Monday, September 12, 2011

The Insider Uncovers Secret Ancestry.com Program

San Diego Genealogical Society collections published via Ancestry.com Content Publisher
San Diego Genealogical Society collections
published on Ancestry.com Content Publisher.
Click to enlarge.
O.K. Perhaps I exaggerate… but only a little. While the program is no longer secret, very few people know about it.

To learn about it, I snuck into a private briefing given during the 2011 annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). O.K. that may not be entirely true either. I didn’t sneak in, I was invited. It wasn’t a private briefing, it was a focus group. And I didn’t first learn about it at FGS; Ancestry.com briefed a number of us at the NGS conference.

So with subsequent adieu, I present Ancestry.com Content Publisher.

There is a lot of great content out there that is just too small to warrant the attention of the Ancestry.coms and FamilySearches of the world. Content Publisher allows genealogical societies or other small record custodians to self publish such collections.

Laurel Penney, Steve Yesel, and Mark Weaver conducted the focus group. About a dozen society representatives attended. Ancestry.com presented the concept, demonstrated it, fielded questions, and distributed questionnaires. The program is a couple of months into a six month pilot.

image
Ancestry.com provides indexing tools
for society use. Click to enlarge.

Ancestry.com provides free hosting for images. Societies upload their images to the site. Ancestry.com provides indexing tools for society use. Once the society completes indexing, Ancestry.com takes the indexes and images and hosts the collection for the society. The society gets a free, branded web page (see San Diego Genealogical Society’s for an example), with the images and indexes stored safely and securely using the same systems used by Ancestry.com to protect their own content. Societies can then make the collection available to whomever they choose via a special URL (see a Lockport History Society example). Collection search utilizes Ancestry.com’s search technology. After the pilot is over, the collection appears in the Ancestry.com catalog and search results. Record and image views identify the society as the collection source, possibly increasing interest in the society.

“We’re hoping this is a win-win for both sides,” said product manager, Steve Yesel.

Ancestry.com has added a feature between the NGS and FGS conferences. Societies often have existing databases or spreadsheets of textual data that they wish to post. The collection page appears as shown below, left. The content appears as shown below, right.

Ancestry.com Content Publisher text collection page   Ancestry.com Content Publisher text record page
For textual data, the collection page (left) and the records (right). Click to enlarge.

Conference dementia is setting in, so I may not have all the details correct. In a sense, that doesn’t matter. In response to what is learned in the focus groups, the resulting program may differ in some respects.

Ancestry.com Content Publisher collection page
Ancestry.com Content Publisher collection
page. Click above and select a collection.
Ancestry.com said that the society maintains control of published content. In hindsight, I should have asked what that means. At one point Ancestry.com said that the content could be available only to society members. At another point Ancestry.com said that at least indexes would have to be available on Ancestry.com, free to anyone. The only control that seems to be given to societies is the ability to remove the content from Ancestry.com.

The Ancestry.com model seems to be built on the premise that societies want to offer their holdings for free, but need indexing tools and free hosting. While Ancestry.com was amenable to the idea of societies monetizing the collections, they didn’t yet have a clear way to make that happen.

But with societies already fighting dropping membership numbers, in no small part because subscription websites are outcompeting societies for the meager dollars genealogists spend on memberships and subscriptions, it will be a bitter pill for society officers to throw their indexing workforce towards fueling Ancestry.com’s ability to steal their members.

Neither FamilySearch nor Ancestry.com can provide societies a win-win solution for those that wish to monetize themselves out of financial brinksmanship. FamilySearch doesn’t seem able to deal commercially. Ancestry.com doesn’t seem willing.

In truth, even if Ancestry.com were able to offer societies per-click royalties, or empower societies to charge for image views, all a societies records are dust compared to Ancestry.com’s 8 billion records. Imagine that an Ancestry.com subscriber visited equally all 8 billion records. Divide their subscription price up 8 billion ways, pay a society their share, and what the society gets rounds to zero. The reality is worse; most clicks will go to big, popular collections.

There’s a certain irony that Ancestry.com’s Content Publisher program can only be successful if societies follow the counsel of FamilySearch’s David Rencher: Concentrate on your core society purposes while sharing a passion and having fun. Push costs and membership fees toward zero.

Only then does Content Publisher become a win-win scenario.

To see Content Publisher for yourselves, visit http://publish.ancestry.com.

And now as promised, adieu.

3 comments:

  1. Has there been any discussion of allowing groups to watermark the images they post to Ancestry? I know this is still a work in progress but I think societies will want a bit more control over their content. Thank you so much for posting about this!

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  2. Tamura Jones' blog also has cautionary items in two 3 Sep 2011 articles on Publisher, listed here:
    http://www.tamurajones.net/articles.xhtml

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  3. In my opinion, the potential here is too great to ignore. Providing the ability to consumers to access myriad micro databases from a single (nay, monolithic) search engine seems like an excellent alternative to having to Google up obscure sites from the dark, dusty corners of the Internet (not to mention the various data formats, Comic Sans fonts, and 1990s styling one has to sometimes endure).

    That being said, I can also see this as one giant belly flop in the making if Ancestry can't find some greater incentive for local genealogy societies than "it'll really make you look good, being on Ancestry.com!" Some kind of pay-per-click model seems like part of the answer, maybe (although visions of society meetings centered around groups of people methodically clicking on their own Ancestry-hosted records just to raise the monthly take create a moment of pause). But the sense that Goliath is going to dictate bitter terms to the hundreds or thousands of societies that might otherwise take part, in exchange for some crumb of Internet glamor, is more likely to keep those societies glued to their seats rather than rushing to embrace the giant.

    So, from my perspective, the idea has merits - and fantastic potential for some real win-win-wins (for Ancestry, societies, and the data-consuming public). I'm glad to see Ancestry brainstorming the idea rather than plunking down the final product as a take-it-or-leave-it offer. And I hope some bright minds can propose ideas to sweeten the lure for small societies to embrace the giant and sweep their obscure databases out of the shadows and into the awareness of the modern genealogy marketplace.

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