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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Update and Comments on the Popularity of Genealogy

In my most recent post, I considered the statements made by a Judge in a lawsuit decision concerning Ancestry.com. In the course of writing the Memorandum Opinion, the Judge made some observations about the fact that Ancestry.com may have "saturated the demand" for genealogical products. This started me thinking about some similar information available from Google Trends. Here is a screenshot of a current graph showing the number of searches done on the term "genealogy" relative to the total number searches done on Google, for the same term, over time. Quoting from the Google Trends website, "They don't represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100. Each point on the graph is divided by the highest point and multiplied by 100. When we don't have enough data, 0 is shown." What the numbers do show is relative popularity over time. To further quote Google, "A downward trending line means that a search term's popularity is decreasing. It doesn't mean that the absolute, or total, number of searches for that term is decreasing."

Here is the graph:


The search term was at 100 in January of 2004 and is presently at 7. I have shown this graph before in different contexts. But in light of the comments in the Court case, how do the companies stack up? Here is Ancestry.com's graph:


Well, actually, this graph sort of supports the Court's conclusion in the lawsuit. The high point of interest in Ancestry.com was in March of 2010 for 100. The current popularity stands at about 22. FamilySearch is mentioned in the Memorandum and here is what its graph looks like:


The high point for FamilySearch was also in March of 2004. The program is currently running at about 83 and has been at 98 recently. It is also interesting to compare the two companies:


Ancestry.com has traditionally been much more popular than FamilySearch. But now, they are running almost equal and both are trending down. From this graph, it doesn't look like to me that FamilySearch was posing any kind of threat to Ancestry. com until very recently. It certainly does not look like anything FamilySearch has done with reference to Ancestry.com has played a part in the future.

If we add MyHeritage to the mix, then we get a substantially modified graph:


MyHeritage.com peaked in February of 2010 and it is currently running at about 18. It looks like to me that the testimony and the facts in the Ancestry.com case cited above, did not delve into the relative popularity of the large online programs. Just in case you are wondering, here is the graph with Findmypast.com added


If I add back in the term "genealogy" we get another even more interesting picture:


You would have to do quite a bit of talking to convince me the topic of genealogy and any one of the big websites were becoming more popular.

Valuing Online Genealogy Companies -- A Legal Perspective


Within the last few months, the Chancery Court of Delaware issued a Memorandum Decision in the a case entitled, "In re Appraisal of Ancestry.com, Inc." This 57 page document gives some valuable insight into the inner workings of the large online genealogy companies. The subject of the Court's opinion would normally only be of interest to very sophisticated investors, but the subject matter, Ancestry.com, Inc. has just been in the news because of speculation of another sale of the company.

The more recent news release by Reuters.com, mentions that Ancestry.com, Inc. is contemplating an "auction" sale. You can see from the above legal Memorandum that the lack of such an auction sale was the basis for a lawsuit concerning the valuation of the company when it was purchased by its present owner, Permira Advisors, LLC. Since the company is presently privately owned, some of the previous issues regarding a fair price paid to stockholders will not likely be publicly aired.

The Court Memorandum gives a brief, but insightful, analysis of the more recent history of Ancestry.com, Inc. and opens up so perspective to genealogists about the business side of these companies. I especially liked the comment the Court made about the subscribers to Ancestry.com and comparing them to a "hamster wheel of new people coming in and people existing at the same time."

One part of the Memorandum deals with the issue of "Competitive Forces." I found this most interesting and here is a quote from the Memorandum:
Ancestry faces several competitive forces, including a number of start-up companies and an increasing amount of free archived information more readily accessible by internet search engines. Additionally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates a website that has resulted in a ―competitive dynamic for Ancestry. The website, FamilySearch.org, provides free online access to some of the Church‘s extensive resources—the Church has aggregated ―what's recognized as the world's largest collection of data and content that would be valuable for people researching their family history. This collection previously enticed interested individuals to travel to Salt Lake City, but the FamilySearch.org website has begun digitizing the collection and ―includes a lot of the same features and functionality as Ancestry.com.
Well, I do think that the FamilySearch collection of data, still "entices" people to travel to Salt Lake City, Utah, just as I did yesterday, but I am surprised that the Court viewed FamilySearch and Ancestry.com as "competitors." The availability of a free source for some documents may have an effect on the price people are willing to pay for additional documents and services, but I do not view a free website as being in competition with any of the subscription websites. I think it also interesting that the Court failed to note the existence of all of the other Ancestry.com websites, including its "free" websites such as FindAGrave.com and RootsWeb.com.

