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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Where does the antagonism against the big genealogy websites come from?

I suppose this should really be a post on psychology not genealogy, but I am the one stuck with the brunt of the antagonism against the large online genealogy websites. If I am out and about, teaching classes and helping people with their genealogy, I get an almost constant negative stream of comments about the larger genealogy companies. It would not be so noticeable if it were not so constantly repetitious.  The complaints seem to fall into categories, so I will discuss the main categories I detect. Some of the criticism is so contradictory as to be ridiculous, but some of the comments reflect some of my own feelings (maybe I need the psychology also).

Complaints about the inability to "find" what researchers are looking for are the most common. There seems to be an underlying assumption here that because they are big, they should have every record. If the researcher fails to find the specific record they are searching for, it is not their own fault for failing to search properly, but the fault of the website for "not having the record." It never seems to occur to the complainers that the record may be missing or never applied to their ancestor. This common complaint seems to be consistent with a general societal feeling of entitlement. It is as if they feel they have a right to find the record and the failure of the website to instantly provide what they want at that moment is a violation of their right to entitlement. How dare the websites make them think and search further!

This complaint of entitlement blends into a complaint that the websites change too frequently. I still get comments to old blog posts complaining about the demise of the old, old, website or the loss of the old search engine used by This would seem to come with the demographics of the genealogy community of an older, very conservative group. But the desire to go back to an old search engine or a very limited old website verge on something more than merely being uncomfortable with change. This complaint brings up the next one, complaints about having to learn yet another program.

It is interesting to me how many negative comments I get about change in general and new programs in particular. Every time there is a round of upgrades, I get the same round of comments. I don't have a clear view of what other countries experience in this regard, but our society seems resistant to change in any form. Genealogists seem to look at changes to websites and programs as threats rather than opportunities. It is as if the need to learn is an imposition. These complaints are focused on the large genealogy companies because this is where the researchers see the most changes. They use these programs the most and therefore are most upset when they change. It is as if they blame the large companies for the changes.

Another dimension of the complaints comes from the size of the big companies. This is especially true of and I find that even if genealogists are familiar with and, they do not see either as being a prominent or big company. In fact, when I teach about for example, those in my class are always very surprised to learn how large and influential this company really is. I got an interesting comment about this past week, when one of the class participants asked why they did not have saturation advertising on TV like if they were so big? It was almost as if the questioner equated advertising with validation.

Then, of course, there are the conspiracists. They think there is a conspiracy around every corner and under every rock. The most common comments I get involve the purchase of one or the other of the large companies. I might say, that this may be one area where anything is possible. I usually get this question about whether is going to buy or the opposite, whether FamilySearch is going to by Ancestry. In that same class this week, I got the question as to whether was going to buy I am not sure where these types of questions come from, but the endless series of acquisitions by the three commercial companies I am sure contributes to this viewpoint.

Among genealogists who use each of the big websites frequently, there are a whole different class of negative comments. These always seem to revolve around one or more features of the programs. The complainers always seem to want some other feature or do not like some feature or another. Sometimes in begin to feel like the cartoon character Lucy, with her booth saying Psychiatric Help 5 cents, and the sign that the doctor is in.


  1. I believe that a at some of the frustrations arise in how the search results are returned, and dependability of the responses. With Ancestry, it doesn't own its newspaper section, that is done by a third party, Newspaper Archive. So if there is a problem with Newspaper Archive, then Ancestry bears the brunt.

    But when it comes to Ancestry's news search, the frustration is all too familiar. Its not a simple tool anymore, and its over engineered.

    The third an final reason is that the big sites are expensive. People expect results when they spend a couple hundred every year. And they expect good customer service. But these same people have to learn the backgrounds of the states, because their record retention policies impact what is available to sites like Ancestry.

    1. Frustrations with searches is certainly an area of concern. But most of the comments I receive are more fundamental and usually involve people with only a very limited experience with online programs in general.

  2. I think people like to complain about large corporations, and so!e folks feel helpless or cheated when they don't get the service they think they are paying for. I also wonder if some of the blame for the 'grousing' could accrue to the companies themselves -- and here I'm thinking especially of Ancestry. Marketing campaigns consistently stress how easy it is. They need to in order to attract newbies to grow the subscriber base and achieve the ROI hurdles that investors demand. When nre subscribers with no training in methodology suddenly discover that there is more to research than clicking on shaky leaves they may feel they were somehow 'cheated.' Irrational? Probably. But not implausible as an explanation.

    1. I am not sure that I have talked to anyone who seems disappointed that genealogy is harder than represented. I think those people just stop doing any more research and go away.

