Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shootout at the OK Corral

License by Devin Ford (Kingdafy on Flickr). Click for a link to the Creative Commons license.I got upset in a recent discussion on Ancestry.com's new search interface. I usually wait a day or two before responding. This time, I didn't and I thought you might be amused by part of my reply.

I'm going to generalize and combine several recent encounters into one. This no longer accurately represents the position of any single individual. The criticisms go something like this:

The new search is a step backwards and they shouldn't be pushing it on us. They obviously don't understand how real genealogists do their work. They don't listen to their customers.

I always use exact searches because the other kind [ranked searches] doesn't work. It returns so many results as to be neither manageable nor credible. Even a simple perusal shows that after a few correct results at the top, the remaining search results are preposterous, falling outside the person's lifetime or physical location.

Tree-based searching? I will never enter a tree on Ancestry.com because they will use it to make money.

My reply wasn't completely rational, but I had fun writing it. What you see below is also an combination of a couple of replies.

My reply

Some people didn't want to switch from DOS and WordPerfect to Word and Windows. That doesn't mean that Windows and Word should not have been developed. When it comes to new tools, the customer is not always right. It is painful to stop and learn how to use a drill, let alone stop to sharpen the saw, when there is so much research to do and so little money or time to do it. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for drills.

I recently attended an hour long class on search techniques for genealogy databases like Ancestry. The instructor spent 2 minutes announcing that one should never use relevance ranked searches on Ancestry and 58 minutes teaching us how to work around the problems caused by exact searches: soundex, wild cards, nicknames, multiple searches with all known alternate spellings, searching for family members, mis-filed dates, etc.

Not to be too immodest, but I'm pretty much the fastest Ancestry.com searcher on the planet and I can tell you that sometimes I prefer exact searching and sometimes I prefer ranked. Sometimes I prefer the old search and sometimes I prefer the new. I'll face anybody at the OK Coral for a shootout. You use your single shot, one gun and I'll use all four of mine. I've got to warn you, that I'm also going to attach results into a tree and hit you with a tree-based search assault. I'll be firing off rounds, moving generation to generation faster than you can perform all 38 searches on the common misspellings of just one of your ancestors.

Put up or shut up

Further, I can communicate clearly and accurately enough to convince the new search team what the problems are so they can be fixed. Let me say, and I mean this in the least rude, most kind way possible, put up or shut up. Give exact use cases comparing old and new search that show how new search is inferior.

Here's an example showing what I mean by an exact case.

Steps with old search:

  • Click on the Search tab.
  • If Historical Records is not selected, select it.
  • Check the Exact matches only box.
  • Enter the name Benjamin Wiser.
  • Search.
  • Click on Massachusetts Town Birth Records.
  • Expected result: see the 5 children of Benjamin Wiser.

Steps with new search:

  • Click on Search tab (or link).
  • Click on Show Advanced.
  • Result: list of results from all sorts of databases.

With exact instructions, Ancestry can see what they have messed up. In my example, once they realized they had dropped the ability to view exact results summarized by category, they added that capability back in.

So give actionable examples. Or buckle on your holster and grab your single-shot, old, exact search. You know where to find me. And you know what heat I'll be packing.


  1. While I agree with most of your reply, your anology of people not wanting to move from DOS and WordPerfect to Windows and Word doesn't exactly fly. If we hadn't abandoned WordPerfect, we wouldn't be in the major mess we have with Word and the proliferation of viruses. The way Word is structured, it almost begs a hacker of modest talents to attack with almost certain success. The way WordPerfect was structured, to mount a successful attack would have taken an extremely talented individual to have put forth an enormous effort without any guarentee of a successful outcome. If, in fact, a virus could have been created to break in. In other words, you are comparing apples to oranges. Not the best analogy of the new search in Ancestry.com. (And, no, I am NOT a fan of Word, although I'm forced to use it.)

    To get back to the point, I've used both the old and the new searches on Ancestry.com & I agree with you -- I like them both. I only wish Ancestry.com's new searches, when given more exact data, would dispense with the oodles of info that do NOT meet the more exact info asked for and provided. I wish there was also some way to EXCLUDE info that is not at all relevant. For instance, when searching in the historical newspapers database for info on my relatives by giving only a surname and state, because the surname was associated with a major news item in the 70s, ALL those items appear, although I want only news items up to 1960. I wish there was some way to EXCLUDE unwanted items by using bodlian terms of -(minus)keyword(s) or to actually ONLY list news items within a particular time frame, e.g., 1890-1958. While I don't like to go only on relevance, because I've found some wonderful info on ancestors that didn't, at first glance, seem relevant at all, I also don't want to have to wade through all those news items I KNOW I don't want. Is there anything I can do to narrow down my searches?

