26 January 2011 ~ 9 Comments

Ancestry.com – The Evil Empire of Genealogy?

Ever since Ancestry.com announced the shuttering of its fairly new Expert Connect service on Monday, the genealogy blogs and message boards have been filled with input, feedback, commentary, debate and overall a very productive introspection by the genealogy community. This introspection not only has dealt with how professional genealogists should be marketing their own services, but also about the role of Ancestry.com in the genealogy industry and the genealogy community.

I’ve already discussed what I feel are the motivations for such a move by Ancestry.com here. As a colleague asked, do I think the termination of Expert Connect is a positive or a negative? In short I’d say a positive for Ancestry.com operations, a negative for its image and role in the genealogy community, and yet still a positive for the genealogy community.  Confused? Here’s why:

  • As I mentioned previously, Expert Connect was probably an operational and support nightmare.  Imagine having to deal with customers who didn’t know the first thing about hiring an expert to either do the genealogy research or assist them with their own research. Imagine having to arbitrate situations where the customer was not happy with the expert’s service. Imagine processing refunds on commissions. I also expect that there may have been some liability issues as well as in a so-called expert misrepresenting themselves, taking money up-front etc. (Note: I don’t know of any specific situation but you must admit it is in the realm of possibilities with such as service as Expert Connect). Eliminating Expert Connect was a good move in terms of Ancestry.com being able to commit such resources, time, energy and money elsewhere within the company.
  • Did Ancestry.com bungle its handling of Expert Connect? It did as far as I can see, but I don’t see where it could have done much more than it did. Many of the experts have complained that they deserved more than 8 days notification before their lifeline of income was truncated. I emphasized these words because they’ve actually been used in some of the discussions I’ve read. As stated by others, if Expert Connect was your only stream of income as a professional genealogist then you didn’t have a solid business plan to begin with. And please don’t use the word deserve which is so overused in American society. (Have you noticed lately, especially in commercials and other forms of marketing, how you deserve something instead of earn it? Talk about your sense of entitlement.) Businesses add features and then take them away. Is it a tease? Not really – some things don’t work out. Is it poor planning? Perhaps, but also things can change such as the economy, industry trends, consumer tastes, etc. Is it fair? Again, fairness has nothing to do with this. Part of living under a capitalistic system is the ability to thrive economically but also one must be prepared to make one’s own changes when changes come.
  • I think the move, including the bungling, by Ancestry.com is a positive for the genealogy community. And I’m not saying this because I’m a “glass half-full” kinda guy. I say this because what we’ve witnessed as a community is an opportunity.So far, many of the service providers for Expert Connect have had to re-examine their business plans and look to improving their marketing skills – a good thing. Industry organizations like the Association for Professional Genealogists are jumping in to offer their services – a good thing. The genealogy community is talking, interacting, sharing ideas and giving a good hard look at Expert Connect and Ancestry.com – again, all good things.

Finally what do I hope we’ve learned or will learn as a community?

  • That Ancestry.com has now come full circle in its detachment from and embracement of the genealogy community. You may recall some of Ancestry.com’s previous boondoggles such as the copyright issues involving the Internet Biographical Collection back in 2007. Then, when they went public, Ancestry.com seemed to actively court the genealogy community through events, Bloggers Days, and more. Remember all the hype around Who Do You Think You Are? and its first season? How this was not just good for Ancestry.com but also good for the community? Did you feel the love? And now we seem to be – in my opinion – back to square one in terms of what Ancestry is willing to give to the community vs. what it wants from the genealogy community.
  • As a community we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. Just because Ancestry.com is the biggest player in the genealogy industry (for the time being), it doesn’t mean we should make this our sole focus as a provider of content and services. Just as one would do with their financial portfolio, we should be diversifying where our commitments and our dollars go in terms of genealogy.
  • Speaking of deserve, do we deserve better than a company that is positioning itself as the Microsoft of genealogy, a necessary evil to be dealt with? Again let’s get rid of the “deserve” or “entitled to” concepts.  Let’s earn and work for what we get. I think the genealogy community has become complacent and often neglects the many other resources available. This is a prime opportunity for many vendors and organizations to jump in and fill what I see as a growing void of discontent. Look at what APG has done and is doing. Be prepared for more of this which is, again, a positive for the genealogy industry and community.
  • Lastly, remember how your parents used to say, “dance with the one that brung ya?” Many feel the same way about their dance with Ancestry.com. From giving feedback on beta products, participating in message boards and more, there is not so much a sense of betrayal as there is a sense of disappointment. So why would you continue to dance with someone who steps on your toes, who is clumsy, or doesn’t engage in conversation? The truth is you don’t.  Or you just dance until someone better comes along.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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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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23 September 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Is the Ancestry Footnote Merger Good for Genealogy?

question

In a press release announcement made earlier today, Ancestry.com Inc. intends to acquire iArchives Inc., the parent company to Footnote.com, a popular research website for genealogists. While at first glance it appears that this merger is a good “match,” it does bring forth many questions as to Ancestry’s reasons for the acquisition, what impact the merger will have on the genealogy industry, and how it will affect both the casual entry-level family historian as well as the professional genealogist.

Personally, I think the acquisition is a good move, one that makes sense, and it is in line with recent Ancestry acquisitions.  Here’s why:

  • Content: there is value in the content that Footnote already has on its site and while there is some overlap – particularly with some US Census records – much of it is unique.  Enough so that many genealogists currently have memberships with both Ancestry and Footnote.
  • Indexing and Search Engine Experrise: Ancestry wins in this arena. A common complaint among Footnote users was the difficulty in locating information and the resulting records.
  • Technology: Footnote was the winner here and now this makes Ancestry a winner. Footnote’s records were always clearer and easier to read.  The technology and expertise used to digitize records is probably the greatest value to Ancestry in this deal.
  • Marketing: you can’t argue against Ancestry’s marketing machine and it is not easy to work against it.

Concerns and Questions

Despite what seems like a win-win situation for all players in the genealogy industry – from consumer to vendor – there are some issues which must be tackled:

  • Will there be a combined membership to both Ancestry and Footnote or will they remain as separate products.  Keep in mind that Ancestry is acquiring iArchives, the parent to Footnote.  What plans Ancestry has for accessing the Footnote content remain to be seen. The content could be merged into Ancestry’s current library of database or kept separate and somehow cross-referenced.
  • If the focus is on content and its back-end technology more than acquiring Footnote’s 35,000 subscribers, does it mean that Footnote disappears? Will Footnote subscribers be offered dual-membership to both sites for a time period? Will Footnote become another Ancestry acquisition like Genealogy.com and kept on only in a shell of its former self?
  • What about some of the popular functions on Footnote such as the Person Page or annotation of Census records? Will Ancestry incorporate the Person Page concept or elements of it for their own site?
  • Are there concerns that there is not enough competition in the genealogy industry in terms of content providers?

Who’s Next on the Ancestry Radar?

While speculation is kind of fun, with Ancestry’s recent shopping spree the topic is more serious than you think.  An obvious target would be FamilyLink.com and its World Vital Records holdings. Another would be GenealogyBank or Newspaper Archives.com which have excellent newspaper collections.

Of course this is a world of eat or be eaten, too.  There’s no reason that Ancestry itself couldn’t be a target. Rumors of Google acquiring Ancestry have been around ever since it went public in November 2009. Google in the genealogy business? Not exactly – but Google is in the information business and with its ever-expanding content, that is what abounds at Ancestry.

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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