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Get More from Genealogy Websites

This post isn't just another roundup of the best sites to build your family tree. Instead, we're going to look at how fixing four problems related to using websites for genealogy research can get you better results and even save you money.

Genealogists run into these once they've gotten started so if you haven't started your family history, this post isn't for you.

We recommend getting started by talking to your relatives and family friends to gather as much background information as possible.

Don't forget to write down who gives you the information. Once you start researching online, you'll find conflicting information. If you don't know where information comes from, you can't figure out what's right and what's wrong!

There's More Than Just the Best Genealogy Websites

There are several problems I see genealogists having related to genealogy subscriptions specifically. You may have one of these problems, or all of them, or any combination. Each problem you suffer from needs to be fixed for you do more quality research AND save money on your family history.

  • You think your subscriptions is IT.
  • You are searching, not researching when you use your subscription.
  • You don't use your subscription enough to justify it.
  • You aren't aware of what's free through your subscription site.

The first two are major problems that probably lead to problems through-out your genealogy. The last two are more a problem if you are budget-minded.

You Think Your Genealogy Subscription is IT

The problem here is how vital you think your subscription is (or subscriptions are) to researching. This "IT" has nothing to do with popularity or even if you think it's the best genealogy website. The problem boils down to thinking you can’t do genealogy without your IT subscription.

Note, this can also apply if your IT subscription is FamilySearch. FamilySearch is the largest free research site so the problem is slightly different when you are too focused on it. It's not costing you money. However, you might not be learning what else is actually available to you.

You Are Searching, Not Researching

This is a horrible, terrible problem. It isn't actually limited to subscription use. Genealogists have always been prone to catching it, even long before the Internet. It's just much easier to catch online. I'll cover this in more detail in a moment, for now just start thinking, are you searching instead of researching?

You Don't Use Your Subscription Enough to Justify It

Although this sounds straightforward, you have to also consider it in tandem with the first two problems (which is why I briefly mentioned them).

The most obvious consideration relates to the second problem. Once you recognize you are searching instead of researching, is the cost of your subscription worth it? You might do some serious research occasionally, but is it enough to justify the cost of the subscription? Your answer is personal to you.

Genealogy Research vs. Searching Genealogy Sites

What's the difference in searching versus researching? Searching is popping terms into a search form. Research is an entire process. At the simplest, the genealogy research process is plan>research>report>repeat. You can learn more about the genealogy research process in this post on our sister site, The Occasional Genealogist, or get our book, Essential Skills for the Occasional Genealogist to get a fun but in-depth look at what makes genealogy research instead of just an online search.

You might look at your subscription site daily. However, do you really use it for research? When it's available, you might justify the cost but just hopping on and throwing some words in the search box. Maybe you actually research every weekend. Maybe you never really research, you just keep searching.

You might think $400 a year is worth it if you research most weekends. You might think it is worth it for the convenience of researching when you “suddenly” find time, even if that’s about four times a year.

As long as you’ve realized what you are doing and given it some thought, whatever choice you make is fine. Just don’t blindly pay for a subscription you aren’t getting sufficient value from. Especially don’t keep paying and missing out on other records (or even experiences, like education) that would be more helpful.

With regard to using a subscription enough and your concept of the subscription being "IT," this gets a bit more in-depth.

You might use a subscription a lot but maybe what you use isn't unique to the subscription. You might have cheaper (or free) alternatives for the same records. You also have the same consideration I mentioned above. You might be missing out on records that would be more useful because you think your subscription is the best.

Using your subscription “enough” to justify the cost isn’t as simple as how often you actually visit the site. If the cost of one subscription is preventing you from subscribing to something else, making a research trip, or participating in educational opportunities, put more thought into the value you get from the use of that subscription.

If the cost of one subscription is preventing you from subscribing to something else, making a research trip, or skipping educational opportunities, put more thought into the value you get from the use of that subscription.

You Aren't Aware of What's Free Through Your Subscription Site

This problem boils down to fear. You might be afraid of losing your work if you end your subscription. It's not that easy to determine exactly how a site will behave when you're on a free plan.

Some sites don't have a free plan, you won't be able to log-in at all. Other sites do have a free plan and maybe you have a general idea what you can't access, but you're not sure exactly what will happen.

Unfortunately, I can't detail this exactly for you. There are far too many sites out there and I'd have to set-up free accounts on all of them (and let any free trials expire) to test this on your behalf. That is just too much work. And there's a good reason it's too much work.

You shouldn't be "storing" your genealogy on a subscription site. Thankfully I don't have to write a post about this. Check out this post, by Amy Johnson Crow, CG SM , about this very idea. You should be able to drop a subscription at any time and not lose data (you might have to download a little, but not years worth of work).

In addition to not using your subscription as your filing cabinet, realize that not being aware what is available for free relates to the above section. Unless you have checked, you might mainly be using a feature you could use for free. And of course, this also rolls into the same idea of whether you are mainly using something you could access for less or free on a different site.

Although I’ve listed four problems, there’s a lot of interaction between the issues that might result in you overpaying based on what you actually use or need. That’s why I’ve mentioned all four issues here but not covered them in-depth.

However, I do want to wrap-up one area of “free services.”

Save on Paid Genealogy Sites

I have another post on The Occasional Genealogist that details how to drop a paid subscription and do better research. It'll save you money and grow your tree. In a nutshell, there are lots of free or lower cost options you can do while not paying for a subscription. However, this takes some planning. That's details in this post.

Free Genealogy Websites and Options

How do you find the best genealogy website for your research? How do you find free online resources? How do you do the best genealogy research?

To do great genealogy, you need to focus, be organized, and learn. This applies to every aspect of family history. When we're talking about genealogy websites, free or paid, you need to know what records will help you. You have to research what records should have been created, which actually were created. which of those records survived, how to access the surviving records (this is usually NOT online), and then the details for accessing them which involves cost and if you have multiple ways to access them (they might be available online for a cost, available to be ordered, available for free if you visit a repository, you might be able to hire someone to visit a repository, or you might need to go yourself, those are all access options).

That's all education you need to get about records. Then the information has to be kept organized to be usable. It's a lot of information so you need to focus on your specific problem to pinpoint a solution within all the information (or focus on learning about records for one problem instead of focusing on what research you can do from home).

Rarely are genealogy records completely free, whether that's online or in-person. As an example, you might be able to access census records at your local library for free. But it cost you money to get to the library. Even at home, your Internet connection costs you money. Those are just very affordable options. But that's why more records are not free. Someone is spending time digitizing and hosting online records. Someone is accessing and storing paper records. That all costs money. But there are tons of free things you need to do besides getting records (and also many affordable options). Much of the research into records can be done for free. Organizing and reviewing your information (both about records and your actual research results) is free.

There are actually lots of free genealogy records online, most are just available through small sites. You are far more likely to find these when you are looking for specific records. Those are records you learned about by starting to learn about records, either records for a broad topic or a specific problem.

Remember, there is no IT subscription, you need a variety of sources, online and off, and genealogy is not cheap. The best way to save is to have a plan. If you want to solve a specific genealogy problem, you must have a research plan. If you want to do more research from home, you will get the best results by planning your use of paid and free online records.