Learn Genealogy – Software vs. Online Services

If you’re new to genealogy you may be asking yourself, how do I get started, what do I collect, where do I find this stuff, and how do I keep it all organized?

Today let’s talk about the basic differences between online services and software on your computer.  Both online and software programs will allow you to keep family trees, ancestry data including vital statistics, records found, photos, documents, newspaper articles, and more.  They also have enormous search engines to help you find evidence for your family trees, as wall as serving up hints where were to look.

Online Services

Online services like Ancestry and FamilySearch are great for keeping your data, researching your ancestors, and collaborating with others… all in one place. However, at these services, all your research is online and does not reside on your computer, unless you’re keeping personal document files and/or using software.


With Ancestry.com, you can keep your own family tree and set to be private or public or share it with specific people.

By sharing your tree with specific people, you can set the specific user rights within your tree. For example, you can share your Ancestry tree with anyone by giving them the right to view only, edit, or have full administrative rights (like you, the owner).

Additionally, at Ancestry.com, you can keep private Notes or public Comments. Keeping public Comments, is great for collaborating, sharing your hypothesis and information with others. With Notes, on Ancestry, only you can see the Notes and those you have invited to view your tree. With Comments, if your tree is public, anyone can view your Comments.


FamilySearch.org is a free online service where you can create an account, contribute to the world family tree, research, and share information all in one place. Keep in mind, with FamilySearch, your tree is a collaborative tree world tree where others may update, with good evidence and reasoning, the ancestors or information you put


This can have its advantages and disadvantages. With your FamilySearch account, you can adjust your settings to notify you when changes happen by others on ancestors you’ve marked for notification.  I use this with key ancestors.

The advantages are people can work together on the same line, can share information they discover, and you can find new cousins, when you’re notified of changes (as I have).

The disadvantages are that you may not agree with someone’s changes to the world tree.  But these aren’t really disadvantages at all, if the facts entered are correctly.  The intent is for everyone to provide accurate and proven data.  Look at it as an opportunity for collaboration and conversation.  It might be that the information you entered was incorrect, and someone else has additional evidence you should consider.  Additionally, FamilySearch feels that a collaborative world tree allows for future generations to continue with the research we’ve started.  Keep an open mind when working with the FamilySearch data and you’ll find the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Free vs. Paid Subscriptions

Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org both have free member options. (Free Ancestry Instructions) FamilySearch.org (FamilySearch Registration) will always be free, while Ancestry.com has subscription levels for greater access to record groups that they had purchased. On Ancestry, all information that is uploaded by its users will always remain free to its members. Record groups that Ancestry has purchased, will be available to members through the various subscription levels. These levels currently are U.S. Discovery (U.S. records only), World Explorer (U.S. + International Records), and All Access (All records including their other branded companies).

Take note of online services sister companies. For example, Ancestry now owns many companies that tied together with the Ancestry.com research resources.  This helps with searching your ancestors as Ancestry will search their other brands as well. Examples are, Newspapers.com, Fold3.com (military records), Archives.com, Find-A-Grave, AncestryDNA and more.

Ancestry and FamilySearch are two of the biggest online genealogy services for maintaining your family tree, but there are hundreds of various online resources for researching.

What about family tree software?

Genealogical Software

Software, on the other hand, resides on your computer.  Examples of genealogical software are Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, Brother’s Keeper, and the list goes on and on.

While this is not the software review, I will tell you that I used Family Tree Maker and have for many years. Family Tree Maker (as well as many other fine programs) links with my Ancestry.com account and synchronizes my online family trees.

Additionally, with Family Tree Maker (like many genealogy programs that synchronize with online accounts), you can set specific documents to be private. Thus, documents, photos, notes, and facts you choose, can be set to private and will not upload to the online services. This can be a huge advantage when researching your hypothesis, or you have research that you’re not ready to release to the public.

Additional advantages to having software on your computer is greater flexibility of data management, additional charts, printing and publishing your family history.

Switching Software or Services

Gedcom exports from your service or software allows for the transfer of your data between services or genealogy programs. The Gedcom format was invented years ago and is still used today to export and import your family tree data from one service or software to another.

While this is a great advantage and will save a lot of time (so that you don’t have to retype all your data), one should be mindful that it is possible that not all information will be transferred. Depending on the software and depending on the service some notes or unique fields, may not be transfer.

What do I use?

My primary family tree is contained on Family Tree Maker and Ancestry.com. I also back up regularly to a cloud service.

While I have an account and have uploaded my tree to FamilySearch.org, I primarily use the service for research. This is just a personal choice that I started years ago. All the services have their advantages and unique opportunities.

For online research FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are excellent places to start. They both have an enormous amount of records online, you’ll want to use them both for research. Even though online research is a great way to start, keep in mind that many records, valuable to genealogists, are still not digitized or available online.  A research trip may be in order.

I recommend using both online services and software on your computer that can synchronize together. Software is affordable and has advantages over online services alone.  Whatever you choose, your primary goal should be to share the most accurate information possible (and its sources).

What should information you collect? 

For information on what kind of information you should seek, see my post called Learn Genealogy – Kick Start.

If you found this helpful…

Comments are welcome at the bottom of the page.  Tell me in the comments section, what software and or online services you use?

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