Can You Trust A Private Company Offering A Shared Family Tree?

Can You Trust A Private Company Offering A Shared Family Tree?

by Kerry Scott on 21 August 2011

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I never do guest posts on Clue Wagon.  Never.  But last week, I wrote a post about Geni, which was really not so much about Geni, but about the general concepts of free stuff on the internet, contributing content to websites, and great big shared family trees.  The comments were fascinating, and lots of smart people weighed in.  One of those people was Chris Whitten, who owns WikiTree, another family tree site.  In the comments, I offered Chris the chance to do a guest post about all this, because even though I don’t do guest posts, I’m fascinated by this topic. 

I have no connection whatsoever to WikiTree other than the fact that I really like two of their employees. I just think this is a good conversation to be having, and one that’s long overdue.  Since people seem to be listening now…let’s talk.

So here’s Chris’ post.  I can’t wait to read your comments.

There’s a controversy right now regarding a shared family tree site run by a private company, and what many genealogists regard as a serious violation of their trust. As the creator of, another shared family tree site run by a private company, I’d like to make a few points.

You guessed it, these will be entirely self-serving points and cannot be considered objective. Kerry was kind enough to offer me this forum and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. These are obviously my words; she didn’t vet them.

Is there such a thing as a free lunch?

There’s an old adage, made famous by the economist Milton Friedman, that says “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

It comes from bars that used to advertise free lunches. The catch was that you had to buy a drink. And the drink was probably overpriced. And if you bought one drink they knew you’d probably buy another.

The point is that hardly anything is free. If someone offers you a free lunch, you’re probably going to pay for it one way or another.

Still, if what’s being offered isn’t a physical good, when it isn’t something to hold in your hands like a sandwich, the cost you’ll pay may not be very high. On the Internet, production and delivery costs are especially low. So plenty of websites are offered for free.

Should you look a gift-horse in the mouth?

Absolutely, cowboy. It might be rude, but the care and feeding of a horse is no small thing. You might not want to invest your time and energy if she’s long in the tooth.

When someone offers you a free lunch or a free horse, it’s wise to understand why they’re offering it. What do they get out of the deal? It must be something. If you can understand what it is, you can make an informed decision.

The cool thing is that it’s generally not hard to figure out motivations. We know people usually act according to their own self-interest. As Adam Smith said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Self-interest puts food on our table, and it creates a lot of cool products and services. Some of which are offered for free.

How do you look a website in the mouth?

If a website is free, it probably has one of two basic business models.

The first is advertising. This is easy to understand. Plenty of websites are free and ad-supported, in the same way that TV and radio is ad-supported. Take Cyndi’s List. Or Find A Grave. Or Google. Or ten million others. Often the ads are reasonably unobtrusive, like on Kerry’s blog here.

The second is the “freemium” model, where you give away some things for free, but you make your money through premium memberships. That is, you charge a subset of your audience for upgraded services and benefits.

Assuming some level of rational self-interest, you can expect ad-supported websites to try to build a quality website that will attract a wide audience. You can expect freemium sites to try build a quality website, but to keep the best information and services for premium members.

Which is better for a shared family tree: ad-supported or freemium?

As the creator of, an ad-supported site, care to guess how I’m gonna come down on this one?

I don’t think the freemium model is well-suited to growing a shared family tree. The interests of the publishers of the website and its contributing members are not well-aligned.

It would be one thing if the website was offering you the shared tree as a product they created. This would be more akin to, where they are selling you access to data that they scanned and indexed. Fair enough. They’re kind of a freemium site in that they periodically give away access to limited information and then try to sell you a membership.

But on a user-generated shared family tree, the users are contributing the valuable information. Whether they be free or paying members, it’s the users who are growing the tree. This tree then becomes a core asset of the company.

If the company is in the business of selling memberships, you can expect that they will use this asset (the information you and others contributed) to sell you a membership. If you invite others to the site, or the information you added attracts others, you can trust that they’ll try to sell them memberships. That is their business, after all.

This is why I say I don’t think that a freemium model works well for a shared tree. When you look in the mouth of this gift-horse, when you ask why this free lunch is being offered, I don’t think you’ll want it.

But Chris, why would using a shared family tree to make money through ads be any better?

I think it’s because there are aligned motivations. If it’s ad-supported it’s all about the content. For all of us.

