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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11 Responses to “Expert Disconnect – What’s Ancestry.com’s Next Move”

  1. Mavis 30 January 2011 at 3:40 pm Permalink

    Great analysis and I totally agree with you.

  2. Caroline Pointer 26 January 2011 at 10:24 pm Permalink

    I agree with Stephanie. I would also submit that claiming there was not enough time for an Expert to gain a reputation is completely erroneous. How do you know? Did you interview all the participants – both clients and experts? Also, if they had been going back and forth on this decision for a while, then the actions they exhibited and their correspondence with experts the last month were misleading, and while they acted well within their rights, they certainly did not exhibit good faith. Further, they really upset a bunch of people. Customers, in fact. Bad PR move in my opinion.

    They didn’t just upset the experts who put their eggs all in one basket, so to speak, but really put all of us – no matter how we were using EC in our business plans – in a real bind. (And we really shouldn’t be casting aspersions on other’s business plans unless they ask for our advice.) Do you realize there are experts who were in the middle of 5-7 long term projects with multiple milestones? Do you realize what a nightmare that is contractually? Not to mention having to explain everything to our clients without losing their business. They have adversely affected many expert’s current projects. That is no way to treat, well, anyone.

    Yes, there were questionable experts on there, but guess what? They’re everywhere. To lump all the experts except for a few elite, is wrong. Very wrong. There are good & bad professionals at every level in every venue.

    That being said, I’m not angry with Ancestry. They can do whatever they want, but they sure could have handled it better. And acting cavalier and condescending about it is wrong too. However, I agree that good & better things will come of it, and not from any of the above-mentioned sources either.

    ~Caroline
    (And if my message comes out funny, sorry. Leaving long messages with an iPhone is stupid.)

  3. Jessica McManus 26 January 2011 at 5:45 pm Permalink

    There is another option for people needing to locate a professional researcher for their projects or for genealogists looking to find work. The concept is very much like Ancestry.com’s Expert Connect but was actually in place BEFORE Expert Connect.

    Please Check out Genealogy Freelancers at:

    http://www.genealogyfreelancers.com/index.php

  4. Kerry Scott 26 January 2011 at 2:28 pm Permalink

    Well, my answer is still going to be Ancestry. Realistically, there’s no chance that I’d stop using them even if I were very, very angry (and I’m not; I’m puzzled, I’m intrigued, I’m perplexed…but not angry).

    I also don’t think people are going to pay double or triple the cost to have genealogical research done. If anything, the cost will come down, since researchers won’t have to factor in Ancestry’s commission (and since some providers will have less work now, and therefore my be inclined to lower their prices as a client-attraction strategy).

    That said, I’m interested in seeing whether Genlighten and/or Genealogy Freelancers can make a go of this. One positive outcome of all of this is that it’s compelled every one of us to really give some thought to our business plans. That’s something we should be doing on a regular basis anyway.

  5. Tammy Owen 25 January 2011 at 10:27 pm Permalink

    Ancestry has been asked if their ProGenealogist company is a replacement for Expert Connect and they have stated “No”. They also stated that there was alot of discussion and concern about shutting down this service but in the end they decided to do it.

    I believe, if you are a genealogy company, the last thing you should do is alienate your genealogists like they’ve just done. I know a lot of us “Experts” are moving to http://www.genealogyfreelancers.com which operated before Ancestry started their service, held tight when they couldn’t compete, and now are one of the only games of this type in town. They also have a very low commission rate when compared to Ancestry.
    I think Ancestry will lose money with this move. Genealogist are on websites, bulletin boards, email groups, etc and are constantly asked which sites they use and which they think is the best. After being cut off at the knees, do you think their answer is going to be Ancestry? Those clients who tried to do their whole family tree during a 14 day trial, gave up and hired an Expert, usually bought a full subscription after the Expert build their online tree and got them going again.
    You also mentioned rootweb being merged onto their website. This won’t happen. When Ancestry acquired Rootsweb, this was part of the agreement, to stay separate and free.
    I’ve seen Ancestry’s business plan in action over the years, being one of the first subscribers to their services, and a professional genealogist who used alot of other sites. They bought out any competition. Footnote being one of the latest.
    With LDS trying to put their entire vault of documents online and for free, Ancestry may become obsolete, unless they can buy them out as well.
    While there will still be those who provide researching for those that don’t have the time, don’t know current technology or don’t have analytical skills, Ancestry just got rid of the one service that will still be around. I feel for those Experts who felt a partnership with Ancestry and thought there was one and for the clients who may now have to pay double or triple the cost to get past their brick wall or have their familiy tree done as a Christmas present for their family.
    I guess there’s still time for Ancestry to change it’s mine, at least until February 4th, 2011, when we can no longer submit bids.

