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Kimberly Powell

What's Next for Ancestry.com?

By October 25, 2007

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tim Sullivan, President and CEO of The Generations Network (TGN), parent company of the popular genealogy Web sites Ancestry.com, RootsWeb.com, MyFamily.com and Genealogy.com. Now that the recent majority buyout of TGN by Spectrum Equity Investors has been announced, he is happy to finally be able to speak freely with the media and the genealogy community regarding a wide variety of issues, both past and future. Some of the points I took away from our discussion include:
  • Regarding the acquisition by Spectrum: "Spectrum does not really get involved in the day-to-day operations of companies." That being said, CEO Tim Sullivan speaks with Vic Parker on a very regular basis, and Mr. Parker is a "very actively participating board member with great passion and knowledge of the [genealogy] category." Tim said it is nice to have a single owner that is supportive of the company plans and can also help challenge them with the company's strategic direction. Regarding the rumors/discussion that this buyout might be the precursor to TGN going public, he admitted that it is "a sizeable company in a very interesting category." He went on to say that "companies like that have a lot of options." For now they plan to focus on delivering and developing a great product with great value. Obviously, we "want to do well for our members and shareholders."

  • Regarding future investments: The buyout by Spectrum was not really about providing increased funds to allow TGN to grow at a faster pace. Instead it was about buying out the previous owners of the business. Having a single majority owner offers TGN "greater clarity and stability." In other words they no longer have to worry much about who might buy them and what they might like to do with the company. Spectrum is committed to TGN's long-term vision.

    Tim explained that TGN has been in the fortunate position of being able to fund all of their growth in recent years with the profits and cash flow that the company has generated. They spent "well over $10 million this year acquiring and digitizing content, and creating indexes." This is also about what they spent on increased content in the prior year. Plus, he said, TGN "has made an equal or greater investment in technology development" to help people find what they need in a more efficient manner. They plan to continue to invest in new content at an equal pace in the forseeable future.

  • Regarding the Internet Biographical Collection: Tim was happy to finally be able to speak openly about this touchy subject. Because they were in the middle of negotiations with Spectrum at the time of this...shall I call it a fiasco?, he felt he couldn't speak as openly to the community about the issue as he would have liked at the time. Now, he says "We're a company that I'm thrilled when we try things and fail. We like to try things to advance the online genealogy space. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we implement things incorrectly. Did we implement it [IBC] right? Absolutely not."

    While he admits that the company made a big mistake with this release, he also said it was very hurtful to read the many personal, emotional attacks from the genealogy community. This wasn't a malicious effort by Ancestry.com to "steal" content, he said. They released this collection because they "absolutely belive there is a way we can help genealogists by taking our search technology and help unleash it to search the Internet." For example, the traditional search engine does not recognize that there are hundreds of variations of the name "Catherine," or that 1880 is close to 1882. Their technology is more specialized than most in this regard, and they hope to eventually be able to use it to help genealogists discover content all over the Web. The Internet Biographical Collection was a first step in this direction, and they were thinking a "technology first" release with plans to "tweak" it later. They recognize that they obviously should have gotten more user feedback prior to release which is why they chose to pull the database so quickly. Tim said they learned a lot from IBC and that he "respect[s] intensely the passion that people brought to this topic. A very fascinating and educational experience."

  • Regarding Family Tree Maker 2008: The Generations Network chose to skip a major release/update of Family Tree Maker last year to focus on the new product. The code base for the old FTM software was 15-years-old and holding back their "ability to innovate." Tim admitted that TGN knew it wasn't "delivering 100% of what everyone wanted," but that they also "didn't appreciate the extent to which the absence of some of the reports and other features" would be missed by the genealogy community.

    While it wasn't a perfect launch, he said, they did "talk to our existing users a ton." He feels they have tried, and largely succeeded, in developing a new product that is both appealing to the serious genealogist and the novice. They wanted to carry forth the most important features of FTM in this initial release of FTM 2008, but "we blew it." "We did a lot of user research," Tim said "with both very experienced genealogists and novice users." Somehow, he said, the research and user testing completely missed just how fundamentally important the absence of reports and publishing options would be. This absolutely was not because "we don't listen to or care about our customers."

