Chris Armstrong | May 22, 2017

Getting to Know the Big 4: Ancestry

This is the first in a four-part series analyzing the strengths and limitations of FamilySearch, Ancestry, Findmypast, and MyHeritage to help you use them more effectively.

With the genealogy industry projected to grow to a nearly $3-billion industry by 2018, more and more websites, products, and services to help you trace your family heritage are bursting onto the marketplace. With a plethora of options and resources available, perhaps you’ve wondered which tool (or tools) you should be using in your research.

In her 2017 RootsTech presentation, Sunny Morton, professional genealogist and contributing editor at, analyzed both the strengths and limitations of the industry’s big 4 genealogy websites: FamilySearch, Ancestry, FindMyPast, and MyHeritage.

“One of the questions that I get the most often is, ‘Which one do I need when it comes to these big four genealogy websites?’” said Morton. “I’m going to change that question on you . . . today. Instead of saying, ‘Which one do I need?’ I’d like to ask you to consider, ‘Which one do I need now?’”

Even if you use one website more frequently, Morton recommends getting to know the big 4 because:

  • No single website has everything you’ll want; your needs will change as you build your family tree over time.
  • Knowing the strengths and limitations of each can help you decide which one you need to help build your tree now.
  • Although all websites share some common historical records (such as censuses and other vital records) and some share similar tools, each site continually adds unique content and tools, and each collects user-submitted data.
  • All four websites have powerful and flexible search tools, browseable historical records, automated record-hinting functions, and assistance tutorials.

In this post, we’ll look at the capabilities of Ancestry. Three future blog posts will address the other three websites.

About Ancestry


Unlike FamilySearch, Ancestry is a commercial website that charges a subscription or access fee. However, you can create a free guest account, which affords limited functioning. Ancestry has coverage of 80 countries around the world. Besides its United States records, it is especially strong in records for Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Australia, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, where country-level Ancestry membership subscriptions are available and those languages are supported.

Extensive Record Content for the United States

Claiming the most total records (some 16 billion), Ancestry significantly trumps the number of records available on the other three major genealogy websites. Ancestry is particularly strong in US records.

“My favorite U.S. record collections … are going to be their city directories,” said Sunny Morton in her 2017 RootsTech presentation. “They have over a billion and a half entries. … I love using city directories to help me go from year to year to year to see what my family was doing and where they were. It’s a lot of rich data in between those ten-year census gaps.”

U.S. Federal Special Census Schedules

According to Morton, Ancestry is the clear leader when it comes to having the most federal census schedules available online.

“Every 10 years you see the population schedules,” she said. “That’s the main part of the census that a lot of us look at. But each year since 1820, the government has also taken down additional information about certain types of populations. Sometimes you’ll be able to dig into those and learn more about your ancestors.”

Wills and Probate Records

Ancestry has an expanding collection of wills and probate records from around the United States.

“[Ancestry] has an enormous and growing collection of wills and probate records from around the United States. … They don’t have full coverage for every time period or county, [but they are continually adding to them]. Those are fabulous resources for figuring out who’s related to who and how.”

US Church Records

Ancestry also has a vast and growing collection of U.S. church records including Quaker, Evangelical Lutheran, and Methodist records. Ancestry’s collections are particularly strong in the Midwest.

Social Security and Claims Index

Unique to Ancestry is a vast social security and claims index, which offers information of about 49 million people and could include parents’ names and other detailed birth information.

“It’s a fantastic resource that you can access to be more confident that the person that you’re seeing really is your relative and who their parents are before you pay the $27 or $29 to order their original social security application,” said Morton.

Free Online Tutorials

You’ll find a number of helpful research tips on Ancestry, including:

“They’ve got a lot that they’ll teach you on the site; not just how to use their own site—although they do a good job of that—but there are a lot of other tutorials on the site that will tell you how to be a better researcher, how to find the records you’re looking for, [and] how to understand what you’re looking at,” said Morton.

Largest Integration of DNA and Family Trees Available in a Genealogy Website

DNA research has quickly become one of the industry’s hottest topics, and Ancestry’s DNA database of more than 3 million profiles are linked to tree data, allowing relatives to more easily identify common ancestors than was previously possible.

Limitations of Ancestry

Of the big 4, Ancestry is the most expensive. “ is going to charge you about $200 for a country-level subscription to the US and about $300 to a full international access of all their records,” said Morton.

Ancestry also has relatively few newspapers on its own site. “They do have some newspapers at, but a lot of the newspaper content that the company might curate, I’m imagining, ends up over at their sister site,, which is not part of the membership fee,” said Morton.

How do you use Ancestry? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to share your experience. Join us next week for part two of this series, which will explore the strengths and limitations of FamilySearch.

Chris Armstrong

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