Monday, February 8, 2010

Madness Monday - "Point and Click Genealogy" Was A Bad Idea

Before I go off on a rant, let me say that I am an subscriber and have been for years. I would not be anywhere near where I am today in my research without their records. I find it a very good value for both the volume of records and the convenience of looking at those records from the comfort of my recliner chair in the middle of the night. I think their trees are sometimes useful as leads and for making contact with others researching the same families. I also think their introduction of “point & click genealogy” was a very, very bad idea.

Sure those leafy hints make it fast and easy to add dozens or even hundreds of people to your tree but real genealogy research is neither fast nor easy. Before Ancestry Member Trees you at least had to go to the trouble of downloading a GedCom, merging it into your database and uploading it back to Ancestry or Rootsweb. Errors were being perpetuated fast enough with that process but now it just takes a quick click.

In Ancestry’s defense, they do call them hints. They may have envisioned researchers who would analyze the hint in comparison to what they had already proven about their ancestor and then make an informed decision as to whether or not there was a match. The problem is, in this age of instant gratification, too many Ancestry users seem to be skipping the analysis phase and going straight to the “add to my tree” button. I’m not sure what they are thinking. What have you accomplished if you have a huge family tree filled with data that is so obviously wrong and people who aren’t even related to you? Crista Cowan at Family History In Real Life wrote about this issue last week in "Is Your Family Tree The Truth?"

As a matter of full disclosure, I admit that my Ancestry Member tree does not have sources. I intentionally strip the sources and notes before uploading the basic names, dates and places. My reason is simple. I don’t want to find 25 trees next week with stories that I wrote and sources that sometimes contain my evaluation of the data as if it’s someone else’s work all connected to people who aren't even related. Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to sharing information as a matter of fact, I'm happy to do so. I have my own website with sources and notes for anyone who has a real interest in that information to see and it is linked from my Ancestry tree so if they find that one first they can get to it. The tree from my website just can’t be copied with one mouse click so it cuts out the people only interested in “point and click genealogy”.

Lack of sources is not even the biggest problem with on-line trees. The sheer volume of bad information is almost beyond belief. It’s becoming unusual to find a tree that doesn’t have something that is obviously wrong and the correct information is not even that hard to find.

There are numerous on-line trees with my great great grandmother, Eliza Hopkins, and her sister Elizabeth combined into one person. Granted it may seem odd that parents would name one daughter Elizabeth and another Eliza but they did. Anyone who takes a few minutes to look at their 1850 and 1860 census records will find both daughters listed in both years.  

Just last month, I saw several trees with someone who was born in 1789 but somehow died two years before that on 18 Dec 1787. Then there is the mother who apparently gave birth to her first child at age 12 and her last one at age 65 with 10 other children scattered in between. No wonder she needed a gap of over 30 years when she didn’t give birth. I know anyone can have an occasional unnoticed typo (I'm sure I have at least a few) but for the most part these things don't seem to be simple typos. Even if the original mistake was a typo, what’s the excuse for the 5 or 6 or 20 others who pick up the same dates apparently without question?

One of my all time favorite messed up trees has my grandparents as the parents of a daughter they never had. The tree owner apparently started with a daughter born in 1822. They had the father’s full name but only a first name for the mother. One of my aunts married a man with the same surname so now her birth and death dates and places (but not her name) are listed for the mother and her parents and grandparents are also attached to the tree. There’s just one slight problem. That gives that child born in 1822 a mother born 83 years LATER in 1905. Actually the child died at the age of 87 when her mother was just 4 years old. If that’s not ridiculous enough, the child was also born 62 years before her grandmother, 58 years before her grandfather and 25 to 39 years before her 4 great grandparents. Clearly this user didn’t look before or after clicking the “add to tree” button because even the most math challenged among us could surely see the problems here. I tried to contact the owner twice but they did not respond so I added a comment to their tree and gave up. They haven’t been on Ancestry in over 6 months so my guess is they have finished their genealogy and moved on to other things.

It's probably impossible to have a completely accurate genealogy. No matter how meticulous you are there will be mistakes and I'm sure I have my share of them. But more and more often examples like these seem to have become the norm. What will become of genealogy in 50 years when there are untold billions of such trees floating around? I wish I had a suggestion for how to stop this madness or even slow it down.

Okay, rant over, back to research.


  1. Thanks for the link back, Linda. Your post gives some really concrete examples of things people should be looking out for but often aren't worried about taking the time to notice.

  2. I, too, have seen my family tree pillaged for information and have the information transformed into something else. Even when I have gotten a response from the person who has taken my info and modified it to their use, when I have pointed out their errors they have the nerve to tell me that my information was wrong. I finally got to the point where I will not publish on a public site, but have kept my tree private on This has stopped the pillaging, but I got a request for an invite to my tree, only to have the person take the photos on my tree and post to their own. It would have been nice to be asked or get a thank you, but nothing.

  3. The Anonymous note, above, sounds very much like my wife, but I know it isn't. She has been frustrated to have her tree duplicated by others, including the spelling errors!

    Good post; if only it were read by the ones doing the "point and click" "genealogy" - Thanks for sharing your thoughts - and examples!

  4. Good post! I agree; I wish it took more work to add online information to the Ancestry trees. I still find bad information in my tree occasionally from my early days of doing genealogy, when I clicked "Add to my tree" a few times. Now I never click add on Ancestry and I never import gedcoms to my website. Everything that goes in is typed by my fingers.

  5. I have the same issues. I only upload some basic info to Ancestry with the rest included on my personal site. I've seen way too many horrible trees to even think about using it as true information. To be honest, I usually dismiss all "hints" pointing at another tree. But, yes, it is good to look over and possibly use to contact the individual who put it up. I know that has been a great source of help in the past.

    I also agree with Tonia, all info that goes into my tree now is typed by my hands. Importing it in automatically feels a bit cheap to me, so I don't like doing it.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. I definitely agree with Tonia and Brian about typing everything yourself. That process also helps me remember the people so that I have a pretty good idea who is in my database. I'm not saying I can name everyone but I can probably tell you if I have any descendants for a specific great great grandmother's sister.

  7. You really nailed this one! Great article!