As an ad-supported site, it’s in our rational self-interest to grow a well-sourced, genuinely-useful shared family tree. We could get some short-term benefits by creating millions of junk pages, but that won’t work in the long run. In the long run we’ll only succeed if we offer something truly useful. We need people in the media and on blogs like this to look at WikiTree and see it as something worth recommending. We need people to get excited about it and tell their friends and family.

As an ad-supported site, we need your trust. Again, we’re talking about user-generated content here. As the publishers of the website, we offers tools and features and support and infrastructure and bandwidth and the rest. The community creates the shared family tree. If you don’t think it’s a worthwhile project, you won’t participate.

This also means we can’t overload the site with ads. If you see too many ads you won’t keep returning. What’s more, after their latest update, Google actually punishes websites with too many ads.

The bottom line is that as an ad-supported user-generated content site, WikiTree needs you to grow a shared family tree. If we were a freemium site, we’d need you to buy a membership.

Wouldn’t it be better if the website had no commercial interest at all?

What if the shared family tree were run by a non-profit corporation instead of a for-profit business? Wouldn’t that be best?

Maybe. There are pros and cons and I have some familiarity with both sides. I started a 501(c)3 non-profit in 1995 to host an online community and operated it for six years. It’s dead now but I’m proud of what we did there.

Non-profits still have expenses. Someone has to pay them. Wikipedia doesn’t run ads but they hit up their users for donations. With ads.

If users aren’t making donations, who is? What are their motivations?

When I was starting FAQ Farm in 2002 (later to become WikiAnswers, and later another Q&A website came along and called themselves a non-profit. They attracted this amazing cadre of librarians to volunteer to answer questions for them. Then, later, the non-profit converted to a for-profit. Now they’re gone entirely and the contributions that those librarians made are lost.

That’s not to say that non-profit genealogy sites can’t offer great things. We’re all well-aware of the wonderful contributions that the LDS Church has made to our hobby. And there’s a genealogy wiki run by a non-profit called WeRelate. WeRelate has a lot of good things going for it.

I’ll leave it at that. (With a plug for WeRelate?) There is much more I could say about WikiTree. Many hard questions I could be asked. Maybe some will come in the comments. And heck, I haven’t even touched on whether a shared family tree would be a good thing. Maybe Kerry will invite me back.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Lynn Palermo August 21, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Chris, I think you hit the nail right on the head, in that there are many models of websites offering “free shared family trees”, or “one world tree” not all created equal. I have no problem with choice, choice is good, what we are missing is the education. The populace needs to know they are not all created equal and start reading the fine print. Thanks for contributing to that education. And for the record I’m don’t believe a shared world tree is a good thing. Nice in theory impossible to execute.


Michael Hait August 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm

You definitely landed on a key issue.

With and other subscription sites, they are providing users with information that they (the sites) bring online themselves. They do all of the work to provide this, and are paid to do so.

On the other hand the site that seems to have raised everyone’s ire (a site that I have never visited) is asking users to pay for content that they are providing. Without the content, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to pay. But the site is not providing the content at all. So what are they being paid to do?


Kerry Scott August 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Well, I am sure there are costs associated with running a site like this (hosting, paying developers, etc.) So presumably, they’re paying for that.

But yeah. I think paying a subscription for user-generated content is a much tougher sell than having people look at ads for user-generated content. Anytime you are taking actual money out of my pocket, there’s a higher standard of value you have to meet (at least for me). Whether Geni meets that standard or not, I don’t know, because I’ve never used it. But it certainly means that when there’s a kerfuffle like this, there are going to be more pitchforks and torches.

That said, I think most of the people who are upset are not actually paying anything…which is a whole other issue in the world of genealogy.


Michael Hait August 23, 2011 at 10:06 pm

You should know me well enough to know that I do not mind anyone making money. ; ) After all, my family income comes 100% from my genealogy activities.

Let’s compare this to the business model of Facebook. Facebook has a much higher overhead than Geni does. Yet the site is still 100% free. Why? because they sell ad space (and probably collect money on affiliate ads as well – though I am not sure about this one).

Both of these sites are similar in that they do not provide their own content–only the platform and tools needed for the users to create it. Without the users, there simply is no content. Charging users is counterproductive to their even having a site.

People don’t go to a restaurant for the tables — they go for the food. A restaurant that also expects diners to bring their own food is a picnic table. Last time I checked, you didn’t have to pay to eat at a picnic table — but you might have to look at a few billboards!


