What is Ancestry.com and How Does It Work?

By Corbin HartwickUpdated on March 11, 2022

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How well do you know your family’s history? Have you ever asked yourself: “Who were my ancestors?” “Where were they originally from?” “What did they do for a living?” “When did they decide to move to where I live now, and how did they get there?” “Was one of them perhaps someone famous, or did they have a famous descendant?”

If you’ve ever wondered about these types of questions, check out Ancestry.com.

So, what exactly is Ancestry.com?

Ancestry.com is the largest private online genealogy database. It allows users to create virtual family trees to trace their lineage, and get “hints” about who else could be their ancestors. It also contains historical records that can be connected to family members and used as genealogical evidence. A paid subscription is required to access some of the features of Ancestry. Learn about the costs of Ancestry.

How Ancestry.com works: 5 tools for tracing your historical roots

1. Get a crash course on genealogical research

If you’re a total newcomer to genealogy, Ancestry can help get you started. Their “Learning Center” section is full of tips on how to map your family history, as well as how to use the website itself. Of course, Techboomers will be here to help you, too! If your trail goes cold, the service also has tips on how to change up your search criteria so that you might be able to make a breakthrough. It also has guides to help you decipher certain kinds of records, especially if they’re in other languages. It’s great for beginners or those seeking a refresher on how to dig through their past, and do it right.

2. Build a virtual family tree and trace your lineage

A good place to start your search for your ancestors is building the beginnings of a new family tree with what you already know. Start with you, and then fill in as much information as you can about the immediate family that surrounds you. Your information doesn’t have to be perfect; just enter as much as you know, or maybe even a few guesses. Ancestry may be able to help you fill in the blanks later. Our Ancestry Family Tree tutorial has more information.

3. Follow and verify “hints” of potential ancestors

Based on the information that you put into your family tree, Ancestry may give you “hints” regarding historical documents it has that may point you to other potential relatives. Of course, the only way to know for sure whether a “hint” is for real or just a dud is by looking at the hard evidence. Type in what you know about a relative — their name, birth date, marriage date, death date, living location, a spouse or other relative… even a guess might be of some help! When you find something that you think might be relevant, have a look at the actual record and the information about it. If it strikes you as useful, you can save it to look at later, or even add it right to an entry on your family tree! Click here to see our Ancestry Search tutorial for instructions on how to search through historical records.

4. Get other Ancestry.com community members to join your project

If you’re stuck, reach out to the community on Ancestry. Someone might be able to give you a hand with using the website, doing genealogical research in general, searching for records efficiently, or deciphering any evidence you’ve found. If you’re looking for something a little more specific, try posting something on the message boards to get help with searching for a relative in a specific geographical area, or a record within a certain database. You can even share and compare your family tree with other users, and see if they have any information or expertise that help you fill in the missing puzzle pieces of your lineage!

5. Take your heritage quest further

The platform even has a store in which you can buy D.N.A. test kits or family tree maker programs, or neat decorative items (such as calendars or posters) that you can use to show off what you find on Ancestry.

Oh, and there’s one other thing that we should mention about Ancestry: it has a library program! If you work for a library or other educational institution, you can purchase a low-cost subscription from a company called ProQuest. “Ancestry Library Edition”, as it’s known, doesn’t have quite as many features as the regular version, but all of your patrons can use it for free instead of buying their own individual subscriptions! More information about its library edition can be found here.

If Ancestry.com sounds like a service that you’d like to try out, work your way through the Ancestry course on Techboomers.com. It will teach you the basics of using it to trace your family line.