Genealogy for Beginners: To Pay or Not to Pay – Free Resources VS Paid Services

OK- now that you’re on your way to discovering your family history and have begun to put the pieces together, you notice that there are hundreds of online* resources at your disposal: sites that provide quality birth, death, census, marriage, military, passenger manifestos, immigration records, news archives, and so on. Some of these sites offer free resources, some offer paid services and some offer both.

So what’s the best route? The answer to this question is entirely up to you.

There are those who believe that everything genealogy related offered online should be free and that we shouldn’t be forced to pay for our history- and while ideally I agree with them (wouldn’t that be nice, right?) – it’s just not the world we live in; quite frankly, it’s a bit insulting to the people who work so hard to make sure the info being sought is available for the finding for people to expect that effort to go unpaid or unthanked.

Free resources (such as GenWed.com’s searchable marriage records databases) are generally supplied to the user by volunteers- people who aren’t getting paid specifically to put these things on the net for you. Instead, they might provide other resources, partner with Ancestry.com or any number of other paid or subscription options as an affiliated service offering to help offset the cost of compiling and presenting the data in a functional and consistent way.

You will see this partnership in the form of banner ads or clearly marked search boxes (look for the company name, it’s there).  THIS is how they keep the information online for you** and it is absolutely necessary for the survival of the free resource sites – web hosting, security, email access, domain ownership, etc- these are all things that have costs associated with it, not to mention the hours of grueling labor involved in getting the information to you and keeping it current.

Now- not every additional resource offered by free sites will be a paid service, in fact most will be other free sites- sites that focus specifically on a region or family line, etc- that may help you drill down further into certain areas of your research.   There are literally thousands of these.  The honest ones will tell you whether it’s free before you click onto it (keep in mind that you DO have a responsibility to yourself to pay attention to what you’re clicking on). Just remember- clicking never costs you anything, and there’s always a back button or an x to close the popup if you find yourself at a cash register***. The only way you pay for something is if you provide your method of payment and authorize the transaction- this will never be asked of you by a free resource (but very likely a sponsored offering)- so use your common sense here.

So with all the free resources out there, why pay for anything at all??

That’s a tricky question- and the answer is not a simple one. Even with hundreds of volunteers out there, sites won’t have all the data you’re looking for and then some of that data might not be correct or complete, etc – and most of it can’t be obtained for free as an official or certified copy (we’ll talk about that in another article).  As I stated before, most of the free sites only focus on one specific geography or family line…One of the things that GenWed.com does that not many other free sites do is offer records for ALL states, ALL counties, and as many names/ family lines (even other countries) as we can find and then present it to you in a way that’s user friendly.

Even at over 200 thousand individual genealogy marriage records in our databases (and growing) we don’t have everything, which is why we also have over 30 thousand links to other relevant resources.  We are only 2 people, after all- and my job is mostly related to making sure you know about it- so really it’s ONE person gathering all this data for you and making it presentable. Even Ancestry.com doesn’t have EVERYTHING available yet.

My thought here is that a subscription to a service such as Archives.com (now part of Ancestry) or Ancestry.com might make it easier for you to find what you’re looking for in a pinch- like a trusty friend you can call in the middle of the night and unload your problems to – but you should try to get what you can from the free resources first.  This is what would be prudent and it’s entirely up to you…the only way for you to know what way is best for you is to try a few scenarios out and HAVE FUN with it!


NEXT ISSUE:  Genealogy for the Future – it’s not just about digging up the past – and stay tuned for thoughts regarding ‘real’ versus ‘virtual’ records.

*Want one place to find out where to get the official records from various state, county and municipal records holders? Try AllFreeRecords.com, a site dedicated to the Freedom of Information Act and providing you with accurate where and how to contact info for the various records available to the public.

**For deeper detail into how this works, you can go to any one of these free service sites and click a sponsored link to see how each one works.

***Clicking onto a banner ad or through a search box won’t cost you anything and often times will actually help to support your free resource because of the terms they have with the paid service supplier. If you don’t want to pay, then don’t – but click all you want!


  1. Ethan Cage

    Hello Kathleen, I am really delighted to have these pieces of writing. I think you have raised the issue in the right time. Because of the huge availability of free resources, it would be really tough to compete with for the “paid services”. I fully agree with you that we need to think the whole matter wisely and obviously sympathetically. Personally I never ever do visit “free resources sites”. Maybe it would be my personal reason but I have the strong reason behind the whole scenario. I believe that, “paid services” will always provide authentic record and nothing else.

    1. Kathleen

      Hi Ethan,

      Thanks for visiting our blog! Everything that GenWed.com offers in our databases is free for the user. We’ve spent years combing records and (and indeed continue to) compiling our databases and present the most accurate and comprehensive free resource that we possibly can. I’m sorry you have had a ‘bad experience’ with free resources in the past. I can tell you that nothing will provide you the ‘official and accurate record’ like the city or county or province that holds the actual records and that everything you get online that’s not from an official resource like that is subject to the same fallibility across the board. In the end, we’re all getting the information from the same basic resources-some don’t do a great job of transcription while others know how important the details are; some are presenting that data for a fee, others present it with sponsorship (banners and sponsored searches [like us]), most only present a very limited amount of data (only one geography, for example) or try to sell you something. I think that makes us one of a very few, and perhaps the exception to your rule?



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