FamilyLink is (or soon will be) for genealogists

Randy Seaver is one of my very favorite genealogy bloggers. (Click here to visit his blog.) He has excellent insights about tools, technologies, and content that genealogists find useful, and he often provides better reviews (and screenshots) of new products and services than anyone else I follow.

He is into genealogy – not social networking – so he typically reviews things from the perspective of a genealogist. I think that makes sense, because he is an excellent genealogist and his readers look to him for genealogy advice. But I have sometimes felt that he and other genealogy bloggers haven’t appreciated the fact that our primary thrust at FamilyLink.com has been to expose literally tens of millions of non-genealogists to the first experience building a family tree made up of their living relatives (whom we make it easy for them to find on Facebook) and then to help them stay in touch with those relatives.

Most of the millions of trees that our users have created on our Facebook app or on our Flash-based family tree on FamilyLink.com are made up of living relatives. In fact, of the 80 million people who have used our application, the average user has 8 known relatives. We make it easy for them to drag-and-drop those relatives onto their family tree on FamilyLink, and then, if they want to, to add information about ancestors as well. (Randy is right that we haven’t enabled GEDCOM uploading on FamilyLink – making it almost useless to a genealogist wanting to share his/her tree with their relatives. The reason is that only a small percentage of our users even known what a GEDCOM is, while the majority of our users want to share and view recent family photos with each other. So it’s always been a matter of priority.)

Because of our unique focus on helping people find living relatives, we have attracted a huge mass audience since we first launched “We’re Related” on Facebook in October 2007. Clearly, far more people are more interested in their living relatives than they are in their deceased ancestors. (I recall data from my MyFamily.com days – a long time ago – that 7% of adults are involved in family history but 95% of people feel it is important to stay in touch with living relatives. That means we may potentially have a 13.5x larger audience than purely genealogy sites.) That said, many of us at FamilyLink helped pioneer the online genealogy industry, and have wanted to provide valuable and innovative tools and content to the family historian in every family – in addition to the living family tools.

Already this year, we have enhanced our photo sharing features for families, added instant messaging, and are rolling out a new sign-up flow, a new home page, and a desktop photo uploader in the next few days. After we complete two more major features in the coming weeks, we will take FamilyLink.com out of beta and formally launch it. We believe it will be ready for millions of families to rely on as their primary family web site. Other features and enhancements will be added later, of course, but the major features of our family social network will be in place, and no longer in beta testing mode.

With the social features well underway, we are turning our attention back to taking some of the “really good ideas” Randy gives us credit for – he’s referring to our genealogy ideas – and baking them into our FamilyLink experience. Many observers will say “it’s about time.” But as a company, we feel good about the fact that given our limited startup capital we had to choose between building (or completing) our advanced and innovative tools for genealogists and our mass market family social network tools, and we chose the latter. Now we are in a position to complete some of our earlier projects and roll them out as part of our flagship service, FamilyLink.com.

Randy recently wrote a blog post about FamilyLink Plus, the new premium (subscription) service that FamilyLink is introducing. Like most other companies in the family/genealogy space, we have chosen to introduce a premium service on top of our basic free service – and some of the main features in the Plus product will appeal primarily to the family historian of the family.

Randy raises some good questions about FamilyLink Plus, which I will attempt to answer here.

  • Regarding Ancestor Searching (letting members search more than 1.5 billion online names) he says, “This must be a subscription to WorldVitalRecords, right?” Yes, in fact, it is a subscription to the World Collection on WorldVitalRecords.com. This is an introductory price, and there is currently no way to extend your current WVR subscription for $59.40, but our call center will probably be able to do that soon. (Call 801-377-0588 in a week or two if you want to do this.)
  • Regarding Family Tree Matching he asks, “Does this mean they will finally accept a GEDCOM file upload?” I hate to disappoint, but the answer is our tree matching will be done before we support GEDCOM uploads. We have purchased technology that will enable us to support GEDCOM uploads soon – hopefully within a month or two – but the focus of our family tree matching will be to help you find more possible living relatives more than it will be to help you find more possible ancestors. As Randy says, others have done a very good job with tree matching for genealogical purposes.
  • Regarding Map My Ancestors he wonders if FamilyLink will “permit all localities to be shown for the family tree entries” and if this feature will behind the subscription wall. Since this is built on Google maps, it should support all localities that match current place names in Google (some historical locations will continue to give us trouble), and since we have far more engineering resources on FamilyLink than we have on worldhistory.com, we expect our location-support will improve on what we built before.

So even though Randy concludes that he will pass on subscribing to FamilyLink Plus for now (partly because of the very sound logic that he already has a subscription to WorldVitalRecords), I especially appreciate Randy’s sentiments about FamilyLink:

“I want them to succeed, because they have really good ideas and I believe that competition is really good for the genealogy world.”