    Tim says that TGN is a fast-moving company and "by golly we're going to do everything we can to make it right." They plan to add back the majority of the features that were left out and continue to work toward making the new Family Tree Maker that a product that will appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

  • On Genealogy.com and RootsWeb.com: TNG plans to continue to support Genealogy.com, but are "no longer aggressively marketing the Web site." New content is still added on a "regular basis," but to much less extent than at Ancestry.com. Ancestry is where the content and development focus lies. TGN is fully committed to continuing its support of RootsWeb as a free resource for the genealogy community.

  • On plans for Ancestry Member Trees and other Family Trees: Discussions are currently underway to find a way to combine the multiple family tree interfaces currently found on Ancestry.com into the current Ancestry Member Trees. We "ultimately and absolutely seek to find a way to present to the users a single, unified tree space." Tim believes Ancestry Member Trees are the way to do that as they make it easy for users to upload photos and documents, add sources, and use the "Ancestry hints" to connect information found on Ancestry.com with the individuals in their family tree. They recognize that One World Tree is no longer being updated, and plan to eventually remove this from the service after they've improved the alternatives. The plan is to hopefully replace One World Tree and Ancestry World Tree with the newer technology available in Ancestry Member Trees. The trick is for them to find a way to do this without negatively impacting users. They are actively working on a solution. They will not remove WorldConnect from RootsWeb in this process, but do hope to point RootsWeb users to the richer family tree content platform available on Ancestry.com.

    In the meantime, TGN continues to make a significant investment in the "hint" technology used by both Family Tree Maker 2008 and the online Ancestry Member Trees. In the next few months a lot more of Ancestry's online content will be searched and included in the hints. They also intend to eventually remove One World Tree from the hint engine, and replace it with hints to the newer family trees which include primary source documents, photos, stories, etc. They are really excited about their hint technology because it looks at family groups, not just all the information on an individual, but also that individual's spouse, parents, children, etc., providing a much better opportunity for accurate results.

  • On plans for the future: Look for some "pretty exciting changes" coming in the search interface. They plan to release the new search engine as a beta experience so people can try the new one out, or continue to use the existing search interface. They will also continue to invest aggressively in both acquiring and digitizing/indexing new content, and in their technology, such as search and hints. They plan to continue to invest in finding content in the US as well as overseas that is of interest and value to researchers. Along these lines, they are "incredibly focused on markets outside the United States," because they know "establishing presence in those markets will help more easily accelerate the acquisition of content." All of this new content will continue to be available to World Deluxe subscribers, and they may also add a few other goodies into the World Deluxe subscription.

    They also hope to add more Web 2.0 interaction, such as the ability for users to tag documents and records, and make comments and corrections to content. Tim says he hopes their efforts in this area "will blow people away."

  • On the future of online genealogy, and TGN's role: The future of online genealogy is a focus that is going to be led and driven forward by three different forces: 1) the volunteer community that will continue to work to put records online as they have for years; 2) the commercial marketplace, because genealogy offers the opportunity to make "a good business out of delivering value to people;" and 3) societies and professional groups will continue to play a major role in moving genealogy forward

    The ultimate goal of Tim and The Generations Network is to help more and more people "find that moment of joy earlier in the process."


Disclaimer: I have no affiliate or other relationship with Ancestry.com or The Generations Network, other than that I've been a subscriber for many years. They do advertise on my site from time to time, but that advertising is an arrangement between their ad agency and the About.com ad department. In other words, I have no personal interest or bias. ;-)

Comments
October 26, 2007 at 12:00 am
(1) George G. Morgan says:

Kimberly,

Thank you, as always, for providing a clear and unbiased forum for discussions of issues. You do a great job, and this interview with Tim Sullivan is no exception! You rock!

George G. Morgan
Co-host of “The Genealogy Guys (TM) Podcast and Author

October 26, 2007 at 10:22 am
(2) Chris Sparks,South Charleston,WV says:

Yeah, and how much is this bull gonna cost? I love Genealogy but can’t afford the prices. I’ll stick with the free ones.

October 29, 2007 at 4:50 pm
(3) Marge says:

I will never have a membership at Ancestry.com….It’s subscription price is one I cannot afford as a senior….so I will continue to rely on other free services…..

October 29, 2007 at 6:04 pm
(4) Andy Rowe says:

I bought the 2008 Familytreemaker, but refuse to load it until it is improved to the point it is measurably better than the version I am now using. It seems to me that this new version was based on what ancestry wanted to do rather than what serious genealogists said they needed. It appears they thought we would blindly follow the path that they created. They appear out of touch with their customer base.

