Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Old Search Retirement, Ancestry.com Pays Down Technical Debt

Old Search gravestoneIf you are like me and watch Ancestry.com’s offerings fairly closely, you’ve noticed there haven’t been a lot of major changes to their tree and search features for several months.

“The company has been, and continues to be, focused on improving the website’s performance and stability,” said Matthew Deighton, Ancestry.com spokesperson in a recent e-mail. “Because of this, new search features have been delayed.”

You may not be aware, but for various reasons, software ages. There are business pressures to release features quickly. This sometimes results in suboptimal software, lack of automated testing, and absence of comprehensive documentation. There are technology changes that result in outdated hardware and software tools. There are band aids applied to quickly fix bugs to keep a website up and running 24x7. There are personnel rollover that results in fractured approaches to architecture. In the case of Ancestry.com, there has also been a tremendous growth in the number of subscribers and records.

These result in the need to rewrite all or parts of a software system. If that work is postponed, it’s kind of like the accumulation of debt. The longer you wait, the more the debt accumulates.

Platform Initiative

“Ancestry.com has been operating a massive data service and website for over 17 years,” wrote Jim Mosher, Ancestry.com senior product manager. “They started with a good design,” he wrote. But with time, Ancestry.com accumulated a lot of technical debt. “As we introduced new functionality into the system, the fingerprints of the architect, developer, and technology-du-jour became evident on the interfaces for that functionality.”

Mosher put it bluntly. “Over time, we created something of a mess.”

“As Ancestry.com continues to grow, we are moving away from a centralized development group,” wrote Mosher. “We have development offices in Utah, California, and Ireland. We’ve hired new employees and acquired companies. We have business partners.” 

Almost a year ago Ancestry.com reached the point where they could no longer afford to add new features without first paying off some of its technical debt. “We can’t afford to teach each new engineer or team how to work with all of the legacy interfaces and newly-forming interfaces,” wrote Mosher. They began what I imagine has been a massive project to rewrite parts of their software.

Now, almost a year later, Mosher reports solid results.

“It’s not rocket science, but the platform initiative provides Ancestry.com with a strong set of tools for creating new family history applications.”

Mobile Devices

Technology change introduces technical debt. One recent change is the appearance of mobile phones and tablets like the iPhone and the iPad. These incorporate touchscreen technology with much smaller screens. These disruptive technologies have required modifications to the software.

“A surprising amount of our users (growing daily) are now navigating on devices with screens smaller than 768 pixels wide,” wrote Jason Boyer, Ancestry.com software developer. “Enter responsive web design (RWD). The main goal of RWD is to display the same information to a user, no matter what device they’re on, in the easiest to use format possible.”

“RWD has now been a hot priority at Ancestry.com for well over a year now,” wrote Boyer. “We’ve made huge leaps forward.”

Search Features

“We still have more work to do, but we’ll soon be able to shift our attention to new feature development,” said Deighton.

The first search feature they’re working on is a sliding control that makes it easy to broaden or narrow a list of search results. By moving the control left or right, users determine whether search terms are matched exactly or more broadly. Ancestry.com has been contemplating this feature for a long time. They showed me prototypes a year ago.

“We expect to roll out this feature at the end of February,” said Deighton.

They will also enhance the Category Exact mode. That’s the mode they introduced last year to simulates Old Search. I think the technical debt around Old Search and its antiquated software and hardware have signed its death warrant. Ancestry.com really has no choice; Old Search will go away.

Given that inevitability, Ancestry.com has attempted to replicate Old Search functionality within the framework of their current software and hardware.

If you are an Old Search user who hasn’t switched to Category Exact mode, now is the time.

“Be aware that after these changes are made, we will also be limiting access to the old search experience starting in March,” said Deighton.

For instructions on switching to Category Exact search mode, see “How to simulate old search using category exact mode.”


  1. I look forward to most "new" things coming from Ancestry but I need to make a very negative comment about the party or parties who went through the 1910 (especially Illinois) census and "corrected" it - what a mess they have made! In many cases they "corrected" what was actually on the census records to an incorrect name or age or any number of things. Again WHAT A MESS! Please pass this one to the parties in charge. Thanks, a many year subscriber.

