Grand Pockets’s Blog

Genealogy, Family, Poetry and Peeves

Ancestry’s Trees Reviewed

You know the old saying – “You can’t take it with you?” That, in a nutshell, is the problem with’s latest iteration of online Family Tree software. I’ve been experimenting with it and developed a 6000 person tree just to try it out – it has some cool features that make it positively addictive.

First, instant linking of source material found on Ancestry. Found great Aunt Mable in the 1920 census? Great, just click to link the census image to your tree and a couple more licks and the census entry for each person in her family is attached. There are just 2 catches – first, the indexing is horrific. My Gould line finds the surname indexed variously as Gael, Gault, Guild and Goray. Normal variations be damned – some of these indexed names are very, very baaaad. Almost as if someone with no experience in reading documents whatever indexed them. Wait a minute! They WERE indexed by people with little or no experience at reading documents! Volunteers did most of the indexing, and while that is both boon and curse to online genealogy, I’ll accept the indexing problem as a necessary evil going along with the need to find cheap resources to index the billions of pages needing input.   The second problem is – “You can’t take it with you”. If you output your tree to GEDCOM you lose the images and are left with a generic source. In order to keep the image you’ll still need to download it to your hard drive, and in order to keep the info on the census you’ll need to transcribe it to the notes section of the individual on your tree. Don’t put it in Stories, or Comments sections of the tree because anything put there? Well – “You can’t take it with you” Comments are lost and Storie end up as a link in your program’s Notes section. That of course is of no help whatever if you decide to drop your subscription, or for anyone else without a subscription.

If you put a lot of work into your online tree – adding phots, source record, stories and comments? Well, they gotcha. In order to keep reading that material you’ll have to maintain your subscription. Oh, btw, did you read the fine print? You can delete your tree, you can alter your tree, but guess who OWNS your tree? of course. Yep, that’s right – that tree you deleted can be saved to their archives and used on CDs they sell, it can be freely used for any purpose Ancestry chooses in the future. When you create a tree “You c’t take it with you” and they own it, lock, stock and barrel.

SO what else is good and bad?

The trees are SLOW to input from scratch. There is no merge, so duplicates become this jigsaw puzzle of “How do I get rid of the extra Aunt Henny” without losing the downline info? If both duplicates have linked people you either need to leave it as is, or delete the entire line of people in one of the duplicates. No way to merge them.

Did I say slow to input? You wait for every single field you want to edit to download, enter your info, then wait to return to the profile, then you do it again. I have cable and it’s a fast connection but I still spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for pages to fully load so I can edit or add info. I also did a tree using a gedcom transfer and adding it to the Ancestry Tree program. It works but you still have to link each person to any source material and not everyhting in your gedcom will cross over in the conversion.

Still, the photos section is a great feature. You can search for any photos posted by cousins of your family members, as well as stories. I found hundreds of photos of cousins, and a few pertinent to my direct line. I added some of my own. Easy to upload if you have fast connection with space for full exposition, and an upload tool that will take up to 500 photos at once if you need it. As a photo album, however there are many much better places to put your photos online. And some people have crazy ideas of what makes a photograph genealogically important.  One I found of my cousin’s shadow. That’s right – it was a photo of my cousin’s shadow on a wall. Not him. Just his shadow in noonday sun. It wasn’t even a profile. So now I can prove that my cousin cast a large a shadow and lived in a white house with clapboard siding that received full sun. It’s very easy to link these photos to your own tree, too. Takes seconds and you’ve got a pic of Uncle Larry smiling out from his branch in your tree. Of course, if you decide to remove your tree and convert it to gedcom – well, “You can’t take it with you”. The process of downloading the photos to your harddrive isn’t very arduous but takes a bit of time – and for crying out loud rename them or you’ll never figure out who it is! Ancestry’s naming is a computer generated string of characters necessary to archive millions of photos. If you forget to rename good luck. Unless you can recognize them from memory you’ll never figure out who it was you downloaded. Is that Uncle Harry or cousin Dick? One last – once you upload your photos – guess who now owns them? Oh yes. You’ve given them full license to use your photos for promotion, on CDs or in any way they see fit.

Okay – what else is good or bad? Well, next is the trees themselves. Because there is no merge feature, easy linking to records and a confusing clunky input, a lot of the trees you find have really weird junk in them. I thought trees on World Connect were inaccurate. Ancestry trees suffers from technical nightmares. Seems people use that easy linking to records to link ANY record Ancestry’s hints engine suggests. Ancestry’s Hints enguine is fairly smart but it’s still inaccurate enough to wreak havoc with unwary, or unsavvy tree builders. I constantly find trees with incorrect censuses linked to families with the result the info in them becomes a hodgepodge of correct and incorrect data in a crazy quilt alphabet soup of messed up dates, places and people.  One ancestor of mine, a Fleming, had 27 children. When I checked the linked censuses there were 3 different William Fleming families linked to the same person. 2 were in Marion county, West Virgina and the William’s were born just a year apart – that I can understand someone fairly new at this getting confused. But the third William’s family hailed from Alabama, they spelled the name with two M’s in the middle, not a single kid’s name coincided and he was 12 years younger. The wife’s given name was the same, though, so the result was a woman giving birth to 6 children at age 49 -51-54-56-57 and 59 and 6 younger ones at 20-21-24-27-29-31. Evidently they rested 18 years before giving lovemaking another try. To top it off William’s other wife in this conglomerated tree had her children BETWEEN the first wife’s kids.

This isn’t uncommon in these Ancestry Trees and much of the problem is a result of the program’s shortcomings rather than the genealogist creating them. Sometimes you try and try and can’t figure out how to fix the problem. I also found in converting to gedcom and then into my Legacy software that there were lots of glitches like several same sex marriages that really weren’t. Somehow the Ancestry tree mixes up the gender – or else I’ve inadvertently switched the gender during an edit. The Online program won’t warn you, either. You can make any kind of mistake. Parents born after  the ir children, same gender marriages, endless loop parent-child-parent again links. It lets you do them all. That’s a big problem with the program – it doesn’t protect you from yourself. Even the best genealogist can click the wrong button, make a typo on a date, or inadvertently link incorrectly. All the major genealogy software offers protection – warnings, or refusing to perform parent to child to parent again loops. Ancestry Trees will let you, though. And its cumbersome enough to make it easy to do.

Summing up, I’d give the program an A for effort but an F for results. There still isn’t a reasonably good alternative to offline genealogy software. Ancestry’s attempt misses too many of the things necessary besides the speed problem. No problem checker. No merges. Incomplete and sometimes erroneous gedcom conversions. Difficulty moving around. No name prefixes. No name suffixes. No ability to format all dates for a consistent look. No date checking. Inability to double date. Handing Ancestry ownership of YOUR work.

It has many good things – Easy linking to records, decent hints (hey it misses some but its pretty smart actually, but you HAVE to check the suggestions not just link anything it offers). A massive selection of records that grows every day. An family view/pedigree view interface that is fairly clear and uncluttered, member photos, stories and comments that are easy to find, download and link up.

All-in-all I’m waiting for FamilySearch to bring on an online tree program. Even with the same problems it would be free to all, they don’t claim ownership of your work. And I’ve volunteered indexing to both but from now on my indexing work will be for Family Search – they are promulgating their records free for everyone. Pay sites are a necessary evil I suppose, trying to get the massive amounts of records still offline available on the internet but my labor is going for free so I figure the FREE sites like Family Search deserve my efforts much more than the profiteers.



June 16, 2009 - Posted by | genealogy | , , , , ,

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