In conclusion, we view ourselves as the world leader in social networking for families. Our priority has to be features that help families find and stay in touch with each other.

But at the same time, it is often true that the genealogist in the family is also the connector of the living family – the person who keeps track of marriages and births and family achievements and makes sure that family reunions occur to keep people connected.

When I was fund-raising back in the late 90s for my first genealogy company, I used to joke that there are two kinds of people who keep in touch with all their living relatives – genealogists and multi-level marketers – and that we decided to focus our company mission on helping the former gather families together online.

Building more features for the genealogist of the family will increase the number of people actively using FamilyLink to share and preserve their family heritage online — in addition to “what’s happening today” in their family.

Top 25 Facebook App and hybrid business models

I remember when I first learned about LinkedIn.com, and was the 4th person to sign up for it in Utah County. Soon I got into a competition with two friends to see who could end up with the most (real) connections. I finally won that competition, but we all ended up with hundreds of connections. But I remember when one of my friends knew they were losing on the connections number that they claimed to be winning on "endorsements." They changed their key metric, so that they could claim that they had actually won.

The key metric on Facebook apps used to be total installs. Some apps were incredibly viral, especially early on, and got millions of installs. But some of these apps were also fluff and lost their appeal very quickly, so they actually didn’t get used much. Later, Facebook reporting started focusing more on Daily Active Users (DAU), and apps were being valued by third party reporting systems based on how many people were using them each day. Last night, our social team told me that Facebook just replaced Daily Active Users with Monthly Active Users (MAU), and that we are one of the winners in this changing in reporting. With this metric, our We’re Related application jumps up to rank #23 overall for all Facebook apps, with more than 2.1 million Monthly Active Users. It’s gratifying to see our application being used by so many Facebook users world wide to connect with relatives.

Quantcast is now reporting that our FamilyLink Network of sites and apps for families now has 2.77 million uniques globally and 1.15 million from the U.S. The chart looks great, with real steady growth over the last few months. If this trend continues, we’ll soon become a top 1,000 internet property globally which could lead to more revenue opportunities for the company. Our advertising revenue continues to grow as a percentage of total revenue, and we’d like to see that trend continue, even though we absolutely love the subscription business model that WorldVitalRecords.com uses to generate the majority of our revenue.

We’ll also be launching a storefront later this month for the first time with thousands of products available for purchase, so for the first time we’ll be able to advertise these products to our millions of users.

Our investors support our hybrid business model (subscription, advertising, e-commerce) but it is hard to forecast each one of these with such a short track record. We started seling advertising in January. And now e-commerce is just about to launch. I’m sure all of these revenue streams will grow, but at what rate?

Can anyone who has worked in a company with a hybrid business model privately email me, or comment publicly about what they think is typical for the revenue-mix going forward?

I need to carve out a few hours to read some SEC filings from some internet companies so I can find some of this info out myself. A friend of mine said he’ll try to make SEC filings available on the Amazon Kindle, and I told him I’ll be subscribing to a bunch of them, so that every quarter I’ll get them pushed to my device

That reminds me of a great domain name that Provo Labs once
purchased for a potential service to make SEC filings more accessible
and searchable. The domain was suggested by social media creative
genius and podcaster Judd Bagley. It was 10qverymuch.com. We might even
still own it, if someone would like to make an offer for it.

I find myself reading TechCrunch and Mashable every morning on my back porch from my Kindle. I was amazed when I found myself paying for a subscription to these blogs, when they are actually free online, but they are really cheap and the Kindle reading experience is much more enjoyable and relaxing than sitting in front of a computer, or even using my blackberry or iphone. Yesterday I wanted to subscribe to the Economist on my Kindle, but it doesn’t seem to be available yet.

Association of Professional Genealogists speech

I spoke today at the Salt Lake Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists. The meeting was held in the Family History Center.

I started by asking how many wanted me to talk about the history of Ancestry.com, (after all, these people spend all their time researching the past) and how many wanted me to talk about our vision for the future of genealogy at World Vital Records.

Everyone voted for me to talk about the future, and to explain what we are doing and what we plan to do to help them as professional genealogists. I was a little surprised that no one wanted to hear the Ancestry.com story, but alas, most people don’t want to hear about your family history either–they want to discuss their own. I think the bottom line for all of them was, “As professionals, tell us why should we care about World Vital Records.”

