Thursday, July 24, 2008

Future of Ancestry.com

An anonymous commenter left this message:

Congrats Insider - very nice move.

Once the church has indexed as much as Ancestry what to you suppose will happen? (since the church [FamilySearch] gives away the info for free and Ancestry charges) Is Ancestry.com doomed in one year, five, or ten?

Thank you. If you were a good brown-noser you would have said, "Now that you are gone... is Ancestry doomed?" :-)

Seriously, Ancestry will do just fine without me. And the issue you raise is a good one, although Google may be a more serious threat than FamilySearch. FamilySearch is forging partnerships with 3rd parties that encourage the 3rd parties to share indexes and make their money by charging for access to images.

Even without cooperation from FamilySearch, the vast quantity of records out there will allow coexistence for many, many years. The truth is, new records are being created faster than genealogy companies can assimilate them. We're falling further and further behind. The problem is particularly challenging for FamilySearch, whose clientele is growing quickly in countries that aren't economically interesting to the likes of Ancestry. If commercial companies are not going to help in poor countries, FamilySearch will be left alone to shoulder the burden.

Back to Google. I think Ancestry realizes that Google, FamilySearch, new competition and government sources are pressuring the price of content towards zero. If content becomes free and ubiquitous, what can a company like Ancestry do to provide a service that customers might want to pay for? In my opinion, the answer is trees. More specifically, Ancestry has to provide an environment where customers can form a community that is mutually beneficial. Ancestry provides the framework. Members add value. The community benefits.

Allowing users to link images of source documents to events in their trees is ground breaking. It's powerful. Now they make suggestions to users based on the trees, people and record linkages of other users. Ancestry is currently the sole vendor in this area and is light-years ahead of anyone else. This is powerful, powerful stuff which I'm sure has not gone unnoticed by other big players or potential players in this field. If you've read Ancestry's announcements on the growth rate for the number of trees, people in those trees and record links to those people, the momentum is astonishing.

Hat's off to Tim Sullivan, Kendall Hulet and those at Ancestry that saw this vision of the future. And hats off to the rest of my buddies and coworkers who have worked extra hard, rushing forward to make the future become a present reality. Be it one year, five or ten, with visionary, creative, hardworking people like these, Ancestry will never be doomed.

10 comments:

  1. Insider,

    You seem to have a somewhat valid argument as to content, i.e. images of original records essentially becoming a commodity, and where a commercial provider cannot gain a competitive edge through being an exclusive provider of various types of content.

    But an individual commercial provider might be able to have *virtual* exclusivity simply because the volume of records is so large that once having marked out territory outside the main national record groups like census, war pensions, etc., any provider can afford to concede record groups to competitors while working to be the first to get other groups of records online. Thus there comes about an implicit collusion where the top commercial providers just try to be number 1 or 2 without actually dealing their competition knockout blows.

    As to source-linked trees being such a hot idea, it seems to me that this will prove for either NFS or Ancestry, to somewhat illusory *as to accuracy*. Once you get past the dates of mandatory vital records, you no longer have easy chains of interlocking records with direct and unconflicted evidence of paternity. The majority of the time you then have to have an assemblage of circumstantial evidence where good judgment and experience is necessary. The vast majority of hobby "genealogists" out there lack such skills, and nifty little "hints" won't change that. Software will not be able to *accurately* separate same name identities in most cases.

    So it would seem it is way too early to start patting your buddies on the back as you are acting as if their assessment of the market and their chosen strategy has already proven to be correct. Especially when it is very possible that they miss no opportunity for hype as they fatten the pig for a public offering.

    Mike

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  2. I'll ask the obvious question... what does FamilySearch have planned in terms of "source-linked tree" algorithmic guidance?

    Will I eventually see little shaking leaves next to my ancestors' names on my NFS Family Tree, prompting me to look at a scanned image of a source from the FHL?

    And if I eventually upload my own source images, with "Evidence Explained"-type citations, will NFS offer to share them with others they might be relevant to?

    --Dean

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  3. I am a little surprised that we have not seen more of Google in this field. In my opinion, they have the technology and resources to crush Ancestry. Indexing must be the big barrier to entry.

    I think that Ancestry Press is another growth opportunity. Yes there is competition here too but they could offer an advantage to customers by increasing their linkage with user data and book creation while providing flexible layout options.

    Of course I am not talking about producing boring 500 page descendancy reports but the development of real family history books with photos, stories and charts.

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  4. As the price of content is pushed down, Ancestry can always turn to advertisers to survive. Ancestry is a valualable enough resorce that it could survive by dropping or reducing its fees and adding advertising to its pages if it came to that. But there is so many vital records out there to add it will take decades to digitize it all so they will not need to resort to advertising for a long time.

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  5. Google can't crush Ancestry without making a complete application. The Insider is right, the trees are a major draw to Ancestry.

    Geni.com is not as powerful. No other website does trees like Ancestry. In fact, I think Geni is useless unless you can convince your family to join; it doesn't really connect you to people you don't know. Also Geni is veering towards being a family organizing site, with calendars and family pages, instead of a genealogy site.

