Ancestry.com was an early pioneer with an online platform that has helped take genealogy mainstream.
Ancestry simply has no peer when it comes to the breadth and depth of information available to genealogists. Since 1996, it has amassed more than 17 billion searchable records. While the majority of these records relate to the United States, Ancestry also has an impressive collection of more than 4 billion international records. In 2015 alone, Ancestry added more than 1.7 billion records to its burgeoning database. It averages more than 2 million new records each day. The scope of it is truly amazing. Within the first hours of work on a family tree using Ancestry, a user will likely encounter census records, city directories, land ownership maps, wills and probate records, school yearbooks, obituaries, ship registers, newspaper clippings, military draft cards, birth records and much, much more. More than 300 million photos are available, uploaded by Ancestry users and culled from other sources. When Ancestry acquired FindAGrave.com, it added more than 145 million burial records. It offers a huge array of newspaper titles from its own Newspapers.com subsidiary and from NewspaperArchive.com. Depending on the subscription you choose, you can also access military records such as U.S. Marine Corps muster rolls from Fold3.com, another Ancestry subsidiary.
For those doing international research using Ancestry’s World Explorer membership, titles include birth indexes for England and Wales, Irish Catholic church records, British military records, Swedish church records, UK outward passenger lists, British phone books, German baptismal registers, births and baptisms in Scotland, and hundreds of other examples. The Ancestry collection spans the globe, from Australia and South America to Mexico, Canada and all of Europe. With more than 2.3 million paying subscribers, Ancestry also has 80 million family trees with more than 7 billion individual profiles. When using potential matches from other Ancestry users, one must exercise caution, as it is not uncommon for these trees to have inaccurate information. Overall, Ancestry has more than 10 petabytes of data in its systems. That’s 10,000 terabytes. Think the U.S. Library of Congress’ digital collections times three. That’s one massive trove of information.
Having petabytes of data at your fingertips is great — if you can access it and cull out things that apply to your family. Ancestry offers a very robust search engine with multiple options to expand or narrow search terms by place, life event, relatives and even by individual collections. We used two names to test the search engine.
The first, Harry S Truman, returned nearly 286,000 results to explore. The first page of results had the correct 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census for the 33rd president of the United States. It also had Truman’s birth records and a slew of city directory listings for Truman in Independence, Mo., Kansas City and Washington D.C. The search also returned 3,533 photo matches, including Truman in military uniform during World War I, quite a few head-and-shoulders portraits and even a bill signing from his term in office. Next, we ran a search using the name of a personal relative: someone not widely known. The search returned 12,468 possible matches. The first page of results included six correct U.S. Census listings, World War I and II draft cards, a cemetery listing, Social Security death record and a number of user-submitted newspaper stories. Photo results included more than 500 potential matches. The first results page had numerous family pictures (quite a few duplicates), a gravestone photo and images of other relatives of this man.
One of the great things about the Ancestry search is how it suggests high-probability matches in a sidebar on the right side of the screen. Often, this saves scrolling through hundreds of potential matches among the main results. While these suggestions are not always correct, the percentage is quite high. These “extra” results are often matches made in other users’ family trees. Along the left side of the results pages is a digest of categories, allowing you to drill down to just view newspapers, military records or immigration documents. A nice search feature is the Card Catalog, where you can quickly see the vast expanse of searchable collections, or browse one collection without even specifying a surname to search. A new and growing search feature is DNA search, open to those who have purchased an Ancestry DNA kit and attached the results to their tree. More than 1.5 million Ancestry DNA kits have been sold.
Ancestry has undergone a number of redesigns of its graphic interface over the years. It has arrived at a pretty good balance between looks and organization. With such a sheer volume of information available, the site can seem a bit intimidating to the novice. But after just a few minutes, finding your way around the site gets to be second nature. You can view your family tree in different layouts. Simply clicking on an individual’s name pops up a floating window with basic information and options to view a full profile. It is very intuitive and easy to use. It is easy to add information to your family tree, with the ability to review the new facts before accepting them. The system does have quirks, however. It is not uncommon when accessing a document or other record to receive an error page that says the resource is not available. It is also not uncommon to attempt to access a record and get another error that the document has not been indexed and cannot be saved. On occasion, these problems extend to the image viewer. A document will show up in search results, but the user has trouble viewing it. These vexing problems might seem minor, until the record you are trying to access is crucial to your continuing history search.
You are unlikely to find another genealogy platform that even comes close to matching Ancestry’s list of features. One of the most convenient is the ability to customize your own home page, putting your most used features and resources on the page you see first when you log into Ancestry. Perhaps the most iconic feature of the site is the Ancestry leaf, a small green icon that appears next to a person’s name when Ancestry finds a “hint,” or suggested record. This proactive feature saves a tremendous amount of search time and adds some excitement to the history search. There’s nothing quite like seeing that first animated leaf appear, then clicking on it and finding something useful. It is crucial to be able to correct errors in the database, and Ancestry does not disappoint in this regard. Users are able to suggest corrections and alternates, especially on U.S. Census records, for first names, surnames, street names, occupations and more. The corrections are reviewed by Ancestry staff, then the user is sent a thank you email with a link to the updated information. Very nice. The Ancestry Shoebox is a great place to store records that look useful but don’t yet have an obvious family tree match. Those records are saved and can be reviewed later and easily added to a tree.
Ancestry offers users a way to print attractive posters and history books, using the photographs and information stored in a family tree. The final printed products are created and fulfilled by My Canvas by Alexanders, an Ancestry associate. The Ancestry data warehouse is available on mobile devices, too, with Ancestry for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. In the area of education, Ancestry offers a new feature: Ancestry Academy. These educational videos explore a range of subjects to make it easier to conduct family research. Some of the Academy content is free to all Ancestry users, while premium content requires a higher cost subscription. People who have hit the proverbial “brick wall” in their research can hire one of Ancestry’s professional genealogists. Ancestry ProGenealogists have been doing this work for years and will take on any project challenge, whether getting you started, or helping you finish. Another new feature, AncestryHealth, allows users to trace medical conditions and gain better health insights. AncestryHealth is currently in beta testing. More than 1.5 million people have purchased AncestryDNA kits over the past couple years to learn more about their ancestral bloodlines. The DNA kit costs $99, although discount specials are offered on occasion.
1 month subscription – $19.99, $34.99, $44.99
6 month subscription - $99.00, $149.00, $199
Annual subscription - $189.00, $299.00, $389.00
Using Ancestry.com carries with it some serious costs, but the site has pricing packages that should suit just about everyone. Pricing plans have recently changed and now fall into three main categories: U.S. Discovery ($19.99 USD monthly; $99 for six months; $189 annual), World Explorer ($34.99 USD monthly; $149 for six months; $299 annual) and All Access ($44.99 monthly; $199 for six months; $389 annual). This division of pricing is very important, as it allows users to explore the services a month at a time before they decide to purchase in six-month or full-year blocks. All of the pricing packages include a free two-week trial that can be cancelled before the 14 days elapse. The basic membership is a great starting spot, providing access to the entire U.S. records collection. World Explorer adds access to billions of international records, while All Access also includes content from Newspapers.com (more than 4,100 newspapers from the 1700s to 2000s) and Fold3.com (400 million military records).
It would be difficult to go wrong making Ancestry.com your primary tool for history research. It is the undisputed leader in genealogy research. Users can be confident Ancestry will be around for a long time to provide the latest, and the oldest, family discoveries. Users will find some quirks in its systems, but these can be forgiven for the simply massive amount of information made available on this platform. With a major investment firm as its prime shareholder, we can expect Ancestry will continue to innovate with technology, adding to its menu of products and services.