Genealogy-Based Websites

March 17, 2012 by  

I have been the webmaster for the Grinnell Family Association of America website since its inception. I’ve gone through a number of designs and implementations since our first site in 1998. Most of these designs were static in nature, which made them difficult to update and enhance. Our genealogical database contained data on almost 40,000 individuals and 14,000 families. I tried a number of tools that created individual static pages, resulting in tens of thousands of individual HTML files. Every time the database was updated, the genealogy HTML pages had to be regenerated and uploaded to the server–a process that could take all day.

Several software developers have stepped in with excellent web-based, database-driven solutions that are either free or very low cost. These solutions generate pedigree charts “on the fly”, along with all the other reports and charts that genealogists like to have. They run on popular open source databases like MySQL and use the popular PHP scripting language. The advantage of all this is that there are far fewer files to deal with, and generally run a lot faster than the static solutions. To update one of these online solutions, usually all that is needed is a single GEDCOM (Genealogical Data Communication) file, the most common method of exchanging genealogical data, that is uploaded to the website and imported into the application.

The three best-known genealogy database applications are Retrospect-GDS, The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding, and PHPGedView. Only the third option is free, but the other two are very inexpensive.

A word about privacy. All of these packages have features that can hide the names and birthdates of living people–all the more important in this day and age, due to out of control identity theft issues. This feature can be configured with password-controlled access. For most people, information on living persons would be filtered out, while for advanced researchers, access to this information could be enabled.

If your organization wants to make their website the primary location of their genealogy database, most of these packages support on-line editing in one way or another. This process can be controlled with an administrator review function so that the edits are not actually published on the site until they have gone through some kind of vetting process defined by your organization.

These applications can be used in several ways:

  • Static Website: This is probably the easiest method. Just build a few static HTML pages to support your site (membership, home page, family history, etc.).
  • Content Management System (CMS): This is the most fully-featured way of going. Not exactly the easiest to set up, a web content management system offers almost unlimited flexibility in the features you can put on your site. Forums? No problem. Calendars? Ditto. Blogs? Built-in (usually). E-commerce (membership dues, printed books, imprinted merchandise, etc.)? Just add another module. There are a number of CMS packages out there, mostly free. The ones I have actually used include PHP-Fusion, Joomla! (the current Grinnell Family Association site runs on Joomla!), and Drupal. All are well-supported by large user communities, many of whom give of their time without compensation to enhance and extend the functionality of these products. There are literally hundreds (maybe even thousands) of free, professionally-designed templates that you can install on your site to give it the look of something you might have paid many thousands of dollars to a designer to build for you. The more popular CMS packages even have integration modules to connect to your genealogy database, so that if you have established passwords to limit access to various parts of your site, you can use the same password to access the genealogy database.

I can build a website for your genealogical society or family association, with as little or as much sophistication as you desire, and can integrate your genealogical database into the site as long as it is in GEDCOM format, or can be converted to GEDCOM. All it takes, is, well, you know… Drop me a line at Let’s chat.