  2. Insider,

    I want to make the following points in reply, and no it does not involve giving a discrete example of where new search is inferior to old search. Rather it involves underlying issues and the attitudes behind them at Ancestry, and also the (proper) genealogy search process which does not involve any specific technical search function.

    1) "The customer is not always right." - Sounds good and undoubtedly true. And while you don't work for Ancestry any longer or you probably wouldn't say it, it still comes across loud and clear from Ancestry. The problem is the customer can be wrong and take his/her money elsewhere and what does Ancestry have? The smug awareness they won the battle even while losing the renewal war? That attitude shows such an appalling lack of business sense I am very surprised you came out and said it. This doesn't mean a business has to or can profitably satisfy every segment of the customer base. It might be cheaper not to service a certain part of the potential customer base or more profitable to concentrate on the part that that returns the most profit (20%/80%).

    But for the chosen segments of the customer base a company decides to pursue, surely it must take the attitude a customer is always right. Which doesn't mean the company can't try to convince the customer otherwise, but not with the attitude Ancestry has always taken and the predictable actions of not involving the customers *in the concept development process* and later trying *to force the customer to adopt something he/she does not want*.

    2) Give the customers an option - OK for the sake of argument I am going to say that Ancestry is right on new search 100%, and really isn't first and foremost just trying to satisfy the unwashed newb masses who never advance in genealogy education and skill and trying to market hype them into renewals, while relegating the concerns and desires of more experienced users to the dust heap. So what? If I or others still prefer to use old search for the next 10 years *then we should have that option*. You leave up both and let the customer decided. And you still commit for a limited number of databases only, to improve/tweak old search a little by giving exact searching on every field. Two options. Why can't Ancestry do that? When I ask why, I mean all the reasons why.

    3) Research Calendar/Logs in Genealogy - If developers at Ancestry really understand the genealogy research process *properly done*, they will understand the importance of such calendars/logs. And that the entries in same must be very specific to have value. Saying "searched all of Ancestry's stuff" just does not cut the mustard. This is where having results returned from only one database is important, as well as how one searched, as in surname variations. I don't trust Ancestry to do that when I can't see it or did not input the variations myself, nor do I want to wade through thousands of irrelevant results to see if I missed something important.

    So what am I saying? Here it is:

    a) Ancestry should involve customers in the concept/design phase before that gets set in corporate/developer stone instead of only being willing to discuss cosmetic and interface issues.

    b) Ancestry should in every way act like it values all of its customers which starts with communication. And I mean communication in public initiated by the customer like in the message boards where Ancestry customer support should be tasked with responding to each and every complaint or concern.

    c) Ancestry should give customers a choice and keep the old while bring in the new. This includes not trying to gut some of the old functionality which was done prior to new search by restricting old search's ability to search for trees.


  3. > Let me say, and I mean this in the least rude, most kind way possible, put up or shut up.
    > Give exact use cases comparing old and new search that show how new search is inferior.

    Let me say, and I mean this in the least rude, most kind way possible, do it right or find another job.
    Test the new stuff before dumping it on us to make sure it is as least as good as the old one.
    Testing is your job, not mine. Too demanding for you? Find a less demanding job.

  4. While I agree with (almost) everything you said about DOS and Ancestry, I must disagree with your views about WordPerfect. And, yes, I have both installed and use both (OK, Word under protest).

    The latest Windows versions of WordPerfect are easier to use than Word and make it easier to understand what is happening (just try and fix competing centering and flush right codes in Word; Reveal Codes, need I say more).

    In other "words," why use Word when you can be [Word]Perfect.

  5. The problem with the New Fuzzy search interface is not with user attitude. It is that it does not retrieve the relevant items on a person-name, time frame and places from the Ancestry.com database, and retrieves thousands or more unrelated by name, time and place, listing them in a way that may require page-by-page scrolling through 30, 50 or more pages to get to the single relevant entry at the very end. The results listings don't tell you how many pages there are, or enable navigating or sorting in any helpful way. Yesterday I tried again on one of my test searches and it took me an hour and a half to get through the 32 pages of listings, only to find that the sole relevant one in that category was not even in the results list.

    If it worked well and reliably, I'd be all for it.


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