But I couldn’t resist. Earlier this week I gave two lectures at BYU’s Entrepreneur Lecture Series and in preparation I had relieved all the early years of Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com while readying my “entrepreneurial story.” So all of this stuff is really fresh on my mind, and as I told the APG members, by discussing all the painful stuff with them, it may help me in the healing process. :)

So I chose to take about 15 minutes to discuss the founding of Ancestry.com, and how it had grown out of a CD ROM publishing company that my friend Dan Taggart and I started in 1990, and what happened in the early years. I tried to highlight some of the key points in our history:

  • Broderbund (producer of Family Tree Maker) was the 800-lb gorilla in family history in the 90s. We designed our business model to provide free online access to most of what they were selling on CD ROM (family tree software, data CDs and family tree collections on CD) and to offer a premium data collection online as a subscription.
  • In April 1997 we launched our paid subscription service and we promised to add at least one new genealogy database to our web site every business day. To my best knowledge, Ancestry.com has never missed a day.
  • We offered all new databases free for 10 days, and we let people sign up for a free newsletter, the Ancestry Daily News, that would announce our new databases each day.
  • Our strategy worked and millions of CD ROM users flocked to our web site. Within a few years we had raised tens of millions in venture capital and become the largest genealogy company in the world. We were able to acquire Rootsweb, and then, after I left Ancestry.com, the company acquired all the assets that Broderbund had previously owned (Genealogy.com/Family Tree Maker/Genforum.com).
  • MyFamily.com was launched in 1998 and it attracted 1 million users in its first 140 days. At its peak, 20-30,000 new users joined the free site every day. And since in every family there is an active genealogist or one yet to be created/discovered, MyFamily.com was a key entry point for potential Ancestry.com customers. When MyFamily.com turned into a paid service back in 2001, it lost a huge amount of momentum.

In my speech, I ran through a list of 12 major mistakes that (IMHO) the company (now called The Generations Network) has made during the last 6 years. But I also indicated that Tim Sullivan, the current CEO, has addressed some of these and is trying to lead the company in the right direction again. For example, his international emphasis and making MyFamily.com’s basic service free again are definitely positive moves.

Now I know that some people would like me to elaborate on all 12 of the mistakes, as I see them, in this blog; while others are thinking to themselves, “you always spill all the beans, Paul. Why don’t you keep some things close to the vest?”

So I won’t publish my list of Ancestry.com mistakes right now. Neither will I list the 12 major ideas/projects that World Vital Records is pursuing in an effort to find a useful role in the genealogy/family networking space.

But I will touch on some general ideas.

First, someone asked if we were just copying Ancestry.com business model and trying to provide access to the same data they are. The answer is absolutely not. We are trying to innovate and find ways of being useful that are completely new. Why would we, as a startup company, want to compete head-on with a giant in the area where they are strongest?

Ancestry has already spent $100 million digitizing content during the last 10 years and are spending $10 million more each year. The LDS Church also has a huge budget for this kind of thing, as they work with archives and microfilm collections, as does Google and Microsoft, as they scan major libraries around the world. Many other companies, archives, governments, libraries, and societies are involved in digitizing and/or indexing content.

We will do some digitizing and indexing but it will be small in relation to these other organizations who make this their primary business. Our fundamental approach is to partner with content providers worldwide and to enable our customers to find records in their databases, whether we host them or not. (Which is why we are so happy that DearMyrtle gave us the “most prolific agreement-signing genealogy website of the year” award on her blog recently.) Our business model is built on paying substantial royalties to content owners.

With Footnote.com‘s growing traffic (see Quantcast chart on Footnote), it is clear that there is still room in the market for well-funded companies to digitize and index content and sell subscriptions to it–even as Google and Microsoft’s book projects are bringing an ever-increasing flood of old books online. The Quantcast chart for Google Books shows 8.8 million unique visitors per month; and one of the top correlating keywords for site visitors is in fact, “rootsweb,” showing that genealogists are becoming more aware of this resource. (The affinity for “rootsweb” to books.google.com is 2.6x.)

World Vital Records Plans

I described to the APG members several of the major initiatives that are underway at World Vital Records, but I won’t go into them now. They involve user generated content, history, geography, metadata, social networking, improving the quality of online family trees and source citations, and even online gaming theory.

One question that I found difficult to answer was a question about why families should trust my company (or any company) with their data, knowing that commercial firms need to find ways to make money, and once the data is out of their hands, they are afraid it will be exploited.

I intend to write an article on the topic of “Who Owns Your Family Data?” and submit it to a prominent genealogical publication, hoping that it will lead to a serious discussion of this issue.

At Ancestry.com, when we launched the Ancestry World Tree, we made a promise that all user-generated content would remain free. It was in our terms and conditions. Later (after the founding team was gone) the company decided to continue to provide access to the data for free, but to launch a parallel product where the data was merged into a huge single tree (the OneWorldTree), with some new technology features, and to sell access to this merged collection of user content, claiming that they were really selling access to the tools, and that the original data was still free (if you could find it.)

