Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dear Randy: Why Buy Genealogy Software When Online Trees are Available?

New Genea-Musings reader Roger asked this in an email recently:

"Ancestry.com, by all reviews, seems a fine program with a large database.  One pays for a monthly subscription and, if one wants information from Canada or from Europe, one has to purchase an additional subscription.  That perhaps, is the downside to the consumer.

"Other software programs like Legacy and RootsMagic, also get good reviews and on the surface, have a one-time purchase cost.
"Assuming money were not the factor, why would someone go the software program route as opposed to a web-based cloud application like Ancestry.com? (or any of the other free web-based programs).  I really am challenged in comprehending why the need to purchase software when the same or similar is already available on the web?

"The only answer I seem to hear is 'because why pay a monthly fee.'  If that really is the only answer, then so be it.  But with all the product out there, I can't help but feel that I am missing something in this storyline."

My response was lengthy, but perhaps other readers have wondered the same thing:

A)  The important thing to realize is that there are three different kinds of family tree "programs":

1)  Online separate "my" tree - Ancestry ($$), MyHeritage ($$), Findmypast ($$), etc. These are yours (but you can invite others to see it), are in the cloud, and are usually free to create a tree but require a subscription to search and find records.  They can be public or private.  They permit a GEDCOM upload or download.


2)  Online universal "our" tree - FamilySearch Family Tree, Geni ($$), WikiTree, etc.  These are not yours, are in the cloud and are either free or subscription.  Any registered user can add, change or delete information.  They are public.  FSFT and Geni don't permit a GEDCOM upload.


3)  Offline separate genealogy software tree - RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, Family Tree Maker, Family Tree Builder, many more.  These are "buy it once per version" programs that reside on your computer,  Some are free to download and use, but some of those have crippled features that are in the paid program  You download the program, and add content to it.  It is yours. The programs are much more comprehensive than the online programs - especially with reports, charts, sources, etc.  It is much easier to add names, relationships, dates, places, sources, media etc. to the offline programs than to the online programs.  These trees are private unless you choose to share the information.  All offline programs can import or export information using GEDCOM.


There is a process to import or export a data file using a GEDCOM (GEnealogy Data COMmunication) text format to transfer all or part of a tree in one form (online or offline) to another online or offline form.  If I want to export my RootsMagic software program data file, I can create a GEDCOM file in RootsMagic (export), and then I can import that file into Family Tree Maker, Ancestry, MyHeritage, or any other genealogy software program or website that will import a GEDCOM file.  However, the data transfer is not always perfect because each program or website won't import customized features from the export program.  

B)  Some of the offline genealogy software programs interact with online family tree sites.  For instance:

!)  A specific Family Tree Maker (FTM) database synchronizes with a specific Ancestry Member Tree (AMT).  If you change data in one or the other, or both, you can click on "Synchronize" in FTM to change the information in both the FTM database and the AMT to get them in sync. An AMT can also synchronize with the Ancestry mobile app.

2)  A specific Family Tree Builder software database synchronizes with a specific MyHeritage family tree.  The MyHeritage tree can synchronize with the MyHeritage mobile app.

3)  RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree and Ancestral Quest can exchange information with the FamilySearch Family Tree (FSFT).  You can move information from one of those software programs to the FSFT, but not from any other software program.  The offline genealogy software programs usually have mobile apps that are static - the data can be changed out whenever desired, but they don't synchronize.

4)  Some of the offline software programs can access different online data providers.  FTM users can bring content directly into FTM from Ancestry.  RootsMagic users can see FamilySearch Record Hints and MyHeritage Record Matches but have to add the information by hand, not by direct import.

5)  There are mobile apps for Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilySearch that are synchronized with a person's tree on the website.  Changes made on the mobile app are reflected in the online tree, and vice versa.  This is truly "my family tree in my pocket."

C)  With that as the background, "why pay a monthly fee" or a "one-time fee."  It's a user's choice.  Some reasons:

1)  Privacy.  "I don't want to share my information with anybody" or "I don't want anyone to steal it."  You choose to use an offline genealogy software program.

2)  Family only - "I want to share my tree only with my family."  You can do it by creating a GEDCOM file and share it with family via email, or in an online private family tree, and invite the family members to view it and add to it.

