A Detailed Comparison of the ‘Big Four’
In this guide, we’ll look at four of the biggest genealogy research sites on the web. We’ll show you how they stack up to one another, and point out their best features to help you decide.
There are thousands of websites out there dedicated to genealogy and family history, ranging from small and specialized to huge and all-encompassing.
Each one has its own unique spin, resources and record collections, but not everyone can afford them all. So how do you choose?
Quick Summary: The Big Four
Ancestry: the best option for getting started – especially for US-based research. You can make a family tree, get automated hints, and link everything to your DNA test results. Ancestry also owns Fold3 and Newspapers.com so you can get all three with their ‘All Acess’ plan. Get a free trial of Ancestry.
FindMyPast: the leader in UK and Irish records including parish records, civil BMD, newspapers, and more. They also have exclusive rights to Catholic record collections. Get a free trial of FindMyPast.
Family Search: free access to all record collections. Some collections are only accessible from Family History Centers and/or affiliate libraries.
MyHeritage: similar to Ancestry, you can build a tree, get automated hints, and link everything to your DNA test results. Get a free trial of MyHeritage.
Why these four?
Each one is well put together and includes tons of resources. Each one has its own unique strengths and features to help you get started with your genealogy research.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common features of these sites.
Every one of the big four sites has an estimated 5 billion or more names listed among their historical records. Ancestry and Findmypast have 8 to 10 billion or more records. And all of the sites are adding new names to their indexes every day.
So no matter which site you pick, there is plenty there to find.
Browsable Records and Digital Books
Many of the records for the big four sites are in searchable databases, but not all.
Some records have been scanned but not indexed. But if you can narrow your search enough, browsing through the right set of pages doesn’t take that long, and can produce amazing results.
FamilySearch, for example, has over a billion records that are still waiting to be indexed.
In addition, they have more than 340,000 digital books that can be read online, all completely free.
Many of these are genealogies of individual families. If you can connect your tree to one of those genealogies, it’ll be a huge boost to your research.
Online Family Trees
Three of the big four have searchable online family trees, but each site is different in how they operate.
Ancestry boasts more than 8 billion names spread across more than 80 million individual family trees set up by their users.
That means that no matter who you are searching for, you have a good chance of finding them.
MyHeritage is set up in the same way, with close to 3 billion names in 35 million trees.
One potential problem with these numbers, though, is that a lot of those billions of names are duplicates. If the exact same person is listed in a thousand different family trees, the companies still count that as a thousand names when they calculate their numbers.
Ancestry and MyHeritage also let users decide if their trees will be public or private, so not all of those names are actually searchable. Users can also share their trees with only specific people if they want.
FamilySearch, on the other hand, only has one single family tree, but every one of its users can contribute to that tree and see all of the records.
That one family tree already has more than a billion names on it, with a very low percentage of accidental duplicates. If you can find your spot on the tree, it can help you find hundreds of new ancestors and relatives.
Findmypast allows you to build a family tree online, but they are not currently searchable, so you can’t look for clues in other peoples’ trees. The only way to see someone else’s tree is if they share it with you.
Searchable User-Submitted Content
Most of the big four genealogy websites also let you search content that has been uploaded by other users.
More than 200 million photos and scanned documents have been uploaded to Ancestry.com and are all searchable.
MyHeritage.com has more than 75 million user documents, videos, and photos available.
FamilySearch.org has a smaller collection of photos, less than 20 million at last count, but they are still well worth checking out.
In addition, FamilySearch has a library of well over a million personal stories that have been contributed by their users, which can be an incredible resource to rounding out your family history.
Findmypast allows users to upload photos and other content as well, but at the moment they are all stored privately and cannot be searched by other users.
Geographic Areas Covered
Picking the best site for you might be as simple as knowing what geographic area you want it to cover. Each of the big four are strongest in certain regions.
- Ancestry’s records focus largely on the U.S., Mexico, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden. See complete collection and areas covered here.