Like Broderbund’s World Family Tree collection, which made them unpopular with many family historians because they were selling user data, this move made lead to a lot of criticism of Ancestry.

So there is a valid concern that even a company like World Vital Records, which philosophically believes that user generated content should be free and should be controlled by its submitter, might eventually be acquired by a different company, or hire different management, who might change its policies.

Structurally, the founders of Google tried to address the issue of corporate governments and their control of its future philosophy and direction by creating two classes of stock, one with more powerful voting rights. Because of this, I believe that Larry Page and Sergey Brin have ultimate control of Google, and will, even if they leave the company.

I don’t know whether or not we’ll be able to deal with long-term control of World Vital Records in the same way, but I have seriously considered asking the genealogy community to nominate potential board members for World Vital Records, and to give one board seat to a genealogy expert who can be the voice for the community.

We have five total board seats–three have been filled (one was filled today–we will make an announcement soon about this) and two are open. One of these is reserved for an industry expert. This is the seat that I am considering filling with someone nominated by leading genealogists, to help us stay on course. The individual would also have to have significant business experience as well, and understand their fiduciary responsibilities.

In our board meeting next week, this will be a topic of discussion.

(To make it fun, maybe we could ask Roots Television to create a reality TV show called “Genealogy Idol”, and over a dozen weeks, one potential board member could be voted off each week. On second thought….Nah.)

Anyway, in the coming weeks it will become more clear what place World Vital Records hopes to fill in the family/genealogy community, and how we will differentiate our products and services from those that are currently offered by the leading online genealogy companies.

If you are into genealogy, I invite you to give me a list of the top 5 things you would do if you were running World Vital Records. I’m very interested in hearing from you. (But be careful–if your suggestions are too good, you might get recruited by the genealogy community to fill an open board seat!)

What our genealogy customers want

We use Qualtrics survey software (which we really like) and have a panel of customers who have agreed to answer survey questions every month. We appreciate the customers who are willing to take time to give us their opinions. We pay a great deal of attention to the feedback. We adjust our work and investment priorities based on what our customers tell us.

Our last survey had 15 questions. We received answers from 1,041 customers. Here are some interesting facts:

  • Half of our customers like to our full newsletter articles in the emails we send out; but half would prefer to see only a portion and then click through to the web site to see the rest if they are interested. (It’s not easy to decide what to do when our customers are split 50/50!)
  • Half of our customers would like a daily email about our new databases. (We offer databases that are free for 10 days.) Years ago, when I was at Ancestry.com, we had the same response: half of our customers wanted a daily email, and half wanted a weekly.
  • The top six states where our customers want more databases are New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois and Massachussetts. These were followed by Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana. The top three Canadian provinces are Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.
  • 84% of our customers feel that genealogical and historical societies are important or very important to their family history research!
  • 64% of our customers already belong to at least one genealogical society. 11% belong to “five or more” societies!
  • 70% of those who do not currently belong to a genealogy society would like to join one.
  • Only 5% of our customers are dissatisfied with our browsable census images collection, even though we don’t have full text searching. (It appears that our customers are satisfied with our ongoing efforts to put more data online, even when it is not exactly what they eventually hope we will provide.)
  • We received hundreds of customer testimonials, with many specific examples of how people have found ancestors in our pedigree collections, newspapers, and other databases.
  • Based on these survey results, our management team met and decided the following:

    1. We want to find and hire a genealogist in each of these states and provinces who are willing to help us to find more local databases for our web site. (If you live in our of our top states or provinces and are interested in earning some part-time income helping us find new databases for your state/region, please call World Vital Records at 888-377-0588 and ask for Amy Rhoads, or send me an email using the “Contact Me” link on my blog.

    2. We would like to help our 325,000 monthly visitors and our 10,000+ new daily users of our Facebook apps to find and join a genealogy society. Societies play a very important role in organizing local information and spreading knowledge about how to properly research genealogical sources. I have been to many society meetings and conferences over the years and I am always impressed by the depth of knowledge that society leaders have. There have been concerns for many years about societies slowly losing membership and trying to find sources of revenue and leadership to keep them around.

    Dave Rencher, from the LDS Church Family History Department, spoke at the 2007 FGS conference about how societies could become more virtual and attract members and leaders from outside their own geographic region. I found a powerpoint Dave used in 2005 to share a similar message.

    At World Vital Records, we would like to help societies by encouraging our customers and site visitors to join and support and get involved with societies.

    We are creating a program that can help societies attract more members by providing them with free traffic and leads (from our social networking sites) and benefits/incentives for their members, such as discounts on genealogy subscriptions and software. We have a separate opportunity to help societies generate revenue from some of the indexes, databases, and publications that they may have created in the past.

