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!)

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.

Prediction: Facebook will be the largest social network in the world

I saw history in the making today.

For some reason, I was lucky enough to be in San Francisco for the Facebook f8 Platform launch event. This announcement was at least an 8.0 on the Richter scale. It was a whopper.

In fact, I haven’t come away from an event so excited since September 21, 1995, after attending the Online Developers II conference, also in San Francisco, when it hit me that my CD ROM publishing days were ending, and that I would soon become an internet entrepreneur. In the next five years, our team quickly shifted from publishing to online, launched Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com, and then went on to raise $90 million, acquire Rootsweb (and later Family Tree Maker / Genealogy.com) starting what has since become the largest genealogy company in the world. (Note: I left the company in Feb 2002 and have recently started a competing firm, with two properties: WorldVitalRecords.com and FamilyLink.com)

For me, that journey all started at Online Developers II.

That story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending for any of the company’s founders or even its early employees or investors. Like Ray Noorda used to say, “Finders Keepers, Founders Weepers.” Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore explains why pioneers (company founders and innovators) don’t often do well in the end, while settlers (who are usually better are operations) do. I’m actually fine with that, and reading that in Moore’s book was one of a dozen things that helped me move on emotionally.

Today felt just like September 1995 to me.

And it makes me wonder what the next 10 years might bring.

I sat on the third row and drank deeply of the kool-aid as Mark Zuckerberg, who turned 23 years old just 11 days ago, presented what may be the best business opportunity for internet entrepreneurs in the past ten years.

A huge new opportunity was presented to the few hundred people in the room, including 65 companies that have spent the last few weeks developing applications for the launch of Facebook Platform.

Facebook is inviting anyone to develop applications for their users on top of what Mark calls their “social graph”–the core of their service which basically keeps track of real people and their real connections to each other.

Facebook has 24 million active users (meaning they’ve used the site in the last 30 days–I like how they aren’t overstating numbers like SecondLife) and 50% of them login each day. Mark says the next most active social network is not more than 15%.

Last fall as I taught Internet Marketing at BYU we learned that a UCLA survey showed that 50% of college age females said Facebook was their #1 most important web site (even more than Google, Wikipedia, or anything else) and that 1/3 of college age males said it was their #1.

Look how many “addicts” Facebook has, according to Quantcast. 63% of visits are from addicts. eBay is only 56%.

Facebook is adding 100,000 new users per day. That’s 3% growth per month. And the fastest growing segment is over age 25. At this rate, they’ll have 50 million users by the end of this year, and 75% of them will be out of college. I read just on paidcontent.org that Facebook is the fastest growing social network in the UK, and today Mark said that 10% of Canada’s population is using it.

With 40 billion pages view per month, Facebook has passed eBay in page views, and is now in 6th place, just behind Google.

So this is no small thing for a 3 year old web site. Facebook is absolutely for real. I like Facebook a lot; while I can’t stand MySpace. Facebook is clean and nicely designed and architected. MySpace in my opinion is messy and mostly full of garbage. Facebook is a real social network for real people. And it is really, really popular.

And it’s growth will be dramatically accelerated by the Platform announcement. If Facebook is adding 100,000 new users per day with its own few simple applications (like its photo sharing, a very simple service that has given Facebook twice as many photos as all other photo sharing sites combined), what will happen when thousands or tens of thousands of developers start building apps in Facebook and marketing them to more users?

Facebook will reach 50 million, then 100 million, then 200 million users, and beyond.

Rather than continue to try to develop features within its own proprietary, closed network, basically keeping all of its users to itself (and kicking out widgets they don’t like, like MySpace does), Facebook intuitively gets the concepts that are so brilliantly discussed in Wikinomics (which are so non-intuitive to old school business types), and has chosen to open up its network for all to participate in. Because they embrace the winning philosophy, they will win.

Application developers can now have access to core Facebook features, such as user profiles and user connections, and even publishing to the News Feed, all with the control and permission of Facebook users. So if a Facebook user chooses your app, it will show up on their profile for all their friends to see, and they can enable that app with a single click, and so your application can spread virally to the 24 million other users.

When Facebook has 100 million users, in the not too distant future, having the ability to develop an App in their system will almost be like being able to get a link on Google’s own home page.