Here is another very interesting quote from the Memorandum:
At an April 19, 2012 board meeting, Qatalyst Partners (―Qatalyst), a financial advisor, made a presentation to Ancestry‘s directors. In this ―state of the union presentation, Qatalyst raised as among its concerns that Ancestry ―was getting people that were less engaged in the hobby and who would not maintain their subscriptions, though the Company‘s subscription base had been growing as a result of Who Do You Think You Are?. 
Qatalyst noted that Ancestry‘s subscription-based service raised questions regarding ―the size of Ancestry‘s available market, [and] the degree to which Ancestry had already saturated that market. As Jonathan Turner, a Qatalyst Partner, testified at deposition: 
There are only so many people who are interested and have the time to be able to devote a significant amount of their free time to genealogy and using the company‘s product and be willing to pay for it. And that was a—that was a concern because once the company hit . . . single-digit millions of subscribers, at this point the business was largely U.S. with a little bit of—a little bit of U.K. How many people left are there? 
These opinions seem to fly in the face of the promotional statements made by those who work for and support the large online database companies. I am also surprised at these statements that seem to ignore the number of members of MyHeritage.com which, according to the website today, has over 76 million members compared to Ancestry.com's 2 million or so subscribers.

You may want to review the Memorandum yourself and draw your own conclusions.

On travel time -- reality for our ancestors


The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is 50.4 miles from my home in Provo, Utah. On a good day, using the freeway, I can drive from home to the Library in about an hour. Of course, when I get to the Library, I have to figure out where to park and so the actual time is more like an hour and a half. For an alternative to driving, I can drive for seven minutes to the Provo train station and ride a train to Salt Lake in an hour. I can then take the local light rail TRAX right to the corner by the Library. No parking. No freeway. This takes about an hour and forty minutes, depending on the schedule and if I hit the train at the right time and don't have to wait. Today, that trip will take me about two and a half hours because I missed an earlier train and had to wait an extra half hour. But the train has WiFi and electrical outlets and I am writing this post, in part, while traveling on the train.

What if I walked? According to Google, that same trip (a little shorted by a more direct route, would take me 14 hours and 46 minutes. I suggest that I could probably walk, at most, about 20 miles a day and so, in reality it would take me more than two full days of walking. If I could only make 10 miles a day, the trip would start to stretch out onto four or five days. That would require camping out or finding hotels or motels at the right distances to stop for the nights. How many times would I make the journey if I had to walk? Of course, I would not be able to do much else than walk while I walked. In fact, after twenty miles or so, I might not be able to do much more than sleep.

The point is simple. Most of our ancestors did not have cars, or trains, or WiFi, or need parking spaces. This may seem obvious, but I often find a distinct lack of perspective in the claims about how, when and where their ancestors lived, got married, and then died. For example, I have had people add children to a family living in the United States that were born in England. Is this possible? Yes, theoretically. But when did this family live? Many times I see this claim for families that lived in the mid- to early 1800s. The time it took a sailing ship to cross the Atlantic could vary from about 6 weeks to almost 6 months. The Mayflower, for example, took 66 days (See Voyage of the Mayflower) and remember, there was no communication available from America back to England other than turning around and sailing back. So, the passengers' relatives and friends in England did not even know if they had made it to America for many more months. In fact, the Mayflower passenger spent much longer on the ship simply waiting to leave.

Some of my ancestors lived in Northern Arizona during the late 1800s. To return to Southern Utah to visit relatives or for marriages in the LDS Temple in St. George, the journey could take more than three weeks, one way. I can drive the same distance today in a few hours.

What does this all mean for genealogical research? The answer is plain. As we got back in time, we need to adjust our perspective. A man and a woman who we find and claim as ancestors may have lived in two different towns. The towns may only have been 50 miles apart, but that fact raises a question as to how they became acquainted? What contacts did the two towns have? Why would they have visited the other town? When I was a teenager living for the summer in a small town in Eastern Arizona, I was talking to an older girl in her 20s and she informed me that she had never been outside of the town. She had never been the 45 miles to the next, much larger, community in her whole life. Even then, I thought this strange, but it would not have been that unusual for many of our ancestors.

When you start doing genealogical research, adjust your thinking to the reality of the time period when your ancestors lived. Take the time to think about your conclusions and make sure they reflect the reality of the time it took your ancestors to travel from one part of their world to another. Identifying places is of the highest priority in doing accurate genealogical research.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

More about "free" images -- be careful

One of the phenomena of our age is the ability we have to "pass along" posted information almost instantly. When we see a cute or attractive photo, we can "share" it by simply clicking a link to Facebook or some other social networking website. In addition, many online genealogy websites have provisions for uploading photos and making them available online. I recently wrote a post about where to find free genealogical images online. But after some consideration, I decided that it would be good idea to followup with a post about why some of these images are not freely usable.

Back in 1886 a multi-national agreement concerning copyright was signed in Berne, Switzerland. This agreement is known as the Berne Convention and applies to the signatory countries. The United States did not ratify the Berne Convention and become a signatory until 1989. That's right. It took the United States more than a hundred years to accept the agreement. The main provision of the Berne Convention, now enforceable in the United States, is that copyright protection becomes automatic and any requirement for formal notice is prohibited. This agreement applies to all of the Berne Convention signatories. See the list from the World Intellectual Property Organization.

