Monday, January 12, 2009

Content is King!

"Content is King," declared's Tim Sullivan last Saturday night. This is the mantra oft repeated by the genealogists at to each new executive that joins so I was glad to hear it from Sullivan's own lips, even though I believe market forces like Google, FamilySearch International and others might one day overthrow the King.

Sullivan, president and CEO of the Generations Network (TGN), which owns, made the remark in Salt Lake City at a special invitation-only dinner Saturday night which hosted for various genealogical world luminaries: keynote speaker for the dinner, Elizabeth Shown Mills, a fellow of both the American Society of Genealogists (FASG) and the National Genealogical Society, and an esteemed academian and author; Loretto Dennis Szucs, award-winning author and FGS co-founder; Jay Verkler, president of FamilySearch; Kathleen Hinckley, APG Executive Director; Jake Gehring, APG President; Curt Witcher, Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center Manager; Drew Smith, Genealogy Guys co-host; other APG and FGS officers; Dick Eastman, Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter; Pat Richley (DearMYRTLE), genealogical e-community pioneer; Elissa Scalise Powell, author and lecturer; Jennifer Utley, Ancestry Magazine editor-in-chief; Diane Haddad, Family Tree Magazine managing editor; and genealogy uber-blogger, Randy Seaver.

Many were in town for the 2009 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy starting today, Monday, January 12, 2009 through Friday.

Pillar #1

Sullivan presented Ancestry's three pillars for investment in 2009. Pillar #1 is content. will spend more on content in 2009 than any company ever has before, according to Sullivan. I glanced at FamilySearch's Verkler for a reaction to this statement, but he maintained a perfect poker face. I don't know what FamilySearch's budgets are, but I know the numbers of people they deploy and the amount of equipment involved is huge compared to

FamilySearch is also currently bearing the expenditure of building their content pipeline. Again, I don't know dollars but I've seen headcount. Mind you, I used to run a software development group and I know what headcounts cost six years ago. It's not fair to compare pipeline development costs of the two organizations, since Ancestry's pipeline is a mostly smooth-flowing machine. But if you do, FamilySearch is far, far outspending Thank goodness for those tithe paying Mormons and Church leaders who are willing to expend countless dollars preserving genealogical records.

Now, if I could just access them all on the Internet... But that's a topic for another day.

Pillar #2

"If content is king, then technology is queen," said Sullivan. The other bloggers present Saturday night and Friday have covered some of this technology pretty well and I'll provide some links to their articles as soon as time permits. The one item from Sullivan's presentation that I wish to mention here concerns international websites. Sullivan said that the company would be creating a lot more websites internationally in 2009. These would be different kinds of websites than what we've seen, but he didn't specify any more.

Pillar #3

Lastly, Sullivan talked about the company's investment in marketing. has received lots of public criticisms over the percentage of revenues spent on marketing, both by commenters on my blog as well as elsewhere. Having been a software company executive, the numbers never bothered me as they are in line with the industry as a whole. Sullivan was kind enough to walk through the scenario of cutting those numbers and using it to obtain more content. Initially, the annual increase in content would jump. But without marketing activities, the subscriber base would increasingly erode. With the decrease comes decreased investment in content. Year-over-year, the effect snowballs until revenues drop below what is required to keep the website up and running and they have to pull the plug. It's not a pretty thought.

The reason is able to spend more on content in 2009 than it ever has before is only because its marketing efforts are growing the number of subscribers, according to Sullivan.

Sullivan closed by repeating the key messages that had been presented repeatedly to the bloggers and writers on Friday. They were...

Well, actually, its late and I'm out of time. That round up will have to wait. Stay tuned...


  1. Thanks for the informative update! It is nice to know what is coming down the pike and what the rationale is for each of these companys.

  2. Insider,

    Let's look at the 3 pillars in more detail, and examine whether that covers it all or some other things are missing.

    PIllar #1: Ancestry will spend more on content than any company ever has before. Aside from your analysis that the LDS Church spends more (and I imagine Ancestry will play semantics and distinguish between what it means by a "company" and an "organization"), some things are missing in this PR blurb about more than ever before.

    a) a comparison with last year's spending on data;
    b) a commitment to keep spending at that level or content;
    c) most importantly, a definition of "content" - we want more original data acquisition, not more *customer provided content* like family trees, photo etc that costs something to host and could be said to be "content investment".

    Pillar #2: Technology

    a) Screw international websites. Most of us Americans don't care, and most citizens of other nations as in the UK or Germany don't care about our genealogical records. This international stuff sounds good when Ancestry goes for an IPO (if the general economic situation is ever again favorable), but does not mean squat to most users.

    b) Follow through on statements made by Anne Mitchell in the Ancestry blog that one size does not fit all. This means stop trying to find the perfect search algorithm to impose on all, and instead implement technology that allows *the user* to determine whether he/she gets an exact/fuzzy/ranked or whatever search. *The user knows best* NOT Ancestry. And part of this is leaving Old Search in place for those who prefer it and returning some intentionally gutted functionality like advanced family tree search.

    c) Pillar #3: Marketing vs. Data Acquisition Spending - You are only stating what is obviously true, and are also giving a false dichotomy in posing the situation as too much or not enough. I doubt it is 4 to 1 on marketing vs. data acquisition spending or the firm goes under. And you don't discuss, and I believe you never have, customer turnover numbers. Better customer service + increased commitment to data acquisition + commitment to fixing database errors and programming bugs = less turnover. And it isn't a matter of just putting a better PR face on things, but on the underlying realities. If Ancestry did things better they wouldn't turnover customers as much and wouldn't need to spend as much on marketing.

