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A piece of your past: which ancestry websites are the best?

We took some of the UK’s most popular ancestry websites for a spin to see how far we could get with a few hours of effort

A piece of your past: which ancestry websites are the best?

Are you part Viking? Was your great-great-great-grandfather a king or a criminal? Ancestry websites claim to make it easy for anyone to become a genealogy buff. But just how easy is it to find what you’re looking for in the wealth of information you can access?

We took the three biggest ancestry websites – Ancestry.co.uk, FindMyPast.co.uk and MyHeritage.com – for a two-week trial run to find out how easy they are to get started with. We opted for a free trial of the most expensive package on all three sites, all of which required us to enter credit card details.

Keep scrolling to find out just how easy it is to build a family tree up to grandparents and great-grandparents.

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Ancestry.co.uk

Ancestry says that, worldwide, its members have created 100 million family trees containing more than 13 billion ancestral profiles.

After entering some basic details and agreeing to the T&Cs and privacy policy, we had to choose a package and enter payment details. A welcome screen confirmed the trial and offered the choice of starting a family tree or buying a DNA kit.

Opting for the former opened a family tree screen, empty but for a box to click to add our own details, including name, sex, date of birth and birthplace. The Ancestry website then auto-generated placeholders for parents and, once these were completed, grandparents.

We found the visual look of Ancestry.co.uk’s family tree clean and streamlined. Clicking on an ancestor gives the option of a quick edit to add more information, including whether they were living or deceased, and details of their birth and death.

There’s also the option to view a full profile, the details of which increase as you add to your family tree. Additionally, ‘leaves’ start popping up offering hints about each ancestor in the form of suggested records (official records and family tree matches) linked to them. Clicking on ‘search’ from within an ancestor’s profile often brought an intimidating number of results – 140,190 for our tester’s mother, for example.

Online support and guidance

Ancestry.co.uk set all optional emails, including hints, to ‘off’ by default, so we only received service emails (such as confirmation of subscription). Its help section is comprehensive, and includes FAQs and member message boards, and there’s a guide to getting started with tracing ancestors.

The written content was pretty sparse, however, and we couldn’t get the potentially helpful videos on this page to work.

We liked:

  • The attractive, streamlined family-tree interface.
  • Proactive hints linked to each ancestor in the form of little leaves.

We didn’t like:

  • The overwhelming number of search results – the top results weren’t always relevant, throwing up a lot of US records for a relative who was born and died in the UK.
  • We couldn’t easily find any videos to help get started.

MyHeritage.com

This website was founded in 2003 and says it has 49 million family trees from around the world.

The sign-up screen for the MyHeritage free trial asked for more detail than the other sites we looked at, including our tester’s parents’ names and her basic details. It then sent us to a payment page, pre-selecting the most expensive package. Although there are other subscription options, we couldn’t work out how to switch to them.

Once we’d selected the package, it asked for a mobile phone number to send a confirmation code to – we couldn’t find a way to skip this step, although finally closing down the page and signing in again seemed to work. After signing in, we were taken to a family tree with our tester’s own details and her parents’ details filled in, with blank boxes for her to add her grandparents’ details.

The tree wasn’t as visually appealing as Ancestry’s, but we did like that clicking on an individual brought up their profile to the left of the screen, rather than as a pop-up over the top of the tree. From this, we could view a more detailed profile, edit the profile (including adding photos), research the person or buy a DNA test.

We were also given the option to ‘invite’ living relatives that featured on my tree by entering their email address – something we wouldn’t do without asking their permission first.

As with Ancestry, the sheer number of default search results was overwhelming, and the first results displayed were from US census records, although MyHeritage showed what rich pickings the ability to access other users’ family trees can offer: our tester found a photo she’d never seen of her great-grandfather.

Online support and guidance

We were opted in by default to all the emails including support and marketing, without being given a way to opt out, which we think breaches privacy rules. Beyond the initial emails confirming our account, we had three emails, two of which were suggestions about how to ‘bring my tree to life’, while the third was a marketing plug for its DNA testing service.

The site offers comprehensive FAQs, as well as an ‘education centre’ with advice guides and step-by-step videos.

We liked:

  • The short step-by-step video aids.
  • Profile summaries displayed to the side of the tree rather than popping up over the top.

We didn’t like:

  • Being opted in to all emails.
  • It was hard to narrow down results on the search functionality.

Findmypast.co.uk

We’re told this website has more than 8.5 million registered users across its brands, which include Genes Reunited and the British Newspaper Archive.

After clicking ‘free trial’ and entering name, email address and (optional) date of birth, we were asked to choose between three subscription plans. By signing up, it was assumed we had read the T&Cs and privacy policy.

We weren’t immediately asked for payment details: instead the site asked questions about what we wanted to achieve, such as finding ancestors or connecting with living relatives, and then walked us through setting up basic profiles for parents and grandparents.

Once this was done, we were shown a basic family tree – which we found frustrating as we could only view either our maternal or paternal side of the family at a time. We couldn’t work out how to view a full family tree.

Clicking on an ancestor brought up a profile summary pop-up, allowing us to edit details such as adding dates of birth and death or photos, and also to search.

There was also a hint button – although there were no hints available yet (they started cropping later). The search button brought up a promising short list of possible birth and marriage records but when we tried to click a record, we were redirected to the subscription selection screen – and this time there was no option for a free trial.

We eventually had to log out and log back in again to find and sign up for the free trial. FindMyPast told us they’re looking into this and will improve the sign-up experience.

Online support and guidance

This site offered the most hints, emailing with suggestions about building our tree – we were automatically opted in to those emails when we signed up, although fortunately that didn’t extend to us being opted in automatically to marketing emails.

FindMyPast also has an in-depth, hour-long webinar on getting started, storing and organising sources, and details of resources available, as well as FAQs section with tips on how to proceed if you hit a brick wall. There’s also a blog where you can take part in polls and read real-life experiences of other site members.

We liked:

  • Proactive hints linked to each ancestor.
  • The search defaulted to British records only, so initial results were less overwhelming.
  • You can expand the search internationally.

We didn’t like:

  • The glitchy sign-up process made it hard to access the free trial.
  • Only being able to see one side of a family tree at a time.

What happens to your DNA data?

All the ancestry websites we looked at also sell DNA tests. You order a kit and return the cheek swab or spit sample, which is analysed to give you a breakdown of your genetic make-up based on which regions of the world and, in some cases, specific regions within each country, different elements of your DNA are found.

Your DNA data isn’t automatically deleted once the test is complete. Many sites retain your information for ‘as long as required’ to deliver their services, unless you specifically ask them to delete it (FindMyPast promises a review every 10 years).

According to Ancestry.co.uk’s privacy policy, for example, this is so it can ‘provide you with the features and functionality you bought (or were gifted), including continuously updated features such as DNA matches, increasingly granular ethnicity estimates – as well as new other features’.

A key thing to pick out from that statement (and Ancestry.co.uk is not alone in this): your results might change over time. While your DNA itself can’t change, the techniques used to analyse it can – and do. One person we spoke to who took a test several years ago initially received test results that suggested he was part Viking, only to have his excitement at his warlike DNA crushed when his test was updated and the Scandinavian element was removed.

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* Package prices correct 3 Jan 2020.

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