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Kimberly Powell

Growing Pains - USGenWeb & RootsWeb

By March 17, 2008

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As has been discussed on this and many other blogs and message boards around the Internet, many of the state and county coordinators who host their USGenWeb sites at RootsWeb have chosen to move on to new ISPs over the past week or so. Quite a few say they've been disgruntled for a while, however, so what exactly is it that triggered the exodus this week and why the obvious mistrust of Ancestry.com and their parent company, The Generations Network (TGN)?

From everyone I've spoken to or corresponded with, there have obviously been issues and differences of opinion between USGenWeb coordinators and TGN for quite some time. The biggest long-term issue appears to be the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which governs use by The Generations Network and Ancestry.com of content submitted to RootsWeb.com. The fact that Ancestry.com took over control of the message boards and mailing lists upon its assimilation of RootsWeb made some people unhappy. There are also some unhappy with the older servers and lack of "toys" that are available through other ISPs. Still others have had issues with slow staff response. Everyone's story is a little bit different. The biggest overall response, however, is that the USGenWeb project's goal of providing free access to genealogy is no longer fully compatible with that of TGN. It's important to remember that USGenWeb aligned with RootsWeb before TGN ever came into the picture. The USGenWeb Project is basically all grown up and ready to leave the nest to stand on its own.

On the other side of the coin, MyFamily.com (former name of The Generations Network) acquired RootsWeb in 2000, which helped to keep it financially viable. And they've continued this support by footing the bill for the equipment and staff necessary to maintain RootsWeb as a source of free genealogy for the past eight years (and into the future). Many of the USGenWeb sites have no branding or advertising that even mark them as part of RootsWeb, much less The Generations Network. It is suggested that such an acknowledgement is appreciated, but has never been required. So for those of you saying that TGN is in it for the money - sure, they are a for-profit business. But I'm pretty sure more goes out for RootsWeb than comes back in - and that's definitely the case for the USGenWeb sites. TGN is looking to gain a little more recognition and increased search engine placement in return for their continued support of RootsWeb as a free online genealogical community. Is that too much to ask?

Concerns & Reactions from Both Sides:

The data will no longer be free after the move to the Ancestry.com URL - either immediately or at some point in the future when TGN changes their policy once again.

While some people have expressed concerns that the free genealogy data contributed to RootsWeb by many thousands of volunteers over the years will be used by Ancestry.com behind their subscription wall, Mike Ward at The Generations Network says that is not the case. "RootsWeb will continue to remain a free online experience. There are no plans to make changes to the way RootsWeb currently operates. We love RootsWeb. We love what it stands for. We love to help people put free family history information on the Web and we continue planning to support that."

The RootsWeb Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) seems to imply that user-submitted content could end up on Ancestry.com where users will be charged to access it.

TGN basically holds all the cards -- it's their Web site after all and I'm sure their lawyers want them to cover the bases. That makes many county coordinators nervous, as they are generally fierce about protecting the rights of the many users and volunteers who contribute free content for all to share. On the other hand, if you read the fine print, most sites that accept user submitted content, such as You Tube, Yahoo!, and Google Services (such as Blogger.com), have similar terms of agreement. Just as with the RootsWeb's AUP, the typical user agreement will guarantee that you retain the copyright to your work, but by submitting the work to their site you agree to grant them a non-exclusive license to use and distribute the work on their company Web sites. Whether its a compilation or creative content, you still "own" your submitted work - not TGN.

I agree that the RootsWeb AUP should be probably be reworked to more accurately reflect the needs of the various projects and sites supported on RootsWeb.com. Right now it is too general, perhaps because it is covering everything from the USGenWeb sites, to individual FreePages sites, to the mailing lists and message boards. But the Acceptable User Policy is also lawyer-speak, and TGN continues to support their position that they are committed to supporting RootsWeb as a free genealogy resource. They did make a big blunder when they introduced the Internet Biographical Collection last year, but they also admitted their mistake and took steps to rectify things almost immediately. But genealogists have long memories...

TGN reiterated on the RootsWeb blog that "Your data will not be taken away from you. We host the mailing lists, message boards, sites etc. but you own the information that you post or upload."

So why the new mastheads and the change to the Ancestry.com URL?