October 31, 2007 at 12:51 am
(5) Cindy says:

I have not updated/upgraded to a newer version in FTM for some time, current is 11, I think put out in 2005. I was getting ready to do it w/2008 until I read all the negative feedback. I don’t want to lose any of the info that I have entered and especially the various reports that are there. I don’t know anyone personally that is using 2008, so will wait for more positive input before plunging. thanks everyone for your comments.

October 31, 2007 at 7:00 am
(6) Shirley says:

Will we get an answer as to what, if any, price increase will take place before the end of the year?

Thanks

November 5, 2007 at 4:58 pm
(7) Mary says:

I use Ancestry.com on a daily basis. For me the price of the subscription more than pays for itself with all the information I find.

I have gone back to my V.9 Family Treemaker. I did not like the new version format that they went to for entering family information. I am 100% familiar with the older version and prefer it.

November 7, 2007 at 1:10 pm
(8) Deborah says:

My first comment is hopefully that Rootsweb’s WorldConnect will not be eliminated from the free site as it has been very helpful in the past. If Ancestry.com charges for that service, then that will be very unfortunate.

I teach genealogy at our local technical college and my course is based on accessing the free websites first and then using Ancestry.com at our library for a limited time every day for free. Most of my students are seniors and are not willing to pay the price of Ancestry.com. I’ve been paying the subscription price since Ancestry.com started, but I need to do research for many hours, especially for my class, and I show others how to use this service. I like the subscription very much and have found many family members through Ancestry.com.

I downloaded FTM 2008 and it was a nightmare! The program would mysteriously close down for no reason in the middle of a search. Also, I tried to download the patch to make FTM 2008 better, but it caused my laptop to “flash” and close down my other active programs. I was not a “happy camper” because much of the notes I had written did not carry over from Version 16 to FTM 2008. Therefore, I am now using Version 16 until the new program is revamped and changed.

November 17, 2007 at 2:33 am
(9) Barbara says:

I had a subscription at Ancestry.com a long time ago before they had many records on-line and will not ever have one again until the price is lowered significantly. I also had an old FamilyTree Maker and submitted some trees which I can’t access anymore. That does not make me happy at all. I should NOT have to pay for a CD to access MY OWN family tree!! I used to love the searching in FTM online except when the search only found CD’s to buy, but am totally disappointed that FTM 2008 only searches Ancestry.com. I will not buy FTM 2008 because of that reason. Over the years access to genealogy is becoming less and less and the prices are becoming more and more. Thousands of people are not able to afford it. This is not right!!

December 10, 2007 at 8:30 pm
(10) Scott says:

There is no way on earth that they ‘listened’ to their current user base. Was Tim listening in on the beta test forums for the 2008 fiasco? I know his developers were not. All the beta testers thought the software being tested was a stripped down alpha candidate. Everybody concluded that they were leaving out the basic reports and the other features so that testers would focus on the new features. All the beta testers were expecting another beta release and then BAM straight to market – for sale. I couldn’t even get it to export my file.
Tim is straight out lying about how they listened to their current install base. They will lose the majority of their customer base as it is apparent they don’t understand genealogy or their former customers wants. Its too bad his feelings were hurt with their ill conceived IBC.
Maliciousness is purchasing a company you don’t understand and stomping on your customers on your way to reselling the company. See Carl Icahn – bought TWA and had no idea how to run an airline.
Please, Tim, you don’t know what you are doing. Go buy another company you can’t screw up and leave this market alone.

December 26, 2007 at 12:55 pm
(11) Melinda Poole says:

I agree that the FTM 2008 is a nightmare & NOT what people need. My biggest complaint now is SERVICE. Ancestry’s service is on a downward spiral. Some areas that consumers pay for are unobtainable for up to 2 months. This is while they keep adding things that I have found USELESS.

April 11, 2008 at 5:52 am
(12) Bridget says:

I guess this explains why I can’t access dozens of sites I bookmarked last fall. I am redirected to a Rootsweb/Ancestry search page where, typically, my searches don’t pull up the page I marked.

As it is, searching Ancestry is a test of will/patience. The search tool seems to regard the parameters I enter as mere suggestions–even when I check the “exact” boxes.

