What Kind of Online Family Tree Is Right for You?

Having an online family tree can be a great way to connect with cousins, collaborate with others, and share your discoveries. There are different kinds of online trees, each with their plusses and minuses. Let’s take a look at each of them so you can decide which kind of online family tree is right for you.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 63

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 16 minutes.

Why Have an Online Family Tree

Having an online family tree makes it easier for cousins to find you. (This is sometimes called “cousin bait.”) They also serve as a handy reference whenever you’re online; you can access it from different computers or even your phone. They can also be invaluable when working through DNA matches.

Keep in mind that depending on what site you use, you don’t have to make your online tree public. Ancestry, for example, gives you three options:

  • Public (any registered user can search for and look at your tree, with the exception of living people)
  • Private and searchable (meaning that basic data shows up in other people’s searches, but they can’t see full profiles or the whole tree)
  • Private and not searchable (none of the info from your tree will show up in searches)

Similarly, MyHeritage allows you to choose whether or not the profiles of deceased people in your tree will show up in the search. Taking your tree out of the search essentially makes it private.

Here are the basic kinds of trees:

Individual Family Tree on Someone’s Site

These types of trees are usually what comes to mind when someone says “online family tree.” These are the trees on Ancestry, MyHeritage, and Findmypast. The trees are separate. You and I can each upload trees, even with the same people, and they aren’t combined.


  • Because the trees remain separate, you have control over “your tree”
  • It’s easy to link to your tree (you can give a cousin the URL that goes specifically to your tree)
  • When attached to a DNA test, it can make it easier to identify matches
  • Depending on the site you use and the genealogy software you have, you might be able to sync the online tree with what you have stored on your computer


  • Duplication of people. If you upload a tree that has some of the same people in my tree, those people are in the database twice. (This may or may not be a drawback, depending on your perspective.)

Individual Family Tree on Your Own Site

If you are comfortable with technology and are willing to pay for web hosting and a bit of software, you can put your tree on your own website. There are programs such as The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG) that will take the data from your genealogy program and make a website out of it.


  • You have the most control over the look and feel of the tree


  • You have to be comfortable with technology. Even though you won’t have to do much (if any) coding, you still need to be comfortable with installing programs and tweaking settings as needed.
  • You have to pay for the web hosting
  • You have to pay for the software that lets you convert your data

Collaborative Family Trees

The trees on Ancestry are all individual trees. However, there are projects where you upload your data that gets combined into one big tree. There is no “your tree” and “my tree.” Three examples of this are the FamilySearch Family Tree, Geni.com, and WikiTree.


  • Easiest for collaboration; registered users can change anything in the tree
  • Receive notifications when someone changes an entry
  • Ideally, there is just one profile per human (great-grandma Ramsey isn’t going to appear multiple times across the database.) (And before you say anything, note that I said, “Ideally.” Yes, there still multiple profiles for the same person.)
  • Depending on the site, people can be grouped together in ways other than by family. For example, Geni has projects such as the “‘Adele'” (ship) – European Pioneers to South Australia 1856


  • Registered users can change anything in the tree (yes, this is both a pro and a con)
  • You can’t point a cousin to just “your tree,” nor can you download just “your tree”

The Right Online Family Tree for the Right Situation

You can mix and match your type of tree as the situation calls for it. I have a combination:

  • A public tree on Ancestry (with my “confident” conclusions)
  • A few “private and not searchable” trees on Ancestry (for some of my research projects that are definitely “works in progress”)
  • A tree on MyHeritage
  • Contributions to the FamilySearch Family Tree

As your needs change, so can the type of online family tree that you use.



Posted: May 9, 2021.

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      • WikiTree is really great if you get into the colonial era. I have learned so much from them. Experienced people are happy to help you! Putting the tree on there is hard, so I don’t really have a lot up there, but the information is so much better and more accurate than anywhere else I have found. I use the G2G on certain categories all the time. My real tree is offline with backups at other relatives houses. I use family search for basic online research, ancestry for cousin bait, GEDmatch has come in handy for DNA besides wikitree for brick walls. The active members on wikitree are great for judging reliability of sources and giving you ideas where to look for stuff, like you do! The more places the better!

        • You can send a gedcom file if you choose, or individually enter data, which is what I do. Best feature – you totally control the privacy level!!! 5 levels from totally open to closed except to ‘trusted’ people that you approve.

          The more of us who use WikiTree, the better it gets. Just helped a friend find 217 people with her surname – a great start for finding family connections.

  • Yes, WikTrree is an important player anymore. I have a tree there that is being combined with a master tree and I help going in and making corrections on my tree and others to make them fit in the universal tree, which is family search’s goal also.

