Best Free Online Genealogy and Family Tree Applications

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Introduction

Genealogy applications provide a method for recording the subjects of our research, e.g.  their names, relationships, and events of their lives.  Evidence (citations and sources) should be recorded to support the conclusions reached.  They also print the reports and charts to show off the results of our labor.  This article reviews web applications which require a browser and internet connection. If you are interested in stand alone programs please see my companion review at Best Free Genealogy / Family Tree Applications.

Several free web applications will do a reasonable job for the novice or advanced genealogist.  Unless otherwise noted:

  • They support unlimited entry of individuals, birth, marriage, death, burial, and other events together with their associated dates, locations, and source citations.
  • Alternative names can be entered but are not necessarily searched.
  • Marriages are not numerically limited, i.e. multiple spouses (sequential or polygamous).
  • Polygamous relationships are not completely displayed, e.g. only one pair can be viewed at a time.
  • Multiple parents are supported (adopted, foster, or other possibilities). However, only one pair of parents can be displayed at a time.
  • Incest is supported, e.g. a child can be married to one of their parents and/or be both sibling and parent of another sibling. 
  • Same sex marriages and parents are supported by several of the recommended programs.
  • Intersex and transsexual individuals are not supported.
  • They support family group, pedigree, and descendant reports and charts together with the associated foot- or end-notes.
  • They support multimedia attachments but not all support photos in reports.
  • They support import and export of GEDCOM (GEnealogical Data COMmunication) format files.
  • They exclude information about living individuals from being publicly available.

The free online genealogy sites have an advantage in that you can collaborate or share with others on your family tree research.  However, I don't recommend them as your only method for documenting your research.

You may want to keep data about living individuals for your own use that might be inappropriate for sharing with the public.  Not everyone believes that privacy is dead and they are not willing to get over it.

Sooner or later most researchers would want to produce some sort of report or chart of their research.  These sites have few reports compared to the offline programs.

Finally I strongly suggest making regular backups of your file to your hard drive or to another website in case the company shuts down entirely, begins charging for formerly free services, or institutes a policy that you dislike.

Related Products and Links
Quick Selection Guide - Collaborative Sites

WeRelate

5
 
Is a web service or web application
Unrestricted freeware

WeRelate WeRelate.org is a wiki site similar to Wikipedia with the focus on family research.  Like Wikipedia anyone can search and view the entries, e.g. do not post anything you wouldn't want public.  Also like Wikipedia anyone with an account can make corrections or edits.  Any disputes are resolved by the site moderators.  People, places, sources, families, etc. are created as wiki articles.

Duplicate people are checked for when adding. Also you can search for and merge duplicates. 

Sets the standard for name searches.  They sponsor the Variant names project which is a huge improvement on Soundex searches.  Know of a variation on a name--then add it to the moderated list.  Search for people by date, place, parents, and keywords.

Impressive source support.  Attaching photographs and documents is easily done.  Master place list with many places displaying their corresponding Wikipedia articles.  The application prompts for the location once a few characters have been typed.  There is a process to merge duplicate sources and places but it would be more convenient if we could do it directly.

The pedigree map (oddly hidden under the "more" drop down of the upper left hand menu) starts as a bow-tie report with dependents on the left and ancestors on the right. One can select which groups of individuals to include to make it more like just a pedigree or descendant chart.  The birth, death, and combined locations maps are nicely done.  They also provide a timeline view, thumbnail, and details view for everyone in the pedigree view.  Note formatting. Strong image and document support.

Can delete tree (except for articles already edited by others). Email unsubscribe. Living individuals must be removed from any GEDCOM upload.  There is an Edit log for every revision and any registered user can revert back to a previous submission. You can get an email notification for any revision to any article including your own submissions.

You can upload and download GEDCOM files.  The uploads are limited to 5,000 people but you can upload several files.The limit is helpful as there is a cleanup process before the files are forwarded to a moderator for approval, e.g. living people, children older than their parents, children born after mother's death, etc. are all rejected.  Much simpler to make the correction in the source program and reupload to verify that the errors are indeed gone.

Supports same sex, polygamous, and incestouous marriages.  Supports adoptive or foster parents.

Security is not an issue as all information is public.  Hackers could change the family tree which is one reason for keeping frequent offline backups.  However, any changes made to the tree can be reverted back to the original just like Wikipedia articles.

