How to check if your Ancestry tree is public

If you’re new to Ancestry, you’ve probably started your family tree with a few clicks. If you’re an experienced user, you may have created several experimental trees to quickly research a possible family branch. It’s important to know that unless you deliberately chose otherwise, your Ancestry tree is public. Are you sure that’s what you wanted? If not, here’s how to go back and check if your trees are public or private.

To check if your Ancestry tree is public, open the Tree Settings page and view the Privacy Settings tab. The Public Tree toggle is in the top section. If the toggle is highlighted in green, then this tree is public. All new trees are set to Public by default unless you chose otherwise when you first created the tree. To make the tree private, click the Private Tree toggle in the lower section. To make your Ancestry tree public, click the top toggle.

How to get to the Tree Settings page

There are two ways to reach the Tree Settings page: from within the tree itself, or from the general list of all your trees.

If you’re only interested in one particular tree, then open the tree and click on the drop-down menu in the top left-hand corner.

The option labeled “Tree Settings” will open the target page. You’ll land on the general Tree Info tab, so click to the next tab to see the Privacy Settings.

If you want to double-check all your trees, then the fastest way is to work from the tree management page. This page is accessed from the top menu of the Ancestry site.

You will see a list of all trees that you have created to date. At the time of writing, the listing does not display the public/private status of each tree. I think that would be an improvement, to allow us to quickly scan through our trees.

How to save time when checking if multiple trees are public

You will need to check multiple trees one by one, but I have a time-saving tip for you. Don’t click on the name of the tree, as you’ll have an extra click to use the prior instructions to open the tree menu. Instead, use the links on the far right of the page, labelled “Manage tree”. These jump you straight into the Tree Settings page. If you right-click to open each new page, you can quickly work down all your trees.

If you change your tree to public or private, does it take immediate effect?

The short answer is yes. The moment you toggle the public/private setting, it is applied immediately.

I mention this because it is in contrast with another option on the Privacy Settings page: the setting that makes your tree unsearchable. That may take weeks to take effect. There’s more explanation on unsearchable trees in this article.

Why is it easy not to notice that you created a public tree?

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find you kept a tree public when you had intended to make it private. You have to uncheck the option on the Save Tree dialog box.

I think it would be helpful if Ancestry simply labeled the option as Public. Instead, they use different phrases to what is in the Privacy Settings page.

When you create a quick experimental tree, it literally takes a few clicks to save it. Slow down a little, and think about that checked option.

What are the benefits of having a public tree?

Many Ancestry features are launched from your Ancestry tree. These include automated hints and sophisticated searches. You’ll find more in this article on the essential set-up of an Ancestry tree. However, you’ll receive these benefits regardless of whether your tree is private or public. So why have a public tree?

I find that the main benefit is receiving messages from other Ancestry members who have spotted connections in my tree. That can knock down brick walls and open up new branches for research. As an experienced Ancestry user, I’ve initiated a lot more messages than I’ve received! But it’s very gratifying when distant relatives reach out with new information.

Are there disadvantages to a public tree?

There’s an expectation amongst other Ancestry users that when you create a public tree, you are publishing information that you believe to be true. Hopefully, your fellow Ancestry users also know that they should verify your information before they copy it into their own trees. However, some inexperienced or less meticulous users will copy from other trees without checking for accuracy.

Suppose you spent a few months tentatively building a tree to research a family rumor that Great Aunt Bertha was third cousin to Eleanor Roosevelt. Eventually, you decide it’s not true, and you remove false entries. That’s a tree that should have been set to private. Otherwise, you may find months later that you start receiving hints from other trees that had copied your erroneous connections. (Are hints driving you nuts? Find the best ways to get their benefits in a three-part series starting here).

Can an internet search find an Ancestry public tree?

In other words, how public is an Ancestry public tree? Can it be found with a simple internet search? Let’s try it!

For this experiment, I switched to an internet browser that I rarely use, and have never logged into Ancestry with as I didn’t want cookies or caches to interfere with the results. I ran a Google search on “Ancestry family tree James Gamble“. That person is in one of my own public trees.

This entry is near the top of the Google search results:

Do you see what’s going on here? Google has given us an Ancestry search of its public member tree collection (we see this from the top line saying “pubmembertrees“), and is telling us that 1.25 million results are in Ancestry, of which the top result is from the newton Family Tree. Which isn’t mine, as it happens.

As an aside, the Google results also list entries further down from WikiTree, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and FindAGrave.

So, is this a back door into Ancestry? No, not at all. When I hover over the specific Google query, it shows me that this is the actual search: www.ancestry.com/search/collections/pubmembertrees/?name=_Gamble

Ancestry’s Free Search page

Google is using Ancestry’s free non-member search page at www.ancestry.com/search. The rest of the query is asking for a broad name search under the public tree collection.

So to answer the question, how public is a public tree? Well, don’t tell your family and friends to Google search your relatives. Your own tree is probably not going to be that single top result. Instead, you can point them at Ancestry’s free search page which offers all the criteria and filters of the advanced search form.

People do get to search and view basic birth and death details for public tree entries, but if they try to access the tree, an Ancestry sign-up form appears for membership.

Looking for an e-book on building your Ancestry tree?

Check out our e-book on building your family tree with Ancestry.com. It’s available on Amazon now! Content includes:

  • Setting up your DNA-linked tree
  • Using your tree to find connections with DNA matches
  • Best practices for entering names, dates, and locations
  • Strategies for getting the most benefit from Hints
  • Tips for using powerful Search features

You can also check out some video tutorials that walk through using Ancestry features on the DataMiningDNA YouTube channel.

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