Tree Hints Vs Record Hints - Which are better in genealogy research?
When using genealogy websites to build your family tree, should you focus on member tree hints or record hints?
Hinting has revolutionized online genealogy over the past two decades and shows no signs of stopping.
The major genealogy websites Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, and Findmypast offer record hints to help you find evidence to document your ancestors. All but FamilySearch also offer member family tree hints. (FYI. FamilySearch works on a one-tree focus which means there are no separate family trees to compare your ancestors with.)
According to Thomas MacEntee of Genealogy Bargains, "hints suggesting historical documents work on algorithms developed by each genealogy platform. Most are based on your last search, or the last record opened."
It's likely that family tree hints work in a similar fashion. The platforms use algorithms to compare information between separate trees to find commonalities.
Record hints and tree hints may help you find:
Using hints can help you quickly build your family tree or turn your orchard into a tangled mess. With this in mind, this post explores whether record or tree hints are more valuable and accurate in family history research.
Watch this video and join the discussion about Tree Hints vs Record Hints.
How Useful Are Family Tree Hints?
After 15 years of active online genealogy research, I have noticed that evaluating hints to the family trees of others is time-consuming at best. This is one reason why I prefer a one-tree approach, such as is offered on FamilySearch and WikiTree.
However, not every researcher and website agree, so the question becomes, when are family tree hints are useful and should be added to your tree?
Professional genealogist Peggy Clemens Lauritzen, says "I actually use family tree hints. I want to glean what others have added that may not be found anywhere else. I found a Bible page from someone who owns the family Bible that will likely not be found except on a portal or website. Family Tree hints can serve as a springboard to take me to other records."
While you may find useful information in the family tree hints, not every tree builder uses care when amassing their heritage.
Trace.com researchers Cyndi Harlin, Cathy Hong, and Ericka Grizzard said, "Any professional or long-term genealogist will strongly, and rightly, caution against adding any family tree hints to your own tree."
It's has been their experience, and mine, that many new or hobbyist researchers copy information from other family trees over and over again without critically evaluating the information. The suggested trees often lack sources supporting the facts put forth. As such, many mistakes continue to propagate without and end in sight.
In general, I ignore family member tree hints unless I'm working with Ancestry ThruLines to resolve a DNA mystery or I'm doing descendancy research on a genealogy brick wall.
When to Accept Family Tree Hints on Genealogy Websites
If you plan to review the family tree hints, learn when to accept the information offered into your tree.
Family Tree hints are useful IF the tree references supporting evidence other than other trees or GEDcom files. A tree that links to census records, city directories, land records, vital records, and more COULD be evidence of a well-researched family tree.
Be aware that family Tree hints to heavily sourced trees could STILL be wrong. Always peer review the research of others (link) before you accept any findings.
Additionally, family tree hints might be partially useful. Sometimes an online family tree has SOME information that is correct while other details are questionable at best. Accept only the verified information into your tree and ignore the rest.
↪️ Beginner Genealogy Resources
When Should You Accept a Genealogy Record Hint?
When a platform offers historical record hints, do you feel like you have a research assistant working around the clock for you?
I know I do!
However, as the manager of our investigations, we must still carefully review the suggested resources before adding any information to our trees.
First, we must follow the trail from the hint, through the record index to the original image. Sometimes we can view digitized historical records online. In other instances, we have to add the suggestions to our research plans and prepare for a trip to do offline research.
When we access the original records, we may discover more details that the index provides. (See Ancestry 1 Hint post).
When to Accept a Record Hint
Not every record hint provides evidence for your the suggested ancestor.
Thomas also says the hints " will locate records in another country or different surnames. CAREFULLY REVIEW each suggestion and make sure you agree with the methodology and that the record or fact IS related to your ancestor."
While evaluating record hints, look to see that the document matches multiple points of information. A matching name may not be enough to confirm that a document provides evidence of your ancestor. Many individuals with common names (link) become tangled if we don't look for additional information like birth date and place, occupation, children's names, spousal names, and residences to separate our John Smiths.