  • I use Family Tree Maker genealogy program, keeping two individually named forms of my tree. One is NOT connected to Ancestry. It is more complete, such as including all of my sources and notes.
    I copy everyone’s data, more briefly, onto the tree that syncs with Ancestry. It’s a bit of a hassle to enter info twice, but this tree allows me access to Ancestry’s “green leaves” and other resources.
    The reasons I don’t have only an Ancestry tree are: 1. what if Ancestry ever goes out of business?, 2. family historians must maintain Ancestry membership forever in order to have access to their trees.
    The reason for two trees is: I have had terrible glitches occur in the syncing process. Having a tree that doesn’t sync keeps my record free from contamination.
    For awhile my linked tree was private because it doesn’t have all sources listed. Right now it is public because I am sharing information with a newly found cousin in another country. We email to fill in the blanks.

    • I don’t have only an online tree (and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone have their tree in only one place). My “main” tree is maintained via the genealogy program on my computer.

      You can avoid the syncing issues by exporting your tree on Family Tree Maker as a GEDCOM and uploading that to Ancestry. It would save you from entering the info twice. (Saves time and possible typos!)

    • I use Family Tree Maker too. I like it, although the switch to the new/improved was a bit of a hassle. Not on Ancestry at this time.

  • As far as multiple trees or single trees on multiple sites. Admittedly, I am new to much of the genealogy software, but is it possible to upload to a gedcom or ? file just the new information or person and add it to a pre-existing tree on say ancestry?

    • RootsMagic and Family Tree Maker will let you keep your desktop database coordinated with your Ancestry tree.

  • I agree with Peggy and Ken, you mustn’t forget about Wikitree. It is my favorite online site now. I spend a great deal of time every day helping to improve and build the site by adding profiles, sourcing records, correcting errors, etc., not only on my entries but anyone else’s that is public. The main goal of Wikitree is to have a One World Tree with everyone listed once. It currently has over 18,000,000 profiles and growing daily by leaps and bounds.

    • I support the idea of shared trees, have accounts on FamilySearch, Wikitree, and Geni. By way of comparison, FamilySearch Family Tree has over 1.2 billion people in their tree, and 4.4 million contributors.

      • WikiTree is my main family tree site, and I also work on my tree on FamilySearch Family Tree. The latter may be bigger, but there are TONNES of duplicates, and there isn’t really a community working together to try to improve it. It’s kind of chaotic. I only really work on the tree there because I like the record hints. WikiTree is where I enter absolutely everything.

  • Amy: I keep online trees on Ancestry (main one with most data), MyHeritage, FamilySearch and Geneanet (more European centered). With more than 2200 people in my trees and daily additions and changes, keeping the online trees “synced” is a major pain. I would pay for a program that would do this for me. Any suggestions? I currently do not use any home software (multiple homes with multiple computers). Should I? If so, should I keep the data file somewhere like Dropbox? Thank you in advance for any suggestions.

    • RootsMagic will allow you to update Ancestry and FamilySearch. It’s not quite as seamless as the marketing make it sound, but it helps. I feel your pain.

    • Try WikiTree – a free site, you control privacy levels, no ‘syncing’ needed, you control the information, and can set as ‘open’ only to anyone, or ‘closed’ except to those you approve. Intention is one listing for each person (over 18,000,000 so far), with sources. One of the best things that has happened to genealogy and collaboration!

  • Thank u Amy for this information. It has helped me think about how I want to go about working on all of my trees to all my families.

  • Is it possible to upload the entire FamllyTreeMaker file/folder to a cloud such as One Drive or Dropbox or does it have to be individual family files within FTM? My computer crashed last week, which made me realize the importance of doing something like that. Hopefully, for the last time, my techy son can retrieve my info from my dead computer. . I would love to be able to share GEDCOMS, but the reason I have not is because I sweat bullets wondering if I’m giving away private info.

  • How about Legacy. That’s what I use on my home computer. I also have a private tree on Tribal pages. I also have memberships with My Heritage and Geni.

  • I use private trees on Ancestry for research (one for each grandparent family line.) and they are all linked to Family tree maker for off line access. (I travel a lot) I also use Family Search trees for research. I have public limited trees on Ancestry and My Heritage for DNA research. Now I have started transferring well sourced people one at a time to Wikitree. It makes me take the time to review and confirm sources. I also go back and look for new sources on people I researched years ago.

  • This was a great article, Amy. Have you looked at RootsFinder? We would love your feedback. We’re hoping it will solve a lot of problems like the ones you point out.

  • I know this is an older post, but I had never heard of The Next Generation ‘do it yourself’ genealogy website. I had just been looking at several programs that was either a timeline, or different kinds of family trees, or maps, etc. But when I checked out everything TNG had on it, I decided THAT was what I’ve been looking for! So I got it. It was an all in one private/public website that ‘I’ could organize. And with all the pre-orgaization I had already done it fit exactly with the way TNG was set up to enter my information, so it was really easy! I was going to upload my GEDCOM for each tree but I am loving just doing it one person or field at a time and watching my family grow!