3)  "It's my tree and I want to find cousins online - I'm OK with sharing my information online, and I want to find others who are related to me."  So you put just what you want in a public online family tree,  You could use a bare-bones online tree, or a fully-leafed tree.  You could upload a GEDCOM file from an offline genealogy software program or create the tree within the online tree system, or build the online tree from scratch.

4)  "I want to share my information with everyone and be open to changes." You could add information to an online universal tree, and collaborate with others who share your ancestors and relatives.  

5)  Cost - some persons cannot afford to subscribe to a subscription data provider (e.g., Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, etc.), or don't want to pay for a subscription.  They use a free or purchased offline genealogy software program and build their family tree from collected records.  There are some researchers still using software programs created in the 1980s and 1990s that they judge to be "good enough." 

6)  Ease of Use - some researchers find it is much easier to add content (names, relationships, dates, places, notes, sources, media) to an offline genealogy software program than into an online family tree.  

7)  Offline Genealogy Software Programs have more capabilities than online tree systems.  This is especially true for charts, reports, book creation, lists, research logs, to-do lists, etc.

D)  In my case, because I write about all of the online family tree sites and some of the programs, I have both online and offline trees, but use RootsMagic 7 as my "master software" and export a GEDCOM file occasionally to the online trees or into other software programs.  

For instance, to add a new Ancestry Member Tree, I create a GEDCOM in RootsMagic, import it into FTM, then sync the FTM file with a new Ancestry Member Tree.  That process adds my person profiles, notes, sources and media into the Ancestry Member Tree.  

I use RootsMagic 7 to interchange information with the FamilySearch Family Tree, often creating new person profiles, adding and standardizing vital and other record data.  Occasionally, the FSFT has more information about a person than I have, and I add that information if it is sourced.

In my preferred process, I use the Ancestry Hints, the MyHeritage Record Matches, the FamilySearch Record Hints, etc. to add information to my RootsMagic 7 software database.  

I regularly save my RootsMagic 7 database to Dropbox and Google Drive as a backup, and can import it into RootsMagic and other programs on my laptop computer.  

I find it much easier to add content (names, relationships, dates, etc.) to the offline genealogy software programs than to an online family tree.  I greatly appreciate the chart, report, list, and research log capabilities of the genealogy software programs.  

E)  In the end, you need to do what's best for you - it's OK to have only an online tree, or only a genealogy software tree.  Or trees on many online sites or in many software programs.  Or on paper.  It's your tree.  If you don't want to share, it's OK.  And vice versa.  The problem is keeping more than one tree up to date.

At some time you realize that you want your research efforts to be available for posterity, and you write "books" and/or a blog, or create your own family tree website, or create a large family tree chart.  The content for these are usually created with an offline genealogy software program..  

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Copyright (c) 2015, Randall J. Seaver

Please comment on this post on the website by clicking the URL above and then the "Comments" link at the bottom of each post.  Or contact me by email at randy.seaver@gmail.com.


9 comments:

Linda Stufflebean said...

Hi Randy, The number one reason for me using a software program is that I want to maintain control over my tree. I have online trees, but if I no longer subscribe to a paid site, I don't want my access to be limited to my own tree. If a paid site disappears, goes out of business, etc., I certainly don't want my tree to disappear with it either. There seem to be so many family history researchers, both newbies and experienced, who don't seem to realize that if they don't continue a paid subscription to whatever site, their access will be quite limited to their own trees. If I could only choose one or the other - software or paid site - I would go with the software for that very reason.

Drew Smith said...

Is it "OK" to have *only* an online tree? I would say that it isn't best practice. Desktop-based genealogy software is preferable for conducting serious genealogical research due to its ability to manage media and to deal with entering thoughtful notes and to produce needed reports. Online trees come up short by comparison. I believe that the only practical purpose for having a personal online tree is to share research results with family and to act as cousin bait. But I would advise against the online tree as being the only repository for research.

IsraelP said...

I agree with all the reasons above for holding your own database, including what Linda and Drew said in the comments.

But I have an additional point, which I have made before, but it cannot be said enough. My database sits on my computer and has all the details. And (at least in theory) all the sources and comments. Those comments are full of modifiers such as perhaps, possibly, probably, likely and almost certainly.

