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Comparing three collaborative genealogy websites

Posted On: July 14th, 2008 | Posted by: Dean


A poster on the APG message board last week mentioned that a client was looking for a web-based collaborative genealogy service and asked for recommendations. Requirements included the ability to

  • store contact info for living relatives
  • produce print-outs displaying relationships, and
  • let collaborators edit stored info.

One respondent suggested Darin Lythgoe’s The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG). I recommended Geni. Several others discussed the merits of WeRelate. It occurred to me today that neither the LDS Church’s New FamilySearch nor Ancestry’s Family Tree had come up at all in the discussion, though both seemed relevant to the requirements listed in the original post.

I can’t claim to be an expert user of any of these web-based services. I’ve explored Geni in some detail and I like what I’ve seen so far. I’ve also begun transferring my own genealogy data from PAF to New FamilySearch. But because I’m trying to be more diligent than I have been in the past in documenting each individual I enter, that process is proceeding quite slowly.

I’ve decided not to let my lack of expertise prevent me from blogging on the subject. I’m interested in all of these services, and I’ll use this post as an excuse to explore them a bit further.

Geni

First, Geni.com. Geni bills itself as a free family tree online. The site has received a lot of praise (well-deserved, I believe) for its simple and intuitive user interface. The initial screen for first-time users presents a minimalist pedigree chart and asks you to enter your own name and e-mail address. You’re then guided to enter your parents (and their e-mail addresses). The emphasis here is not so much on dates and places but on e-mail connections to living relatives. The idea is to let relatives know via e-mail that you’re working on your family tree. They can jump in and contribute additional details and connections themselves.

This is the core of the service, but Geni offers a rich variety of additional features. You can share family photos and add them to detailed profile pages for each person in your tree. Gedcom files can be imported if you’ve already collected a lot of info. Geni will map the location of each of your relatives and ancestors, and create a timeline of events in their lives. You can send virtual gifts, reminders and birthday greetings to living members of your tree. Though the interface has become a bit more cluttered as new features have been added, the site remains pleasant and satisfying to use. What’s more, the site is completely free and has no annoying ads. (The business model may evolve over time.)

The printing capability is basic but produces great-looking results. I’ve heard Geni plans to eventually offer poster-size or frameable print-outs as a possible revenue source. I suspect they’ll do an excellent job when they get that going.

Experienced genealogists won’t find the research and documentation tools at Geni.com that they expect and need, though those capabilities may be offered later.

Geni shines as a particularly fun and simple way for beginners to get started with building their family trees. The site is optimized to make genealogy a tool for social connections among family members. It also offers helpful support forums and a vibrant user community.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on Geni.com

Ancestry Family Tree

Ancestry has long allowed users to enter their family tree data on their site without the need to pay for a subscription. In its current incarnation, the tree builder utility is set up to prompt users with ‘shaking leaves’ if Ancestry thinks it has info relevant to a particular ancestor. This strikes me as a cute feature that could potentially grow annoying over time, particularly if I wasn’t looking to become a subscriber anytime soon. Ancestry also offers the ability to share information you enter and discover with others, who can sign up to view the site after an e-mail invitation from you. The interface lacks some of the Flash-based bells and whistles that Geni offers, but is nonetheless quite usable.

Where Ancestry’s service particularly shines is in the multi-media elements you can add to enhance your family tree. Photo uploading is supported, as with Geni, but the site also offers a unique audio storytelling service that I find particularly appealing. Basically, you can preserve stories from your living relatives (by interviewing them, even via telephone) or from deceased relatives, by recording them online. I haven’t yet tried it, but this strikes me as a compelling and worthwhile feature. I might be more likely to actually make audio recordings then I would videos (which Ancestry also supports.)

For more serious researchers, the site allows you to enter research notes. But it doesn’t offer a convenient way to organize or annotate source documents in digitized form, which I would find extremely useful.

All-in-all, Ancestry’s offering is full-featured, well-thought out, and provides a convenient (if slightly annoying) gateway to their fee-based research and publishing offerings. For those interested, a much more thorough review than mine was published by Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal back in 2006.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on Ancestry.com

New FamilySearch (NFS)

It’s probably a little early to review this site, since it’s still very much under development and is currently only available to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). It will eventually be made available to the public however, and I’m beginning to use it more and more, so it makes at least some sense for me to consider it here.

