Clash of the titans: Ancestry.com vs FamilySearch.org. And the winner is…?

Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are both great online family history services. The main difference, of course, is that FamilySearch.org is free with (largely) free access to records (records from Fold3.com being the notable exception). Ancestry.com is a paid membership service – although it provides a good level of free access to information to get budding family historians and genealogists going.  There, I got that distinction between the two out of the way.

I’ve found another, and more subtle, difference between the two which I’m about to share. It all about performance. But one boring bit first before I get to that. Understanding this first bit will enable you to get the overall performance point I’m making about these two services.

The power and the value of Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org aren’t solely based on the sheer volume of records each possesses. The same records and digitized archives can pretty much be found on both.

It’s the behind the scenes stuff that seems, in my regular experience of using both, to be the difference. What behind the scenes stuff? Algorithms and databases. The websites of both services are driven by databases – think of these as ginormous warehouses that contain all of the records and data you access when you do a search on either Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org. The databases have to be exponentially huge to hold all of that data.

OK, so I know what an algorithm is. But I was finding it challenging to explain this in an engaging and meaningful way. You know, the kind of way that anyone would be able to understand. So I did my usual Google search to see if there was a far simpler explanation. Blimey, the one’s I read reminded me of every boring and dry math and statistics class I ever took. So I’m going to simplify things and boil it all down to its essence. Purists, forgive me! Calling an algorithm ‘computer code’ or thinking of an algorithm as just ‘some sort of computer language’ would be simplifying things far too much. Think of an algorithm as the lovechild produced by a mathematical equation and a written language. Think of it as looking something like:  x+y=a-b+Italian. This lovechild acts like your own person courier. Basically, you’re telling an algorithm to go and fetch something on your behalf. In this case, you’re asking it to fetch you data and records about your ancestors.Each service has its own unique algorithm. Just like Google has its own search algorithm – which is unique to Goolge and completely different from the algorithm used by Yahoo or Bing.

When you type in the name of an ancestor in either service’s online search form, the different algorithms used by each service go off to their respective, huge data warehouses. Each has a look around in its own warehouse, determines what data best fits what you’re looking for, and trots back to you with that data in tow. You know, the data and records  (census records, birth records, marriages, etc)  it thinks is best suited to your search. An algorithm tries its best to determine what records are the most relevant to your search.

Ancestry.com and familySearch.org pretty much have the same kind of warehouses that hold all those records and data. Their algorithms, however, are very different. Looking at it in another way…

I’m going to use the horrors of high school algebra and/or trigonometry to illustrate this concept. You’ll find some illustrative examples of what I mean below to better visualise what I mean:

Think of Ancestry.com’s algorithm as something like: 2+3, [ 0 ]=0, [ 1 ] =m, [ 2 ] =n

Think of FamilySearch.com’s algorithm as something like: 2+2, [ 0 ]=0, [ 1 ] =m, [ 3 ] =n

On the surface, at first glance, they look pretty similar. And they are. But those subtle differences determine what records turn up after you click the  ‘search’ button on either service. The quality of the search results is largely due to the algorithm each company uses and the language and coding used to produce that algorithm.

The more I research my non-European ancestors and relations, the more I find that Familysearch.org produces far more accurate and better results. And it’s all down to the whatever algorithm it uses to fetch records back from its data warehouse.

I’ll show you what I mean below. I’ll start with Ancestry.com and then move on to FamilySearch.org.

So….I want to find records for Johann Peter Mattil, born on 16 Mar 1725 in Höheinöd, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany and died on 20 Jun 1787 in Thaleischweiler, Sudwestpfalz, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. He married Anna Elisabetha Scheffe.

ANCESTRY.COM RESULTS

Search criteria for Johann Peter Mattil on Ancestry.com. The above shows the various filters used.

Search criteria for Johann Peter Mattil on Ancestry.com. The above shows the various filters used. Click for larger image

As you can see from the above, I tend to use the ‘restrict to exact matches’ option. I tend to do this with all of the variables where this option is available. And last, but not least…

Applying the German country filter on Ancestry.com

Applying the country filter – in this case Germany – on Ancestry.com. Click for larger image

I selected his gender. I also applied the country filter – in this case Germany since I really only want to see German records.

And these are the results I receive from Ancestry.com’s algorithm:

Ancestry.com results for Johann Peter Mattil

Ancestry.com results for Johann Peter Mattil. Click for larger image.

On the positive side, I did get German records (This hasn’t always been the case. I received US-centric results for a number of other 17th and 18th Century German-domiciled Mattils I was researching). However, none of the nine records Ancestry.com suggested  were relevant to my search. All nine were 19th Century records. There are no records suggested for a man who clearly lived and died in Germany in the 18th Century.

In my experience, Ancestry tends to work best within national search parameters. Ancestry.com is robust and accurate for American records. Ancestry.co.uk is brilliant for British records. Do an international search…and the results become less accurate.

FAMILYSEARCH.ORG RESULTS

And now for the same search on FamilySearch.

Search criteria for Johann Peter Mattil on FamilySearch.org. The above shows the various filters used.

Search criteria for Johann Peter Mattil on FamilySearch.org. The above shows the various filters used. Click for larger image

As you’ll see from the above, there are fewer search options and filters on Familysearch.org. However, the results its algorithm produces looks like:

FamilySearch.org results for Johann Peter Mattil

FamilySearch.org results for Johann Peter Mattil. Click for larger image

Not only did I get results for the Johann Peter Mattil I was seeking…I also received a string of results for other 18th Century Mattils. There wasn’t a single 19th century record suggestion.