  • I do have two trees. I cross use them to put those on one. Whom are not in the other.

  • One of my main reasons to have a public family tree is to preserve my research. If I die unexpectedly, I want my research to be preserved and available to others without depending on my heirs to deal with it appropriately. I have grand plans for the future (organize everything, write a book, etc.) but if that never happens something will be left behind.

  • I am still on Ancestry, and have Family Tree Maker on my computer. However, I most strongly encourage people to try out Wikitree. I love it! That is the place I spend 99% of my genealogy time. I love not only doing my own lines, but developing other people’s lines as well, I participate regularly in the various challenges, such as sourcing, correcting data error, connecting profiles, etc., and participate in a number of projects and groups, such as being a Data Doctor (correcting errors in profiles) and Sourcerer, participating in the Bahamas Project, the US Black Heritage Project, etc. The collaboration with other volunteer genealogists (pro and amateur) is awesome.

  • This article is interesting, however it doesn’t mention some key issues that could influence a person’s choice of online tree.

    1. Backup: an online tree can serve as a backup to a tree stored on one’s personal computer. For example, I’ve read that Family Tree Maker can synchronize with Ancestry and FamilySearch. Other software may have same capability. For anyone using tree software on their computer, it is important to look up which, if any, online trees are supported.

    2. Succession planning: I know that I will eventually pass on so, to prevent years of genealogy work from going to waste, I need to make plans. FamilySearch and WikiTree are easy – my accounts may be closed but all my contributions to those trees will live on. For sites where one has individual trees (e.g. Ancestry), one needs to know the process to transfer one’s tree(s) to willing successors – allowing someone to use your account is not recommended.

  • You failed to mention that MyHeritage also has a free software, Family Tree Builder that can be downloaded to your computer and used independently from their website.

    • True. I was focusing on the online trees for this episode. So many options for genealogy computer software!

    • The US federal census isn’t released to the public until 72 years after it was taken. So, the 1950 census won’t be available until April 2022. Just a few more months to wait!

  • Consider Wikitree if you have any early American ancestors. They have protected profiles that are documented thoroughly. Everyone seems to want to be on the Mayflower and the records are tricky, so people cheat and it’s hard to find things. Guess how many different Abigail Adams there actually were? Wikitree knows. You can ask questions and they will help you find the true facts about your ancestors. Harder to use than most but it is worth it for some people!

    I have cousin bait and dna on Ancestry, work on FamilySearch, have a folder of reference sites for when I am looking for a particular fact and use RootsMagic for my personal records with online backup.

    If family wants info, I send them a copy of my RM file and tell them how to download the free version. If they can’t do that, I make a pdf report of what exactly want to know and either mail or email it to them.

    Deciding what to use was one of the hardest things in the beginning.

  • I like MyHeritage as my online tree. One thing it does well is allowing connections when cousins marry instead of duplicating things like Ancestry’s system. With my husband’s family there are first cousins marrying at 3 generations up and that makes the line much simpler to keep corrected. I don’t have to change data on both sister’s lines. There are many interconnections and it is good that I can see that a person shows up 2 or 3x in a tree and I can click that link to see how.

  • I liked seeing your pros and cons for the different types of sites. Personally, I have a tree on both Ancestry and FamilySearch. I use FS for research and have a “watch” on my first three generations to notify me when changes are made. I also use it when I get stuck on a line, to see who someone else has found. I can then check their sources and do my own research if multiple spouses or dates are given, with or without sources. I dislike FS because anyone can make changes. I had to ask someone to remove a 2nd wife of my dad as he was married only once and that other woman was the reason dad divorced mom! Turned out he was a cousin who read dad’s obituary and because she was called his partner, he assumed marriage. He did remove her, but refused to share any of his research other than the surname that related us. On Ancestry, I like their hints. I can then research, verify, and add to my desktop Legacy database, which contains my fully researched lineage. I like the hints of others’ trees so I can look at their sources and connect if they have information I’m missing.

  • Hi Amy,
    Thanks for your discussion concerning “Online Family trees”. Indeed all have their advantages and disadvantages. For me it is also very important that a copy of the main sources (birth, marriage and death records) can be included and as a reference are available. It must be possible that all entered data can be verified. Now a lot of owners of these data like to earn money with supporting family trees, allthough a lot of work has been done by volunteers. In Germany a lot of data is not accessable, because e.g. the churches sold them to private companies or they ask a fee for searching through their data, or the books are not available for digitizing. I would prefer to make my familytree available for everybody for free.
    Thanks for your valuable information, Ton

  • Hi Amy,
    If you update this article, could you please add information about American AncesTREES (by New England Historical Genealogical Society at americanancestors.org) online family tree “experience”? (Or maybe you have already shared information about AAtrees elsewhere? In which case please let me know where/how I can access that information.) Thanks for considering my request! — Nancy