Thursday, July 28, 2011 "You don't even have to know what you're looking for..." - Post 1

I keep seeing advertisements for on television - and now they all use the line:

"You don't even have to know what you're looking just have to start looking." 

One example is this YouTube channel video:

This lady, Susan Littlewood, shows us how easy it is to do - add your parents, their parents, and then look for the shaky leaves! does the work for you!  It finds people in the family trees of other researchers, and all you have to do is click to add more people to your tree.  Then, in a seeming miracle, you get those shaky leaves with historical records about the persons in your tree. 

Oh, you have to pay for the family trees historical records found by the shaky leaves, don't you?  A minor detail...but look at what you get for 42 cents a day (assuming a one-year US Deluxe subscription at the retail price of $155.40) or 82 cents per day (assuming a one-year World Deluxe subscription at the retail price of $299.40). 

Let's try this out.  I have a "test tree" on for my second great-grandfather, Isaac Seaver (1823-1901).  It has only his three wives in it, no children and no parents.  Will I be able to add children, parents and grandparents, and all of their children using the Shaky Leaves?  In this exercise, I will ignore my own online tree, and start with just one person, Isaac Seaver (1823-1901).

1)  Here is the tree I started with:

There is a Shaky Leaf for Isaac!

2)  I clicked on Isaac to see his profile, and then the "Hints" tab - and saw:

There are six hints - one for trees and the other five for historical records.  So far, so good.

3)  I clicked on the "Ancestry Family Trees" link and saw:

There were three family trees that matched my Isaac Seaver.  I selected the one that seemed to have the best  data (a judgment call here).  I could have selected all three of them with one check mark.

4)  I clicked on the orange "Review the selected tree hints" button, and saw (three screens shown, there were more!):

On the screens above, I could choose to add the spouses, the parents and the children of Isaac Seaver from the selected family tree.  I could also choose which data items for each person I wanted to add to my family tree.  Easy peasy!

5) When I had checked everything I wanted to check, I clicked on the orange button on the bottom of the screen to add the selected persons and their selected data to my tree.  The screen showed me:

It told me that I had added 7 people, modified 4 people, and added sources to 11 people.  Sources? Really?  Cool!

6)  I clicked on the "Return to your tree" button (at the top left of the person profile) and saw (after selecting one of the sons, Frank Seaver):

I now have the Isaac Seaver family in the tree (three wives, five children, two parents).  Let's try to add more ancestral families.

7)  After about ten minutes, I managed to add several more families to my tree, using the process above:

I now have 27 people in my tree (only 14 of them ancestors of Frank Seaver) in no time at all!

At this point, I could continue adding persons to the tree, or start collecting, and attaching, the historical records for each person using the Shaky Leaf hints. 

I can hear some of my readers now:

*   "But this is a Massachusetts guy, where there are a lot of records and a lot of descendants."  I agree.

*  "Those other researchers have probably copied data from your tree."  I agree.

*  "You should have picked a person not in your tree."  I agree, and will do that next.

*  How do you know the data is correct?"  I don't, not without useful source citations and using discernment to determine the accuracy and appropriateness of the data.

*  "What do the sources look like?"  I'm glad you asked.  Here is one for Isaac's father:

The source citation is simply:

Title: Ancestry Family Trees.
Publisher: Online publication - Provo, UT, USA: Original data: Family Tree files submitted by Ancestry members.
Publisher location:
Publisher Date:
Call Number:
Notes: This information comes from 1 or more individual Ancestry Family Tree files. This source citation points you to a current version of those files. Note: The owners of these tree files may have removed or changed information since this source citation was created.

Note that the source is not the Ancestry Member Tree of the person that it was taken from, or the source citation that the other person might have entered for the Facts for the person.

But it was really easy to do, and I didn't even have to know what I was looking for. The advertisement seems to be correct. A novice family historian can probably do this in one day of concerted effort using the 14-day free trial account. However, after the 14-day free trial, they can see their tree but not see the linked historical documents (unless they were real smart and downloaded them to their computer files).

Who should I investigate next? What person should I explore to see if can find family trees and historical records for them? A famous person, say a President, or actor, or criminal? A random person from the 1930 census? I have some persons of interest in my tree that I can work with. If someone wants to suggest a person, I'm open to spending 15 minutes checking out the ad claim (Note: I can only check USA records). Or you can do it too, if you have an account. If you have a blog, you can blog about it too! I hope that you will.