I have an 1864 death record for Mordecai Pikholz in Skalat, age 59. I have a Mordecai Pikholz who had children during the 1800s. I am pretty sure thay are the same person - the man in the death record and the man with the children. But I am not quite certain. In my database, they are separate entries with comments linking them. But on my website, which is NOT connected to my database, I am free to refer to the Mordecai with the children as "~1805-1864." I have dozens of similar occurences, some simple like this and some much more complex.

I am the expert on my family and if I say in an online tree with no underlying database that that's the same Mordecai, no one will ever reexamine the question.

Having a website that is not connected to the database is high-maintenance. Every new bit of information has to be recorded twice. And when I decide I can merge two families, the website maintenance can be serious business.

But I see no other way to do it. And I certainly have no intention of letting anyone else touch it.

Geolover said...

The blog reader said, "I really am challenged in comprehending why the need to purchase software when the same or similar is already available on the web?"

Randy's reply highlighted limitations of online trees with such things as reporting and charting, and in the past has written about difficulties with creating proper source citations.

In addition, tree-hosting site owners can change formatting whenever it suits them. As may be seen in the current changes of tree programming on Ancestry, the design engineers / IT staff may or may not have much knowledge of history, regional geography or genealogically accurate place-naming. Site-owners need not consult with site-users as to aesthetic preferences.

Gary Cannon said...

With a software program, you can work on your tree/database when there is no connection (by preference or circumstantial) to the internet. I also like the capability to see the Places information to assess where ancestors' events are clustered. A software program gives the researchers the capabilities to analyze data formatting. An online tree access won't give you capabilities to sort the data to look for patterns, problems, and omission of facts. I don't know of any online tree access that allows a researcher to see, in one view: 1) an alphabetical listing of everyone in the tree/database, 2) a multi-generational tree, and 3) a "family group sheet".

Gary Cannon said...

With a software program, you can work on your tree/database when there is no connection (by preference or circumstantial) to the internet. I also like the capability to see the Places information to assess where ancestors' events are clustered. A software program gives the researchers the capabilities to analyze data formatting. An online tree access won't give you capabilities to sort the data to look for patterns, problems, and omission of facts. I don't know of any online tree access that allows a researcher to see, in one view: 1) an alphabetical listing of everyone in the tree/database, 2) a multi-generational tree, and 3) a "family group sheet".

Dave Liesse said...

As has been pointed out several times, there are reasons to use the online trees and reasons to use the offline programs. Here are my reasons that are under-represented in previous posts:

1. I'm nominally a professional genealogist, so I believe that anything I put online should meet the provisions of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Right now that is a very small subset of the information I have (but I'm working on it).

2. I have trouble with the mechanics of the "shared tree" sites.

3. I have higher privacy standards than the online sites do. Specifically, in addition to not posting information about living individuals I won't publish information about their deceased siblings.

4. The offline programs allow a lot more information to be stored about individuals and relationships.

5. Probably the most important is that I admit to being very bad at keeping paper records organized, so I want everything stored in the computer. I can put unrelated individuals into my local database; I can't do that online, where the programs all expect me to be able to trace a path to whomever I enter. But if I'm visiting a cemetery, for example, and see a lot of headstones with surnames I know are connected to my family, then I want to collect that information while I'm there since I might not ever be able to get back there for another visit!

Ultimately, everyone has his or her own reasons for going one way, the other, or both. There's no blanket right or wrong answer!

Genbook said...

Several week ago, my ISP was down for 2 days. Guess what? I could not use the Net to do research. But I could go to the library, enter what I found in my desktop program, etc. When the online cam back, it was good to have it back. After having outages on a regular basis at the FHC where I volunteer, that shuts us down there as well. I strongly want to have a desktop as my main database and use the online as "cousin bait".

Jacquie Schattner said...

For either online trees I think it needs to be said that you have to be careful about giving information on living people, but on your personal data base you can keep that information. Also, if you have a tree on ancestry or a similar site, I believe you can give permission for other people you choose to add and change information. This type of tree can be helpful for collaboration for a specific group of people you can trust. In closing this was a VERY interesting and helpful article. I've referred to it several times just in the last few days.