Saturday, May 24, 2008

What's up with Rootsweb and Ancestry?

For anyone not in the know, the USGenWeb Project is hosted at Rootsweb. A few years back, Ancestry (now The Generations Network) was nice enough to donate all of the server space for the project. This has been the case for years and Ancestry has received pretty much nothing in return.

In the old days, Rootsweb used to ask for private donations and I used to be a donor. I was a volunteer for a few counties in Virginia so I felt obligated to provide some financial support, around $50 per year. When Ancestry stepped in, it was a big sigh of relief because Rootsweb no longer needed money out of our pockets.

The relationship between Rootsweb and Ancestry became more intertwined over the years. Rootsweb became known as “an community.” Rootsweb became a marketable brand for Ancestry.

A few months ago, Ancestry sprung a surprise on the volunteers at Rootsweb and the USGenWeb Project. Ancestry was going to put a banner at the top of every page hosted on Rootsweb, an advertisement for their company. A large number of Rootsweb volunteers went crazy, furious that Ancestry had the audacity to turn their genealogy project into a profit center. The USGenWeb Project always stated its mission as being “non-commercial and fully committed to free genealogy access for everyone.” These principles seemed to clash...or did they?

I currently volunteer for two counties in Virginia. I have honestly neglected the sites for awhile because I am tired of all the controversy that has been brewing. Volunteers are moving their sites off Ancestry's servers so a lot of the old links do not work anymore. How does that help freely spread genealogy when you cannot find it? This is a huge mess and I am honestly getting tired of being a part of it. I think I am going to probably give up my two sites but I have not decided yet.

Through all of this I have not moved my sites nor would I in the future, if I keep them. The Ancestry banner is quite small, very similar to the Blogger banner you see at the very top of this page. Google owns Blogger. Blogger gives free web space for people to host their blog. It is therefore their right to get at least a small ad out of it. The ads are unobtrusive and most people do not pay any attention to them. I do not see what all the fuss is about.

I am getting a little off track but the point is that the USGenWeb project is at risk of falling apart, simply over a one-half inch banner at the top of every page. The banner says “Hosted at Community.” It does not sell products or blatantly push a subscription service. It is a token gesture to give Ancestry more exposure in a tough market. If you look at Google trends, genealogy searches are falling off more each year. You cannot fault Ancestry for trying to expand their market reach in these trying times.

I would estimate that Ancestry spends tens of thousands of dollars per year to pay for all of the server space and bandwidth that Rootsweb has enjoyed for years. Instead of understanding that someone has to pay for all that space, people get all upset and scream that genealogy should be free for everyone. The last time I checked, it still was free. Ancestry is not directly selling anything with the banner and no subscription is required. I doubt they even get a large amount of traffic off the banners. People will become blind to them in a short mount of time. I wish some of the volunteers at the USGenWeb Project would stop looking a gift horse in the mouth and be happy that they have the support of a large, financial backer.

In closing, let me say that I appreciate the volunteers at Rootsweb and the USGenWeb Project. I also realize that lots of volunteers are fine with Ancestry's banners and that they are grateful for the support. The problem is that they, like myself, are passive about the conversion and are not raising a lot of eyebrows.

The controversy just does not make sense to me. It would be like my softball team going out and finding a sponsor to buy our uniforms and telling them that we will not print their name on our shirts. That is absurd. You always give credit to your sponsors. Why would that courtesy not apply to genealogy and Ancestry's hosting of Rootsweb? The idea behind sponsorship is exposure and that is what Ancestry wants and rightful deserves.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great insight and explanation of this matter! I am becoming ever more frustrated with all the Genweb sites because of all the "broken links" I keep getting. I think they are going to see a huge dropoff of visitors to their sites because many won't know how to find them! TH

Kevin said...

Glad I could be of some help. They have been the giant for a long time, at least in the way of free genealogy. It has been a great run for the project but we all know that even Rome fell eventually. I do not know if this will be the end of the GenWeb but I think it is the end of the GenWeb as we have known it up to this point. Kevin

Sue said...

I totally appreciate what you are saying but my issue is that my ancestors are Bretons and Ancestry features a lot of fictional family histories such as The gentlemens magazines, fantasy victoriana family tree books,Burkes peerage etc and portrays them as fact to make money.
I have slowly for the last 5 years watch my group go from being about genealogy to being about ancient propaganda and religious conquerors infighting. I dont bother now.

Kevin Lett said...

You absolutely have to take anything you see online, or even in print, with a grain of salt. I like to think of such references as a guide map to looking up those sources for myself. I do not dispel anything I read until I prove it wrong, nor do I accept anything until I prove it right. There are a lot of people who have genealogy as a hobby that would accept those references as the truth. That is the difference between a hobbyist and a genealogist!

cjcuellar02 said...

Thank you for this blog! I just googled Rootsweb and Ancestry. Frankly I was confused. I had just heard of Rootsweb. I went to the site, and was shocked to see Ancestry at the top right. I don't want to go on there and search the same genealogy I'm getting off Ancestry. Basically I needed some clearing up before wasting time searching what is already on So I googled the two names and wha-la. So thank you for this blog and clearing it up. :)