  6. Kerry Scott 25 January 2011 at 4:31 pm Permalink

    I still think there’s more news coming, sooner or later. Pulling the plug may make sense, but the timeframe and manner in which it’s being handled do not.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, the only time in my corporate life I scrambled that fast is (a) when there were lawyers involved, or (b) when I was about to be bought.

  7. Ancestry.com will discontinue its Expert Connect service. Cool. As an original member of Ancestry.com near its inception & the very 1st person selected for Ancestry.com’s former internal highly successful, but short-lived, Paid Expert Ancestry Research Line (PEARL), I say “Hallelujah!”

    There were very few dry eyes the day the announcement came to disband our “non-scalable” group. I ask my Ancestry.com colleagues–if they dare–to provide a short comment. Thank goodness for Lynell & me, for their action caused us to ultimately become http://www.GermanGenealogist.com 602-865-9695 karlmsala@msn.com

    Since 1979, Lynell & I’ve found thousands of data, documents & images for thousands of ancestral family members for hundreds of clients. Our biggest clients are not part of Ancestry.com.

  8. Amy Crooks 25 January 2011 at 2:05 pm Permalink

    I completely agree with you. I found Expert Conect was another avenue to get my name out there. But the transactions with my costomers were so much more of a hassle then the ones I recieved using APG.

    I have since stepped out of the research realm for a time. I needed to make my family my priority and genealogy was stealing my attention from them. But when I do return, and it is in the works, I will use APG to hang my shingle. Expert Conect was great in therory, but the clientle it brought me (in some, but not all cases) took more hand holding and wanted something for nothing. Though I appreciated the contacts I gained through them, I know it will be no big deal in the future to use APG to gain further clients, that is APG’s nieche after all.

    I’m sure Ancestry.com will focus their attention in a way that will better serve us all. They gave it a great try, but not everything is made to last forever. There have been times when many of us have been highly irritated with Ancestry.com, but I will give them this, every time that I know of they made an extra effort to right their wrongs and satisfy their customers the best they can (keep in mind you won’t make everyone happy all the time). I will look forward to what they bring us in the future.

  9. Stephanie Hoover 25 January 2011 at 1:11 pm Permalink

    You mention in your post that “Expert Connect was used by a minority of both professional genealogists as well as genealogy consumers.”

    According to Ancestry, however, they had “thousands” of providers participating in the program.

    APG reports its membership (if I’m not mistaken) at 2,000.

    Clearly it would therefore seem that the number of “experts” well exceeded the “minority” in this profession.

    The problem with the program, in my humble opinion, is the fact that Ancestry appeared to define “expert” in a much different way than I – and possibly customers – do. “Expert” should imply someone eminently qualified in their area of specialty. I’m not sure if providers were held to this high standard, however. And, if that IS the case, then surely customers must have noticed…?

    In any event, the program was good at the beginning but as it progressed it created a bit of a Wal-Mart mentality among clients. I didn’t find what I expected – I want my money back. The researcher didn’t document my family history back to the Middle Ages – I’m going to give him/her a bad rating.

    Genealogy research (I don’t have to tell anyone) is a marathon and not a sprint. To imply otherwise breeds the sort of discontent felt by many experts who are now left reeling from the slaughter of Ancestry’s golden goose.

    It was a good idea, no doubt. But I think, once implemented, it simply lost its way.

    Stephanie Hoover
    PennsylvaniaResearch.com

  10. Amy Coffin 25 January 2011 at 12:40 pm Permalink

    Agree 100%. Maybe it’s because I know I’m not in Ancestry’s target market, so I’m not surprised by their actions. The West Thomson comparison was spot on, as I see the Ancestry “product” looking more like an info provider.

    Truthfully, I’m more disappointed that APG as an organization didn’t jump on this immediately and market the group to the masses. This was their chance to shine and share their purpose. Hopefully they make a statement and seize the opportunity.

    P.S. Thanks for the mention!