    Things left out (unless you were getting to them in later posts):

    SHOULD BE PILLAR #4: Commitment to better quality control and fixing previous errors.

    Mr. Sullivan and his underlings need to read a book on Kaizen. Don't make the errors and you won't have to fix the errors. And if you have made some, *then fix them now or by a date certain*.

    SHOULD BE PILLAR #5: Have a *public* strategy for data (original or printed record and not user provided content) acquisition that follows a reasonable plan and won't take 50 years.

    a) An emphasis on the original 13 colonies plus gateway/migration states like Tennessee and Kentucky, Missouri, etc. + California and Texas.
    b) Equal emphasis on pre-Civil War records as post-Civil War because even if a majority of customers say now they they prefer late 1800s and 1900s records (when genealogy is easier), they will eventually run into many brick walls in the predictable time period of the Revolution to 1840.
    c) Give the original records *as they come on the microfilm*, instead of trying to group them and messing up the grouping as Ancestry has done in so many census enumerations.
    d) *IMPORTANT*: Better explain the "about this database" explanations, including all missing subsets and why and *when they will be added*.
    e) Update yearly/bi-yearly databases such as vital records indexes and image collections - these should be evergreen databases.
    f) Serve up *unindexed* county records - better to have access now by reading page by page than no access for years/decades until they are indexed (by FS). Note too that many county level records like deeds actually are already indexed which indexes could be transcribed as is to start. People simply cannot break through many/most brick walls without county level land and court records.

    SHOULD BE PILLAR #6: Excellence in Customer Service

    a) Responding *fast and publicly* to concerns expressed in the message boards if that is the customer's preferred method of communication instead of phones calls and knowledge bases. And implement multiple blogs for different sections of Ancestry. It is hard to keep conversations on the search going when other employees dump blog posts about publishing and trees and other stuff. Those functionalities should have their own blogs, or *better yet* dedicated message boards where customers can initiate topics of conversation (instead of the general "comments" and "improvements" boards now).

    b) Involve customers in the concept phase of development and not just in tweaking the interfaces once it is a done deal (and possibly flawed in principle).

    c) Stop predatory subscription practices like auto renewals if the customer does not set such a preference, and the same for trial subscriptions.

    d) Fix immediately all misrepresentations in holdings. This means click on a state's data like for Wyoming, and *get rid of* stuff like American Wills Proved in London, Virginia Estates or whatever. While this might have been auto-generated at some point or something, it only serves now to falsely bloat the supposed data available for many states that have little true coverage. This is a matter of INTEGRITY.

    SHOULD BE PILLAR #7: Easier navigation of the website's holdings than the card catalog.

    "Stories, Memories & Histories" in particular is a total mess. It is a giant haystack and it is hard to find needles in the glut of surname works. State and county histories and data extracts should be separate, and in fact under each state should be a collapsible list of counties so one can find databases and books by county.


  3. User Pillar A: watch what they do, not what they say.

    A TGN employee was on my tail about comments regarding some database deficiencies. He claimed that Ancestry tells people when database images are missing (wrong; they are simply omitted from the index, or linked to the generic Ancestry error-processing-image page that essentially says 'go away and try again later'). He claimed that the swath of missing records from a database (2/3 of one of my roots Counties) was not so consequential because it constituted fewer than 1% of the total database. He quit the exchange and did not reply when I pointed out that Ancestry has known about these missing records more than 2.5 years, and asked him *when* the missing images would be provided by scanning the original documents.

    Mike F.'s note re: Pillar 1.d) is quite right. One of the noted requests from TGN during Saturday was volunteers to add 'Places', such as in a wiki-type page. Hahahahahah heeheeheeheehee hohohohohoh. I have put appreciable time into editing a 'Places' database on another site, and can say that Tree People generally have no inclination toward consistent place descriptions, that existing map-linking programs have more serious platform issues than simply place-names, and that it is awesomely ludicrous for Ancestry first to roll out a Tree-map linking effort and then ask for ***volunteers*** to fix the place-names issues??????? I can't think of any secular commercial enterprise that relies on *volunteers* for functions such as correcting indexes, much less having the idea that people will volunteer to fix unsuitable databases such as the linked-mapping ones (I figure a full-time team of 10 people could make good progress in 3 years).

    Mike F.'s Pillar #4, fixing what is wrong, should be seriously undertaken by TGN. Strange, piecemeal and inconsistent indexing of databases are part of the reason the Search Engine so often retrieves ridiculously inapplicable results, for example.

    Weird keyword indexing is also a factor in Mike F.'s #6d. When I tried New Fuzzy Search Interface, no matter what I did I could not get it to stop including Ohio land records, NY 19th century passenger-ship pictures, Natchez, Mississippi records, Manitoba newspapers and an odd Tennessee settlement compilation from results for a search regarding a person b. in DE in 1760, d. in WV in 1816.

    So I am watching. If Old Search is made inaccessible and supplanted by even a slightly less loony/buggy version of New Fuzzy Search Interface, I am outtathere.

  4. Way to go MikeF. I really liked your comment and this is basically what I put in every survey that pops up on my computer: stick with US records; more southern USA records; More primary records and especially prior to 1850..... Great Comment.

  5. Dearest AI,
    Ol' Myrt here commends you on the faithful report of Tim Sullivan's speech at the TGN banquet on Saturday night.

    And as to the inflamatory comments from MikeF about international content, may I say that except for those with 100% Native American ancestry, current US researchers will become increasingly concerned with online availability of overseas record groups as their research progresses.


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