You shouldn’t be wasting time asking yourself which is better – Ancestry or Find My Past. Controversial? I know. I’m a member of several UK Facebook Genealogy Groups and the most frequently asked question I see is “which is better, Ancestry or Find My Past? Users slug it out, fighting the corner of their favourite subscription site. Sometimes it get’s brutal. But here’s the thing, don’t be swayed by the crowd. Your ‘best fit’ will depend entirely on you and your preferences.
This article is already pretty long, and that’s just focusing on the UK offerings at both sites. Covering these titans global records would require an attention span much longer than my average readers! And mine! So, we’re going to stick to just the UK data.
OK. Gotta cuppa? Great, let’s get started. Firstly, go on and register with both sites. It’s free. Don’t worry I’ll wait. Done? OK now you’re registered you are primed and ready to take advantage of any free days or weekends offered by the sites. Both companies periodically offer free trials or limited time access to record sets. Once you’ve registered you’ll also find that you’re able to explore the sites in much more detail. Here’s what you need to check out before you part with your hard earned cash:
Data Sets: The Same but Different
This is a must must must do. I cannot tell you how important it is! Check out the data holdings for both websites. For Ancestry that’s a case of going to the ‘Search’ menu and then selecting ‘Card Catalogue’. For Find My Past (FMP), select ‘Search’ and click ‘A to Z of Record Sets’ from the drop down menu.
Both websites have an extensive index of data sets. These ‘A to Z’ of Records or Card Catalogues are the virtual equivalent of an old fashioned card index. Remember those from the library? No me neither. I’m far too young!
You’ll soon notice that both sites share much of the same data. They both have the ‘core record sets’ essential to tracing your English or Welsh Ancestors. For example, the 1841 to 1911 census collection and the UK Births, Marriages and Deaths registration indexes.
Make sure you take a really good look at any records that look to be identical across the sites.
Whilst both Ancestry and Find My Past might hold some of the same records, the way in which these can be searched varies.Tweet
For example, FMP offers a ‘search by address’ function on it’s census collection. Click on record in the A to Z catalogue to go to it’s search page. From here, it’s easy to toggle between search by ‘person’ and search by ‘address’. It’s technically possible to search Ancestry’s census by town or keyword, but in reality it is not as fully functional as FMP.
So FMP’s better right? If only it were that simple. Whilst FMP’s address search is superior, Ancesty enables you to search the census for a named person AND other persons they may be living with. You can specify the name of a mother, father, spouse, children, siblings. It’s powerful stuff. Let me give an example of the power of this search tool. I’m looking for the Smith family, in London. Needle. Haystack. Despair. However, I know that John Smith was married to Jane Smith and by 1911 they had 4 children; William, Edward, Elizabeth and Anne. All of these names are ridiculously common. But the number of families containing all of these names at all the right ages is considerably less than the number of couples named John and Jane Smith.
By contrast on FMP you can only search for your guy living with one other household member. Fine if you’re looking for Mrs Happy Dance McUnusual and her husband Fantastico. Not so handy for John and Jane Smith.
Data Sets: Just Different
Although many of their records are the same, both sites also offer unique data. It’s worth bearing in mind that over time the uniqueness changes. Until May 2018, FMP was the only site to have the 1939 National Register. Now it’s at Ancestry too. At present, FMP has a huge newspaper collection (also available by subscribing to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA)). Ancestry has records from the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), including images of church baptisms, marriages and burials dating back to 1538. It’s partnership with the LMA means that it has a host of London records the images of which can’t be found anywhere else online.
Paying for membership to either site can unlock unique treasures. FMP is currently uploading reams of catholic baptisms, marriages and burials. They can’t be found on other sites.
To complicate matters the divide of data between the two sites is not always clear cut. For example FMP has Hampshire parish records (transcriptions only), but Ancestry has Surrey parish records (including original images). My own Crondall ancestors would nowadays be classified as living in Hampshire. But that wasn’t always the case, and the Crondall records form part of Ancestry’s Surrey offering.
Finding out which records are offered by which genealogy site can be a bit like navigating through a maze. You need to select the data sets you are interested in & really explore them, before you hit subscribe.Tweet
The cost for both websites has varied over time. There’s not really a big price different between these two titans. From time to time both sites offer joining incentives for newbies. However, once you’ve subscribed to FMP you’ll find that they offer an incentive for renewing and I’ve never cancelled my membership. Not so with Ancestry. They reward newbies rather than loyalty. Each time my Ancestry subscription reaches it’s renewal date, I cancel it. I then immediately rejoin using the best offer I can find.
