Is Ancestry Dumb?

Is Ancestry Dumb?

by Kerry Scott on 24 January 2011

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So the big news today in genealogy-land is that Ancestry is dropping its ExpertConnect service, effective next Thursday.  ExpertConnect was a service where you could hire a genealogist through Ancestry (which is by far the largest genealogy website in the United States).  A researcher would bid on work, the client would pick a winner, and Ancestry would keep a commission of 15-25%, depending on the type of project.  It was somewhat controversial among the genealogy glitterati, but a lot of good genealogists were getting their start and/or building their business through ExpertConnect.

Last year, Ancestry bought ProGenealogists, a professional genealogical research firm.  The speculation now is that Ancestry shut down ExpertConnect because they don’t need/want it anymore, since they have ProGenealogists.

I’m not buying it.

ProGenealogist’s website lists only 20 researchers to cover North America, Ireland, and the British Isles.  If the world only needs 20 people to do that, we’re all screwed.  I don’t believe for a second that there wouldn’t be an abundance of genealogical work left over after those 20 people were fully engaged.  Why wouldn’t Ancestry want a 15-25% cut of that other work?

Then there’s the problem of geography and geographical expertise.  Those 20 people can’t be everywhere and know everything.  Often, the whole point of hiring a professional is to get some local help and expertise.  For example, I have work I need to do in Freeborn County, Minnesota.  It doesn’t appear from the list that any of those 20 researchers are anywhere near there, and the Family History Library has few records for that location.  The work I need has to be done onsite in Freeborn County, by someone familiar with the records there.  In essence, ProGenealogists doesn’t provide the services I need…so a researcher who lives in and specializes in Freeborn County is not in competition with them.  Why would Ancestry stop taking a 15-25% chunk of that Freeborn County researcher’s pay?  There’s no conflict for them.  They have an in-house team, and they also get a cut of work they can’t handle themselves.

It doesn’t make sense.  It can’t be that simple.  I have no idea what the back story is behind this surprising change, but I don’t believe for a second it’s as simple as “they have ProGenealogists now” (unless they’re going to add a couple of zeros to the number ProGenealogist employees).  They used to say that all politics is local; I think all genealogy is local as well.  One firm can’t possibly do it all.

I think there’s more to the story.  I hope Ancestry is going to share much more about this and about their strategy soon.  Right now, they’ve left a wide swath of the genealogical community completely befuddled.  Befuddling your customers is dumb…and if there’s one thing Ancestry isn’t, it’s dumb.

Disclaimer: I’m technically an ExpertConnect provider, but I never did any actual work through them because, in a stroke of brilliant timing, I signed up less than 24 hours before they announced that they were pulling the plug.  I’m also an Ancestry affiliate, but the links above are not affiliate links, because it seemed kinda tacky to use them for this particular post. Additionally, I own a tiny bit of stock in Ancestry, which is another reason I’m so curious as to why they’re doing this.

Photo by cogdogblog

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith January 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm

I’ve always contacted the local genealogy society for recommendations of people to do local research. Often, I’m been able to get done what I wanted using society volunteers and making a donation to the society. They almost always have a professional referral or two, if needed. Thanks for the article. Important subject! ;-)

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Caron Brennan January 25, 2011 at 7:20 am

I did not use the ancestry service, but I did sign up with another one: Genlighten. ( http://www.genlighten.com ) I also use the suggestion by Dr Smith to contact the local genealogical or historical societies.

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Kerry Scott January 25, 2011 at 8:36 am

I actually signed up with Genlighten on Sunday afternoon, at the same time I signed up for ExpertConnect. I got a nice email back from one of the owners. A friend of mine also had a good experience hiring someone through them.

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larry January 25, 2011 at 7:58 am

I was also going to suggest Genlighten. This service connects researchers to clients and then receives a percentage of the fees. I met the creators Dean Richarson and his wife at the Illinois State Genealogical Society conference two years ago. They were just starting to publically promote their services after years of development. (Just before I heard about Ancestry’s Expert connect) We had the Richardsons present to our local soc. Nice people.

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Tom January 25, 2011 at 8:28 am

This is so typical of them. Always chasing the almighty Dollar. They took 25% of my pay but it wasn’t enough I guess. Now I have no income at all and 9 days to come up with something. Thanks Ancestry.

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Kerry Scott January 25, 2011 at 8:43 am

Well, in fairness, they’re a business, not a charity. They’re supposed to chase dollars. That’s their reason for existing. As a shareholder, I absolutely want them to continue to chase dollars.

I’d just like to have a clearer understanding of how this decision will help them bring in more dollars. Was this arm of the company unprofitable? Could it not be made profitable? Were there legal issues?

I would also argue that communicating this more effectively would have been better from a dollar-attraction standpoint. Upsetting your customers (and in this case both the “experts” and the clients are customers) is usually not something companies do intentionally. It’s possible that they’re just clumsy, but historically they haven’t been clumsy at all. So there has to be a reason why this was handled in the manner it was.

In my experience, abrupt changes usually have to do with either legal issues or acquisitions. Maybe there was some legal issue, or maybe Ancestry is getting ready to be acquired and the new potential owner didn’t want ExpertConnect.

But things happen for a reason…and I don’t believe this action is an exception to that rule.

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Tim January 25, 2011 at 9:24 am

I think that they plan on expanding ProGenealogists in some way. In December I received a request to update my information regarding availability, rates, etc. with ProGenealogists. With ProGenealogists handling all the projects there would be a much tighter control over the financial part of customer transactions. I think that “professional” genealogists violating their terms of service and circumventing the Ancestry.com payment process was beginning to have a significant impact in their eyes on the viability of Expert Connect.

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Kerry Scott January 25, 2011 at 9:33 am

Well, if that’s true, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for professionals. Quite frankly, I’d MUCH rather subcontract with a larger firm than deal with online bidding, clients who don’t know what to ask for, etc. If ProGenealogists expands, that means jobs. Jobs are good.

I still don’t know how that is better for Ancestry than taking a hefty chunk of everyone’s work, because not everyone will want to work for ProGenealogists…but we’ll see.

And if that many ExpertConnect professionals were violating the terms…well, then, I expect to see some of this groundswell of anger directed their way. Cheating sucks. Cheating so much that they shut down the whole thing, so that even the honest providers are screwed…that sucks hard. But were that many people cheating? Was that common? The folks I know seem to have been going to great lengths to follow the rules.

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Jade January 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

I agree there must be something unstated going on, given the very hasty timeframe between announcement to providers and endpoint of allowing new project requests. Oh, and they have not yet announced its demise on the pages that would be visited by service-seekers.

It can’t be related to competition with ProGenealogists, which is a very half-hearted effort. Their website provides glowing glop about all the “sites” they “visit” with a link to a list — which is a list of websites (!) . . . that anyone could utilize for a lot less money than paying someone else to utilize.

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Kim January 25, 2011 at 8:18 pm

I appreciate your view on this situation given my frustration as one of the providers for them. While I did not complete or conduct many projects, I know there are others who made Expert Connect their profession. My current clients knew the news before as I was spending the day at a nearby courthouse doing research. They were somewhat frantic, upset, and turning to me asking for answers that when I didn’t even know the questions. Today the Progenealogist site looks like it is the answer to all, but I agree with you that there has to be more to this story, and I would like to know the ending sooner rather than later.

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