough, in my experience).

For now, I’ll concentrate on WikiTree, use Ancestry and FamilySearch (along with copious other primary source websites) to find documentation, copy my WikiTree research findings over to FamilySearch when I have the time (including sources), and keep an eye on my “dead peeps” on WeRelate.org.

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