Confession: I Hate Free Genealogy Stuff

Confession: I Hate Free Genealogy Stuff

by Kerry Scott on 14 March 2014

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I do. I hate it. I don’t get why other people don’t hate it too.

Here’s the problem with free: You have no say.

When Find A Grave was sold to Ancestry, I was delighted. I had long been creeped out by the idea of putting time and effort into uploading content to a “free” site. When you do that, you have no way of knowing what will happen to it. You only know that no site stays free forever, so it’s either going to vanish, or it’s going to be bought. Now we know—Ancestry gets the content. Mystery solved. I like Ancestry, and I never had any illusion that Find A Grave would remain independent forever, so I’m fine with this. I can now make intelligent, informed decisions about whether to create content for Find A Grave.

When Mocavo came out, it was free. I couldn’t figure out how it would make money, and in the early days the company was mum on that point. That made me uncomfortable. Now we know that Mocavo offers paid subscriptions. Since I can clearly see how they make money, I can make intelligent, informed decisions here too. That’s all I need. (Note: Mocavo is free this weekend, so if you’ve wanted to try it out, now’s the time.)

When RootsWeb was bought…well, okay. That bummed me out a little, because I was a baby genealogist when RootsWeb was a baby website, and I had a strong emotional attachment. But the fact is that Ancestry has money, and as a result of that money, the RootsWeb stuff is still available to us. I still use it. In fact, I had a pretty big breakthrough last week, because someone posted something on RootsWeb in 1999. I can see those ancient posts because Ancestry pays for servers that host them. Money makes that possible.

Lately, though, I’ve developed an unhealthy dependency on a free site: GEDmatch. I’m obsessed with really into using DNA for genealogy, and GEDmatch offers awesome analysis tools for DNA tests…when it works. You can do all sorts of cool tricks, find common matches across all three of the major DNA testing sites for genealogy, run a bunch of reports…when it works. Increasingly, however, it doesn’t work. I have a test I uploaded months ago, and it’s still not through processing. Today was the most recent of many dates it was supposed to be done…but today the site is down. It’s down quite a bit. It’s tough to get non-genealogist cousins to submit to DNA testing in the first place, but it’s tougher still when you have a multi-month wait for the results.

Here’s the thing, though: I can’t complain. GEDmatch is run by a couple of smartiacs who are real humans, with full-time jobs and lives that (oddly) don’t seem to revolve around my personal needs. The site is 100% free, and subsists only on donations and the generosity of its owners. Under those circumstances, it’s a miracle that the site ever works. We’re extremely lucky to have it.

But I wonder if I’m the only one hoping that someone buys this site, or that the current owners turn it into a subscription-based service. There’s clearly a market, because people overuse it to such a degree that it crashes all the time. Each one of those people has spent at least $100 on DNA testing so far. These are people who have invested already, and are very likely to invest more (DNA tests are like potato chips…you can’t stop at just one). After months of waiting for the results on just one of my tests, I’d gladly hand over a wad of cash if I could just have my results now, with all of the tools working properly and the site up for as long as I need it. I always feel like a mooch when I’m using a free site in the first place, and I feel like an even bigger mooch when I’m cranky because I can’t get what I need from the free site.

When you pay for a service, there’s money to make it work properly, and there’s a course of action when it doesn’t. With a free site, you can’t complain, you can’t pay extra to get what you need…you’re just stuck.

Am I the only one who prefers to pay for stuff?

 Photo by AMagill

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith Riggle March 14, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I don’t think it’s free vs paid that is the issue for me. It’s the dreaded Terms of Use/Service and how the site owner can change them willy-nilly. I am a paid user of; in fact, I was a “lifetime” member, until swooped in and bought them out. Since MyHeritage doesn’t like lifetime memberships (not good for the revenue stream), they unilaterally cancelled all of them and replaced them with 5-year memberships. Granted, they offered to refund the full price of the lifetime membership, but still, it stank. So you can pay for something and still not end up getting what you paid for.

On the other hand, I am also a member of, an entirely free and largely volunteer contributed site. Granted, it has the funding of the LDS Church behind it, but I think it’s a fantastic site. It’s growing and improving all the time. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it will be around and remain free as long as the LDS Church is running it.