Announcements and statements from TGN have stated that the new mastheads are an effort to brand RootsWeb as a cohesive site, as well as a part of The Generations Network. While FreePages sites on RootsWeb have had a variety of banners and/or mastheads for a while, the USGenWeb and other special sites have had no branding whatsoever. Personally, I don't feel that the new banners are really any different than those served up by most hosting services, such as Geocities and AOL, that offer free Web site space. The Generations Network has also worked to provide a custom banner for the USGenWeb sites, and they are still working to create a masthead that pleases both sides and takes a minimum of effort to implement. Although many may not agree with me, I feel that such a banner is a small price to pay in return for free, unlimited hosting. And, properly implemented, a USGenWeb masthead appearing on every page would actually provide more cohesiveness for USGenWeb as well. There are many pages on the project that don't even include the USGenWeb logo and users coming into such pages from a search engine often don't understand where the data came from or that it is part of the USGenWeb Project.

Why the change in URLs?

Mike at TGN says that the speculation that RootsWeb sites are being moved to Ancestry.com URL's based on a desire to increase the site's traffic numbers on paper is a small part of the reason for the move. He also said that improving search engine rankings for both sites was a big consideration. Yes, as part of the Ancestry domain, RootsWeb will offer more of a benefit to TGN, but Mike also said that makes it easier to justify increased attention and money spent on improving RootsWeb. Nothing is changing on RootsWeb other than the URL (and the new mastheads). All old RootsWeb URLs will continue to work - people will be automatically redirected to the new URL. RootsWeb will continue to be free.

What about the mailing lists?

The RootsWeb mailing lists, including those which correspond with USGenWeb sites, belong to RootsWeb and will remain there. Some hosts are choosing to create new mailing lists on their new sites, but they can't kill the RootsWeb list, and TGN assures me that the archived mailing list posts -- such a valuable source of genealogical information -- will remain as well.

So what's really going on?

In defense of The Generations Network (TGN), they have been supporting RootsWeb as a free genealogy site since they stepped in to save it in 2000. They do run banners and branding on the FreePages sites, used primarily by individuals and small associations, but have in the past had no banners or advertising or anything at all running on USGenWeb sites, or the sites hosted under their own virtual domains. In other words, they shell out what must be quite a bit of money to keep those sites up and running and receive little in return, other than the fact that they have been happy to help support the free genealogy community. Mike at TGN says that the move to provide more consistent branding across all RootsWeb pages -- the new mastheads -- is to help people who come across these pages from RootsWeb realize there is more to explore. To help identify RootsWeb as a network of genealogists and sites. And to identify TGN as their sponsor as well. Currently those hosting USGenWeb and other sites on RootsWeb have no obligation to mention RootsWeb or Ancestry.com at all, and many don't.

Feelings on both sides of the issue are definitely running strong. In Illinois, for example, the decision to move the state pages and most county sites happened very quickly. Cheryl Rothwell, Assistant State Coordinator, The ILGenWeb Project, said that when the discussion began she expected it to be protracted, as most such discussions are. "I expected the counties would be split on the Ancestry issue and those who chose to leave would be scattered. Instead there was almost instant agreement -- and more active participation by County Coordinators than I have seen in my 10+ years."

TGN, on the other hand, says that while they "totally respect the decision to move to another hosting service," they are sad that so many have chosen to leave. They plan to continue to support every site on RootsWeb as they have in the past, and there will absolutely be no "retribution" against USGenWeb sites that have chosen to stay (although there have been some reports of retribution from state coordinators against county coordinators who have chosen to remain at RootsWeb which is against USGenWeb policy). Mike said that TGN would also be most happy to welcome back any sites who might choose to return in the future.

Basically, on both sides of the fence, this is a business relationship. I personally feel The Generations Network provides a wonderful service to the genealogy community and can understand their need to see at least a little bit of return for the money they spend supporting RootsWeb. This will only help to ensure that the valuable genealogy data that so many volunteers have posted over the years will be preserved. Some people at USGenWeb feel the need for a hosting arrangement that offers them additional independence and control - many choosing to go with paid hosting arrangements that can offer more options than the free hosting at RootsWeb. I can't fault them for that.

The concern of Joan Young, who writes articles on how to use RootsWeb for the RootsWeb Review, -- a concern that is shared by myself and many others -- is that some of those who move may fall into "deals" that don't turn out to be viable. There's also the possibility of data getting lost when a county coordinator who has moved to a paid hosting solution decides to quit, or possibly forgets to renew their domain name or their hosting service. And any new coordinator coming in to take over a site hosted via a paid hosting arrangement would either have to be willing to continue paying the hosting bill, or take on moving the site to a new host.

