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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Thoughts on Junk Mail, Search Engines and Genealogy

When we got home from our recent camping trip, we dropped by the post office to pick up our mail. As usual, we had quite a stack. Most of the stack fell in the category of "junk mail," i.e. unsolicited mail that usually goes right into the trash. One of the pieces of junk mail caught my eye. It was addressed to one of my sons at our address here in Provo, Utah. My son lives in another state and has lived there for many years. He did attend Brigham Young University here in Provo, but that was more than ten years ago. To my knowledge, he has not had an address in Provo since he graduated from BYU.

The second thing that caught my attention was the fact that the junk mail was a solicitation to join a veterans organization. My son has never been in the military. So how did this organization get an address for my son in town where he does not live for an organization he would not qualify to join?

Keep that question in mind.

One of the underlying issues being discussed today is the issue of "targeted advertising." Large online retailers or advertising companies such as and are often cited as examples of the success of targeted advertising. Here is a definition, just in case you need one:
Targeted advertising is a form of advertising where online advertisers can use sophisticated methods to target the most receptive audiences with certain traits, based on the product or person the advertiser is promoting.
Google, for example, uses sophisticated programming to put advertising as the lead result from any search that you do using their search engine program.  Likewise, Amazon will "customize" advertising to respond to your searches on its website. The ads that appear on my blogs, using another example, often reflect the topics and products I have searched for recently. These ads are just another, perhaps a little more sophisticated, form of the good old junk mail.

Do customized electronic ads and junk mail work? Absolutely. However, here is a link to an article that expresses the idea that these forms of advertising do more than just act as an annoyance. See the Harvard Business Review: "Targeted Ads Don't Just Make You More Likely to Buy -- They Can Change How You Think About Yourself." Here is an interesting quote from the article:
This powerful effect of behaviorally targeted ads on self-perceptions does have its limits, however. Our final study tested the role of targeting accuracy. We found that behavioral targeting has to be at least moderately accurate (i.e., plausibly connected to consumers’ past behavior) or people will reject it. A sample of online adult consumers received either accurately or inaccurately targeted ads for hot chocolate positioned as good for the outdoors. If these participants had at least some interest in the outdoors (measured in a shopping task at the beginning of the study session), the behaviorally targeted ad made them feel more outdoorsy and more likely to buy the hot chocolate. If they had no interest in the outdoors and the targeting was inaccurate, behavioral targeting did not lead to changes in self-perceptions or higher likelihood of buying.
However, there is a basic flaw in both junk mail and targeted advertising. I search for a lot of things and get junk mail for a lot of things, I am not at all interested in buying. For example, I recently bought a tent. Now, I am getting a lot of targeted tent advertising. Before I bought the tent, I did not get any such advertising. I might buy another tent in seven or eight years or never. The ads for tents have now become "junk mail" or "junk email" and go directly in the trash. The ads do not make me feel more sophisticated. The ads are just junk.

How does this apply to genealogy? Well, as we use the large online genealogy programs, we essentially get their "advertising." I am constantly bombarded with "record hints" and ads about DNA testing and such that are aimed at increasing my use of the advertiser's website. These ads or record hints or whatever have become a distraction and annoying. They have moved into the category of junk. Some of these "ads" try to modify my behavior to conform to the website's preconceived ideas of what I "need" for my genealogical experience. From the website's perspective, these ads are "engaging, friendly and helpful."

Do I find that the genealogy ads are helpful? Not really. Because I have already bought the product. Just like my tent purchase. Telling me about tents does not help me decide to buy another tent. Likewise, telling me about DNA testing, for example, when I already have taken two or more DNA tests does not help me decide to take the same test over again. Sending me notices of record hints to people I am not interested in working on right now, likewise is unproductive and has reached the level of junk mail.

The same thing happens with the genealogical search engines. When we search for something about our ancestor, the search engines produce junk. They may also produce a few things we are interested in learning, but mainly, they produce junk. Here is an example from I am not particularly picking on that website, I just happened to have it open when writing about this topic. This is an example of searching for information about one of my ancestors:

There are 262 results. There are nine results that fall into the category above the blue line that separates the strong matches from those that are deemed less reliable. But essentially, what I have above the line is a pile of junk mail. I have to go through the "mail" or results and decide if they apply to my ancestor or not. As a matter of fact, at least three of the results fall into the category of the letter sent to my son in Provo, Utah. They are results of passenger and immigration records.

Now, if I did not already know a lot about my ancestor, how would I a separate out the valid entries from those that do not apply? In effect, I am bombarded by junk mail and have to throw out all those things that don't apply to me or what I happen to be looking for.

I guess my point here is that computers are great. I appreciate the advantages of the internet. But I am also well aware that we haven't moved much past the junk mail stage of search engines and computer programs. We have created more quantity, but we still fall short on quality and pertinence. Here is the basic flaw again, I am not really interested in buying all the targeted advertising and search results from the large online websites.

1 comment: