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Mocavo

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Is there an economy of scale in genealogical records?

I have been following with interest all of the posts on the recently announced acquisition of iArchives (Footnote.com) by Ancestry.com. First of all, it is notable that the blog community picked up on the news so quickly and responded with a number of opinions on the event. This means that the news function of the blogs is alive and well. But going past the initial response to the announcement, I began to reflect on the reality of the situation. Although I did read some analogies, my take on the acquisition would compare the situation to an announcement that Microsoft had just acquired Apple Computer.

Ancestry.com's website is anything but graphically friendly. There are layers of screens and menus with no graphics at all. It is also nearly impossible to tell which collections of records have images and which do not without stumbling on the images accidentally. For example, how many users realize that Ancestry.com has a fairly large collection of digitized books, considering the fact that they are buried in the "Card Catalog?" On the other hand, Footnote.com is graphic and searches come up with the document or documents found. This is why I view this acquisition as one by a menu driven company like Microsoft taking over a graphically driven company like Apple. How long will the innovation and graphically driven interface of Footnote.com, as it is today, last under the ownership of Ancestry.com?

From my comments so far, you can probably guess that I favor Footnote.com's graphic interface over Ancestry.com and you would be guessing right. If I search for my Great-grandfather Samuel Linton on Ancestry. com's initial search screen, I get the usual endless list of people, some of whom may be related but many of whom are not. Ancestry.com indicates that there are 259,199 records for a search of Samuel Linton in Utah. On the other hand, Footnote.com gives you list of record types in which the name is found, giving you a clear idea of how may records are available in each category. This may seem like merely a difference in convention, but it reflects a fundamental difference in how the data is approached.

Other than Ancestry.com (and perhaps Footnote.com's owners) who benefits from this acquisition? Will this result in more records becoming available? Less expense to us the users? Some types of commercial activities result in decreased pricing, greater availability, and more innovation with the larger scale of mass production. Economies of scale tend to arise in businesses with high capital costs when those costs can be distributed across a large number of units. However, at large-scale levels of output, inefficiencies may begin to appear thereby causing unit costs to rise. Do we know if a larger and larger Ancestry.com will result in any economies of scale or will internal inefficiencies drown out the usefulness of the entire operation? I, for one, am not entirely happy with the prospect of finding out.

4 comments:

  1. Very good analogy on the Apple / Microsoft comparison of the Ancestry acquisition.

    One thing to watch for in terms of economies of scale: how much money it takes to attract a new subscriber. If you look at the 2Q financials, the amount spent on marketing etc. per subscriber keeps increasing.

    Also, it appears that Ancestry is broadening its television advertising. Many family members back home in New York (I went home this weekend) mentioned they had seen ads recently.

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  2. I'm thinking Ancestry is the clear winner here (aside from the owners of Footnote). Taken from a purely capitalist standpoint, the narrowing of the field is not a good thing for consumers, but as someone else pointed out, the competition from Familysearch remains strong, so there is that. Of course, Ancestry profits from the Revolutionary War files indexed in FamilySearch now, so maybe this is a way of taking a share of the competition's yield?

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  3. I can't say I view this event happily. I'm a firm believer in competition, and I think the habit of the last several decades of committing premeditated merger all over the place serves the consumer most ill.

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  4. "Economy of scale" rather depends on the product and method being along a continuum, rather like expanding an assembly line to accomodate more production.

    Ancestry.com is rather a hodgepodge of enterprises. It disposed of its publishing sector, neglects others (cutting resources available to them).

    It would seem that the large number of databases in the money-making subscription sector is an economy of scale, but in fact the databases are also a hodgepodge of different sorts of things. Some databases are not indexed at all, some were only partially keyword-indexed by OCR (some interference caused by foxing in books).

    Some databases are themselves hodgepodge partial extracts of compilations by subcontractors, whose sources often are not even fully listed. I had an exchange recently with a subscriber who wanted to find the source-record that was indexed in one of these compilations; Ancestry.com customer service refused to tell the seeker what publications had been indexed by the subcontractor, told the seeker to post a query on a message board.

    The diversity of indexing types poses major problems for the ten- or 15-year-old primitive search engine. Recent tinkering with user interfaces has not greatly improved its basic logical failings. Some of the tinkering, such as adding "soundex" searching as a hidden part of default searches, produces hugely greater numbers of simply-wrong search results.

    A labor-intensive fixing of database indexing inconsistencies should have commenced some 5 years ago when problems were becoming apparent. This would have contributed to the "economy of scale" principle.

    Instead, the outfit is engaging in new directions without fixing old problems and oversights. It can't figure out how to allow customers to search only databases "about" a given geographic area. Its Learning Center has no subject outline with links to content, only a combination of articles searchable only by keyword, non-searchable videos, and a poor installation of two books (the footnotes deleted from one) in a wiki format that is not user-friendly. The little-publicized mirror Tree site awaits some sort of search interface that would integrate with Ancestry.com marketing plans; it has been in "beta" for a year with few discernible changes in that time.

    Perhaps leadership will grasp the difference between size and scale.

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