Adding to the frustration, I’m researching a surname that has a dozen+ spelling variations and that is sometimes misread by transcribers. (Old fashioned handwriting can obscure the initial Mc). When Ancestry’s search can’t find someone I KNOW is the database (e.g. Census), there is no option to allow for browsing the files.

I hope that RootsWeb data is not going to be incorporated into this existing system.

Are the various UsGenWeb projects now part of Ancestry?

Thank you for the information.

December 10, 2008 at 3:27 am
(13) leatherosi says:

The best family tree program around is Legacy Family Tree. You can download it for free at http://www.legacyfamilytree.com. In addition, if you decide you want the deluxe version, which by the way is awesome, it’s only $35 or so. This allows you to have pictures, stories multiple marriages etc. It’s also neat that you can click on someone and have it search for information on that person on the internet on a number of sites.

I use ancestry for most of my searchse, but found out that I can use the Ancestry.co.uk website to find world info on my family for free instead of trying to do it on ancestry and then I can’t look at it because I didn’t pay for it. It might even be cheaper for some who can afford it to get a subscription through there instead of the US version.

Just thought I’d put my 2 cents in.

August 6, 2009 at 11:32 am
(14) Amy says:

What I miss the most is not being able to purchase separate subscriptions i. e just the census records or family trees. I know you want as much money as you can get but this is unreal. People who are disabled cannot afford your high prices. Also if I find a relative I should be able to contact without being a member. Start thinking with your heart and not dollar sense.

Amy

September 15, 2009 at 9:29 pm
(15) Arlene says:

I have a World Deluxe subscription for three years now. I must say you folks sure take long enough to listen to you customers needs. When you take your next survey keep it short and ask the hard questions. Area of search, type of records, and what years we might be interested in. I realize there are young people out there doing research but I don’t think their numbers even come close to us mature folk, so let’s see some older data, please.

February 12, 2010 at 5:07 pm
(16) David Cummings says:

Ancestry.com is a dominating company that is way too explensive for public records that are free, Considering the fact that genealogist as my self have done most of the work.
That have now took it a step farther by buying the web space for local genealogy sites as to dominate that site. It should be stopped. If Ancestry.com wants to be a helper to people doing research, Lower their price. After all these are free public records that more than likely someone has done the footwork and research.

December 17, 2010 at 2:54 pm
(17) karen says:

I hope the cost does not go up I am a cancer patient and I pay for ancestry month to month because some months like december I dont have the money to pay for it, so I cancel till the month I can. please keep the cost down because I and many others cant afford to high of a cost

thank you

May 2, 2011 at 11:06 pm
(18) dee boyko says:

will there be a discount menbership fee for retired seniors?

January 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm
(19) hosting says:

Nearly all of what you articulate is astonishingly appropriate and that makes me ponder the reason why I had not looked at this in this light previously. Your article really did turn the light on for me personally as far as this particular subject goes. However there is actually 1 position I am not really too comfy with so whilst I attempt to reconcile that with the actual central theme of your issue, allow me observe exactly what the rest of the readers have to say.Nicely done.

January 14, 2013 at 7:05 am
(20) Daithi says:

I have read all of the comments posted to date and I agree with every complaint regarding Ancestry and their many offshoots.
Ancestry are trying to create the biggest monopoly and overall control on genealogy by purchasing as many genealogy websites as they can making free sites as rare as a flying pig. The only way to stop them is for no one to buy into their grand scheme.
My biggest mistake was sunscribing to Ancestry (at the lowest level) during the middle of 2012 as I noticed some information which I had been unable to find at that time elsewhere. Having paid, what I then was then able to view was basic to say the least with no links or references to help my research progress any further. A complete waste of money!
Some months later I came across a link from a genealogy website for ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ and to my amazement, the same information was there and FOR FREE!
The ‘LDS’ even had information which offered me options for more research, again FOR FREE, something which Ancestry wants people to pay for or encourage to take up a 14 day free trial. – Don’t waste your time!
I have taken a personal decision to have nothing whatsoever to do with Ancestry and if you have got this far, please take my advice and do the same!
Save yourself a lot of frustration and money and look elsewhere. There are many other informative sites out there and they are free for now at least AND if you should have Irish Catholic connections, please try the LDS website (also called FamilySearch.org), you will not be disappointed I guarantee you!
Good Hunting!

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