    What Ancestry MUST do to survive is increase the social networking aspect. I should be able to add researchers that share my interests as "friends." That way, I could easily view their public trees and see what they've added. I should be able to share my trees with particular ancestry members without having to know their e-mail address and send a special invite.

    For example, I have 3 "cousins" that Ancestry found for me through their "hints" feature. However, I had to go through about 5 steps to go to their profile and contact them. Even after that, I had to bookmark their profile page because I can't save that information in my Ancestry profile. Really, if my Ancestry profile page looked like my Facebook page, it would be PERFECT. I could have links to my trees, links to my "cousins" and "research buddies", status updates about information that had been added to trees, and they could message me to talk about research, etc. The only thing I wouldn't need is a wall. The forums on Ancestry are analogous to Facebook Groups, and I could have all that info loaded on my page instead of having to click "Community" and then look for the forum in the long list of my favorites. Also, instead of getting e-mail about replies to my forum postings, it could update on my profile page. THAT'S what I want, from Ancestry or from anyone else who wants to develop the killer genealogy online app for the under 35 folks. :)

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  6. @isos: Careful. When you mention "social networking" and "Facebook", the over 35 crowd think you are looking for a dating service! :)

    (I agree with you, BTW)

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  7. Insider -

    I'm back.
    Thank you for following up on my original comment and creating this post.

    I agree with your idea that Google is the one to watch out for. However I still think you and others are not giving enough credit to the massive size and genealogical power of the church. In providing everything they are and will be for free they are setting up Ancestry to experience massive pressure to also offer free services. Despite having paid partnerships with additional info, images etc. I feel strongly that most of what we will need to find our lines will be free.
    Google can do that - free. Ancestry - not so sure about that.

    Paul Allen is the man when it comes to social and genealogy - he created a monster once with Ancestry and twice with the Facebook app. very quickly and can do even more.

    I agree - social is the way of the future. Watch for Paul Allen to show up here - and perhaps Ancestry.com
    (I have nothing to do with Paul Allen - I just like what I have seen so far)

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  8. Insider, thanks as always for your insights. As another Ancestry employee (I guess it's not correct to say "another" anymore, is it), I totally agree with your analysis. I work for a department that is far removed from much of this stuff, but it's clear to me that charging for content is becoming less and less sustainable. I could see trying to adobt a model similar to the music industry (like iTunes) emerging where indexes are all free and there's a pay-per-view fee for the images. I know this used to be the case, but it seems like it's not a bad idea in the present environment.

    As for trees, you're totally right. Things like trees are the future, in my opinion, because they allow a company like Ancestry to really use the power of the Internet in service of genealogy. People bandy around the term "Web 2.0" alot (and now "Web 3.0," sometimes) and not many people really know what it means, but family trees and stuff really are family history 2.0. Their real power is beyond a OneWorldTree type database, but instead more as an enormous profile. In the early days of the trees, the idea was even to think of them as a personal website that was a dynamic tool to help your research.

    I even think you could merge the iTunes model I mentioned earlier with the trees for a different model. If Ancestry made all its indexes and images free, searchable, and viewable, but just charged a few to attach them to their trees, then the content is out there, it's free, and for people using trees, they are essential just paying a photocopier fee to attach things. You could offset this fee with a subscription or whatever. The point is, there is a lot that can be done.

    I ramble. Thanks for your thoughts Insider as always.

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  9. Any chances of Ancestry being bought out by FamilySearch? Or by the Sorenson Foundation? According to Paul Allen's lecture Ancestry was in talks with the foundation at their difficult period - at about 33:00 of his Nov 2007 BYU lecture: http://www.paulallen.net/video-lectures

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  10. Ancestry is doomed, not just because of FamilySearch or other competition, but because of:
    - Being too busy coming up with gimmicks and pie-in-the-sky stuff to lure the general public while deprecating the core customer base. The place seems to be controlled by the MBA's and not the genealogists.
    - Unethical business practices.
    - Infamously sloppy data transcriptions.
    - Arrogance (the USGenWeb fiasco).
    - Out of touch with their customers (the NEW AND IMPROVED main page - that everyone hates).
    - Lack of competent system development and programming skills (the Family Tree Maker 2008 fiasco).
    - Greedy: Price gouging for subscriptions.

    It is unrealistic to think anyone is going to pay $155 a year forever for genealogical social networking and to store a family tree. It is likewise an unrealistic amount to access just censuses which is probably the overwhelming use. These problems are the subject of widespread commentary on the net and will be their downfall.

    No one has mentioned USGenWeb. It is the sleeping giant and is taking over where RootsWeb left off when it was sold out from under all the volunteers who provided its content. It has become the repository of choice for volunteer data as RW fades off into the sunset as it is absorbed into Ancestry. RW failed, not because the model was flawed, but because of incompetent management.

    And where's Google? Probably too many other projects - for the moment. If genealogy is not on their radar at this time, I'm sure somebody will point it out to them.

    ps: I wonder how Ancestry's volunteer indexing project is doing?
    pps: Insider - you didn't want to stick around for the IPO?

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