Genealogy’s Big Four Websites
October 15, 2021
Beginning genealogists frequently wonder which genealogy websites are best. The answer, as is often the case in genealogy, is “It depends.” For general genealogical research there are four large genealogical websites that almost everyone uses. These are Family Search, Ancestry, Find My Past and My Heritage and are collectively called “The Big Four.” Which ones an individual uses depends on his/her specific needs and preferences.
Family Search is the only free website of the four; the other three all charge. Prices vary but for the most extensive coverage, the annual cost runs into the hundreds of dollars. Having access to all four databases can quickly get expensive. For that reason, most genealogists usually only have access to one paid database plus Family Search at a time.
Because Family Search is free, I recommend it for everyone. It’s one of my go-to resources. It does require registration to access all of its features, but it’s a simple process (no credit card required). Some folks hesitate about registering since the website is owned by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, a group known to not be shy about proselytizing. I’ve used Family Search for decades now, and I’ve never been contacted by anyone hoping to convert me.
Family Search is a huge website that contains millions of records, many accessible online. Many more records are indexed on the site but do require a visit to a local Family History Center or the Family History Library to access. Family Search’s range of records is broad but is particularly strong for North America and Europe. In addition, the website is home to Family Tree which is a collaborative tree to which anyone can contribute. The tree does contain errors, just like any other online tree, but anyone can submit corrections. I especially like the large number of sources that are appended to many of the entries.
Once you have registered for Family Search, the other three big genealogy websites require some decision-making. For general genealogical research, Ancestry is probably the first website that most genealogists should consider. It is the largest of the Big Four and is particularly strong in U.S. records, although they have good coverage for Europe and also Australia and New Zealand. Ancestry Trees are another feature of the website, and you can post your own tree there, either publicly or privately. Finally, Ancestry was the first of the Big Four to offer DNA testing, and its database of testers is huge.
Find My Past was originally conceived as a website for British Isles researchers. That is still their area of strength, although they do have many European and U.S. records as well. If your research is strongly focused on England, Find My Past is the website for you.
My Heritage is the newest of the Big Four, but it is growing exponentially. My Heritage is based in Israel and has a large record collection for Scandinavia, Germany and the rest of Europe. While My Heritage has a large database of records, many of them are not unique and can be found on other websites, including Family Search. In my opinion, this limits its usefulness. My Heritage offers DNA testing as well as the ability to post family trees.
Which of the Big Four websites you choose to subscribe to will be a matter of personal preference. The three subscription databases all have free trials which are an excellent way to check out their offerings before you buy. In addition, Ancestry has a library version of its website which is available at many public libraries. Both the Loveland and Fort Collins libraries offer it. Find My Past and My Heritage are available at local Family History Centers as well (Ancestry is available there too).
While not every genealogist will choose to subscribe to all of the Big Four websites, everyone should be aware of what the various websites contain. With their broad offerings, there is definitely something for everyone.
Researcher/Director at Large