    For membership help, please contact Carin Green.
    For content partnerships (a source of revenue), please contact Yvette Arts.

    Both can be reached at our main toll-free number: 888-377-0588
    For societies outside of the U.S., please call 1-801-377-0588

    Soon we will be creating new Customer Panels for our We’re Related App on Facebook (it lets you connect with relatives, build a family tree, and share family photos and news) and also for our FamilyLink.com social network for genealogists.

    If you are a genealogist, please feel free to comment on this blog post and provide whatever feedback you think will help us provide better products and services to you. Please help us design the future of family history research!

Upload Your Family Tree

FamilyLink.com, the social network for genealogists, is testing our new family tree software with GEDCOM upload functionality. The site and the tree are still in beta, but the feedback we are getting is encouraging. FamilyLink members are now uploading their trees and sharing them with others. Just yesterday we had 39,000 ancestor names uploaded. Geni.com got 5 million profiles in 5 months. At 39,000 in one day, we are running at the same pace.

One of the benefits for submitters is that we track and report on all the surnames you are researching and all the places where your ancestors lived. This makes it very easy for you to make contact with other genealogists who are researching your surnames or who live in the locations where your ancestors lived. If you need a local record lookup, it will now be easy to find a kind soul who can do it for you.

In the next few days we will begin inviting our 250,000 monthly visitors at World Vital Records to upload their family tree to FamilyLink and the momentum will soar.

I remember back in 1998 when the Ancestry World Tree was growing only by a few hundred thousand names per month, and was around 7-8 million total names, and we decided that it had to grow 5-10 times faster in order for us to pass the Broderbund World Family Tree collection in size and importance. We came up with all kinds of ways to encourage more members to submit their trees to our free indexed collection. Over time the Ancestry World Tree grew into the hundreds of millions of names. It has been since been used by tens of millions of genealogists around the world.

Our World Vital Records / FamilyLink GEDCOM index is now slightly larger than the Ancestry World Tree was back in 1998. Now that we have GEDCOM upload, and a great way of viewing and sharing your family tree online, we will begin to promote this feature. Soon we hope to be able to help everyone find ancestors and distant relatives by offering powerful searching of user submitted trees on both World Vital Records and FamilyLink. Stay tuned for more….

Note: I left MyFamily.com back in 2002 and have no ongoing involvement with the company.

FamilyLink.com soft launch

I have been in NY and Chicago this week, and haven’t found the time to blog about this yet, but our wonderful sleepless team at World Vital Records has quietly opened up FamilyLink.com to the public.

We are hoping for a few thousand early users, experienced genealogists primarily, to set up personal profiles, tell us what cities they do research in (and where they live), create some ancestor pages, and most of all, give us lots of feedback about the site features and design.

So far, without any promotion, we’ve gotten more than 700 users, 100 pieces of feedback, and nearly 200 ancestor pages. Yesterday more than 300 email invitations were sent out by users to family and friends. Yesterday we had almost 20,000 page views on FamilyLink. That is for a three day old site. World Vital Records usually generates 30-40,000 page views each day, and it is 10 months old.

I have blogged recently about how FamilyLink, based on social networking and user generated content, is the key to our success at World Vital Records. Because of its unique value to genealogists, it really has a chance to attract millions of users worldwide.

I really appreciate our early users. At first, FamilyLink won’t be a tremendous experience, because like any social network, the main value comes from the connections you can make with others.

Can you imagine being one of the first 100 users of eHarmony.com? You spend 20 minutes filling out a detailed profile, hoping to be matched using 29 criteria with your soul mate, your true love, only to find out at the end of the process that you don’t match a single person? That must have been devastating to the early adopters at eHarmony. I hope they have all since recovered from the emotional trauma, and are among those that are now happily married eHarmony graduates. :)

As the eHarmony registrations grew into the millions, the likelihood that new users were going to see five potential matches, that would be in many ways compatible with them, increased dramatically.

Same thing with FamilyLink–although we are not trying to match singles with potential mates. We are trying to match you (the genealogy researcher) with other genealogy researchers who are experts in the very locations where you are looking for answers.

If you have an ancestor who lived in Groton, Connecticut, and you are not able to travel there, what do you do? Perhaps you go online and hope to find some databases that contain something about your ancestor. But it is very unlikely that you will understand much about how records were kept there, how far they go back, the local history, religion, and culture, and what the best strategy would be to get started in your research there.

Hopefully you will randomly meet someone at a Family History Center or at your local genealogy society that might know something about research strategies and available records for Groton. But the chances of that are extremely slim. (Although in the field of genealogy research, there do seem to be a high number of these kinds of “chance” meetings that turn out to be very serendipitous.)

