Frequently Asked Questions - Online Genealogy Web Sites

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Joe Hanneman

Researching your family tree is an exciting and revealing process. But every family is different and the resources you need may be different from other peoples. Take a look at our FAQs to reveal which genealogy site is best for you.

Q: Do you have to spend money in order to do online genealogy?


A: Not at all. While there are many very good subscription-based genealogy web sites, there are also quite a few free sites based on the principal of sharing information. Good examples include the U.S. GenWeb Project, Ancestry’s Find-A-Grave burial registry, the Cyndi’s List site of genealogy links, FamilySearch from the Mormon church, and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Q: I have limited financial resources. Can I really accomplish much online?

A: Using websites like the ones listed above, you can at least get your history project started. Use email to contact relatives and see if they have printed family trees or other research you can access. Search the message boards and other resources at RootsWeb. You might find a trove of useful data and good contacts who are researching the same surnames. Paid sites often allow you to search for free, so you can evaluate if their services are worth parting with your cash.

Q: What types of genealogy web sites are most common?

A: You have paid and free sites. Among the most popular genealogy websites are subscription-based services (Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast) that incorporate online databases with family-tree-building tools. There are also sites that primarily exist for research, but not storing family trees. Examples include digital newspaper collections (GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive,, and other online databases such as the Find-A-Grave burial index or the passenger database at Ellis Island. You will also find genealogy blogs, online magazines and genealogy organizations. A good resource to browse is the collection of genealogy links at Cyndi’s List.

Q: Now that so much is digital, how should I balance storing information on computers vs. keeping paper copies?

A: Do not toss your originals. While computers have made genealogy accessible to hundreds of millions of people, they are fallible. Computer viruses, power failures, and other mishaps can cause data loss. Your original photographs and records are the true treasures. Computers make it easy to share. Keep your paper originals stored and secure, and make multiple backups of your scanned/digital data. If you have a favorite heirloom photo from, say, 1900, think of its long journey from the original owner to you. How many times was it threatened by fire, or floods, or a careless relative who wanted to throw it away? Now think of how often your computer has crashed and destroyed data over the past five years. You can replace a scan, but not an original.

Q: Are there things I should be aware of when starting an online genealogy project?

A: A wide array of genealogy companies and organizations such as libraries have placed billions of documents online for researchers to access. If you don’t find what you need initially, be persistent. Historical records often contain errors in spelling, dates of birth, occupations, etc. Look beyond the obvious and you might just find hidden gems that will greatly advance your projects. Also, when reviewing other people’s family trees online, look for the ones with source citations. Don’t accept them at face value. A careless genealogist might cobble together a tree from various sources (some of which are inaccurate). This can perpetuate errors across the internet. Look for sources and try to confirm facts with more than one source before adding it to your family tree. This way, should a skeptical relative say to you, “prove it,” you can.

Q: Do I need to purchase software in addition to my subscription to my favorite genealogy web site?

A: Genealogists use a range of tools to gather and store the information from their family story. Some use desktop software to organize and store information. Others use family tree builders and other tools offered on paid web sites such as and The online tools easily incorporate new information from online searches into the family tree database. Some desktop software synchronizes with online family trees (i.e. Family Tree Builder with MyHeritage and Family Tree Maker with Ancestry). Whatever digital tools you use, make sure they are able to import and export the information in the industry standard Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) file format. This allows you to move your tree to different web platforms or software programs.

Now that you know what to look for in a genealogy site, why not check out our in-depth reviews of the top 10.

About Joe Hanneman

Joe has worked in the fields of journalism, communications, and marketing for more than 30 years. In 2015, he set up the Treasured Lives blog, focusing on historical investigative journalism, genealogy industry information, and features on historic advertisements and news articles.


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