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25 January 2011 ~ 11 Comments

Expert Disconnect – What’s Ancestry.com’s Next Move

On January 24, 2011 Ancestry.com announced that it was shutting down a fairly new venture: Expert Connect. For those who aren’t familiar with what Expert Connect was, here’s a brief overview from my perspective not only as a professional genealogist but also as someone whose business it is to analyze the genealogy industry:

Expert Connect was a service that allowed professional genealogists to set up a profile and solicit work from Ancestry.com customers who needed assistance in their research. The customer would create a research project with defined parameters and a budget, then put it out for “bid” to the various professionals enrolled in the Expert Connect program.

And while there is much “pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth” going on in the genealogy community (with great posts by Marian Pierre-Louis of Roots and Rambles, Kerry Scott of Clue Wagon and Amy Coffin of We Tree), I want to try and not only put this move by Ancestry.com in perspective, but also offer some theories as to the “why” and possibly predict some future moves by Ancestry.com.

Product Pullback – Even Google Does It

Remember Google Wave? There’s an example of a product pullback. Companies do it all the time as they retool their business plans and objectives. Ancestry.com is merely doing the same now that it is purchased the ProGenealogists company. The fact is that Expert Connect was used by a minority of both professional genealogists as well as genealogy consumers.

Ancestry.com’s target market is the amateur genealogist or what I call the “bright and shiny object” crowd. Expert Connect really didn’t connect with this group and probably the idea of paying someone to do your genealogy research was the reason. When you get down to it, the concept really works counter to encouraging folks to join or even use Ancestry.com as a DIY family history site.

A product pullback isn’t always a misstep. But even if it is, note how the announcement was made yesterday: an email to those who signed up for Expert Connect and a brief email from the Public Relations department of Ancestry.com to their marketing connections.  No big press release (in fact, you’d never ever want to do a press release for this type of announcement). Ancestry.com is betting that this will all be forgotten by February 4, 2011 – the premiere of Season 2 of Who Do You Think You Are?

Is Ancestry.com Pulling Back In General?

Just recently James Tanner of Genealogy Star in his post Genealogy as a business — are we in a recession? asked some needed questions as to why Ancestry.com chose not to be an exhibitor at the recent Arizona Family History Expo. I also know for a fact that Ancestry has decreased its presence at other upcoming genealogy events. So is this a sign that the genealogy industry is in its own recession?

Hardly. It just means that like pruning the non-performing branches in its own business tree, Ancestry.com is redirecting its marketing dollars to those venues that might bring in new consumers of its product as well as retain those current consumers. So what better venue than an expo that targets genealogy beginners such as the Arizona Family History Expo? I agree with James and others that it doesn’t make sense and given the positive feedback on the event and the attendance figure of 1,000 people, Ancestry.com will re-examine this move and be back next year.

In general however, look for Ancestry.com to try different approaches in its marketing plans and this may mean less visibility at certain events and actually seeing Ancestry.com pop up at other expos or events for the first time.

What’s Next for ProGenealogists Then?

Here’s what I think Ancestry.com has in store for ProGenealogists: it will seek to expand its group of expert genealogists but not using an Expert Connect like mechanism.

With Expert Connect, almost anyone could put out their shingle and call themselves a professional genealogist. Yes, Expert Connect was a reputation-based community – much like Yelp or even eBay – but there really wasn’t enough time for participants to build a reputation.

I bet you’ll see ProGenealogists invite select experts from Expert Connect and put in place some standards to qualify as a member. Ancestry.com will continue to use ProGenealogists as its group of experts for high-profile projects such as WDYTYA? as well as television talk show and other media appearances.

More Ancestry.com Movement Towards 3rd-Party Providers

My impression is that all current products and services (outside its core information databases business) are on the table and under inspection. This includes MyCanvas, MyFamily.com and even legacy products such as RootsWeb and Genealogy.com.

Why? Many of these either failed to connect with the typical Ancestry.com consumer (MyCanvas) or became liabilities because they were support nightmares (MyFamily.com). Last summer Ancestry.com decided to eliminate the free version of MyFamily.com and this had to eliminate much of the tech support issues involved. Any way that Ancestry.com can push the support aspects and costs off to another party is better for the bottom line.

What’s Next for Ancestry.com?

Look for the content from RootsWeb and Genealogy.com to somehow be folded into the current Ancestry.com website. Same for Footnote.com.  And just like the October 2009 scramble by genealogists to re-site their content when Yahoo shutdown GeoCities, then you’ll really see not just some hair pulling and teeth gnashing, but some real soul-searching among the genealogy community as to what role Ancestry.com plays.

Conclusion

Perhaps Ancestry.com is just pulling out of the “genealogy experience” market and fashioning itself as an information services provider like West Thomson or even Google. With any pull out there is a void to be filled. So who will step in to represent that aspect of genealogy and family history that goes beyond mere data to explain who our ancestors were, how they lived, and how we share that with our own families?

The death of Expert Connect is a call to the professional genealogy community to take action and examine its marketing efforts. Its time for industry groups like the Association of Professional Genealogists to lend a hand and give some guidance.

And what of the other voids certain to be created in the future? Other genealogy service providers should get ready now to fill those voids and look at them as opportunities.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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