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.

23 thoughts on “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. 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. 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.

    • Two or three things here, I appologize, since i do not use heritage at all, To clear up Ancestry data not available, Ancestry has different levels of capabilities based upon cost and “International” is one of them. If you want complete access to third party data bases then this is another level of cost. I have the complete package so as to not be bothered by these issues. This is, for me, advisable since All of my Direct line ancestors came to America in about 1855.

      If you prefer storing your data on your computer or in a safe deposit box, i suggest downloading it to a gedcom file to put in on your computer and then copy it to a flash drive. I have taken my own important document, using a Scanner put them on a Flash drive to put in the safe deposit box or other safe place since i keep most originals in the Box. This is a good Idea for wills and such, but, be sure they are in ADOBE format to be legally viable!

  7. 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. 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.

      • 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. 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

    • Jac: In both cases, i find it possible, in fact, rather easy to do in Ancestry.com I have never done either in Family Tree, but I understand from others that you cannot do adoptions in Family tree.
      When doing adoptions in Ancestry, you can add an extra Father and or Mother and show each of them as: Biological, Adopted, Step, Foster, Related, Guardian, private or Unknown and you can toggle between them. it is a little clumsy, but, it works quite well. I use it, since, I have two adopted children, I have a Cousin who was adopted out of the Family at Birth and another adopted out at 2 1/2 years. I have not yet found any others using it, however, unless I permitted by another to share and have collaboration or edit permission I would not be able to see it, further, unless, I had permission to see living persons, that would further limit my ability to see it.
      The only way I have been involved in sharing or collaboration in Family tree is by downloading a gedom file and then send it to someone who can then upload to the tree of their choice. This is how I got started on my Ancestry Tree, The husband of my First cousin provided me with such a file which I uploaded to Ancestry. now with my Ancestry file, i can invite people who have or do not have their own Ancestry account to join my tree. After that I can select the level Viewing they may have and the amount of collaboration they can take part in, such as, Read only, provide information or full edit capability. Further the tree owner can if they desire, provide to See living persons since that is almost always not visible to others due to privacy concerns. There is no additional cost for this service.
      I hope this helps
      Arlin Simmons

  10. Just a quick comment from an old timer who has worked for many many years in Computer based research and analysis: In your comparison of Algorithms you loaded the comparison in favor of Family Search. IE: simply put, you admittedly placed a hobble on Ancestry by asking for only exact matches. That means what it says, Exact to the letter. this eliminates spelling errors, spelling variations, use of initials when full names are provided and use of full names when initials are provided. also you can really mess up on birth and death locations since for many persons this is not all that cut and dried since a person may be born in a hospital in a different town from where the family lived, it is a toss up as to which is listed in the search and likely as not it is where they lived while the official record is the hospital or location of a mid wife. on death records a person may die in aen accident in an nearby town from where they live yet because that town is the official place of death and the search may not know that and uses the last known address or town name from an obituary. Ok enough but there is a lot more, the point is you must use as close as possible the same search restrictions on both to have a valid comparison. You did not. Just like statistics, you cannot use selective data unless you are striving for a predetermined outcome either consciously or unconsciously. it is easy to make that mistake. Please comment.
    Arlin Simmons

    • Arlin, you raise some good points. However, I’m going to respectfully disagree. With Ancestry, at least at the time this was written, if I didn’t use the ‘exactly match’ option, the search returns were even more random.I could be looking for someone in Virgins, yet the results would be front loaded with results for people in England, Scotland… anywhere other than Virginia. As I did say, both platforms have their strengths and weaknesses. And, to this day, I still split my searches between the two depending on the kind of search I’m doing.

  11. Honestly…familysearch didn’t find ANY members of my family whereas I managed to find plenty of records on ancestry.com. I’m from Germany. I also find it frustrating that familysearch actually expects me to visit their center for the only records I may actually find useful. Arrghh…

  12. I have used both but mostly use Ancestry for the simple reason that I am good at understanding how to tweak the searches to find what I am looking for. It’s like getting good at using one search engine rather than skipping around. I might be able to find the same data on FamilySearch… but I might not find it as easily due to my own skill set. And I have finally been converted to using an online tree on Ancestry rather than just the FTM tree on my computer. I was converted by three advantages. 1. The sync feature works great and fast, so my FTM tree always matches the one online (I sync at the end of each session). 2. The way Ancestry links documentation to your online tree is so easy and it downloads to your home tree with the sync.. and finally 3. You have a great backup online..
    A pet peeve with Ancestry though… there is a little social engineering going on as they hide the slave censuses from their searches. The slave holders in the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses do not show up even when you search for their name in the specific county. You have to go to the slave censuses specifically and search there to find them. I have written them about this, no response. Come on Ancestry….

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