Once you have gathered your initial research materials - names, dates, etc., you will want to be able to enter this information into a format which will allow you to easily track your family.
I chose Ancestry.com as the place to start my family tree. There are other sites available, but I found using Ancestry to be quite simple and the format easy to follow. Ancestry often has free trials that you can take advantage of to see if you like their site or not.
If you decide to use Ancestry to build your family tree, here are a few tips to get you started:
1) Choose a screen name and password that you can easily remember. Write them down so you don't forget, but if you do, you can always recover your screen name and password.
2) Start your family tree by clicking on "Create a new tree" and then you can start by entering in your personal data - full name, birth date, and place, spouse's name, children's names, your parent's names, birth dates and birth places, and those of your siblings.
3) Once your immediate family is entered, start entering the information you have for your relatives - aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc.
4) When this information is listed, you can then view the start of your family tree. An excellent thing about Ancestry.com is that it will automatically list your family and their relationships in an easy to follow format.
As you begin to add names and information, your tree will slowly start to form. The more information you add, the larger the "tree" becomes. As you add different generations, the tree will begin to branch out. Soon your tree will be filled with names of people you know.
With every person and piece of information you add, you are entering data in the Ancestry.com database. This database then begins to match your information with the data stored in their computer system and soon you will probably start to see a small green leaf appear next to someone's name. This green leaf indicates a "hint". Click on the person with the leaf attached and you will be taken to another page that will list available hints for that person.
Click on the green box named "review" to be taken to a page with additional information. For the examples above, if you click on the review button for the 1891 Scotland Census, you will see the name of your relative and the people that were in the residence with him/her at the time of the census. Often this is a valuable way to find previously unknown siblings along with birth information.
In a lot of cases the information contained in census records may not be exact. For example, a birth date may be listed as "about 1820" rather than the actual birth date of April 15, 1817. This is commonplace for older census records but can at least provide a starting point until you find the actual birth date of your relative.
When possible, click on the actual census or other record to view it in detail. Most census records have been transcribed by volunteers, and while their intentions may be good, their accuracy in names and spellings can sometimes leave a lot to be desired! Don't blindly accept the information shown in the hint as fact - check your details.
As you start to add more and more detail to each individual on your tree, you will find additional hints popping up. This can sometimes happen slowly, but more often than not you will hit what I call a "rich relative vein" where suddenly you have ancestors coming out of the woodwork and all sorts of new people and information that you never knew about.
This can be both exciting and overwhelming. As you add more and more people to your family tree, it can become easy to be taken off into distant relative territory - 4th cousins 3 times removed from the husband of your 2nd cousin 5 times removed, etc. Add whoever you wish to your tree, but beware that you can end up with people with no direct bloodline to you which may not be what you are looking for.
Using Information From Other Ancestry.com Member's Trees
Through experience I have found information contained on other member's trees to be quite helpful in tracking down ancestors that I knew little or nothing about. However, I have also discovered that just adding that information into your tree by clicking on the other member's tree link can quickly result in a messy tree!
I suggest that unless you know the information contained in the tree is probably true, you write down the information separately and then type it manually into your own tree. This will save you countless hours later when you discover that the information you added from another member's tree is completely incorrect. A lot of surnames and first names are also very similar or the same, so sometimes it is difficult to tell if the Jane Smith from London is the same Jane Smith from London that you are researching.
Accessing Foreign Records
When you purchase an Ancestry.com membership, or try one of their free trials, you can choose from a number of different packages. I suggest that you start off with your local Ancestry website (Ancestry.ca for Canada, Ancestry.uk for England, Ancestry.com for the USA, etc.) and use the available information from your country as a starting point. Once you have exhausted your own country's records, you can then upgrade to a "World Explorer" package, which is more expensive but will allow you to access records on a global basis.
The World Explorer package is very helpful when you research your Great-great-great Grandfather who immigrated to New York City from Italy in 1820. This package will allow you to select the country and type of specific records you wish to search if you have run out of automatic "leaf" hints.
Public vs. Private Family Tree
Some people love their privacy and don't like anyone to know who they are or what they are doing on the internet. Others are not worried about having their family trees available for people to view and see the information they have added. Ancestry.com has options that will accomodate both types of researcher.
If you mark your family tree as "private" in your privacy settings, the information you save will not be able to be viewed by anyone else without your permission. Any hints linked to the people on your tree will be marked as "private". This can ensure your privacy but limit the amount of interaction you may have with ther Ancestry.com members.
If you mark your family tree as "public", your data is able to be viewed by other Ancestry.com members, but cannot be changed (only you can add or delete information contained in your tree). The advantage of having your family tree public, at least initially, is that it will open up the opportunity for others to see your tree and contact you with information or questions.
By leaving my family tree as "public", I have been in contact with numerous people researching our shared ancestors. I have even made contact with family members that I never knew existed. My experience with being in touch with long lost relatives has been a good one, but like anything, use your common sense. Don't share personal information about yourself on this or any site until you really know who you are talking to. Sometimes people get caught up in the excitement of being contacted by a long lot relative, but relative or not, until you know that person, they are a stranger!