My hope is that people think things through carefully and make informed decisions. I'm not saying anyone is right or wrong in their decision to move or not move. But too many people are panicking and throwing around false information about Ancestry planning to "steal" data. While they can be blunder-prone at times, I'm convinced that they are trying to do the right thing by the genealogy community. I also hope that the USGenWeb Project continues to survive and thrive through this period of change. It's an absolutely invaluable resource and my thanks goes out to each and every volunteer who has ever worked for or contributed to the project.

March 19, 2008 at 1:50 pm
(1) Katherine McArthur says:

Thank you for writing this balanced view of the situation. It was very informative.
Kathy McArthur

March 19, 2008 at 3:55 pm
(2) George G. Morgan says:

Dear Kimberly,

Thank you for a very well-written explanation of the issues and the situation. There has been a great deal of “Ancestry/TGN bashing” on mailing lists the past week or so by people who either didn’t read and understand the press release or who chose to ignore the statement and immediately take offense to anything the company does.

RootsWeb would be long gone had MyFamily.com not bailed it out in 2000. That would have resulted in the loss of mailing lists and archives, free Web hosting for USGenWeb and for many genealogical societies, loss of free Web hosting for individuals, and loss of the many free materials that RootsWeb provides.

TGN has to make a profit in order to acquire and host new materials. They have to pay staff to support the computers and communications equipment, the help desks, and all the administrative functions. People who complain about the cost of a subscription to Ancestry.com need to do a reality check. The cost of fuel to make a single 500-mile research trip, plus meals, hotel accommodations, and other expenses can easily total more than 2 years’ subscription to Ancestry.com.

I’m not an Ancestry.com or TGN employee; I am simply a freelance writer of articles that they occasionally publish. However, I still believe that Ancestry.com offers the creme de la creme of database services and produces the highest quality books in the industry. I’m proud to have an affiliation to them, even though I don’t always agree with everything the company does.

In this case, I don’t see anything wrong with the announced move of RootsWeb to the Ancestry.com domain. It should be a seamless change — except for the USGenWeb sites and others who have had a knee jerk reaction and decided to bail out of a very good (free) Web hosting deal.

Thanks again for being another voice of reason in a sea of turmoil.

March 20, 2008 at 2:38 pm
(3) Diane Nielson says:

Sorry, George. I don’t agree this is a knee jerk reaction. What is TGN trying to save us from? If We had submitted FREE info to share with EVERYONE and continue to do so why do we need to be saved?

March 21, 2008 at 1:52 am
(4) Mary A. says:

I have been working on genealogy for 18 years and don’t understand why US Gen Web has to move to Ancestry. Aren’t all state sites supposed to be free for the public? I understand that there is alot of unseen costs involved, but why not seek for huge donations from businesses? All of us on this earth are linked to genealogy. We all have parents and families. I commend the company who saved Rootsweb in 2000, and for footing alot of the bills, but isn’t there a way to raise donations? We can raise thousands of dollars for alot of other things; why can’t we show love for those who have paved the way for each of us? I don’t remember the year but isn’t the movie “Roots” what got the whole world started in this direction? Who can help us to continue? We need everybody’s help!!

March 21, 2008 at 1:53 am
(5) Neal says:

Thanks for posting this series of very informative and timely articles about this situation. It looks like TGN/Ancestry has been taken over by a bunch of MBA’s and lawyers who are not genealogists and are simply out of touch with their user community. This would not be the first time that corporate arrogance has backfired. Reneging on agreements with USGenWeb simply reflects a fundamental lack of ethics.

A couple comments:

- What are the “toys” you are referring to? I presume these are the programming tools that are now commonplace on even the most basic of hosting services such as Perl, PHP and MySQL. These facilities are essential to present large searchable databases, for example. The absence of these tools in Rootsweb is indicative of lack of genuine interest and support by TGN, like the neglected step-child.

- Ancestry has broken agreements concerning appropriation of user data before, so the USGenWeb administrators have real cause for concern. In RootsWeb Review, Volume 3, No. 5 dated 2 February 2000, then-CEO Robert Tillman promised: “Rootsweb promises never to merge your GEDCOM with those of others, charge you or others to access it, or burn it onto a CD and sell it for profit. Ancestry has now merged Rootsweb Users’ family trees into its “OneWorldTree” database and charges people $155 per year to access it.