Then there’s, which I like and am a member of, but it irks me when they spin off a new website, like, instead of including the content in Ancestry, or they buy sites like Fold3 and keep them as separate sites. So maybe we have to look at free vs paid sites on a case-by-case basis.


Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 3:37 pm

I’m with you on TOS changes. Those are not fun at all.

I think I’d put FamilySearch in a different category than the sorts of free sites started by individuals. While it’s technically free, there’s no mystery as to where the money is actually coming from (thank you, LDS friends), and that money is unlikely to dry up anytime soon. In contrast, a site run by a couple of individuals could vanish tomorrow, for any number of reasons.

I don’t blame Ancestry for spinning off websites if they can make money at it. That’s their reason for existing, and money-making companies provide jobs. I’m pro-job. That said, I do wish they’d add more content to Since has dramatically increased its subscription fees lately, I’d definitely welcome more alternatives.


Jennifer Shoer March 14, 2014 at 4:19 pm

It’s funny, I was listening today to several of Marian Pierre-Louis’s Professional Genealogist podcasts and asking myself, “These are really helpful. Why the heck isn’t she charging for them?” I want her to keep doing them and I feel like she can’t keep offering them for free long term.

RE: Ancestry spinning off websites; I don’t mind spinoffs, but I did wonder if Ancestry removed content to create the site. Do you know the answer?


Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 4:22 pm

I don’t. I do know that there’s at least one title that I did not find on Ancestry before, and it’s is now on I don’t know if that’s true of the other titles though.


Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 4:32 pm

On the free podcasts point: This isn’t specific to Marian’s work at all, but in general, I find that we in genealogy-land tend to shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to making money. We spend copious amounts of time creating things of value, and then we give them away for free. We train our audiences to consume free things that are valuable, and then we lament the fact that we can’t make a living.

When the concept of webinars first came out, I thought, “Hey, cool. Here’s a way content creators can create content of value, and deliver it for pay. Nobody’s seen this before, so they won’t already be trained to expect it for free.” And then a ton of people started delivering webinars…for free. So we all worked hard for a couple of years to train people to believe that webinars should be free. So now nobody can make money selling webinars (and if you’ve ever actually put together a webinar, you know that it’s a LOT of work). In the meantime, I know lots of people in my old field who make money delivering webinars…because they’re from for-profit land, and they would never do that much work for nothing.

I’m convinced that if somebody invented a way to beam information into people’s brains, the rest of the world would make money selling beams, and genealogists would work like dogs to give the beams away. We’re weird that way. Genealogists tend to be politically conservative, but man, we sure do hate the concept of “profit.”


Keith Riggle March 14, 2014 at 4:38 pm

The free vs freemium vs paid issue isn’t unique to genealogy. You see it a lot in computer and smartphone apps, music streaming services, etc. People in general have gotten so used to getting a lot of things on the internet for free that they’re reluctant to pay for them.

Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm

You are absolutely right about that. The smartphone app space is particularly rough. All of those 99 cent (or free) apps really screwed up that whole marketplace. Unless you luck out and become the next Angry Birds, there’s not much money in it, so spending a bunch of time developing an app is akin to buying a lottery ticket.

Loretta March 14, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I’ll just take issue with this, “When you pay for a service, there’s money to make it work properly, and there’s a course of action when it doesn’t.” This past year has been’s worst (at least as far as I can remember). Crashes, severe slowdowns, error pages,… We pay and when those things happen we have no recourse except to cancel our subscription. No refunds and no credit for time lost. When we’re fed up we may still have months on our subscription. Even if we cancel they already have our money.


Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 3:13 pm

I hear what you’re saying…although I would argue that we had more recourse there than with a free service. While I’m generally an Ancestry fan, I didn’t enjoy last summer/fall’s service issues any more than anyone else. I did have some recourse, though: I could complain (and I did). I don’t feel as comfortable complaining about a free service that a couple of guys provide in their spare time, because that just seems mean and ungrateful. Money gives me the right to bitch.

I’d also argue that if those Ancestry service issues had continued indefinitely, eventually people WOULD stop subscribing. They’d lose money, they’d go out of business, and that would be the end of it. The market could put them out of business. There’s no marketplace correction for a free service.