Enter FamilyLink. For the first time in history, you can list all the cities where your ancestors lived or where you are doing further research, and in one click you can see a map of that city and the photos and names of other genealogists who live there or who have experience doing research there. Again, one more click and you are contacting those people to see if they can give you any suggestions or even do a local record search for you, or an online search for you to help you out.

A wonderful organization called Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) has thousands of volunteers who have been helping other genealogists with these kinds of lookups for years. (If you want to do something nice right this very moment, visit RAOGK and make a donation even a few dollars, to help the organization pay its expenses.) There are good, kind and unselfish people everywhere who love family history. There are tens of thousands of volunteers who work at LDS Family History Centers, and thousands of dedicated genealogy societies all over the world.

Our hope is to enable the wonderful people in the field to connect with each other in meaningful ways, far beyond what genealogy message boards have allowed in the past.

Our feature rich social network will enable people all over the world to connect around ancestors, cities, languages, and even the software they use for family history.

We are excited also to enable our experienced researchers in each location around the world to help us create lists of the best sources (online and offline) for genealogy research as well as the strategies they use to make new discoveries and to validate their conclusions.

People who are actively involved in genealogy tend to be older. Some of our surveys at Ancestry years ago showed the average age of our paying subscribers was 47.

People have asked questions about whether older people will jump into social networking the way kids jumped into MySpace and college students rushed into Facebook. But industry reports show that the average age of MySpace users is climbing fast, and now only 50% of Facebook users are college students. LinkedIn.com has demonstrated how people of all ages will join a social network with a serious purpose. And if Quantcast’s data about Eons.com is correct, then 4 million people over 50 are using that social network every month.

Increasing your odds of success in your family history research by connecting to other family history researchers in any location in the world is a very compelling reason for people to sign up for FamilyLink.

We haven’t yet invited the 100,000 genealogists on our mailing list to join the site yet, but as we improve the site experience, we will soon do that as well as start other promotional efforts to spread the word.

Please don’t check out this site and sign up if you are a 22-year old Techcrunch reader with no real interest in family history. There are a hundred other social networks for you to join. We aren’t interested in cluttering the site with inactive personal profiles.

But if you are into family history, and want to get help with your research around the world, or help others, or share information that you have about your ancestors with all your relatives, then please, try FamilyLink.com. There is a feedback link on every page of the site, so you can tell us what we should do to make the experience better for you. Together, with your help, we can create a social network for family historians around the world that will forever change how genealogy is done.

Genealogy doesn’t have to be a lonely, isolated and troubling experience where you are often stuck, wondering what to do next, and quite possibly duplicating the research already done by one or more people somewhere else. Genealogy can be a real-time, ongoing, exciting, social experience, where collaboration across time and space enables more discoveries than ever before, and more shared connections to important people and places.

All over the world are people who are extremely knowledge about locations where they have lived most or all of their lives. But when you are doing genealogy research 5,000 miles away, you don’t know who they are, or what they might know that can help you. That’s why genealogy travel is so much more productive than trying to do genealogy remotely, using only microfilms or online databases.

When I was in London recently, and mentioned Islington (where my wife’s ancestor was born) in a conversion with a stranger on a train, I learned in a few minutes a lot about that place several important facts about that town (now a borough of London) including that it had been the home of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, about 150 years before my wife’s ancestor was born. Those facts gave me an entirely new appreciation for the town where she came from (and some new ideas about where to visit next time I’m in London!)

Imagine every time you discover a place where your ancestors lived that you are just one click away from seeing names, photos, and profiles of a dozen experienced genealogists who live there now, or who have done extensive research there already, and that you are another click away from connecting with them, and getting the help you need.

That is our vision for FamilyLink–but only with the help and involvement of many thousands of family historians will this be possible.

So please, start spreading the word slowly to your more helpful genealogy industry friends. Then, when we’re ready for the big launch, we’ll let you know, and you can help us open the floodgates and invite everyone around the world with even a passing interest in family history to come join the party.

Bambi on Geni (with video of David Sacks)

Bambi Francisco has been my favorite columnist covering the internet for several years. (Read her Netsense columns on CBS Marketwatch.) Today she blogged about Geni.com’s approach to social networking, and features a video clip of Geni COO David Sacks talking about how he hopes to enable everyone in the world to map themselves to the networked family tree that they have developed.

Hey does anyone know if you pronounce this company like “genie” or “jenny?” I’ve heard supposedly in-the-know people pronouncing it either way.

Catching the Geni that’s out of the bottle: introducing FamilyLink

On January 16th, an amazing, innovative, well-financed company (especially now, after raising $10 million!) launched a brilliant, web 2.0 based online family tree building tool called Geni..