Can you imagine Google ever doing that? No way. They have too much at stake. Their $147 billion market cap couldn’t take it. Google’s philosophy was to not be evil. But I think Facebook’s philosophy is a decade fresher and even more in line with where things need to go than even Google–a company that I admire more than any other.

When Clayton Christenson spoke at the first Open Source Business Conference (again in San Francisco) about three years ago, he spoke about how the LAMP stack has provided a powerful low-cost platform for companies to develop applications on top of. Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP enable companies to develop applications that used to cost millions, but by building on top of all these projects, companies could move “up the stack” and focus on providing unique value that wasn’t in the stack already.

There are more and more free layers being added to the stack all the time, powerful services that can be embedded in your own new applications, like Skype, Maps from Google or Microsoft, storage and utility computing from Amazon, and video layers like YouTube and Google Video.

When anyone develops an application on top of the LAMP stack, like a CRM system for example, they always risk being disrupted by someone who provides that for free on top of the already existing stack.

Any new open source application or creative commons layer can be added to the stack, which might commoditize that application and put some companies out of business, but then that enables everyone else to again add more value on top of the stack.

This process continues, and all the while the consumer benefits greatly, and developers can continue developing innovative and valuable services on top of the ever-growing application stack.

The way I view the Facebook Platform announcement is this: the LAMP stack has just been extended by the huge and growing “social graph” that Facebook is opening up to the world. (It’s not completely open, because you have to develop apps within Facebook, but it’s a start in the right direction.)

Now, instead of application developers having to each build their own web site and try to get people to find it and use it and share it, the viral marketing of any good application site will come right from the Facebook interface itself. As users adopt new apps, they will spread quickly through the network.

Mark made three big announcements. 1) Applications can be deeply integrated with Facebook 2) Distribution of the applications will occur through the network, and 3) The business opportunity Facebook is providing will give 100% of advertising revenue (for third party applications) and 100% of transaction revenue to the application developers.

Now that is the true spirit of Wikinomics.

VPs from Microsoft and Amazon were present to express their support for the Facebook Platform. Microsoft will enable application develop with Silverlight and Popfly, and Amazon discussed how its web services enable Facebook Platform apps.

The CEO of Slide mentioned that the Platform developer wins big, but that applications developers also have a huge business opportunity here.

Microsoft’s market cap is $280 billion. But the top three application developers on Microsoft’s platform have a combined market cap of $40 billion.

I don’t think Facebook’s market cap vs it’s application developers will be nearly that lopsided. In fact, the way they are treating their own applications versus Platform applications makes it a pretty level playing field. Facebook users can deselect apps they don’t want to use–even Facebook’s own apps–and sign up to any other.

The core asset Facebook wants to own, extend, and leverage, is the social graph–who is connected to whom.

It is even possible that some future Facebook app developers could end up with a greater market cap than Facebook–if they permanently maintain the 100% of revenue going to the partner model. For example, a MMORP game built into Facebook might someday have 10 million users paying $10 per month, or $1 billion in revenue, when Facebook might at that point have $500 million in advertising revenue. (Reportedly it will make $150 million this year.)

Okay, not likely, but maybe possible.

The cool thing is that the marketing costs for these application developers will be basically nothing. All viral. All courtesy of Facebook’s users.

One of the self-serving reasons why companies like Google and Amazon create so many APIs and web services is to get a vast community of developers doing R&D for them and prototyping applications to see what works best. Then, they acquire the ones the like best.

Facebook will certainly be in a strong position, once it has a liquid currency, to acquire some of the most interesting application developers using its Platform.

If you haven’t read it recently, read Chapter 7 of Wikinomics, “Platforms for Participation” in the context of today’s announcement.

Here are a couple quotes.

“The winners in this evolution will be companies that can create the most comprehensive incentive frameworks to adequately reward all stakeholders.” (p. 207)

How about letting them keep 100% of their ad and transaction revenue? That’s quite an incentive.

“Winning in a world of cocreation and combinatorial innovation is all about building a loyal base of innovators that make your ecosystem stronger.” (p. 210)

Like I said at the beginning, I felt very lucky to be invited to this event. I got the invitation because we invested in YackPack last year, which is one of the companies that is launching its application within Facebook.