- If MyFamily/Ancestry hadn’t stepped in to “save” Rootsweb, would Rootsweb have disappeared or would it now be a major competitor to Ancestry? If the user community had known that Rootsweb was in danger of failing, I think there would have been an overwhelming show of support.

- At $155 to $299 per user per year, TGN has to be making plenty of money already.

- Ancestry’s objective in absorbing Rootsweb was to make their traffic statistics look better. I wonder what portion of the Rootsweb traffic was accounted for by the USGenWeb sites that are now leaving. Their scheme may be failing.

March 21, 2008 at 5:44 pm
(6) Wayne Summers says:

I’m a GenWeb CC who has recently moved off rootsweb. Personally, the banner placement wasn’t a concern. My decision was based on the following:

1) GenWeb was obviously a low priority of TGN. Requests often took weeks and repeated follow-ups before receiving a response.

2) TGN provided no ability for searchable databases. As a result I’ve been having to host my databases on another server. By moving I can consolidate everything on a single server.

3) With my state moving off rootsweb to its own domain and server it made sense for me to also move to that domain. This will assure that data on my site will remain free and easily available even if something should happen to me.

TGN gave us free web hosting, but we had grown to both desire and need more than they were willing to give without cost.

Had TGN coupled their announcement with a promise to provide a better product (fast response to requests, database abilities, and better servers) then the results may have been different.

March 24, 2008 at 3:12 pm
(7) Connie says:

I have no problem with TGN adding the mast head banners. BUT will they stop there? What’s next, their moving flashing ads?

TGN gives all kinds of reasons for the change. No matter how TGN spins it, it means nothing more than more $$ in their pockets. My problem is why can’t they be honest about it and say it. It isn’t a “small part” for the change it IS the main reason for the change. Then you wonder why people do not trust ancestry.com.

You mentioned the blunder of 2007 with the Internet Biographical Collection. I agree that was a HUGE blunder and one that will not be forgotten by genealogists. It helped add to the mistrust of ancestry.com. If there had not been such a big fuss about it; do you honestly think ancestry.com would have seen it as a blunder and removed the data base, I think not.

It was just another way they could say you were getting more for your subscription and help rack in more $$ for them. It was also a data base where they didn’t have to pay anyone to indexed or pay to have microfilm copied. It was there and free for their taking. Definitely a win win situation for them all around.

With the numbers of people paying $155 and more I would think they are doing quite well for themselves. Bet the salary for the head of The Generations Network is way up there too. If they really and truly cared about the genealogist they’d do more about lowering their fees. I do not see how people on fixed incomes could subscribe. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lower fees so more people could subscribe. In the end, with greater numbers subscribing, they could actually be taking in more $$.

They have the right to add ads but do they have to be moving, blinking, flashing ads? It is difficult to read and comprehend what’s on a page with all that movement. What about the fact that all that flashing and etc. can cause seizures. Add in the fact the moving ads cause the pages to take longer to load. Put the ads on the pages but please can’t they stop the moving and flashing.

I have learned to cover the ads with other windows so I am not bothered by them. However, I have looked at and clicked on just plain non moving ads on their sites in the past. Now I just cover them up so I see them.

March 24, 2008 at 4:46 pm
(8) Marianne says:

I have been doing genealogy for over 20 years. I have always thought “Ancestry” was too expensive; no matter how many sales they have. It is too bad “our” family records have to have a “price” on them. A world of genealogy where everyone volunteers and donations are optional is a dream world to say the least. Money and power will always be an issue.

March 24, 2008 at 11:25 pm
(9) Rick B says:

To summarize, Rootsweb and Ancestry is still the best deal in town. I think the USGenWeb people that left will soon find out that the grass is not greener on the other side of the Internet fence. I became convinced of this several years ago after I was “set straight” by a helpful former Rootsweb Staff Person. Now I’m 100 percent sold on Rootsweb’s free side and Ancestry’s subscriber side. :-) When it comes to these two sites, I’m the eternal optimist and wish them all the best! Thanks for a well-balanced article.

March 25, 2008 at 9:13 am
(10) Dennis says:

I, for one, really appreciate both Rootsweb and TGN. You may recall that when Rootsweb depended on donations from the community, they could barely stay alive and could certainly not have afforded the improvements in the past few years.

I also appreciate this fine and balanced article by Kim.