After getting TechCrunched more than once, Geni caught the fancy of many bloggers and started spreading through word of mouth, but more powerfully, its innately viral application started attracting thousands of users very quickly. (Geni’s Alexa chart doesn’t look great, but Geni’s Quantcast chart looks better. No “addicts”, however, which comprise 38% of Ancestry’s traffic.)

I was both thrilled and disappointed. You see, I want interest in family history to spread all over the world. The family is fundamentally the most important unit in society, and modern societies with the ever weakening family are bring hosts of problems that will never be solved by government, which relies on force to tax people and create policy. The Old Testament ends with two haunting verses: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD; and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6).

Getting families to pay more attention to each other is important not only to those who believe in the Old Testament. Phillip Longman, author of “The Empty Cradle” which decries the falling birthrates in industrialized countries from an economic standpoint ends his book with these powerful words: ” If free societies have a future, it will be because they figure out or stumble upon a way to restore the value of children to their parents, and of parents to each other.”

Even the Soviet Union, when its birth rates kept declining, spoke out. Andrei Kirilenko, the ideology chief, said at a Kremlin rally in 1979, “Our common responsibility for the country’s future requires us to strengthen the family, to elevate the prestige of motherhood and to increase the demands made on the parents as to how their children are growing up.” Note how the language implies the power of government (which is always coercive) to get parents to do better. (Cited by Longman)

So I was thrilled by the launch of Geni, the best free online family tree building tool since MyFamily.com/Ancestry.com launched its free online family tree building tool back in 1999, and excited by the new attention that was being given to the family history category by the blogosphere. The first time ever really, since Ancestry.com/MyFamily.com are rather mature web sites and The Generations Network, which owns both of them, is more in its “monetization phase” than in a “build the market” phase. The blogosphere has never gotten all that excited about what Ancestry.com does and since MyFamily.com hasn’t been free since 2001, it has experienced “negative population growth.”

(Speaking of negative population growth, no less a thinker than Peter Drucker said that negative population growth is the single biggest issue facing civilization today. So on my recent trip to Europe it was very interesting to read “The Empty Cradle” completely and to consider the factors there that are leading to fewer children. Italy used to have a million births a year–now it’s 500,000.)

Not that Geni or MyFamily.com or any site that connects families is going to increase the worldwide birth rate. We’ll leave that job to matchmaking sites like eHarmony.com.

The CEO of eHarmony.com spoke at Stanford on Valentine’s Day, and casually pointed out that on any given day, 200 marriages occur where the people met on eHarmony, and that by the end of this year, there will have been 100,000 babies born to couples married because of eHarmony. No wonder he says doing any other job seems trivial compared to this most-satisfying company. Maybe the solution to worldwide negative population growth is to make sure eHarmony rolls out worldwide as quickly and inexpensively as possible!

Okay, so back to Geni. I was disappointed by Geni’s appearance because I had decided late last year to stop running my Provo Labs incubator, and start focusing on just one company, and turn that company into a raging success. I had chosen to focus on World Vital Records, along with the very talented team that is already there, for many reasons, one being that we felt we could be the first genealogy company to launch a social network for family history, and social networks are generally the fastest growth web sites today.

We were planning to do something entirely different than what family history web sites have done before, and we still are. But Geni’s launch has caused us to change our time table for many of our product features.

To be honest, my disappointment has entirely faded. It’s been swallowed up by an overwhelming feeling of excitement about family history sweeping the world, about families actually using technology to connect, rather than to disintegrate. The Geni launch, as well as all the great moves that Ancestry.com is doing (like launching international sites, kicking off its first-ever integrated advertising campaign — worth $10 million — to boost interest in the brand) and the newly formed alliance between werelate.org (see what Dick Eastman said about werelate.org last June) and the Allen County Public Library, the second largest family history library in the country — all of these things add to the level of excitement.

Anyway, the big question is can another family history social network take off? Can anyone catch Geni?

I’m not going to answer that question, because I simply can’t predict it. And it really doesn’t matter. Geni provides a great service to people who want to build their first family tree and to invite family members to collaborate on it. Geni is obviously great at listening to customers (Geni blog, Geni forum) and at responding to their requests quickly.

And of course Ancestry would certainly dispute the need to “catch Geni” in the first place. Ancestry is loudly defending its leadership position in this space. They have made it clear through recent press announcements that the Ancestry family tree software is attracting millions of records, photos, and more. And with revenues of $150 million per year, they have a very good chance to defend their leadership position.

So where does World Vital Records stand? How we can think that we have a chance to compete in this venture-capital driven world of online genealogy?

The key for us is to attract millions of users to our new free social network for family history which we call FamilyLink. We are some days away from our beta launch, and we can hardly wait. Our site will offer unique and valuable help to every serious family history researcher, and it will nicely coexist with all of the TGN web sites as well as Geni.com.

