Skip main navigation

Choosing the Right Genealogy Software and Tools

This article will help you choose the best way to compare your family history by comparing various types of tools and software
Mature couple looking at a tablet together
© micheljung,Shutterstock

Genealogy software is any computer software used to record, store, organise and/or publish genealogical data.

It may be in the form of free or purchased software packages run on a user’s computer such as FamilyTreeMaker or Legacy, cloud based (which are services hosted on the Internet) such as those provided by Ancestry or or increasingly software in the form of “apps” running on mobile phones and other handheld devices.

Genealogy software may not provide all tools required by genealogists although they are moving in that direction. However, specialist tools (called ‘genealogical utility software’) can provide a solution for a particular requirement, for example analysing data distribution over geographical areas or for handling certain types of charts.

The two fundamental requirements for choosing genealogy software are as follows:

A. the program should allow you to record all data that you discover during your research, including conflicting data for the same event, and B. you should be able to document where each piece of information that you record was obtained, i.e. add a reference.

There are other issues to consider though some of which include: data import and export to other software packages; data integrity, which means the program should not create data automatically (for example, if the program adds data such as a ‘married name,’ the user should have control over the process)…and so on.

If you are just beginning to research your family’s history, you may not wish to begin using genealogy software right away (or ever) and there are plenty of physical tools available to help you record and organize your findings. However, entering your data into a software program gives you the ability to produce a number of reports and charts at the drop of a hat and to update information quickly as well.

Cloud based tools

A trend of the last few years has been the increasing availability of internet hosted software allowing a similar functionality to software packages run personal computers. It’s these tools that we’ll focus on in this article.

There are two variants of internet based software – software hosted by third parties and software under your own control (we’ll discuss the latter variant elsewhere). Both use your internet browser to provide the user interface with software running on remote computers and are therefore not reliant on running on a specific platform (such as Windows or Mac) or requiring a minimum hardware specification (within reason).

The first group includes Ancestry, FindMyPast, GeneaNet, GenesReunited, Geni, MyHeritage, FamilySearch and others. All provide options to enter and store your data online. Some of these services are free to use for their basic tree building features, though most offer paid for premium services.

These include the publishing of family tree information online which allows the sharing of information with fellow researchers or family members. As with any online provision, users need to consider privacy issues and decide whether to keep their data private or invite/allow others to view it. Please also consider whether you are allowing the hosting company the right to use your data by signing up to the service. We strongly encourage you to read the terms and conditions!

The internet based approach has advantages and disadvantages over traditional software packages:

Advantages: The software is always the latest version and more likely to be upgraded quickly. It is available from anywhere with an internet connection and tends to be easy to use. There is no need for backup (allegedly). Collaboration with family is facilitated.

Disadvantages: What if the site is unavailable, or goes bankrupt? Is the data really backed up? Who owns, controls and who can see the data you have researched? Often these services are not as fully featured as computer based packages, though the gap is reducing. Printing options can be limited. What happens if you stop subscribing to the hosting provider?

Specialist tools

This includes a right old mixture of programs and cloud based tools that can be useful to achieve specific tasks. These often become marginalised over time as the main genealogy software programs incorporate their features, as has happened with geo/mapping applications. Here are some we have found useful though there are many more:

CLOOZ – Has a document based approach to gathering data which helps with analysing information found and linking people to one another. It can generate reports in hundreds of formats.

Family Tree Analyzer– As the name suggests it helps you to analyse a family tree to look for errors and missing data. For example, “colour reports” provide a colour-coded visual oversight of whether individuals have been recorded in each census. It is freeware, but is also a work in progress.

Name and Place – A cloud based tool offering database management and mapping tools for those creating one-place studies, one-name studies and local history projects. You can import data from a variety of resources.

ResearchTies – A cloud based tool allowing users to record a research objective and the sources to search in order to meet their objective. It streamlines the data entry of search results and is very helpful when compiling large amounts of data and sources. Links to online results can be created, and digital images of documents can be uploaded.

The future of genealogy software

Genealogical software will continue to be developed to include more and better features; these are some areas we think are ripe for further advancement.

Visualisation: So much more than just producing pretty charts, information visualisation refers to the whole process by which insight is gained from representations of data.

Integration with web based research: The falling cost of digitisation, desire to achieve organisational cost efficiencies and the opportunity for revenue generation should result in more archive material available on the internet. Software is increasingly incorporating features to search for online material but integration with just one or two online repositories (Ancestry and FamilySearch for example in the case of Family Tree Maker) will be inadequate.

Genetic genealogy: As awareness and understanding of the use of DNA testing for family history research increases and the cost of testing falls, genealogy software will need to hold the data and have the ability to search DNA databases of growing size and importance. However, will privacy concerns impede this area?

Which platform(s) these will sit on (PC/Mac, internet, tablet, mobile) is also a matter of much conjecture.


© University of Strathclyde
This article is from the free online

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now