The result of all this?  Well, for the time being, I’ll be using Familysearch a LOT more for my international record searches. For whatever reason, its algorithm is better suited for the job I need it to do researching non-American ancestors.

Has anyone else noticed any subtle –or not so subtle – performance differences between these two services? Feel free to share via a comment below.

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15 Comments

Filed under ancestry, family history, genealogy

15 responses to “Clash of the titans: Ancestry.com vs FamilySearch.org. And the winner is…?

  1. Very interesting! I use both and have been pleased the results. I do like all the state records that are currently on FamilySearch but not yet online @ Ancestry.com.

  2. I find that Family Search is better for identifying different spellings of a first name or nicknames whereas Ancestry will only give you only exactly what you spelled (because sometimes using an * in place of letters just isn’t enough). I use both sites but tend to use Ancestry on databases that are on both sites because I can link the record more easily to my tree.

    • This is a good point too Re: spelling variants. Both services are great tools and are kind of like old friends. With that said, FamilySearch is like my BFF when it comes to researching non-US ancestors and relations.

  3. Great post! It really helps to understand how to retrieve the results you are searching for from different databases. Thank you for taking us back to algorithms. Your perspective really struck home for me—makes sense!

  4. Brian, thank you for your post! Is the FamilySearch, Ancestry.com relationship like Apple and Android? My worry is duplication of data, meaning needless work and chance for more error. My hope is that they collaborate and share data. I’m currently asking the same question to BillionGraves and FindAGrave, since I enjoying GPS marking, indexing headstones. Both of theses companies work with FamilySearch and Ancestry respectively.
    Gus Koerner, Titusville, FL

    • Hi Gus

      Thank you for your comment. Actually, the two are now in partnership (imagine the day that happens with Apple and Android!). You can read about the partnership here: http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/central/provo/ancestry-com-joins-forces-with-lds-owned-familysearch/article_4ce0e3fc-067a-5546-8f00-a0d0e111033a.html

      On the face of it, I think you’ll see Ancestry.com and FamilySearcch divvying up records to digitize. It’s what I would do if I were in their shoes. As a strategy, it would have great synergies of scale and all that – and result in more records being digitized more quickly.

      I’m not sure if this mean they will actually share digitized records. For instance, I’ve literally just found a huge number of Freedmen’s Bureau documents on FamilySearch that aren’t available via Ancestry.com. Conversely, people have been busy digitizing old Virginia marriage records – which are now appearing on my Ancestry.com searches but not my FamilySearch searches.

      IN time, hopefully, it will become clear which company is hosting which records. In the meantime, I;m continuing to use both.

      • I’d be surprised if there ever becomes total overlap because if FamilySearch remains free, there goes Ancentry’s revenue stream.

  5. upchurs

    I find that familysearch.org builds the tree faster. It gave me records that I knew existed but never could get to appear on ancestry.conm

  6. Barbara

    What software program do you use to store the data you have collected so that you can combine information from both Ancestry.com and from FamilySearch.org? Ancestry.com just showed me some information from FamilySearch.org and then suggested that I needed to purchase the information from Ancestry.com because it was international. I currently have an online annual subscription to Ancestry.com, but think I would prefer to store the information on my own computer.

    • Hi Barbara

      Thank you for the great question. I’ve built a bespoke database using MS Access. My tree reached something of a critical mass. So, I developed this database to run queries on specific towns & counties as well as the number of occurrences of marriages within family lines, etc. It’s also a great backup.

      It really has taken my genealogy research to a completely different level.

  7. Daniel

    I have long thought the same. I have been actively doing research on both sites for about 8 years. Familysearch is a better search engine for European ancestors whereas Ancestry.com is better for the US side of the Atlantic. Thanks for reinforcing my assumption.

  8. Wendy

    I have a question. I’m relatively new to family tree research. I haven’t signed up with Ancestry yet due to the cost. I did try FamilySearch for a few months but wasn’t entirely happy with it (maybe I was impatient and/or doing it wrong). I found the tree building awkward. AND THEN, I found out that other members can alter the info on your tree which turned me right off. So my question is……do all the people that like Familysearch JUST search on it and then build their tree elsewhere? This beginner is starting to get confused.

    • Hi Wendy. I think it’s a matter of preference. MyHeritage.com and Family Tree are also great family tree building sites. Even better, people can’t change the information in your tree.

      • Wendy

        Thanks for the quick reply. I was on Myheritage a couple of years ago briefly. I found that I didn’t have as much time to commit to it as I thought. I may try again & will check out Family Tree as well. I’m determined & not giving up! Thanks for listening.

  9. Dennis Peterson

    Considering – MyHeritage or Family Search

    In the mid ’90’s when living in Sweden I began tracing my Swedish lineage with Family Tree. Since then I’ve lost the data file but still have hard copies of what I created. Of course, the mid 90’s was before the explosion of the internet and cloud servers. I was frustrated with a system that resided on my computer and wanted to put it into a place that relatives from other countries and states could all collaborate. I’ve held off on Ancestry.Com because I don’t want the recurring cost.

    Two things I would like to do:
    1. My family was split in the early immigration to American, children were adopted by other Swedish families and I have both an adopted family and a biological family. Family Tree in the 90’s would not allow me to trace two separate trees. Can I do this with one of the programs mentioned?

    2. I would like to give access to the data to distributed family members and have people work in a collaborative fashion. Which of these programs would be best for collaboration?

    Suggestion?

    Thank you

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