A reader emailed me about yesterday’s post on Mocavo, asking why I wanted to know how this new search engine planned to make money. She felt it was rude to ask about money.
Well, maybe it is. I’m going to keep asking, though, about every site I use. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned on the internet, it’s this: Hardly anything is free.
Google isn’t free. You’re trading a chunk of your privacy to use it. That’s not a knock against Google; I use a number of their products, and I like them just fine. But asking myself, “How does this for-profit company make money when it’s providing me with these free services?” led me to investigate and understand what I’m giving them in exchange for that “free” stuff. I’m making an informed decision to use those tools, and also taking steps to manage the volume of information I give them.
Facebook isn’t free either. In fact, if you’re on Facebook and you aren’t paying close attention to how they make money, you’re nuts. I use Facebook, but I make sure I keep up on what they’re doing with my information. I don’t trust that Zuckerberg kid one bit.
Another concern I have about free sites is stability. I’ve noticed lots of companies in the past year or so who have started offering free hosting for your family tree. That’s great. Before you spend hours building yours, though, it seems wise to ask: How are these people making money? Are they backed my venture capital, angel investors, or a rich uncle? Are those people who are bankrolling this thing going to want a return on their investment at some point? If they don’t see one, don’t you think they might pull the plug? Are you prepared to see the work you’ve put into your online family tree disappear if those sites can’t make enough money to satisfy their investors? Because you can’t have it both ways. You can have a site that lasts a long time, or you can have a site that doesn’t make money off of you one way or another…but not both. Before you spend hours entering yourself and your information on both living and dead people, you might want to ponder how it will be used. Marketers will pay a lot for demographic info on living people. If you’re entering your entire living family’s dates of birth, wedding anniversary, kids’ names, etc. on a “free” site, make sure you are super clear on how that will be used, now and in the future. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use those sites. Just make sure you’re making informed choices.
There are also sites that start out free, but don’t end up that way. Raise your hand if you know anyone who submitted their family tree to RootsWeb, and then got mad when Ancestry bought them and made the trees available only to people with subscriptions. The Huffington Post was built largely by writers who worked for free, and are now furious because the owner has sold the site to AOL for a cool $315 million. In fact, building websites with content users have generated for free (and making money in the process) is a very hot topic lately. Lots of people have figured out that you can get people to make your site more valuable and then sell it.
In the comments on yesterday’s post about Mocavo, the site’s owner, Cliff Shaw, has suggested twice that I submit the sites I want Mocavo to index. Now, notwithstanding my belief that all sites on the internet should be indexed if a search engine is to be valuable, I might decide that I want to spend some submitting “genealogy” sites for Mocavo, so that I can help make it more valuable for when he sells it (as he has with sites he’s owned in the past). I certainly contribute lots of other free content to sites I use regularly (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, etc.), so that’s actually not a stretch at all. But I know how those sites make money off of my contributions, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask how Mocavo will do the same. Even if I DO contribute sites…what’s to say that they are free? Reader Debi commented on yesterday’s post that the only result she’d found was one for e-Yearbook, which isn’t free at all. Are paid sites now submitting themselves for inclusion? Can nefarious operators build websites full of spammy affiliate links and then submit them for inclusion? Is there a process for guarding against that sort of thing? Are sites paying for search engine placement on Mocavo? How would we know if we didn’t ask?
I hope Mocavo makes money (because I think success in genealogy is good for the entire field, and because the owner seems to be a guy from the genealogical community, with a history in this “neighborhood”…not some random stranger). I just want to understand how it will do so. In the search-engine world in particular, where making money has been such a challenge recently, this seems like a reasonable question to me.
Maybe it IS rude to ask how companies make money. Maybe I’m a total weenie for asking (and that wasn’t my intention here at all; I actually though this was such an obvious, softball question that the company would be able to copy-and-paste an answer). But I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that it’s always a good idea to ask.
(I apologize in advance if I’m slow in moderating the comments; my internet connection is not working at home. This post is coming to you courtesy of the free wireless at my local Barnes and Noble. I am hoping it will be fixed tomorrow, but…well, we’ll see.)