4 ways to make an online, public family tree work for you

The online public family tree has quite a reputation.

I’m sure you’ve heard that they’re unreliable and to be avoided at all costs. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself and spent more time than you’d care to admit deleting and correcting information you picked up along the way.

I love public family trees. The truth is I love genealogy clues no matter their size, shape or origin. Hints give you a direction to take your research in, even if they’re wrong. Disproving something can be as important as proving it.

No scientist ever uses the first vaccine they develop. They don’t think, “Great, we have a vaccine; all done.” Nope. It gets tested, tweaked and tested again. Or sometimes, it falls flat, and they move on with the valuable information of what didn’t work.

If it works in science, then it can work in genealogy. Family history is a kind of science, right? (Said no one ever! 🤣)

Online public family trees aren’t going anywhere. And yes, they’ll continue to multiply every time the big genealogy sites offer a free weekend. So instead of either ignoring or being irritated by them, try making them work for you instead.

Business image of wooden tree with people icons over blue table, human resources and management concept

1. Connect with other people researching the same ancestors

Odds are the people researching your ancestors are related to you, albeit distantly in most cases.

You’ll start to recognise names after a while, but have you talked or corresponded with any of them?

One of them may be a potential genealogy buddy or have an offline clue that will help you bust through one of your brick walls. Or they may love a rousing game of ‘who is in this photo’ and know some of the faces you don’t.

Make connecting with people easy. Avoid long, complex messages that might not get a response. Instead, leave a comment on their tree (more on that shortly), or invite them to join your family history Facebook group (even if you must create one for them to join!). Establishing offsite contact will help build rapport faster and make it easier to share information and theories.

Not everyone will be interested in connecting, but each connection you make is another potential source of information you didn’t have before.

2. Investigate every discrepancy in each public family tree

A public family tree is a big ol’ list of clues. Some you may have solved already, but others may take your research in a new direction.

Unless you know something for sure—I’m talking 100% certain—then consider each detail. Is everything else the same but the location different? Or the spelling of a name? Or the date slightly off?

For example, most people list one location for my father’s death because that’s where he was living at the time. But it isn’t where he died. So, I often correct that detail on people’s family trees. I’m 100% sure I’m right because I was there when it happened.

I’ve also found many instances where the date is wrong. Something I only discover when I verify it and find it’s one day off. Could the tree owner be 100% sure they are right? Absolutely. Records are only as good as the person providing the information. It’s a good practice to leave a comment on the tree or reach out to the owner to find out more about the discrepancy.

Leave no clue unchecked and add each piece of information you don’t have—or is different to what you do have—to your to-do list or research log for further investigation.

If you do add it to your tree, be sure to include a note in the “description” where the information is from and that it’s unverified.

online public family tree

3. Leave comments on the public family tree

Private messages often get ignored, especially if they contain more tasks to squeeze into your already packed schedule. With all these extra tasks, how are you meant to find the time to research? 😃

Try leaving comments on the tree instead. These are a great way to offer new or additional information that is viewable by everyone who has access, even abandoned trees that never get updated.

On Ancestry, comments on public trees are visible to everyone, even if the tree owner hides them. It’s probably similar on other sites where you can publish a public family tree.

Comments are attached to a specific profile, which removes any confusion about who the writer is referring to. It’s OK to say John Smith’s details are wrong, but when you have 10 (or more!) in your tree, tracking them down which one can be a little tricky!

Comments also have a character limit; messages don’t. Character limits work in your favour because they keep you brief and to the point, which is the best way to get others to read your messages.

Some personal rules I have for adding comments to trees:

  • One correction per comment because it makes it easier for the reader.
  • Establish your authority first (e.g., it’s your parent or sibling, or you wrote a book about this ancestor).
  • Make it easy for the tree owner and offer to correct the source where possible (e.g., find-a-grave).

People aren’t intentionally adding incorrect information so keep your comments friendly and helpful.

4. Use your tree to establish your level of expertise with your research.

To other people, your public family tree is just another unproven source. They don’t know that you diligently verify every detail or how many hours you’ve put into your research.

So, how can you tell them?

  • Include a summary in the “note” or “optional description” for each event. You don’t need to document every step of the process; share enough to be clear you know your stuff. People can always contact you if they want to learn more.
  • Create a code system to show what is verified/unverified etc., if you add unchecked facts to your tree. Include the legend in your profile as the most curious will check there.
  • Always include the source, even if it’s a person. It’s proof you’ve done the work and encouragement for others to check for themselves.
  • Create infographics or images of summarised document transcriptions to upload as supporting evidence of your discoveries.

Taking these steps to customise your online public family tree:

  • establishes you as a serious family history enthusiast who shares great information.
  • creates a “calling card” so other researchers of that family line can find you.

Be a part of clearing the online clutter

The internet has been a game-changer for genealogists, but it’s also created online noise and misinformation.

Taking control of your interaction with public family trees, and being responsible with your own, can make a difference.

Public trees have the potential to help you:

  • Make better connections with other researchers.
  • Tap into a plentiful source of research clues to explore.
  • Share information in different ways with more people.
  • Control the way you share the story with others.

By adding valuable content to our online genealogical presence and helping others with theirs, we create a strong—and factual—family history for everyone.

What do you think?

How do you interact with public family trees online? Do you do any of these actions already or will you try some? Let me know in the comments below.

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