Millions of people share their family trees on popular genealogy websites. It’s a great way to connect with cousins and fellow researchers, make data accessible on the go and contribute to the world’s genealogical knowledge.
Putting trees on sites such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage or Tribal Pages is easy and inexpensive, too. But building a tree on someone else’s genealogy website is like renting an apartment instead of owning a house. If you’re like me, ultimately you want more control over your tree’s home environment. (Not for nothing does my wife call me “Captain Control.”) You want to be able to pick your own colors, layout and fonts. You’re not entirely satisfied with the site’s wiring, so to speak: how its uploaded trees handle sources and notes or how well it works with your genealogy software. Maybe you want more room to entertain relatives with family stories and pictures, beyond the bare bones of pedigree charts. You might just want your family history to have its own address, like www.jonesfamilytree.com.
Taking control and building your own online family history site isn’t as complicated as you might think. Here we’ll walk through the construction process, step by step, and outline your options.
1. Gather your material
An old saying (well, as old as the web) goes, “Online, content is king.” So the first step in building your own family history site is to decide what content you want to put online and to get it ready for publishing.
For starters, that probably includes your family tree. If you’re using a genealogy software program on your computer, you have lots of easy options for getting that content ready to go online. Programs such as Reunion and RootsMagic will output an entire website containing a clickable family tree. You can also generate text reports (such as family group sheets) in PDF form, as well as chart graphics. It’s hard to beat the convenience of these ready-made tree sites, which quickly churn out scads of pages that would take days to code by hand even if you knew how. (My Fryxell family tree, output from Reunion, produced a whopping 3,305 individual files.)
When generating a site from your tree program, you need to consider the same issues as when exporting a GEDCOM file. Check the privacy options and decide how much you want to post about living relatives. Popular genealogy websites generally won’t show others the birthdate you entered for your living cousin Sarah, but you’ll have to be proactive about protecting that data when you publish your website. You’ll also have to—or get to, if you’re an aspiring Captain Control—make decisions about fonts, colors and backgrounds, to the extent your software enables you to customize its web output. If in doubt, keep your design clean and simple and minimize background distractions.
If a tree is all you want to put online, you can simply take the resulting folder of files and upload them to your chosen domain and host—decisions we’ll cover in the next steps. My initial Fryxell and Dickinson (my mother’s side) family sites were just that, using software called FTP to put the files on server space included with my Internet connection. (Don’t count on that option—Comcast, a leading Internet provider, abruptly shut down customers’ “personal web space” last fall.)
But as long as you’re building your own, customized family history site, you might want to go deeper with content. Family photos are ideal for sharing online, as are scanned or screen-captured source materials. In the early days of the internet, before broadband access, sites strove to keep image file sizes as small as possible to speed download times. The standard resolution of a computer screen, at 72 dots per inch (dpi), was the rule. Now, however, you can safely use bigger image files at 150 or 200 dpi, which may be the same resolution you use for the files on your computer.
If you’ve scanned family photos at 300 dpi (dots per inch), you can use imaging software such as Photoshop Elements to adjust that resolution, as well as the overall picture size. That framed wedding photo of Grandma and Grandpa might be 8×10 inches, but 4×5 inches is probably plenty for posting online. Don’t worry too much about sizes at this stage, though, as you can usually scale images further in a web page creation program. Save your images as JPG files (.jpg) for maximum compatibility.
Now also is the time to gather family stories and transcriptions of oral-history interviews. Any text program is fine for these, as you’ll be copying and pasting them into whatever you use to create web pages. Be aware, however, that Microsoft Word is notorious for adding unwanted code when pasting from it. Use your web program’s “paste as plain text” or “paste from Word” options to clean this up.
2. Register your domain
Next, you’ll want to register a domain name, like familytreemagazine.com, that tells the Internet where you want to go. I’ve been snapping up domain names since the wild and wooly early days of the web. That’s why, much to my cousins’ consternation, I own fryxell.com. By now, however, much of this Internet real estate has already been grabbed, and you may find your preferred family domain taken. It might not even be in use, just snagged by some speculator hoping to some day sell bueller.com to the highest bidder. You might have to consider more genealogy-specific possibilities like buellerfamily.com, buellergenealogy.com, buellerfamilytree.com or buellerfamilyhistory.com. Or you can branch out from the most popular .com domains and try .org or .net (.edu is supposed to be reserved for educational institutions) or newer choices such as .us, .co, .info, .me, .site or .website.