Kerry Scott August 24, 2011 at 6:48 am

The difference between Geni and Facebook in terms of the business model is that Facebook isn’t living off their ad revenue. They’re living off ad revenue and hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Ad revenue is definitely not paying all of the bills there (which is my one concern about ad-supported sites…they frequently end up needing/wanting more income than display ads provide. We who blog can certainly attest to that).

I think the key here is that the people paying for the food aren’t the same as the people bringing the food. On Facebook, we all bring the food in the form of demographic info we provide about ourselves (which is extremely valuable to advertisers). On Geni, free users bring the food in the form of family trees. Perhaps they didn’t realize it, but they’ve been bringing mountains of food for years.

Then, the people who pay for the food? They aren’t the same people. On Facebook, it’s advertisers, who can single out their ad-viewers by religion, sexual orientation, age, favorite TV show, political persuasion, or just about anything else you can think of. On Geni, it’s the Pro users, who have more options (for which they paid, which does seem only fair).

It’s only bizarre when people are bringing and consuming their own food in equal amounts…but that’s not the case on either of these sites. People are bringing way more food than they need, and someone else is selling the excess value. I don’t think that’s wrong, provided the food-bringers are aware and are cool with it (as is the case, for me at least, with Facebook, because I get enough value out of being there to make my presence there worth it to me, in terms of the limited demographic info I give them about myself).

But the food bringers do have SOME responsibility to say, “If I come to this picnic spot, what happens to the food I share or leave behind? Will someone sell my excess food? Am I going to be okay with that, because I like sharing food and don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up a food sharing site? Or am I going to be indignant when it turns out someone was keeping these picnic tables clean and selling all of the leftovers?”

None of these are invalid business strategies, or invalid reactions. Everyone just needs to do their part to fully understand the deal they’re making.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith August 21, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Thank you, both Kerry and Chris. This was a very worthwhile contribution to the ongoing discussion. I happen to be a pleased participant in WikiTree, but it is good to hear more about it from a bit different perspective. Thanks, again. ;-)


JL August 22, 2011 at 12:40 am

I’ve thrown my lot in with FamilySearch. They provide the records that I want. I give the info back in a form they want. They want to baptize my dead people; sure, go ahead. No harm done and everyone’s happy. No doubt some of the thousands and thousands of people who have copied charts verbatim off my site will upload them to sites like Geni or WikiTree while also purchasing memberships or clicking on ads. Oh, well.


Kerry Scott August 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

See, you’re making an informed decision. You’re one of the people who reads the Terms of Service, figures out what they’re doing, and decides whether you want to do business with them. I know that from reading your posts on Google.

It’s when people don’t have a clue who they’re working with or what they’re signing up for that problems arise.


JL August 22, 2011 at 4:37 pm

I’m looking forward to your post on The Great Big Family Tree Thing. Now that you’ve brought up the subject I realize I have opinions on the subject.


Christopher Allen Shaw August 22, 2011 at 3:21 am

I agree that you have hit a key point here. The bottom line is that each site talked about is a business and they want to make money. It comes down to how do they want to make their money. I prefer the ad-supported sites because although I do not like all the ads I usually feel the content/purpose is more oriented to the customer like me. I always feel like I’m getting attacked by the premium membership sites just to upgrade. I’ve quit some of them just because their attacks to upgrade were just so annoying. Thanks for the perspective.


Kerry Scott August 22, 2011 at 4:26 pm

I support making money. Geni, WikiTree…everyone should be trying to make money. When businesses make money, they grow, and we get more products and services (and jobs). No problem there.

I don’t necessarily mind upgrade notices either. If I’m using a site, I feel like I should pay for it. If I pay with my eyeballs (like I do on a site that has display ads) or with my subscription fees…I’m cool with that. One thing I like about Ancestry is that I pay for the stuff. When I use FamilySearch, I feel like I’m a houseguest, because I’m not LDS and I’m not paying for it. I feel a little guilty for freeloading off of those who are (yes, I know I’m nuts, so you need not email me to say so).

The sites I don’t love are the ones where I can’t entirely figure out the revenue model. Those are the ones where I get paranoid and think that their revenue model is to sell my private info. I’d rather pay a subscription or look at a bunch of ads than get Facebook’s creepy “Special on UGG Boots for 40-year-old Blonde Chicks” ads. Ugh.


Eileen Souza August 22, 2011 at 9:31 am

I basically agree with Chris and Kerry. I think anyone with common sense should have been able to identify the motivations behind sites like That said, I think the approach Geni took to changing their business model could have been better formulated. Why would you wish to alienate the source of your content?