This means that any "work" as defined by the U.S. Copyright Law becomes automatically covered without any notice. It is not necessary for the work to have the copyright symbol or any mention of copyright to be protected. The term of the copyright is determined by the country of origin.

So why are people able to republish photos and other content on the Internet? This is a really interesting question. You cannot assume that an image that is being "passed around" on the web is not legally subject to a claim of copyright. This is doubly the case if you find an image on someone's website. In fact, you must assume that the document is subject to a copyright claim unless there is specific information to the contrary.

In the United States, part of the issue of online content was addressed in another major copyright statute. In 1996 the United States passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act implementing the provisions of two World Intellectual Property Organization treaties. The provisions of this statute are summarized by Wikipedia as follows:
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a United States copyright law that implements two 1996 treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization(WIPO). It criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures (commonly known as digital rights management or DRM) that control access to copyrighted works. It also criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control, whether or not there is actual infringement of copyright itself. In addition, the DMCA heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet.
A complete copy of the legislation can be found on the Copyright.gov website.

So what if I have an image and I do not care about copyright protection? How can I notify the world that they can use my image without worrying that I will send them a nasty letter?

There are various ways to legally release all or part of your copyright interest in any work. One of the most commonly used methods for works on the web is the use of the CreativeCommons.org. If you post a work on the web, you can retain your copyright, but at the same time, you can specify a less restrictive use policy. You can do this for your whole website or for individual documents. You will need to go to the CreativeCommons website and spend some time studying the different levels of license that you can give to those who use your work.

If you are trying to find public domain images or other works on the web, be sure to look carefully at the content. If the image appears on a webpage without any indication of copyright or license, it is protected under copyright and it would not be a very good idea to assume otherwise. In other words, you must have a positive assertion that a document, image or any other work has been released from its copyright either due to a specific license or the passage of time.

Return to the beginning -- online genealogy resources

As the online genealogical community continues to grow and evolve, we need to sometimes remind ourselves of the our more humble online beginnings. What is more important is that some of these humble beginnings are still with us and have grown and become even more valuable. I would like to take a short trip down memory lane and point out some of the online golden oldies of genealogy that still need to be used and remembered.

Cyndi's List
First on my list is Cyndi's List. Cyndi Howells has been online with her comprehensive list of genealogical resources for over 18 years. This website has been growing steadily during those long years and now has 333,873 links to genealogy websites all over the world. As of the date of this post, Cyndi has 1146 new and updated links. This was a genealogical resource before we knew what online genealogy was all about. Here is the description of what this website entails quoted from her startup page:
What exactly is Cyndi's List?
  • A categorized & cross-referenced index to genealogical resources on the Internet.
  • A list of links that point you to genealogical research sites online.
  • A free jumping-off point for you to use in your online research.
  • A "card catalog" to the genealogical collection in the immense library that is the Internet.
  • Your genealogical research portal onto the Internet.
 To understand and gain an appreciation of what this one person has done for genealogy, you need to read the section that talks about Cyndi herself.

If you haven't used this resource or even if you haven't used Cyndi's List lately, I suggest it is time to get back to using this valuable and comprehensive list of genealogy websites.

Archive.org
I just wrote about Archive.org very recently and so I will defer to my previous post about the details. The Internet Archive or Archive.org was founded by an American computer engineer named Brewster Kahle. See Wikipedia: Brewster Kahle back in 1996. The Internet Archive is still going strong and although it is not specifically genealogical resource, the information in its massive digital files is extremely interesting and helpful to genealogical researchers. The mission of the Internet Archive is to provide "universal access to all knowledge." See Wikipedia: Internet Archive.

U.S. GenWeb
1996 was a significant year in the development of the Internet. Many of the original genealogically significant websites began about that time. the USGenWeb Project belongs in the that category. This is another of those extremely valuable websites that have continued in their development and usefulness, although I have seen few comments about the Project recently. Here is how the Project is described:
The USGenWeb Project consists of a group of volunteers working together to provide Internet websites for genealogical research in every county and every state of the United States. The Project is non-commercial and fully committed to free access for everyone. 
Organization is by county and state, and this website provides you with links to all the state websites which, in turn, provide gateways to the counties. The USGenWeb Project also sponsors important Special Projects at the national level and this website provides an entry point to all of those pages, as well.
I would suggest that if you are not familiar with this website, you certainly should be.

RootsWeb
Another of the old websites that still keeps plugging along is Rootsweb.  This website also dates back to the early days of 1996 (or even before). However, the website was purchased by Ancestry.com in 2000. It is a "free" website and has a huge amount of genealogical information. Originally, it was one of the foremost methods of posting genealogical requests for collaboration and help. It is still a very useful website if you ignore all the advertisements.