Our team is cautiously optimistic about our initial launch, and wildly enthusiastic about the long-term potential that we have to provide value to family historians worldwide. And we believe that by adding new databases every day to our World Vital Records web site, that our revenue will be able to keep up with our expenses. It won’t be cheap to run FamilyLink. But World Vital Records continues to generate record revenue each month and we are getting ever closer to being a sustainable business.

Thanks to the GEDCOM standard for data exchange, anyone who downloads a family tree from familysearch.org or Ancestry.com or Geni will be able to import their family data into virtually any genealogy software program or upload it to sites that accept gedcom uploads. And based on Geni’s March 15th blog post, any gedcom upload site that gets 100 uploads of family trees with at least 1,000 names in them, will end up with bigger trees than Geni has right now.

Of course, the magic in Geni is not in the size of its trees, but in its virality. Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn says he keeps a list of 12 people in the world who truly understand viral marketing (and he is one of the 12.) I wonder if anyone at Geni is on that list. Probably so, given the common PayPal connections. I doubt that anyone from TGN is on his list. But I hope that FamilyLink might convince him to add one more name to this list…and soon.

You can visit FamilyLink today and sign up for the beta. We’ll let you know when it is available. It won’t be long.

Ancestry.com “Thrilled” With New Genealogy Startups

The Salt Lake Tribune published this interesting article two days ago:

Utah-based Ancestry.com, with 900,000 subscribers the reigning king of commercial Internet genealogy services, welcomes Geni.com and a spate of other online family history newcomers to its world.
“For years, we were the only ones driving growth in this category,” said Tim Sullivan, CEO of Generations, which owns Ancestry.com, MyFamily.com and related sites.
“So when we see Geni or any number of new genealogy upstarts, we’re thrilled,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan maintains that once someone gets interested on online family study, “they eventually will make their way to Ancestry.com” and its 23,000 online databases of births, deaths, baptisms, military service, censuses and more.
The 9-year-old Ancestry.com family also offers a number of free services to Web visitors, among them its One World Tree.
More than 1 million user-generated pedigrees have been uploaded to Ancestry.com in the past month, and 170 million names and 500,000 photos have been added to online records over the past six months.
“People can go to Ancestry.com and build family trees, invite their family members to upload photos and precious stories and documents – and all of those experiences are free,” Sullivan added.

I share Tim’s opinion that new online family tree building sites will lift the whole genealogy industry. I’ve made the same argument as CEO of World Vital Records.

You build a tree with help from other family members and pretty soon you’ve entered all the names you can from memory and now you need to start doing more in-depth research. That’s where genealogy research sites like Ancestry.com and WorldVitalRecords.com are needed.

But I wonder how thrilled anyone at Ancestry.com really is that Geni.com has done a better job of making it easy to build a family tree and invite everyone to collaborate on it.

Back in 1999 we launched our OFT (online family tree) tool at Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com and started getting tons of usage. Billions of records were uploaded or added over the next few years. But when MyFamily.com bought the #1 genealogy software product, Family Tree Maker in 2003 (a year after I left the company), it stopped pushing its free download software, Ancestry Family Tree, and stopped promoting its free online family tree building tools as much as it had before. Because now, instead of cannabilizing its competitors software revenue, it was now cannabilizing its own revenue.

With Geni’s launch, and with several other online family tree tools/social networks available now or launching soon (such as SharedTree.com, Amiglia, Famster, FamilyTreeGuide.com, Cozi, FamilyLearn.com and OurStory.com) The Generations Network (parent of Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com) has a ton of new competitors. By not pushing its free online tree tools for the last 4 years, it has really created this vacuum and invited all this new competition.

If anyone is thrilled with what is going on in the family history world, I think it should be consumers, who are going to find that competition leads to better and more affordable tools.

And of course, I am thrilled to be involved with World Vital Records, one of the “spate of other online family history newcomers” that Ancestry.com is welcoming to “its world.”

We’re weeks away from launching our new flagship website and hopefully getting a specific mention by name in the next “Ancestry.com welcomes….” press release.

This is going to be a very fun year.

Creating a family tree of the whole world

Two people have notified me about the new company Geni, founded by former PayPal Executive David Sacks, that plans to “create a family tree of the whole world.”

TechCrunch has a post about Geni today and there are already 17 comments on it, including from some pretty smart readers.

Other efforts to do this have been underway for many years, including Ancestry.com’s OneWorldTree, the LDS Church, and OneGreatFamily.com. To have a Silicon Valley based company jump into this “family tree” space will be really interesting to watch.

BTW, I really like the new Ancestry.com logo. It’s much better than the old one.