I didn’t see anyone else from Utah there, partly because every internet entrepreneur and marketer in the state was probably attending Seth Godin’s speech in Salt Lake City, which was probably very good.

If you are from Utah and went to the Facebook f8 event, please comment here or email me. I really want to connect. I think we need a Facebook Platform Developer Community here in Utah.

I searched LinkedIn tonight and found 140 Facebook employees, board members, etc, on LinkedIn. I’m 2 degrees away from many of them. But then I searched for “facebook api” to see how many people in my 2 million + network have any experience developing for Facebook and only 1 person came up.

Hopefully there will be some developer forums that emerge quickly so that more people can get guidance on how to proceed.

So here is my final thought. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to kind of see the big waves and trends coming and to get positioned to take advantage of them. I think I have pretty good instincts, because my brother Curt taught me to read everything (and he buys me new books from Amazon almost every month) and to go to conferences all the time. I already mentioned the transition from CD ROM publisher to Internet Publisher. After reading Net.Gain in 1998, we created Ancestry.com’s user generated content strategy (it became our most popular database) and launched MyFamily.com which was really an early social network for families. At our peak we were adding 20-30,000 new users per day. Unfortunately, our investors stopped supporting that free site because it wasn’t making money. Doh.

After reading an article in Industry Standard in 1998, I decided to attend the first ever affiliate summit held in New York City, where Commission Junction, Be Free, and LinkShare all presented. We chose Be Free, launched our affiliate program, and over the next few years, affiliate marketing was our #1 source of new customers at Ancestry.com.

In the last few years, I blogged before Google’s IPO that it would disrupt Microsoft by offering free software (including Office apps) and said it will one day pass Microsoft in market cap. And, more recently, in my latest example of prescience, I blogged about Lindsay Campbell of Wallstrip after her first day as anchor, and suggested that she might one day rank up there with Soledad O’Brian and Diana Sawyer, and now CBS paid $5 million for Wallstrip, and Lindsay’s career will soar. Way to go, Lindsay!

The only reason I’m reciting these past predictions is to try to lend a little weight to my next prediction: that Facebook will become the #1 social network worldwide (and the first to get 1 billion users–I love Facebook mobile, by the way) and that thousands of entrepreneurs will become extremely successful by developing to this new platform.

I hope that Facebook won’t be acquired. I hope it will go public and become the next major Internet company along with Google, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay. Another hugely profitable company that can potentially acquire lots of other great smaller companies.

I like Mark Zuckerberg a lot. I met him tonight as he was just visiting with lots of the individual companies supporting the launch event, and thanking them for their support. He was very genuine. I can see him in 10 years with the influence of the Google founders and in 20 years with the influence of Bill Gates. He is just getting started. At the recent Startup School, he advised startups to hire coders — even in the marketing department — and he talked about time he spends thinking about philosophies and how at this young age his life is not cluttered with things and family responsibilities.

Can you imagine in a couple years when Facebook has 200 million users worldwide, with half of them logging in every day, and a 25 year old will be CEO of this company? I can’t think of a parallel in world history where someone this young had this much influence. Oh wait. Alexander the Great.

Ok. I’ll stop now. It’s 2:40 am. And my post is going on and on and on, and all over the place.

But I’m serious about this Facebook Platform. Check it out. Mark’s philosophy of openness is an open invitation to co-create something remarkable with him and his 24 million users.

Getting search engine traffic to a new web site

If you search for “family link” or “familylink” on Google, the first hit is not www.familylink.com. Today, on the query “familylink”, hits #5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 all refer to FamilyLink.com, but they are from blogs and press releases. Google is not yet ranking FamilyLink.com as the most relevant result for these queries. I’m sure that will change soon, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

When you’ve been working at a web company that has had its web site up for many years, has good PageRank, good titles and internal links, and has many incoming links that have come in steadily over the years from press coverage, bloggers, customer links, and so forth, you sometimes take for granted the huge flow of new customers that come without cost from natural search engine rankings.

I have been involved with and seen web sites that get free search engine traffic worth the equivalent of millions of dollars of paid clicks/sponsored links.