For some examples of reviewing record hints, read the following blog posts:
Evaluating a FamilySearch Hint
Evaluating a Death Record
Evaluating a Find A Grave Profile
According to the Trace researchers, "it’s best to familiarize yourself with what types of records may be available for the ancestor you are searching for and then begin to fill in that information through a thorough review of records and logical research steps."
Are you all out of hints? Contact the professionals at Trace.com who work with talented researchers worldwide to help you with all aspects of your genealogy research. Use this link to get a $50 discount off your initial deposit when you set up a project.
Do Professional Genealogists Prefer Family Tree Hints or Record Hints?
After reviewing all the principles above, I surveyed a number of professional genealogists and asked whether they preferred family tree hints to record hints in their research. Here are their responses:
A few prefer record hints over family tree hints:
"I prefer records hints since family trees can be erroneous." - Lisa Lisson, of Are You My Cousin?
"I always look at record hints. I also look at tree hints, but I don't accept tree hints. I use them as "just hints," which prompts me to check other documents or contact the tree owner and ask why they have that information and where they got it from. Sometimes a person has personal knowledge that has no citation. That doesn't mean it's incorrect. It will be up to you to confirm." - Ellen Thompson-Jennings, Family History Hound.
"Once basic research has been done, hints can be useful for discovering new records." - Drew Smith of the Genealogy Guys Podcast.
Some use both like my Eric.
"Absolutely us both hints, but be very cautious about them. They may point to the next clue for your ancestors, but they may not. Any help researching ancestors is great." - Eric Wells, Legacy Left Right.
One researcher admitted a preference for neither:
"I don't focus on either." - Amie Bowser Tennant, The Genealogy Reporter.
All agree that when using hints to build our family trees, we have to be careful.
Use Caution With Any Genealogy Website Hint
Every professional and experienced genealogist will stress the importance of validating each hint. Just because it's a possible record or family tree match, doesn't mean you should accept the hint.
I found a great article, "10 Rules for Accepting (or Rejecting) Online Family Tree Hints," that offers some solid guidelines. The most important tip involves taking your time.
Miles Meyer, a contributor for The Family History Guide, warns that hints can lead to tangents. "Focusing on hints is an easy way to grow your tree and doesn't require "research skills" that some may be afraid of. But adding the information often leads you in different directions when researching. Sometimes it results in going down rabbit holes and unfocused research."
While we're being cautious, let's celebrate the value of the hints. Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady says, "I use them as a tool and guide for your research. I do not believe any hint 100%, but instead, always find more records and sources to back up any piece of information found in a hint. "
Check Back Often
Every year, FamilySearch, Findmypast, Ancestry, and MyHeritage add new collections to their websites. FamilySearch also has an army of indexing volunteers making previously unsearchable documents accessible through search forms.
Each new addition triggers the platform algorithms and new hints appear for your ancestor, even those you thought you had thoroughly investigated.
For these reasons, build at minimum a research tree on each of these platforms. I recommend downsizing your family trees on the subscription-based websites and having your massive tree on FamilySearch. This way, you can more easily manage your discoveries across platforms and take advantage of the hinting features for only those ancestors you're actively researching.
Move Beyond the Hints
Diane Haddad wrote in the Family Tree Magazine, "Don’t limit your genealogy research to waiting for hints. A family tree cannot thrive on hints alone. On most sites, hinting systems don’t cover all record collections—only the largest ones containing the most names, dates, and places. Search for your ancestors’ records using the website’s search form."
The database engineers at FamilySearch agree. They've stated "Hinting is a way of skimming good matches off the top and presenting them to users. There are still going to be many records in the databases that require refined skills to find them."
I might also add, explore the card catalogs for each website as well.
Have fun using hints to make discoveries for your ancestors. Then repeat this concept from Thomas MacEntee: Genealogy research is a marathon, not a sprint.
So, slow down and thoroughly process your hints.