  2. I have sending feedback suggestion since they began. The main one that I have been asking for is specific input fields for the Name options. Prefix, first, middle, nickname, last, alt spelling last, suffix. If they had these fields their search results would be sooooo much better and much more precise. While I understand that what I am asking for would be a major rework for the database, if they are taking the time to upgrade/update the backend, take the time to do this change. They would also need to change the fields in the desktop software to match.
    I think the best way to do this is for them to add the fields to the name change page. Then run a DB replace program that moves what fields exist into the new fields. Then it is up to each of the users to clean up the names within the name edit page. A help so that people could easily keep track of the cleanup would be to have a cleanup list of all the names for each tree, and a finish button on each name change page. As you clean up a page and fix the name you hit the button when you are done and it comes off the list. This is a pretty daunting idea for me because I have over 20 trees, but the improvement in search results for me would be worth the work. Heck this could start a home business boom for people who would pay to have some one clean their trees for them :)

  3. I have to say I don't understand ancestry's priorities when it comes to these technical details. I just discovered that in the last month or so ancestry is not sending email notifications from "some users" that another ancestry member is trying to make contact. When I called, they said "Known Problem" with no commitment to when it will be fixed, and meanwhile members are vainly trying to contact each other (because this is one of the great benefits of being an ancestry member) without realizing that ancestry is failing to notify people that a message awaits them on the website. Honestly, I have lots of wishes about their outdated search function, but without the basic ability to contact other members, my research becomes all the more thwarted. I want to love ancestry, but their commitment to customer service often feels questionable to me! Any advice about dealing with this kind of "technical difficulty"?

    1. This is why I add my email address to my message. You can then be contacted outside of ancestry.

  4. Absolutely do not like the new search format. Cannot find things that were there before and now when you search even using EXACT you are getting anywhere between 500-5000 hits and it is just too time consuming to wade through the mess...also the pics or census, etc are not loading and all you get is an error message saying OPPS please try again. With what I am paying for my subscription I deserve much better than this.

    1. I agree with this and similar statements. The "old search" has always been more efficient at finding particular pieces of information. The new search methodologies, even as they have evolved (and *slightly* improved) seemed design to return small haystacks that may contain the needle one is looking for. Rather than focusing on returning the results asked for (and then having the choice to broaden if needed) the concept seems to be to return every remote possibility and hope we don't overlook what we asked for in the midst of everything we think should be excluded by the search parameters we define.

  5. If they were trying to improve their website they went about it the wrong way. The new searches do not work even when set to exact. Even though I paid heavily for my ancestry membership I think I'm using familysearch for most searches!!!

  6. Another group of PO'd users:

    Several years ago the Rootsweb Message Board system changed. SO MANY of us complained, they brought back the features from the old system. Perhaps Ancestry can give up on this New unsupported database and return to the Old System.

  7. The NEW SEARCH has BASIC programming flaws. Discovered this while searching the 1940 US Federal Census records for Amarillo, Potter County, Texas. Can get a particular record for a gal [Crystal Shanahon] born 1920 in Texas using the EXACT category match with birth year set to 1919 +/- 1 years, +/- 2 years and +/- 10 years HOWEVER THE RECORD WILL NOT COME UP WHEN USING THE +/- 5 YEAR OPTION. Very, very basic and very very sloppy. They may not be able to put OLD SEARCH back into play but they really need to do a better job on the horrific NEW SEARCH that they've got going. I cancelled my 6 month membership and am demanding a refund for the 4 months remaining on the subscription. This is against their refund policy so I've also reported them to the Better Business Bureau. I want what I paid for and I did NOT pay for NEW Search!

  8. I don't think that there is any argument for the need to change, it is just that the search engine is now counter intuitive, outputs the information in an illogical order, and does not use screen space economically. All very basic stuff that any experienced programmer should be able to manage. I am voting with my wallet and not renewing my subscription in May because this new system is not up to the job.

  9. From 1998 to 2004, I was an Agent with US Treasury having access to the IRS taxpayer database IDRS. It has the tax records of every taxpayer for years. An Agent could access (For Office Use Only) any record by SSN, Name, by address, etc. The records also identify who had accessed those records and basically why. The accesses of every person using the system could be obtained. This database literally contains hundreds of million records. I last used it in 2004 when I retired. So, if this database system existed then, the reason given by Ancestry for their current search program problems is pretty much hogwash.

    1. Thank you for making my point much better than I ever could.
      Mika Jackson
      Granbury, TX


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