My real puzzle, I think, is the idea that you’d keep a service free if you’ve found that there’s great demand for it. Maybe I’m just a selfish capitalist, but if I found something that THAT many people really wanted, and I knew each of those people had already dropped at least $99 worth of disposable income in the same space, it would take me all of about three seconds to start charting. I’m all for altruism for a true need (like giving homeless people sandwiches, or immunizations to poor kids, or whatever). But most of us who can afford DNA tests are clearly not in need of charity. I ought to be paying for things of value like this.


Tessa Keough March 14, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I know that lots of people like to beat up on (and they are certainly big enough to take care of themselves) but I have very rarely had any issues with them (easily resolved by a phone call) and I find them to be a pretty responsible and responsive company. I have always gotten through to a real person when I call with a question and they have been helpful and courteous. I don’t get lots of “junk” email from them (especially when I downgraded my subscription one year) and that is not the case for some other subscription sites out there.
I agree that free and small or part-time can cause issues. You don’t feel you can complain, you wonder when something will be updated, and/or one day it might just be gone. I want value for my money and my time, and while I am happy to find it for free I am also willing to pay for services. I appreciate when genealogists (and others) contribute to the greater good with some volunteer time (blogs, newsletters, YouTube videos, websites). A nice combination of pay and free is good. This is an ongoing topic of discussion in genealogy.


randy seaver March 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm

I prefer FREE stuff (or reduced prices) from subscription genealogy companies. Best of both worlds!


Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 3:54 pm

See, I’d rather pay full price so I can complain. I’d feel bad complaining about something I got for free. That’s one reason I don’t generally do reviews on this blog. I let someone send me a book once, and I ended up hating the book. Lesson learned.

I don’t actually complain that often (at least, not about genealogy companies). I’m mostly pro-company, and I’m definitely pro-profit. I just like knowing I can bitch about stuff if I feel like it.


Kathleen O'Hara Naylor March 14, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Paid is great if you can afford it, but not everyone can. If it wasn’t for free genealogy resources, I wouldn’t be able to do much if any genealogy these days. (See also: the demise of all my other hobbies.) I hope to one day be in a position to pay up for quality and reliability – who wouldn’t prefer to have their pick of the best resources instead of just the affordable ones? – but it’s not a reality at the moment. And while genealogy will really never be a poor man’s pursuit, it’s nice to know that there are some avenues for those of us who can’t afford the Ancestry World subscription.


Kerry Scott March 14, 2014 at 6:09 pm

I hear you. I don’t have an Ancestry world subscription either, and there are other sites/resources/options that are straight-up out of my budget. That said, GEDmatch is unavailable right now, period. If they charged, it would probably be up…but they don’t, so now rich and poor alike can’t access it. Because nobody pays, nobody gets to use it. I’d like them to charge enough to keep the site up and running.


Susan Clark March 14, 2014 at 6:59 pm

You are so right. Again. should be charging. I am loathe to send contributions when it isn’t clear how they can survive. But I would be thrilled to pay an annual fee.


Lacey Frazier March 15, 2014 at 12:05 am

You are NOT the only one! I am notorious for paying for the extra content on freemium sites when I can and when the upgrade is beneficial to me. I’m also a bargain hunter so I’ll buy my subscriptions around Christmas when I know that there is always a sale. was pretty good about keeping us updated when they were having server issues. No we didn’t get reimbursed for days that we lost researching but we should remember that they have to pay the bills. If something happens on the Ancestry website, they still have to pay staff to fix the problems and that takes money. No one wants to pay the electricity bill but it still has to get paid.


David Archibald March 15, 2014 at 8:52 am

I would have to agree with this blog. I am a firm believer in you get what you pay for. Granted at times I don’t have the money to pay for what I would like, i.e. world subscription but when and if I happen to get a blessing of I think it is now $382.00 I would drop it into my genealogy in a heart beat. For i find it is more economical to spend it at any genealogy web site then it is to travel to some location to get the information which does go in hand with you get what you pay for if I was able to travel I would get better souces and documentation than I do now just going through a web based genealogy site like


Barbara March 15, 2014 at 11:10 am

I like FREE. Free is good. I appreciate every one of those researchers that share on the internet. I don’t have the time to post transcriptions or records I find to a site, but if someone contacts me with a connection, I happily send them every bit of info I ever discovered, that includes records I paid for or found for free. Pay it forward. I also like that there are sites such as and They have the resources to publish the records I cannot visit, or search for, on-site. The subscriptions are less expensive than globe trotting.