- FamilySearch has excellent U.S. coverage, along with Mexico, Central and South America, and most of Europe. See complete collection and areas covered here.
- FindMyPast focuses on the British Isles, so is definitely your best choice for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. It also includes many records for emigres from the Isles to the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
- MyHeritage is your best choice for Scandinavia and Germany. It also includes many records from the U.K.
Other regions of the world, such as Asia and Africa, are not well covered by any of these sites.
FamilySearch is your best bet for India, Japan, China, and the Philippines, but it is limited.
Ancestry and FamilySearch are both good for African American genealogy, but don’t include records for Africa itself (not that many records have ever existed). Both sites include extensive Native American records as well.
Website Language Options
If English isn’t your first language, you may still be in luck. Most of the big four operate in several languages.
- Ancestry: English, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Swedish
- Findmypast: English only at this point
- FamilySearch: English, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Swedish, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean
- MyHeritage: 42 languages, including all of the above and many more!
All of the big four genealogy sites keep up with the latest technology trends, letting them offer a few bonus features.
All four sites review your online family tree on a regular basis and check them for matches in their databases. That can save you a ton of search time. But don’t just accept the hints automatically. Always check them against other known sources.
Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch all have free mobile apps available for Android and iOS. Findmypast does not have any mobile apps yet.
Genealogical DNA Options
Of the big four, Ancestry is the definite leader in genealogical DNA. Close to five million users have had their DNA tested and uploaded to the Ancestry site, and linked to their family trees.
MyHeritage added DNA features in 2016, but it has a long way to go to catch up to Ancestry.
FamilySearch and FindMyPast don’t include genealogical DNA features at this time.
The best site for you depends on the features you value the most. Here are the best features from each of the big four.
Ancestry offers you the most records out there, both in the form of historical documents and links to user-submitted family trees.
The site also includes a range of unique collections of records from the U.S. that you’re not going to find anywhere else.
Ancestry was one of the first sites to adopt genealogical DNA testing and has integrated it into all parts of its site.
DNA testing through Ancestry lets you connect your DNA to your family tree. You can find living relatives who have also been tested, as well as your most recent common ancestor.
Ancestry’s most expensive subscription option also provides access to millions of digitized newspaper pages through Newspapers.com and millions of U.S. military records dating back to the Revolutionary War through Fold3.com.
Click here to get a 14 day free trial to Ancestry.com.
Findmypast is the number one go-to site for records in the UK. It includes many unique historical records that you won’t find elsewhere, some of them dating back to the 1500s.
In addition to extensive birth, marriage, and death records, Findmypast houses a large collection of parish, census, and electoral records.
Findmypast also provides access to millions of pages of digitized newspapers not only from Britain and Ireland but from the United States as well.
While Findmypast has the usual subscription options, it is the only one of the big four that also lets you access records individually by buying credits, perfect for the occasional user.
Unfortunately, Findmypast does not currently include searchable family trees, companion software or mobile apps, or DNA services.
Click here for a 14 day free trial of FindMyPast.
FamilySearch is owned and operated by the LDS Church and operated in conjunction with their Family History Centers which have been gathering and sharing genealogical records for many decades.
Most of those records are now online and searchable, including 300,000+ digital books that you won’t find anywhere else.
Even if the records aren’t indexed yet, they can be accessed through FamilySearch’s impressive browsing features.
You can even find records that only exist in print, and gain access to them through hundreds of Family History Centers, all for free.
Priority is given to traditional genealogical records, such as vital records and census records, so these collections are particularly strong.
However, other types of records like city directories and newspapers are far less prevalent.
FamilySearch’s unique online family tree means that once you find where your family fits, you can instantly link to the world’s most extensive single family tree.
The drawback is, you can’t download your family tree, and uploading a tree can be time consuming.
FamilySearch does not currently offer companion software or DNA services, but there is a free mobile app available for both Android and iOS.