How can you tell if a domain you want is taken? Simply typing it into your web browser and finding no such site is no guarantee; a domain could be owned but unused or “parked.” Instead, you need to visit one of the Internet’s “registrars,” many of which also offer hosting services. Popular and frequently recommended registrars include:
All are sanctioned by ICANN, the international organization that maintains the Internet’s naming conventions. Other companies place a greater emphasis on hosting services but also offer domain registration. These include:
Searching for a domain at any of these sites will quickly find all available dot-whatever permutations, as well as suggestions you might not have thought of. My search results for fryxellfamilytree.com are shown above. When you find your preferred domain, a few clicks and a credit card are all it takes to officially join the Internet. Each domain costs about $8 to $12 a year, depending on the registrar; some may offer a deal if you also sign up for hosting.
Once you’ve registered your domain, you don’t necessarily have to plunge into full-blown web publishing. Originally, I just placed my two family tree sites, output from RootsMagic and Reunion, in the free server space included with my internet service (ah, the good old days).
Depending on where you end up having your site hosted, the “real” web address (URL) may not be the easy domain name you registered. My original Comcast URL was something like my.xfinity.com/~dfryxell/uploads/fryxellfamily.htm. You can still use your domain name much like a forwarding address by entering it into the “pointers” field at your domain registrar. When I did this, users typing www.fryxellfamily.com were redirected to my actual URL, none the wiser. You’ll learn more about these sites below, but you can use this same trick to send users to a family tree blog you create at Blogger or Tumblr or a family site at MyHeritage.
3. Pick your platform and/or host
The aforementioned MyHeritage might be the perfect halfway house for you if you don’t want to get too technical. Family tree plans range from free to $119.40 a year. All you have to do is upload or input your data. MyHeritage then creates a family “site” for you, with areas for your tree, a timeline, family photos, family news and events. The service will also then begin to search for matches in other trees as well as in its record databases (separate subscription required to view records).
A little more ambitious alternative is to use a site such as Blogger, which is owned by Google. Blogger lets you create “posts” in which you can chronicle your genealogy adventures and share family-history facts. You can easily add photos and even videos. Incorporating an actual family tree is a little more challenging, however. You could link to your uploaded family tree hosted elsewhere and simply use your blog as the “front end” to your tree. Another option is to upload your tree to WikiTree, a free tree-sharing site, and then embed it in your Blogger site.
For the most control over your site, however, you’ll want to sign up for hosting. It costs just a few dollars a month and you can even find deals at 99 cents a month for the first year. You don’t have to host your site at the same service where you registered it. Your hosting provider will tell you what to type in (generally in the Nameservers field) at your registrar to send users to the right place.
Most hosting services also have some sort of free or inexpensive website creation software that functions online. Or you can download or buy a program for Windows or Mac that lets you build your site offline on your computer and then helps you upload the finished product. (For a basic family site, there’s no need to invest in a professional program such as Dreamweaver.)
I tried a bunch of such programs in my first attempt to upgrade my Fryxell family site. Frankly, they were cumbersome and lacked the all-important control I was looking for. Too many relied on templates that lacked customization options. Frustrated, I did what any smart father would do when confronted with a technological problem: I asked my daughter, Courtney Graziano. Fortunately, she builds websites and runs social media campaigns for a living as a director of digital strategy for a global consulting firm.
Courtney recommended WordPress, which I learned is the most widely used web-publishing platform, the choice of everyone from People magazine to the New York Times to PlayStation. Best of all, it’s free. (A similar, arguably fancier alternative she also recommended is Squarespace.) It lets you set up a blog (much as with Blogger) or a website. Such a site will be hosted at WordPress and have a wordpress.com URL (though you can of course point to it from your own domain). Or you can download the WordPress tools to use at your own domain.
It’s likely, though, that your hosting firm already has the WordPress package and you just need a few clicks to install it. Once I located the “WP” icon at my host, it walked me through the process and I was done in minutes. (Note that to take full advantage of WordPress features, you’ll also want to create a free account at the WordPress website. This is separate from your “admin” account for your own site.)
Tip: If the URL of your website or blog isn’t the same as the domain name you registered, enter the URL with your domain registrar to create an easy “forwarding address.”
4. Create your site
Once you’ve installed WordPress and logged in with the user name and password you chose during setup, you’ll find the bare bones of a ready-made site. Initially you’ll be taken to your Dashboard, a kind of “home base” where you can add pages and control the look of your site. You’ll want to make some basic design decisions before you start adding content—but don’t worry, you can always change your mind later. (Almost magically, WordPress can reformat your entire site to reflect these changes.)