Chris said ” it’s in our rational self-interest to grow a well-sourced, genuinely-useful shared family tree. ” While that is a true statement, I do not believe it is a realistic one. Any site for shared trees or public trees, etc. is going to attract individuals (and lots of them) who do not even know what well-sourced means.

In addition, data is not static. It is always changing. The problem arises from these changes. Trees are copied left and right by other researchers but when the original data is changed (new discovery or to correct a previous error) that new data is not automatically updated in all the trees that used it. The bottom line is you still end up with junk since the amateurs outnumber the professionals by a very large margin.


Elyse Doerflinger August 22, 2011 at 11:34 am

One common theme I have been noticing throughout all of these discussions is that these trees are all unsourced and people are copying information left and right. While I won’t pretend like this isn’t a real problem in the genealogy world, as an optimist and as someone who started out as a “name collector” rather than a genealogist, I wonder how this can be fixed.

I don’t believe that a world wide family tree will ever be perfect – but then again, I don’t believe that my own research is perfect and I don’t believe that anyone has absolutely perfect research. Even the most well-meaning genealogist can make a mistake or misinterpret a document or miss a key piece of information or confuse two people with similar information. It happens. But what matters to me is that we realize it, re-analyze it, and correct it – thus learning something from it. Maybe it is the teacher in me, but I truly value the experience of learning from our mistakes.

But with that said, I truly believe that WikiTree is striving to have a community of users who understand that sources are vital to creating a tree that tells the story of our ancestors while also appreciating the fact that we can learn something new about our families and/or genealogy research from newly discovered cousins or other family historians.

So my question to you is: How should WikiTree educate the users about source citations? Should it be something we talk about on our Facebook and Twitter pages? Should we have a blog where we regularly talk about this sort of thing? Or should we do something else?

*Disclaimer: I work for WikiTree as the WikiTree Evangelist and I think Chris is amazing. He is creative, innovative, and he truly cares about WikiTree and the community. He is always listening to new suggestions and ideas – something that I think can be rare to find in the genealogy world. I work for WikiTree because I truly believe in the website, Chris’ vision, and our amazing team.


Kerry Scott August 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Elyse—Chris has agreed to do another post on the whole Great Big Tree thing, so while I have thoughts on that, I’m going to save ‘em for that one (which will probably be live sometime tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest).

I don’t know all of the things you’re already doing, but I think when it comes to providing clues to the cluefree, more is better. Lately I’ve discovered more and more that there are people who truly don’t have a clue when it comes to source citations (and I’m not talking about nice, neat EE-type work; I’m talking about the whole concept keeping track in any way of where you got your info). It’s a problem genealogy-wide.

I was cluefree myself (because few of us were born knowing we needed to cite/keep track of our sources). For me, joining NGS was the thing that brought me around. Now we have WAY more ways to reach people, and I definitely think that blog posts, other social media posts, etc. are going to be helpful. I don’t know if that’s the entire answer (because I don’t really know what the entire answer is), but every little bit helps.

Again, there’s another post coming on the whole concept of shared trees, and I’m REALLY hoping people chip in and give suggestions (because criticism is fine, but shared trees aren’t going away, so at some point we need to address this as a community, regardless of which website we’re talking about).


Jamie August 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I use both and Wikitree each for their own information and the sources they bring. I am willing to pay to belong to Ancestry because of the records and information they have brought to the site.

Each person has to realize when you use a web based service, regardless of paid or not, that service holds the material you have uploaded and you have to trust them to use the data in the matter you agreed to when you first joined the service.
That trust is broken when the service changes the rules after you’ve provided them the data. This is always the issue regardless of the service provider (I’m also thinking Facebook and other service providers).


Kerry Scott August 22, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I’m not necessarily upset when the rules change. The web (and many of these companies) are new enough that everyone’s sort of making it up as they go along. It’s like living in a territory before it becomes a state; it’s bound to change over time, and fast.

But I do think it’s important to keep up with the rule changes, and to be clear on how much of your own time/energy/data you want to invest in a site. At some point we do have to hold users responsible for their own clue-acquisition. It’s not reasonable for people to join a site, refuse to read the Terms of Service or the company’s blog, never pay attention to how the site earns money, never test it out to ensure they can remove themselves if they need to…and then scream when it turns out that things aren’t going the way they’d like them to. Consumers need to pay attention, and if they don’t, they’re likely going to end up unhappy.

“Buyer beware” is an old expression for a reason.