Facebook Groups are great for finding offers to subscription sites, as is signing up to receive the Lost Cousins newsletter.Tweet
For both sites most of the records available are searchable by, at least, the name of your ancestor. But what happens if your ancestors name has been written incorrectly in the original record? Or perhaps it’s right on the original but it’s been transcribed incorrectly. My surname is Pithers, trust me, I feel your pain!
Our ancestors weren’t always great at spelling their names consistently.
With both sites you are able to search records using wildcards. But once you’ve found a mistake what happens? With Ancestry you can submit a correction to an original record easily. You can do so from either within the record image view, i.e. whilst looking at the actual census doc or from the page transcription view. This is because Ancestry allows you to view both original and transcriptions simultaneously. This means you can simply click the data you want to correct no matter how you are viewing the record. Once processed both the original spelling and the correction will appear within search results. Sometimes lots of different corrections will appear, based on other users submissions. Added bonus, you can click on the names of those users that have submitted corrections.
Ancestry gives you an incentive to correct errors. Each time you do so, you are setting ‘cousin bait’.Tweet
Correcting errors is easy on Ancestry. I like taking out my metaphorical red pen and setting some cousin bait.
FMP is lagging behind in this area. You have to ‘report an error’, an option that’s not always easy to see, although it is available on census pages. You have to be on the transcription page of the individual you wish to correct (rather than looking at the original image). So if you have 3 people whose surname has been spelt incorrectly than you have to click ‘transcription’ next to each of their names. Then you’ve got to find the elusive ‘report an error’ button. Then you’ve got to type the correction, save it and move to the next person. Much much more onerous. To make matters worse you can’t see the corrections once they go live so it’s hard to tell whether they actually were enacted on not. You can’t see other people’s corrections and therefore the whole exercise seems to have little value.
Missing pages, incorrect images and other errors
From time to time, on both websites, errors occur – such as the wrong image attached to the wrong record set, an image that won’t load or perhaps a missing page.
Website issues and record set up errors are highly frustrating when you are hunting for ancestors.
FMP offers a live chat option in it’s ‘contact us’ section. It’s a great service and personally I’ve had very good customer service from FMP. I’ve reported missing data and seen it correctly promptly. I was once given an extra day on my membership to make up for the fact that data was incorrectly unavailable.
Ancestry, on the other hand, whilst better at fixing transcription errors, have not been helpful when it’s come to larger problems. I say this based solely on my own experiences. I’ve reported missing images and received an automated email thanking me for doing so. However, the same email has told me that they currently have no timeline for fixing the problem. I read this as thanks but actually we don’t care. Back in early 2018 a lot of Twitter users were complaining (myself included) about site issues, such as crashes, lock outs and long loading times. This went on for months and people really were getting angry. I think most of the Twitter community will agree when I say Ancestry’s response was somewhat lack lustre. That said, I’ve had no problems recently and a new CEO was put in place so perhaps those issues are a thing of the past.
Display of Data
Both FMP and Ancestry have unique ways of displaying search results. Generally, Ancestry provides a much easier ‘quick glance’ view of results. A search of the 1861 census records on Ancestry will provide a list of showing names, approx. birth year and place etc. More importantly though, hovering your mouse over the name of the individual will bring up a floating box showing further info, such as a list of all the other names in that household.
Both sites offer access to thousands of search results. They are at your fingertips and ready to explore. Our time is precious and how these results are displayed is important.
Performing the same search on FMP reveals a very similar list of results. Sadly though, on FMP there is no information on how a person relates to any other person within the household. To find out who else is in residence you have to view the full transcription, or the original. If you are looking through a long list of William Davies born in Wales than that extra click to view the whole household can be really tedious. As can the need to toggle between a transcription and the original image.
Despite these set backs, FMP’s search results do have one big advantage. You can choose how to sort the data. Each column, birth year etc, can be clicked on. Doing so re-sorts the data. I can search for William Davies and order by year of birth, ascending or descending. Ancestry cannot do this.