NFS’s interface at this point feels substantially heavier and more cluttered than that offered by either Geni or Ancestry. It clearly aims to make a large amount of data and navigation options available on a single page. Whereas with Geni the user can navigate their entire tree almost effortlessly by simply dragging their mouse, NFS requires extensive clicks and page loads to accomplish the same task. Of course, the comparison is somewhat unfair, since NFS’ mandate is considerably more extensive than simply allowing collaborative online family tree management, and its feature set reflects that mandate.

NFS’s ambitious aims include:

  • permitting different users to submit conflicting data on the same unique individual
  • tapping into the LDS Church’s extensive online databases of genealogical information to allow duplicate entries for the same individual to be combined (and disputed).

As a consequence of this approach, NFS does not create a private “online shoebox” into which users can deposit their personal genealogy data, isolated from that of all other users. Instead, NFS provides a single set of scaffolding intended to potentially encompass the family tree of every individual who has lived. Users affix their data to that scaffolding, then work to address the conflicts that inevitably arise in the process. In this respect, NFS resembles Wikipedia more than it does a traditional genealogy program. It’s entirely possible for you to visit your tree one day, enter data on a new individual you’ve identified, and go back the next day to find that someone you don’t know has combined your entry with a similar but nonetheless different one. Other users can’t edit your submissions, but they can add their own to go right alongside yours. This takes some getting used to.

At this point, NFS does not allow for any multimedia content to be uploaded, though that capability is planned for the future. Simple mapping and timeline displays are offered, though they’re not particularly sophisticated. Extensive source documentation and research notes are supported, however. This feature should gradually become more and more valuable as a tool in resolving disputes that arise over key genealogical details between contributors.

From what I’ve seen so far, NFS’s print capability is fairly rudimentary, enabling only basic reports and charts with few options for customization. This likely reflects FamilySearch’s strategy of relying on third-party software developers (e.g. Ohana Software and Generation Maps) to enhance and build on NFS’ functionality through their compatible offerings.

Unlike Geni, which brings interactions with living relatives front and center, NFS treats living individuals primarily as a bridge to one’s ancestors. Connections with other researchers pursuing your same lines can in theory be made via e-mail, but so far most of the contributors I’ve come across are not accessible in this manner.

NFS offers extensive online tutorials and a great deal of context-sensitive on-screen help. Phone support is also available, though it’s definitely a work in progress.

In summary, NFS aspires to become much more than either Geni, Ancestry, or their competitors. As a result, it lacks their nimble, agile feel, and the resulting user experience seems a little more like work than fun. However, because it will eventually become a key access portal for the LDS Church’s extensive (some would say indispensable) genealogical holdings, it is likely to evolve a great deal over the coming years and will likely improve substantially with time.

Margaret Jordan pedigree on NFS

Summary

Geni — Strengths

  • Appealing, intuitive, flash-based interface — simple and fun to use
  • Strong social-networking capabilities for keeping in touch with living relatives
  • Supports photo uploading (video coming soon)
  • Dynamic and helpful user forum
  • Completely free and no ads

Geni — Weaknesses

  • Lacks support for research notes, documentation, or source tracking
  • Limited printing options (though this is likely to improve soon)
  • No convenient access to research databases, images, or other resources

Ancestry Family Tree — Strengths

  • Straightforward, familiar interface
  • Excellent multimedia capabilities (images, audio, video)
  • Support for basic research notes
  • Convenient (though expensive) access to extensive research resources and publishing options

Ancestry Family Tree — Weaknesses

  • No easy way to organize or annotate research results or documentation
  • Though it’s “free” users are constantly offered not-so-free options

New FamilySearch — Strengths

  • Collaboration is at the core of the site, not just an add-on feature
  • Free integrated access to extensive FamilySearch databases and other resources
  • Allows for detailed research notes and source information
  • Extensive context-sensitive online help and phone support

New FamilySearch — Weaknesses

  • Dense, static feel to pages; link-heavy navigation
  • Limited printing capability (though 3rd-party software will provide enhancements)
  • No multimedia support (this is planned for a later iteration)
  • Collaborative aspects feel more adversarial than supportive; difficult to contact other contributors

This has been a fairly superficial overview based on my admittedly limited experience with these services. Feel free to let me know in the comments what I’ve overlooked or misunderstood. Also, please let me know of your experiences with other comparable sites. Thanks!

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