  1. I'd love to find some proof of the parents of my Ursula WRIGHT, born abt 1783 in Stillwater NY.
    She married Nathaniel SEARING, b 1 May 1781 in Hempstead Nassau County, NY
    and died about 1826.
    Their daughter is Martha b. 10 March 1808 in Stillwater, NY and d. 23 March 1839 in Albany NY,

    I have written about what I've put together on my blog,but haven't been able to find any definite documation on her birth or parents.

  2. That tag line has been used in TV (and radio?) commercials that I've seen/heard going back to last year. My guess is that it's been effective; there seems to be quite a few newbies looking at the same records/people I have (thanks to the updates I get on my Ancestry home page).

    I used to contact these people, thinking I might be able to establish contact with a new cousin, but I stopped. Too many of these updates are being generated by people that cannot apply common sense to looking at something as basic as a census record. I suspect some of this is being driven by the shaky leaves, which generate a lot of bogus possible matches. I'd hate to think people were finding these "bad matches" on their own and adding them to their family tree. I suppose another possibility is that people add these records to their trees for future analysis, but I thought that's what the Sandbox was for.

    I love Ancestry and it's well worth the price, but these ads are annoying.

  3. These have always bugged me. I never thought of it from the same angle you have, which is a very good one - is it misleading advertising? It's not, it appears, at least from your singular survey, which was a very interesting experiment to read about. Regardless, it still bugs me - when have I ever gone looking for anything - and not known what it was - that ended well? The last time I did that, I was hungry, but I wasn't sure what I was looking for, and the search probably packed on another five pounds of bad decisions. Now imagine packing on five pounds (or generations) of ill-chosen clicking? Ancestry may be trying to make itself available to the lay public and make genealogy seem easy, which could be great for drawing in those daunted by the concept. But can't we do it in a way that's not so dumbed down? Can't we do it in a way that suggests there's 'assistance', but not 'perfect answers with one click? *grumble*

    If you want to try it one someone else, I'd go with someone obscure and everyday - more likely to get fewer hits than the people already well-researched, like presidents and so on, I'd assume. Either way, great experiment, and good post!

  4. The "do it without thinking much about it" trend is saddening (not much different from the LDS trend to give newFemilySearchTree users an easy ride).

    If you want to try out some pitfalls in the approach, use John Barrickman, born about 1775, d. 15 Aug. 1851 in Monongalia County, (West) Virginia. He is in many trees, a fairly well researched version in just one public tree.

    Which wife would you choose? There are pitfalls in ancestry given for either one.

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  6. I've had incredible luck over the years following up with other people's trees. I usually add the member connect feature and contact the person who posted the tree and ask them what their interestin or connection to a person we may share in common. Just last week I got to speak with an 81-year old woman who has pictures, a written family history, etc. on a family I am researching. We're both going to share things we have. We are third cousins once-removed. Some of my best genealogy finds (and new cousins) have been discovered this way.

  7. I also laugh at this commercial. I have a friend who believes anyone can go on and easily get their family tree. I personally don't include any information found in's family trees UNLESS I contact the owner of the tree and they share their sources and permission to cite them personally as my source. I am also careful not to use any information from if the source is cited as an online database of information credited to its members. IF I do use a date of this type, I cite it as "Unsourced from" It is sort of like gossip--if you don't know the source how do you assess its credibility?

  8. used to have a similar commercial a few years back. It implied all you had to do was type in a name and bingo...there's your tree.

    I wanted to see how my trickiest line would do following your example. I put in my Grandmother and her parents. All California roots.

    My leaves were very shaky indeed. While it found my Grandmother in the CA Birth Index, my Great Grandfather in the CA Death Index, it missed the family in the 1920 and 1930 census. Interesting, it found my Great Grandmother in 1910, but the same suggestion was not made for my Great Grandfather. These are all records that I know exist.
    I got a couple of tree suggestions on my Great Grandfather but they weren't matches.

    Maybe I will try the Portuguese names next. I'll probably break the system. LOL I have a feeling that this isn't a very good tool for those with West Coast genealogy or common names (the example tree I did is Jones/Jackson)

  9. There are two recent ads that show what is worst about The ads both show a woman finding several generations of her ancestors - all of whom are linked by the same last name. Looks good right?? Think for a minute: all the "ancestors" she finds share the same last name, but they are all women -- throughout the years and places shown in this commercial a woman would have taken her husband's last name - there is simply no way that anyone would have had several generations of female ancestors each born with the same last name; but an user searching records certainly might find lots of records whose only relationship was the same last name.
    But of course she can build a family tree with these "ancestors" and then you can find a leaf that leads you to her flakey pseudo-research.
    THT is the problem with today -- in their manic drive to expand their paying customers they are fleecing ignorant people with their bogus promises that the computer will magically do all the research for you.