RootsTech 2014

Mocavo

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

When is large, too large? Another look at Ancestry.com

It seems that Ancestry.com's acquisition of Footnote.com have engendered a measure of disagreement and controversy. My recent comments on the subject elicited the following response from a commentator identified as "Geolover":
"Economy of scale" rather depends on the product and method being along a continuum, rather like expanding an assembly line to accommodate 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.
I would note that economies of scale apply to any organized activity where the fixed costs of the production or service can be spread over a larger revenue base. In the case of Ancestry.com, both their own organization and any acquisition would have fixed costs associated with the business organization, not just manufacturing. For example, both Ancestry.com and Footnote.com (technically iArchives) have higher level administrative costs. Arguably consolidation and acquisition reduce these fixed or nearly fixed administrative overhead costs. In addition, advertising costs can be consolidated as well as any potential sales costs. There is also the possibility of reducing employee expenses by consolidating jobs between the two organizations. So, there are possible real cost savings involved for both the acquiring company and the company the is acquired.

Ancestry.com is not a "hodgepodge" by definition. A hodgepodge is defined as odds and ends, a motley assortment of things. Ancestry.com has a very defined collection of specific resources, all of which are related directly or indirectly to genealogical and historical research. I have never seen a collection on Ancestry.com that was in any way inappropriate or out-of-place. The fact that it has a vast number of collections, is in no way a weakness in its organization or system. It is what it is and any experienced genealogical researcher will use the resources of Ancestry.com when it is appropriate and will ignore it when it is not.

I do agree that one of the major weaknesses of the present Ancestry.com collections is the inability to rapidly access the original documents or data source. But that issue is the same with any derived index of original records. I acknowledge that inexperienced users of Ancestry.com are commonly confused about the source value of the online indexes. But that occurs with any online index. An index is by its nature a derived source and not a primary source. The weaknesses the commentator points out in Ancestry.com's indexes are the same as those found in almost every other derived source material, whether index or summary.

I do also agree with criticism of the limitations of the Ancestry.com search capabilities. In my experience it is above the average but still lacks the ability to provide adequate screening and filtering. If I do a search on a name and then modify the search with a location, the Ancestry.com search engine still comes up with other locations. I am not sure that there is a "fix" for the database or search limitations. I think some of the limitations will always exist as limitations in the data being searched.

I do have a serious concern that rather than make records now available on Genline and Footnote more available, they may become harder to access and more expensive. By and large, I commend the commentator for his/her insight and hope that I continue to get such interesting comments in the future.

2 comments:

  1. "So, there are possible real cost savings involved for both the acquiring company and the company the is acquired."

    But not, I will bet, for the customer. I'm very skeptical.

    ReplyDelete
  2. AppleTree.com is likely to be an anecdote to the family tree subscription sites of today with a fully open and public family tree of the world.

    ReplyDelete