I disagree that the the Internet biographical Collection was a “major blunder.” I thought, as a genealogist, that it was terrific! Sure, some egos were bruised (presumably by Yahoo, Google, etc., also), and there were some bumps in the caching and crediting (which could have been fixed), but it seemed that a bunch of selfish (and almost paranoic)anti-TGN folk raised an uproar and stopped a valuable contribution. Thanks.

Yes, Ancestry charges money. But if it disappeared, how much would each of us have to spend to obtain the same information? And how much of that information would never be available if Ancestry did not negotiate for its use, transcribe and index and maintain it?

In the words of one of my ancestors:
“Quit your bellyaching!”

March 26, 2008 at 5:43 pm
(11) Lowell Cagle says:

I have been a paying subscriber to The Genealogy Network for over a year. This article has clarified the relationships of the free services and TGN. The branding changes should help new-commers to better understand who they are dealing with. I have not used the free services because they seemed like a “Hodge-Podge” of competing Web sites and I had my doubts about how long they would be available.

March 27, 2008 at 4:32 am
(12) Mary Ann says:

The article stated TGN reiterated on the RootsWeb blog that “Your data will not be taken away from you. We host the mailing lists, message boards, sites etc. but you own the information that you post or upload.”

A surname group that I was associated with on Rootsweb deleted years of archives when the group owner dared to question some of the new policy. Luckily, some of the members had recently backed up the archives and we were able to start over on another site. Trust Rootsweb again? Never. I’ve taken my groups elsewhere.

April 7, 2008 at 1:51 pm
(13) Dennis Lohr says:

One concern I have is that the State & County sites who have broken ranks with TGN have significantly weakened the position(s) of those who remained behind.

Additionally, I completely echo the sentiment that “but for” Ancestry/TGN, there would be no RootsWeb.

April 13, 2008 at 12:00 pm
(14) Nancy says:

Rootsweb, with all the volunteers, has contributed volumes of FREE info for years. Weak or not weak? Not sure, but I, for one, am concerned that eventually what is “free” will not longer be free as the TGN grows & changes. I strongly object to having my hard work put dollars into some big corporation’s coffer when my intention was to provide info for free to everyone. I’m keeping a real close eye on this whole thing. Even now pay sites link to my free site.
I’ll pull my pages if this continues to happen.
Nancy in Maine

April 21, 2008 at 8:53 pm
(15) Shelda Baldwin Glover says:

Thanks to Afrigeneas that this blog was linked to the website. We didn’t know what the heck was going on! Many researchers such as myself an others have donated data over the years. Our site is Columbus County NC and I will never pay for what was donated for free and is in the public records. This is another example of money being the root of all evil$$$$$

May 10, 2008 at 9:11 pm
(16) lorraine morgan says:

i never knew any of this stuff were going on about the sites. all this is new to me i hope my site ancestry.com keep being on even though they do need to add more new sites to search but keep me inform on whats happening.

June 15, 2008 at 2:19 pm
(17) Carla says:

Everything I have read about this “merger” is that our bookmarks will not be lost. Supposedly we will be redirected to the new site. However, I am finding years of bookmarks that document source materials lead to a page which simply states, “Sorry the page you tried to access is not available” Where is it?

October 16, 2008 at 3:14 pm
(18) Scott says:

The promise of Rootsweb always being free has been violated by Ancestry and TGN. “Free” is a fine line, but I think it has been crossed here. Had TGN not bought Rootsweb, Rootsweb would have gone forward as a site we could support. We have seen a mass exodus of USGenWeb sites (because they now look like part of Rootsweb/Ancestry). The national and state groups are having no problem supporting their own websites. It doesn’t cost much to host sites these days.

If you stay on Rootsweb, here is a way to hide the banner. They would probably only find you out if someone alerts them to your website.

To remove/hide the Rootsweb Ancestry banner/masthead insert the following just below the tag in your HTML page
then insert just above at the end of the page. Change the background color if you wish (it must be included to hide the banner) and add your background image to the line if you have one.

October 17, 2008 at 3:09 pm
(19) Scott says:

Oops, the tags are not coming through. I’ll use brackets instead, which you’ll need to replace. Trying again:

Insert the following just below the [body] tag in your HTML page:
[div style="position:absolute; top:0; right:0; width:100%; height:100%; background-color:#EEF3EE;"] then insert [/div] just above the closing [/body] tag at the end of the page.

October 2, 2013 at 10:58 am
(20) kidney pain symptoms says:

It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this
superb blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

I look forward to fresh updates and will share this website with my Facebook group.
Chat soon!

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