Both websites have some work to do in providing clear and consistent source citations for individual records. Generally Ancestry provides their source citation info in a line of text. This makes it easy to copy and past. FMP display theirs in a table, meaning I have to copy and paste each section to form a sentence. On both sites the actual citations can sometimes be somewhat lacking. Neither is perfect.
Both sites provide information on which parishes (for which dates) are included in each data set. Usually on FMP this info can be viewed by clicking on a link in the data set. This takes you to a long table detailing all the parishes and all the dates covered. On Ancestry it’s a little less obvious. Sometimes I’ve had to browse a list of images, checking the years and flicking to the end in order to get a stop date. This means it’s easier to assume that you’ve checked all dates and all parishes whereas in reality the data set actually doesn’t include a parish – probably because that parishes data has been lost or damaged.
Hands up if you’ve ever searched Ancestry or Find My Past for a baptism and presumed you are searching all parishes within your county of interest? Newsflash, you might not be!Tweet
Trees and Hints
Both websites now offer the function to build your family tree directly on their site, or to load a Gedcom from a family tree package. Ancestry are old hats at providing this service. FMP is playing catch up, and only recently launched a hints system.
Ancestry users are able to share images, text docs and sources on public trees.
I’ve yet to really use FMP’s tree functions. That’s probably because I only have a tree on Ancestry in order to share work with others, with cousins I’ve connected to – mostly through using Ancestry’s DNA tests and it’s results packages.
Be warned though, Ancestry’s hints features are dangerous. Less diligent users will accept all hints without properly investigating them. Sometimes there are literally hundreds of trees that are all incorrect – because they’ve all copied each other and that one hint error has been multiplied across users.
The easy copy and pasting of trees and the wildfire spread of resulting errors…well, it’s enough to make me scream!
The happy-go-lucky acceptance of hints is a real shame as the ability to share trees, sources and information with others is absolutely invaluable. Combined with an Ancestry DNA test, it’s a powerhouse….which brings me nicely to our next section…
You can purchase DNA tests through Ancestry and utilise their DNA genealogy tools. This is a separate subject all in itself, but to date FMP do not have the same capabilities. They have recently partnered with Living DNA and it’s likely we’ll see FMP branch out into genetic genealogy in the near future. But…it’s not there yet.
I’m lucky, I subscribe to both Ancestry and Find My Past. Here’s a few of the odd things I’ve found myself doing, utilising both sites functionality…
If I’m looking for someone on a census record, I normally search Ancestry first. I prefer the way they display the search results. I find it quicker to identify the individual I’m looking for among the results. I’ll only turn to FMP for an address search.
If I’m doing a general search for an individual across multiple data sets, I use FMP’s ‘search all’ function. You can search all records at Ancestry too. I just find FMP’s gives more targeted results. I also use FMP for searches of marriage registrations. It’s better at pairing up spouses. For parish marriages, I’ll search FMP but if I find a result I’ll then go look for it on Ancestry. This is simply because I prefer the way Ancestry allows you to view both original image and transcription at the same time. I also prefer it’s source layout. It’s easier for me to copy and paste into my genealogy package (RootsMagic).
Are you still there? I know this has been a long post. I hope that I’ve illustrated that the question “which is better” is somewhat of a nonsense. Which site you’ll use largely depends on what data you want to access and your search results display preferences. One site is not better than the other. They are totally different offerings. Don’t get me wrong, in an ideal world, I’d love to marry off Ancestry and Find My Past. They’ walk off together, into the sunset, sharing their site features and records. FMP would be up to date with DNA and Ancestry would have fabulous customer service.
Let’s get real though, that’s highly unlikely to happen and if it did the site would be mega expensive! After all, competition helps to keep price points down.
A girl can dream…of combined genealogy sites. I know, I’m a nerd. I don’t care. I love genealogy.
So back in the world of reality, here’s my final thoughts. Ancestry is a titan and it’s really cornered the ability to combine DNA with UK research. But FMP is growing rapidly. It’s seen the launch of some fantastic new data sets. It’s upping it’s offering. I don’t see either of these giants going anywhere or working together. SO, if you have to decide between one of them, than you have to do your research. You have to really dive deep into those data sets and play with their functionality.
Have you chosen a side? Let me know which site you’ve opted for and why. Comment below or tweet me, @geneastories.
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