    2. You ask why the antagonism toward the "industry"? James, if your picture is correct you certainly look old enough to remember the "good old days" of the early internet genealogy. Genealogy was fun and dynamic in those days. Now it has become just another "canned" commercial enterprise - with only lip-service paid to accuracy. If you want to know why I, personally, am downright hostile toward the industry - and the "big boy" specifically at this point -- consider the following:
      1. When one currently uses a general search engine (Yahoo, Google, Bing) to search say for a married pair (each name in quotes) MUCH fewer family trees "return" than existed even 10 years ago. Since many of those trees were on RootsWeb wonder where they've gone?
      2. When Ancestry bought RootsWeb they successfully killed it and their "support" for the archival files has been abysmal since the git-go.
      3. In Ancestry's early days I personally had them steal (yes I know that's not a nice word - but a spade is a spade) online data I had posted and then publish it as their own. When I learned of it I was successful in getting them to remove my data. I frankly question, however, that it's still not in their system somewhere.
      4. I guess I'm a slow learner but did publish some ancestral pictures on Find-a-Grave - for the benefit of DECENDANTS. With Ancestry's acquisition of FAG last year now I see my pictures now proudly being displayed on Ancestry. I did not publish the pictures for their benefit and will remove them from FAG. Again, however, I expect "copies" will be kept.
      4. The commercial sites continue to publish -and sell- information that they have been informed and know is incorrect. This is leading to a real proliferation of "trees" with incorrect data. And....if something is said long enough by default it's going to become "true".

  3. PS...And, yes, I do know the difference between commercial genealogy websites and FamilySearch. They may not always get it right but nobody does in genealogy and at least they aren't charging folks (in most cases :-)

    1. Dear Anonymous, You do make some interesting points. I am not sure what you mean by using the word steal however, I suggest you read the Terms and Conditions of the website, if the site has such a document, before posting online if you are concerned about what happens to your posted documents and photos.

    2. Ah, James, your response to my observations does sound like someone with a legal background :-) When I used the word "steal" I was well aware it is incendiary. But, legalese apart, it is a term understood well by the general public. It simply means to take something that is not yours, belongs to someone else and then using it to you own benefit.

      But, because I do care about "what happens" to my data none of my genealogy files (apart from the few photos I referenced) have been on the internet since approximately the year 2000. Unfortunately, since genealogy has become "big business" it's really the only way to protect files from the large "vacuum cleaners" that are sucking up any and all data for profit.

      Now your admonition to read Terms and Condition would make some sense perhaps in the "real" world but on the internet it is a serious joke. In the early, wild and woolly days many sites didn't even have them and now all it takes is a buy-out to negate any previous Terms and Conditions. But, of course any good website always says it can sell, and hides supplements and addendums to any terms as deeply embedded in a site as possible :-)

    3. Thanks for your comments. I am planning a further blog post on the issues you raise.

    4. I suppose there is a case to be made that posting photos to a site like Find-A-Grave and then being upset that they use them in accordance with their agreement with you is stealing. You are stealing their money that they use to host those photos for your benefit and the benefit of others. That's not nice. Sites like Find-A-Grave could not exist if there was not some type of value exchange.

  4. James,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  5. Another resource that has just "opened up" in a big way is genealogy books in ebook format.

    Amazon recently introduced its Kindle Unlimited program, which allows you to borrow and read as many Kindle ebooks as you like, for $9.95 a month. I wonder if genealogists have grasped what a godsend KU may be. Here's why:

    In the genealogy section of the Kindle ebook store on Amazon, along with the how-to-climb-your-family-tree books, there's a huge number of reference and raw-data collections, from histories of specific families to ships' records, newspaper abstracts, etc. The problem with such books in the past has been that you didn't know until after you purchased one (whether a print or a digital copy) if it contained information relevant to your own research.

    With Kindle Unlimited, this pig-in-a-poke problem vanishes.

    Here's what you could do to further your research without gambling on books that may or may not have anything of use in them (to you). With a Kindle Unlimited subscription, you could borrow ten genealogy ebooks (the maximum allowed at one time). Then you could flip through them, or use your Kindle device's search feature, to find any information of use to you. If you don't find anything, then you can simply return them and borrow ten more.

    I know that these days, there are tons of information for ancestor hunters available for free or for a subscription fee at the dedicated genealogy websites such as

    But there's still a lot of data locked up in various small-press books and books by individuals writing their own family's story. Kindle Unlimited gives us genealogists a virtually cost-free way to unlock those books -- at least the ones that have been committed to ebook format (and you might be surprised how many there are).

    By the way, you don't even need a Kindle device to read Kindle books. You can download a free Kindle reading app for your smartphone or laptop that will do the trick. (Also BTW, I do NOT work for Amazon.)

  6. @Steve, unlike normal Amazon eBook purchases, the Kindle lending program only works on actual Kindle devices, not on the tablet, phone, or PC Kindle apps.

    Still, it's a great idea for those who have a Kindle device, and they are pretty cheap these days! I did a quick search for "genealogy" on Amazon restricted to Kindle Unlimited eligible books and there were over 800.

  7. James - I thought your comments were very fair and balanced and appreciated your thoughts. Several of the comments are exactly what you were eluding to in your post. Well done.

    The large commercial companies are digitizing and indexing records at a mind blowing pace and has helped me to grow my family tree faster than I thought possible.

    Change is here!

    1. Yes, the only permanent thing about the future is change.