First you’ll want to choose a “theme.” This controls the basic layout of your pages, the fonts and the overall appearance. Thousands of ready-made themes are available for WordPress, with costs ranging from free to customizable packages such as the $60 Genesis (which is Courtney’s go-to choice). If, like me, you still prefer the sound of “free,” just click on Appearance (A), then Themes, to search for no-cost options. Among free themes, Courtney recommended “Twenty Eleven,” one of the special themes WordPress issues annually (that one was from 2011). You can find tens of thousands more themes at the WordPress website and sites like ThemeForest.com ($4 and up).
Next, you’ll want to customize your page header (B). WordPress thoughtfully provided me with a lovely image of a pinecone, but I thought something more relevant to my family might be better. Since the image needs to be horizontal—1,000 pixels wide by 288 tall—I rejected the thought of old family photos. (Grandma and Grandpa would have to be cropped to eyes and noses, or horribly squished.) I went instead with an old map of my ancestors’ original stomping grounds in Sweden. Choosing Appearance, then Header, then “Add New Image,” I uploaded my file, cropped it slightly and applied to my pages. Make sure to click “Save & Publish” to keep your changes.
Also under Appearance, you can choose your site’s colors and fonts, add a background image (think twice—this can make your text hard to read) and control whether your home page will be static or display your latest blog posts. I went with a static page, since for now I’m not posting blog entries or inviting comments. Click Site Identity to change the name of your site as it appears on the page and add a tagline. The Layout option lets you choose where to put your main content relative to a sidebar of links, or omit the sidebar.
If you do opt for posts and/or comments, you can control them via the Posts (C) and Comments (D) options on your Dashboard.
To start adding articles and pictures to your site, click on Pages (E) and choose an existing page to edit or add a new one. In the Page Editor that opens up, text goes into the box (F). You can toggle between a Visual display as it will appear to viewers, or a Text view (which you’d also use to do any hand-coding of HTML, the system that tells web pages what to do—G). Format text in boldface or italics, or align it to either side or center it, by selecting text and clicking a button on the menu (H), much like in your favorite word processor.
To include an image, click Add Media (I) in the Page Editor, then upload your picture. To find and manage your uploaded images, click the Media button on your Dashboard (J).
If you want to see the results of your work, click Preview Changes in the Page Editor (K). Click the blue Update button to save your changes (L).
5. Add your tree
Combining the web-publishing power of WordPress and the output of your genealogy software turns out to be trickier than you might imagine. One option is to again turn to WikiTree. Instructions for embedding your tree in WordPress are at the address above in our discussion of Blogger. This approach uses a variant on an HTML tag called “iframe” that puts one site in a frame inside another. The same trick could be used to embed a YouTube video in your WordPress page. You can also add plugins for a family tree to your WordPress site. If you have a large tree, you won’t want to bother with anything that requires re-entering data. A plugin called RootsPersona can import GEDCOM files exported from genealogy software, but note it has not been tested with the latest three major releases of WordPress.
For now, though, I decided simple is best and adapted my original approach of just uploading my earlier site created by Reunion. I added a link to the Reunion site from the menu of my WordPress site, so users could jump from my family history text and old photos to the actual tree. WordPress automatically generates menu links for top-level pages on your WordPress site, but I had to add this external link to my Reunion site manually.
To do this, I went to Appearance, then Menus, and pasted my external URL under Custom Links, along with the link text “View Tree.” I opted to have the link open in a new tab, so visitors could easily navigate back to the main site. (To enable this option, go under Screen Options, look under Show Advanced Menu Properties and check Link Target.) The result is that a new clickable option, View Tree, appears next to my Home page link (M).
6. Share with the world
Depending on your hosting provider, your WordPress site may be “live” as soon as you start working on it. Some providers post a “Coming Soon” page and let you choose when you’re ready to launch. To make sure your site can’t be seen while “under construction,” use the Coming Soon plug-in. Once you’re “live,” click the Publish button to make subsequent updates and additions to your site viewable.
Finally, it’s time to let your family members and fellow researchers know about your site. Spread the word via email, Twitter and on your Facebook page. Ask other family who have pages, genealogy or otherwise, to link to your site. If your surname is the subject of message boards at Rootsweb or Genforum, post a link to your site there.
Before you know it, too, your site will start showing up in search engines like Google or Bing. To speed up how rapidly Google’s bots scan your site, add the Google XHML Sitemaps plug-in. Registering for Google Analytics lets you keep track of visitors to your site.
That’s all there is to it. Your family history is now online at its custom-built “home sweet home” online.
Home Maintenance: Plugins and Widgets
Plugins and widgets are like gadget codes that can add or improve functionality on your WordPress site. Try these:
- Disqus improves the built-in comment system.
- iframe embeds a YouTube video in your WordPress page.
- WP Google Fonts expands your theme’s font repertoire.
From the March/April 2016 Family Tree Magazine.