Karen March 15, 2014 at 11:37 am

I agree. Free sites are a lousy place to compile records. They may be good search sites, but you still have to have an organized way to track information, family members and sources. as noted above is in a different category. I use both Ancestry and familysearch because I find things in one that I can’t find in the other so I basically have 2 trees. But what I love most is the internet. What a difference from when I was just a kid!!


Susan Groover March 15, 2014 at 9:41 pm

My first comment is that I am so happy that you can afford to subscribe to the subscription sites.

My gray hair shows how long I have been collecting, indexing and compiling family history. This is a hobby for me and life provides other things that need that subscription price for me [ie: food, utilities, ya know life].

But my major gripe is the information I that contributed being offered to me to buy with my name on it!


Kerry Scott March 16, 2014 at 5:47 am

I can’t afford to subscribe to all of the sites I want, because like you, I have to buy food too. But in the case of GEDmatch, it doesn’t matter, because I’m not missing anything. It’s down, and it’s been unavailable and/or not working for me for months. That means nobody gets to use it, because in keeping it free, they’ve managed to keep it unavailable. There’s no point in a charity service that services no one.


Paradox March 16, 2014 at 1:54 pm

I don’t think a site being free or being paid is the issue. There are effective ways to do free sites, and there are effective ways to do paid sites. They require different mindsets, tactics, and agendas. Some of the best websites I use for my Virginia research are free. They’ve existed for years now, and they offer tons of information I couldn’t access in any other way–not even on The reason these sites still exist is because they know what they can afford, and they don’t try to do more than that.

Personally, I believe that genealogy would be fully sustainable if we collaborated and helped each other the way we should. I don’t expect everything in genealogy to be free, but I can’t spend the money that paid genealogists ask me to spend on most of the things they offer. And honestly, if there was a handful of people in each community who all agreed to give away some time and energy, those paid genealogists would be out of a job.


Michael Hait, CG(sm) March 17, 2014 at 7:11 am

Why do you want to put a paid genealogist out of a job?


Kerry Scott March 17, 2014 at 9:42 am

I don’t agree with your last point. When I pay a genealogist, I’m paying for her expertise, not necessarily her access. I can get lots of people to pull a record in a particular place, but there might only be one in that area who can interpret that record and tell me five other places I should be looking for answers to my underlying question.

The people I want help from can’t afford to give it away for free, because they’ve spent thousands of dollars learning to be awesome at their jobs. I’ve never regretted a dime I’ve spent paying a professional.


bdale March 23, 2014 at 8:04 pm

I did the first 20 years of my genealogy without the Internet, and spent over $1500 on copies, books, travel, services & supplies. Then the first 15 years of the Internet added … not much. Now … still no big deal. Either way, you’re paying for pot luck, because most family trees don’t come wrapped in a package. I don’t have a sense of how much more still isn’t on the web, free or otherwise, as compared to what is, but I’m guessing its a lot.


Jason Lee April 2, 2014 at 4:46 am

Maybe GEDmatch would be more sustainable if they kept the “one-to-many” free of charge, while charging a fee for each use of the more specialized functions after a trial period.


David October 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm

I don’t mind paying for services, and I certainly don’t mind being able to use any for free. But it’s definitely a TOS issue for me – before I start uploading sensitive stuff, I need to know exactly how it’s going to be used. I know that doesn’t always hold up, but it’s at least a pretty good indicator for me. As for paying, that can always end up being a rip-off, too. In that case, I’d rather work with a free option that is dedicated to its users.


Amy December 13, 2014 at 8:10 am

If GEDMatch were behind a paywall, it would be inaccessible to me. I’m not even using my own DNA, but my sister’s test, as a proxy. I would love to pay for tools, books, subscriptions, and professional help, but that is not an option. Free sites enable people to participate who would otherwise be unable to. Do you only want to find your cousins who have money, or do you want to find more cousins, and learn from their years of research and family stories? If everything is behind a paywall, too many people will be cut out–not only to their detriment but to yours as well.


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