John H August 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Congratulations Kerry, I really appreciate what you have done here. Buzz. And thank you too Chris for rising to the bait and adding to the debate. I have to admit to being a WikiTree advocate and it is simply because I like the business model. It has to survive commercially and I believe that Chris will take it down this track in a manner that does not offend its audience. First and foremost though it has to be useful and easy to use and it scores 100% for me on both of these point. It is in a state of continual development which is good and next it just needs to sort out how it can get genetic results up there (nudge, nudge). Keep up the good work both Chris and Kerry.


Chris Whitten August 23, 2011 at 7:06 am

Thank you so much for this wonderful comment, John.

You’ve helped tremendously in moving forward the discussion on integrating DNA test results. For those who want to join it, see

A new user named Andy promised this morning that he’d post his thoughts there. He seems like a bright guy so maybe he’ll add something we haven’t thought about.



Susan Tiner August 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Very interesting post and discussion.

I’ve been happy with, but just joined WikiTree because I don’t mind ads and there’s always the possibility that someone in my tree will be using WikiTree and not Ancestry.


Rondina Muncy August 22, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Kerry, I loved the “living in a territory before it becomes a state” analogy. Looking forward to the next round.


Chris Whitten August 23, 2011 at 7:12 am

I loved that “territory” analogy too, Rondina.

Thanks to everyone who has posted comments.

And welcome to WikiTree, Susan! If you ever have questions, comments, or issues don’t hesitate to contact me personally.

I’m looking forward to the “is a shared world tree worthwhile” discussion.


Brenda August 23, 2011 at 10:00 pm

“Shared trees are not going away.” (Kerry)
“As an ad-supported site, it’s in our rational self-interest to grow a well-sourced, genuinely-useful shared family tree.” (Chris)
*Well-sourced* is a most admirable goal, where I share Elyse’s (and many others’) reservations about *content.* This is a terrific discussion, thanks to all, and must move myself on to part 2!


Rondina Muncy August 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I realize that part two was posted today, but I have a question about something that Kerry said. She stated that Facebook support is generated by two entities–venture capital and ad revenue. The last time I looked venture capital was for start-ups. FB is way beyond being a start-up. At some point the investors want to see a return. So if it is beyond the start-up stage, what else is supporting it?


Chris Whitten August 24, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Hey Rondina,

You asked Kerry, but I’ll throw in my two cents: I agree, Facebook is hardly a start-up anymore. In fact, they may be close to an initial public offering (IPO), at which point they’ll become a publicly-traded company on a stock exchange. They’ve gone through many rounds of funding and the IPO will mean a huge new infusion of cash.

The theory with many Internet companies, like Facebook and Geni, is that they need investors’ money to grow fast. They earn revenue, but they burn through much more on advertising and other expenses related to rapid growth.

At some point, yes, investors definitely want to see a return. This is a big part of the reason why we haven’t taken any investor money at WikiTree.



Kerry Scott August 24, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Here’s the article about the $500 million round from last January:

Aside from the $500 million (in this round alone), Goldman Sachs pledged to help Facebook raise an additional $1.5 billion (with a B).

As to what return investors feel they’re receiving…well, that’s a good question. The fact that they can raise that kind of dough for something like this is what reinforces my belief that your personal information is worth more than you think…because that (and traffic) is all Facebook has.


Rondina Muncy August 24, 2011 at 10:32 pm

First, Chris, the scenario that you described is the same for any start up–Internet or store front. Kerry & Chris–wow, look at those numbers. Total 1.3 billion raised. Goldman Sachs helping FB raise another 1.5 B by circumventing the law. Estimated worth 40-50 B. I think Kerry must be right about what our information is worth. I also think these people are nuts. If the value of FB is personal information, it must be information not obtained through market research which began doing routine demographic research in the late 60′s. (Which at this point can narrow down where you shop by the block you live on). What blows me away is that aside from the Russian capital and what overseas capital has been pulled in–I don’t see this as doing the economy any good. This does not produce tangible exports. I feel like they are investing in air. With this much money involved in a dot com (and Sachs to boot), I can see why people are talking about another bubble exploding. What am I missing in this picture that validates these kind of numbers?


Kerry Scott August 25, 2011 at 10:01 am

If I knew the answer to that, this blog would be way more popular.

I will say that I’ve used Facebook advertising. It’s amazing to be able to narrow down your target audience by so many variables without having to invest a dime in market research (which is expensive for small businesses). I don’t know what the value of that is, but I suspect it’s big. I’m not sure it’s billions of dollars big…but big.


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