No nags.


Site is supported by prominent ads which appear on the right side.

No reports but screen prints can be made of the pedigree map mentioned above.

FamilySearch

5
 
Is a web service or web application
Unrestricted freeware

FamilySearch.org is a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The site automatically searches for duplicates when adding new people. Manual duplicate search is also available. The online portion of the immense record holdings of the Church are searched automatically whenever a person is added or viewed.  These records are easily added as facts and sources to the individual.  Also individuals can be easily added from the sources.

Living individuals can be entered but are not viewable or accessable to others.

No nagging as the site is not feature limited.  With the exception the images of some sources which are hosted on third party sites which require payment for access to the image or a visit to a Family History Center. No ads.

Printable fan charts, pedigree charts, family group sheets.

Ability to send messages to other users working on the same individuals.


Does not support same sex marriages or incestuous (parent-child) relationships.

Cannot directly upload or download a GEDCOM. You have to load the GEDCOM into one of the free programs that syncs with FamilySearch (Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic), then sync to upload. As you sync, you will be asked to resolve any duplicates. This may take a long time, but it prevents duplicates, and you may find some additional information about your ancestors.

Security is not an issue as all information is public.  Hackers could change your family tree which is one reason for keeping frequent offline backups.  However, any changes made to the tree can be reverted back to the original just like Wikipedia articles.

WikiTree

4
 
Is a web service or web application
Unrestricted freeware

WikiTree is another collaborative family tree site.  I like that that there are several levels of privacy which can be set individually for each person in your tree.  Gender neutral marriages and parents are allowed.  Ancestor Pedigree Chart, Ahnentafel Ancestor List, Family Group View, Descendant List, Wikid Shareable Tree, Family Tree Widgets, and Location Map reports.

There is a duplicate search feature and manual merging of duplicate people.


No source citations for Name, Birth, Marriage, and Death Events.  There is no provision for adoptive or foster parents. Events other than name, birth, marriage, and death and Sources and Repositories must be entered in Wiki format.  No place list.  Despite the Wiki reference in the name this site doesn't have the same look and feel of Wikipedia like WeRelate does.  Cannot delete either tree or individual.

Security is not an issue as all information is public.  Hackers could change your family tree which is one reason for keeping frequent offline backups.  However, any changes made to the tree can be reverted back to the original just like Wikipedia articles.

 
Quick Selection Guide - Sharing Sites

Ancestry.com

4
 
Is a web service or web application
People list view. Custom facts. Prompts for location. Can attach photographs and documents. Relationship calculator. Upload and download GEDCOM files.
Cannot exclude living people without making the entire file private. Search cannot always find an individual who exists in your family tree. No duplicate finder or manual merge ability. No bookmarks of people or families. No collaborative editing of tree.
Feature limited freeware

Ancestry.comAncestry.com provides  a forum for uploading and entering your information online.  You have a choice of making your tree public or private.  Individuals in private trees appear in searches but all details are hidden from the searcher until you grant access.  This is not a collaborative site, e.g. others have read only access to your data and the ability to attach notes.  You can upload and download GEDCOM files.  People list view. Custom facts. Prompts for location. Can attach photographs and documents. Relationship calculator.

Cannot exclude living people without making the entire file private--of course one could upload two files and make the living people file private while making the deceased file public.  No duplicate finder or manual merge ability.  No bookmarks.

Search sometimes cannot find the people in your own file.

Free Ancestry Guest Registration is available at Overview of Guest registration.

If your tree is public then unauthorized access is not an issue.  Ancestry.com does not use https security so if your tree is private it will be more vulnerable to unauthorized access than say the Department of Defense.  If a hacker makes changes to your tree then delete the tree and upload from your backup.

Free Guest registration available at http://ancestry.custhelp.com/cgi-bin/ancestry.cfg/php/enduser/sab_answer...