MyHeritage offers unique features to help you involve your entire family.
You can build your own personal family website, complete with a customizable URL, that lets you share your family tree with anyone you want.
You can also share photos and videos, create a private social media forum, and let your family members connect and collaborate on your family tree.
MyHeritage has what is probably the most accurate hint system for your online family tree. That means you can easily and reliably follow the hints provided to expand your research.
The site not only offers genealogical DNA testing and linking to your family tree, but it will let you upload DNA results even if you were tested by a different company, something that Ancestry won’t let you do.
MyHeritage also offers free companion software, as well as free mobile apps for Android and iOS.
Unfortunately, their online community and support are not as strong as other sites, and their record collections, while impressive, are not unique, and can nearly all be found elsewhere.
Click here for a 14 day free trial of MyHeritage.
One of the main reasons to pick just one of the big four sites for your main research is the price tag. If you want to use all four, it’s really going to cost you.
Because pricing is always changing, I don’t list them here. Rather I provide a general overview of the plans, with links to view current pricing.
Ancestry.com has several subscriptions levels depending on what types of records you are after.
FindMyPast.com has two monthly subscriptions options, both with discounts for 12-month membership. For occasional users, you can buy “credits” good for 90 days when you need them; each record you access costs a certain number of credits.
MyHeritage.com has a single level data plan (billed annually) to access all of its historical records. They also have two levels of enhanced family tree membership, and an option for full access to both records and family tree options.
FamilySearch.org is free for everyone, no limitations, no strings attached.
The first three sites all offer 14-day free trials so you can be sure you’ve picked the best site before you have to pay a thing.
Many public libraries offer free library editions of Ancestry, MyHeritage, and Findmypast, allowing you to access most or all of each site’s records. However, the library edition doesn’t always include everything that a premium subscription does.
You can also access the library edition of each site through local Family History Centers. Check out FamilySearch.org/locations for a Family History Center near you.
Picking Your Site
Every one of the big four genealogy sites has a lot to offer. Only you can decide which one has the unique features that are the most important for you.
For the three pay sites, be sure to take advantage of their 14-day free trials. Try before you buy, and you won’t go wrong.
Nice comparison of the 4 major geneaology sites! I did take advantage of the Ancestry.com 14 day trial. It was great. I could look at and see every record I needed. However I decided the price was too high and canceled a few days before it ended. All of the material I had been able to access, and added to my tree, is now not viewable! Even some things I saved to my computer are not viewable off line. They are ready for those who take advantage like that. Such was not intended but finances worked out that way. Anyway, unless you want to use a lot of paper and print every thing, which would in the end be more expensive, be aware.
Also, I use Family Search all the time. Its great in so far as it goes. If you cant find what you need, the site can often point you in the right direction to look.
Would it be possible, if you have not done so already, to get a good look at the family tree software that allows yu to build you own tree? I currently use 2 of them. Legacy ( without the premium version features) and it is rather cumbersome at times. As well as My Family Tree which I am having trouble figuring out.
Again, great information!
Hi Patricia. I typically recommend RootsMagic for family tree software. There’s both a paid version and free.
I wish I had discovered your wonderful article a year ago. I have been using Ancestry building 3 family trees, with information supplemented by Family Search. Some relatives in each tree wish to have a copy of their family tree, and I don’t want to lose the information when I no longer can pay keep my Ancestry.com membership (I’m in my 80’s).
Is there a more practical way to download/print an Ancestry.com family tree without having to re-enter each family member into Family Search? It would be great to get this information to a member of each tree, given they are not members of Ancestry.com. What do you suggest?
Hi Marilyn. You don’t need to have a paid subscription to keep your tree on Ancestry. The subscription is primarily for accessing records and viewing the trees of other members. But if you still want to download your tree, I would get some desktop software like Rootsmagic. Here’s a good tutorial to follow: http://files.rootsmagic.com/guides/MagicGuide_Import_Ancestry.pdf