This list could go on. There have been some very persistent online blogs for example. If you have an old-time favorite, post a comment and let us know about it.

Ancestry.com up for sale at auction

If you happen to have an extra two or three billion dollars laying around, you could bid on purchasing Ancestry.com. The genealogical giant is up for sale according to an exclusive Reuters.com article entitled, "Exclusive: Genealogy website Ancestry.com explores sale: sources." The article states, in part,
Ancestry.com LLC, the world's largest family history website helping users trace their heritage, is exploring a sale that could value it at between $2.5 billion and $3 billion, including debt, according to people familiar with the matter. 
Permira Advisers LLC, the buyout firm that owns most of privately held Ancestry, has hired investment banks to run an auction for the company, the people said this week.
Permira Advisers LLC, purchased Ancestry.com back in October, 2012, just over two years ago. That purchase took Ancestry.com private and moved its ownership to Europe.

The rest of the Reuters article gives some insight into the profitability of Ancestry.com. Here is another quote from the article:
Based in Provo, Utah, Ancestry has a database of more than 15 billion historical records and more than 2.1 million paying subscribers. Subscription fees accounted for 83 percent of its total revenue of $619.6 million last year. 
In addition to offering genealogical data, Ancestry provides a DNA service that allows customers to discover their genetic ethnicity and find relatives with a common ancestral match. 
Permira outbid other private equity firms to take Ancestry private in 2012 for $1.6 billion. Ancestry's subscription revenues have grown to $553.8 million last year from $334.6 million in 2012. 
Ancestry's adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization were $214.8 million in 2014, according to its most recent annual report.
I guess we can begin speculating about whether or not a sale will happen and if so, what effect it might have on the operation of the website and further, the partnership agreement with FamilySearch.org.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Genealogy on Facebook


I am finally seeing some significant movement away from Facebook.com.  For some time, it has appeared as if Facebook would become like a massive black hole sucking everything into its clutches. I noticed the glimmer of escape when most of my family started using Instagram.com more than Facebook. This is not to say that my Facebook traffic has slowed down any lately, in fact the opposite is true. If anything, Facebook traffic has increased and in some cases dramatically. But change is in the wind.

A short time ago, there were a number of comments and features in the news stream about Facebook adding "real time" news. You can now subscribe to just about any TV station, newspaper or other "news" outlet and receive immediate, instantaneous news update right on your Facebook feed, for example, the New York Times Facebook page shown above. This is a less that subtile transition from a "social networking" environment to a data supplier environment. Wait, how will we know about the latest cute cat video? Never fear. Facebook isn't going anyplace, but it is expanding into areas that can only peripherally be considered to be "social networking." The distinction between the results of a search from Google and a search on Facebook are becoming less distinct.

Some time ago, I wrote about a movement I detected in the genealogical community to move from formal blogs to posts on Facebook. Several prominent genealogists have decisively moved onto the Facebook stage in a dramatic way and accumulated thousands of followers (friends etc.). Some of them are combining a major presence on Facebook with other networking outlets such as webinars or similar online broadcasts. One of the most successful of these Facebook genealogy outlets is Tracing the Tribe, Jewish Genealogy, moderated by Schelly Talalay Dardashti with over 7,600 members. Shelly is also one of the bloggers that has moved her primary emphasis away from blogging to be on Facebook. Some Facebook personalities are still trying to maintain their blogs.

There is a difference between moving to Facebook and merely posting notices of blog posts on Facebook. You might have noticed that everything I publish in my blog gets posted to a variety of social networking websites, including Facebook.com, Twitter.com and Google+. But there is a difference between having a presence on Facebook and running a Facebook dominated outlet. Blog posts are generally substantial. Most Facebook posts are short, concise and usually link to another item. There is not a lot of introspection and analysis on Facebook (yet?). I am certainly not predicting the demise of blogs, they are here to stay, but I am noticing that there are some significant trends in the Internet dominated communications area.

One thing I have noticed in the past few weeks is a dramatic decline in the number and variety of blog posts from the genealogical community. I monitor over 300 genealogy related blogs every day. In the not-to-distant past, two or three months ago, it  was not unusual for me to have over 200 new posts almost every day. Today, for example, I have gone hours with only one new post. My guess is that blog readers are abandoning the content of blogs for the news bites on Facebook and other social networking venues.

At some point, if my own readership drops off, I guess I will have to evaluate what is happening and move to the new venue. I am already on Instagram with my family. I have yet not decided whether to go public with Instagram. I have been on Facebook for a very long time, but I am not yet ready to move completely to another format. If it matters, I have a lot to say and venues such as Facebook do not give much in the way of substance even with the addition of the news. Time will tell.