Internet browser

RootsWeb WorldConnect

3
 
Is a web service or web application
Upload and download GEDCOM files. Can customize other users GEDCOM download capabilities of your file by levels of pedigree or can make entire GEDCOM accessible to others. Automatically excludes living individuals born after latest available US Census but an earlier cutoff can be chosen. Also can exclude deceased people born after the cutoff year. Descendancy, Register, Pedigree, and Ahnentafel reports are available. Unlimited people, names, relationships, places, sources, and citations.
No edits of any kind except for adding post its. The only method to update is to replace the existing GEDCOM with an updated file. Advertising.
Unrestricted freeware

RootsWeb WorldConnect is a read only searchable site for uploaded GEDCOM files.  None of the uploaded data can be edited.  All trees are available to the public.  This is not a collaborative site, e.g. others have read only access to your data and the ability to attach notes but cannot edit.  You can upload and download GEDCOM files.

The site provides Individual, Descendancy, Register, Pedigree, and Ahnentafel views.

Display Options, Living Person Options, GEDCOM Download Options, and Owner Information are selected on upload of the GEDCOM file.  Display allows a title, how surnames are highlighted, how many levels of ancestry or descendency are viewable, a link to your homepage, and a title and footer for the pages. 

Living person options provide a choice between showing people as "Living Surname" with no details or completely suppressed in the display.  WorldConnect defaults to treating people born after the latest publicly available US Census and no death information as living.  You can choose an earlier date for this cutoff.  You can also choose to treat deceased children of living people as living and anyone deceased after the cutoff year as living.

GEDCOM download options are whether to allow download of the complete GEDCOM (with living suppressed), a partial download limited to so many generations, or none at all.

WorldConnect displays advertising next to your data as well as ads for Ancestry.com, the owners of RootsWeb.  Any GEDCOMS uploaded here will also be searchable and viewable on Ancestry.com.

Unauthorized access is not an issue as trees are public.  RootsWeb does not use https security.  If a hacker makes changes to your tree then delete the tree and upload from your backup.

Requires a genealogy program to maintain the data and create GEDCOMs for upload to this site.

 
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Comments

This article was apparently written before FamilySearch Family Tree (FamilySearch.org) was opened in 2012.

FamilySearch Family Tree is a unified tree, intended to include everyone in one tree, freely editable and modified by any FamilySearch registered user, like Wikipedia. The goal is to have one profile per ancestral person that represents the best scholarship available.

Pros
- Anyone can edit any record. You can benefit from work done by relatives and other genealogists.
- Automatically searches records when you enter people. Record hints are visible on the Personal Details page, pedigree view, and descendants view.
- New records added every day. FamilySearch has the largest collection of genealogical and historical records in the world.
- Unlimited entry of name, relationships, birth, marriage, death, burial, and other events together with their associated dates, locations, and source citations.
- Relationships are not limited, i.e. multiple spouses (consecutive or polygamous) and parents (adopted, foster, or other possibilities).
- Multimedia attachments. Media can be tagged to show up on multiple individuals.
- Excludes information about living individuals from being publicly available.
- Easy to add people from sources.
- Duplicate finder and merge capability.
- Unlike the free accounts on Ancestry and MyHeritage, it is not feature limited. No nagging to get a paid account, since there are no paid accounts. The only limitation is that some source records are on other websites (like Fold3 or GenealogyBank), and you can't view the image without an account on those websites, or a visit to FamilySearch Family History Center.
- Tablet/phone app available.
- Printable fan charts, pedigree charts, family group sheets.
- Has it's own App Gallery of programs/websites that work with the database, such as chart creation, tree analysis, and interactive maps. Many of them are free.
- Ability to send messages to other users working on the same individuals.
- If you visit a FamilySearch Family History Center, you have free access to records from Ancestry, findmypast, and MyHeritage.

Cons
- Anyone can edit any record. "Your" tree can be messed up by a careless researcher, although changes can generally be undone. Some of the existing records have errors that may be difficult to straighten out.
- No way to share living people. You can enter living people, but no one else can see them.
- May not recognize a duplicate until you add more facts, requiring a merge.
- Cannot directly upload or download a GEDCOM. You have to load the GEDCOM into one of the free programs that syncs with FamilySearch (Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic), then sync to upload. As you sync, you will be asked to resolve any duplicates. This may take a long time, but it prevents duplicates, and you may find some additional information about your ancestors. The programs have easy procedures for downloading and saving information as a GEDCOM.
- Does not support same sex relationships.

Thank you for your comments. I've almost completed reviewing the PC programs.

I'll do the online next and will make a point to review this site.