But with any new web site, it takes time for users to create content, and for people to link to your site and to deep link to your user content. It takes time for the virtuous circle of more users posting more content generating more users (from search engines) to really kick in.

And when you have seen it work so beautifully before, and it is not working now, it is hard to be patient. But you just have to wait.

Fortunately, you can join Google Webmaster Tools and Yahoo Site Explorer and get validated by them as the site owner, and see your site through the eyes of their bots–how often they come back, how many pages they index, what your top rankings are on various keywords.

But that still doesn’t get you all the incoming links you need from authentic sources over a long period of time so that you can have a robust amount of natural search engine traffic.

That does take time.

Today, if you search for just about any keyword or phrase that might eventually help you find our familylink.com social network, such as the names of more than a hundred thousand cities and towns around the world, or millions of surnames from around the world, or the specific names of ancestors who might have pages on our site, you probably won’t find our web site yet using Google, Yahoo, or MSN.

So we really have to rely on email, the blogosphere, press announcements (including a couple of big ones coming up), and a little paid search to get our intial users. Then we will see more and more member invitations to other genealogists and family members, as our viral marketing efforts start to grow.

Years ago Yahoo had a Paid Inclusion program which didn’t make sense to me when most of the sites I was working on were included in their natural search for free. But I guess I didn’t think about using Paid Inclusion out of necessity for a free site.

Can some SEO expert out there tell me how they have used Paid Inclusion in a way that is worthwhile, particularly for a brand new site?

I’m tired of looking at my Omniture Site Catalyst referring domains report and seeing almost no traffic from Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

I am however happy to see our WorldVitalRecords.com traffic growing steadily, since that is where our company’s revenue comes from. We are getting more and more natural search engine traffic there since our number of databases grow every day and our site has been up for nearly a year.

Some people say the one year mark is magical for natural search engine traffic. Has anyone had an experience that validates this, or is that just an urban legend?

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.

News Discussed at Today’s Live Friday Session (Mostly from Business 2.0)

Normally I get my news for Live Friday from 100+ RSS feeds, but this week I found that a deep dive into Business 2.0 (my favorite internet publication–it took the place of Industry Standard which went away years ago) gave us much more interesting topics that the kinds of PR and brand new announcements that hit the blogosphere. Business 2.0 tends to cover companies that are getting real traction, so you can avoid wasting time on all the hype that is out there. I think I’ll use Business 2.0 a lot more in the future when planning Provo Labs Academy events.

  • This month’s issue of Business 2.0 lists the 12 Influential Investors that every Web 2.0 Entrepreneur Needs to Know.
  • 2007 is shaping up to be a better year for IPOs, according to Business2.0. I always love when a great company files to go public and you get to read the S1 for the first time. I rarely met a first time entrepreneur that has any idea how much information they can learn from public filings, including S1s. One place to see who is has just filed to go public is Hoovers.com. Hoover’s also has a calendar of when the IPOs are scheduled to occur. I hadn’t noticed that Glu Mobile, run by Greg Ballard (former CEO of MyFamily.com) went public about 10 days ago and raised $84 million. (See Glu’s Google Chart.)

    When entrepreneurs write business plans, they can get all the market research and statistics they need for their plan from public filings of companies in a similar sector.

  • We demonstrated chacha.com, the Jeff Bezos funded ($6.5 million) human assisted online search engine that reportedly had 30,000 guides working from home by January and is aiming for 300,000 guides by June. The founder wants to replace 411 calls (an $8.7 billion industry) which human assisted searches using his group of guides. He is planning for voice activated searches from mobile phones. The online strategy seems secondary, but he is hoping to have a million consistent users per month by June. Chacha intersperses sponsored links among the natural search results, but in my tests, I found the human guides actually found some great sites for me. I did have to wait several minutes in one case, but I could do other work while I was waiting for the guide to help me. The business model includes improving the natural search results by what the guides find for searchers–an interesting but possibly expensive model. But the founder thinks he can generate $12 million next year while paying his guides about 20% of that revenue. The Business 2.0 article says his long term vision is “instant access to guides on near-invisible Bluetooth earpiece.” Imagine that: being seconds away from free human help from trained internet searchers, at any time, from any place. Let’s hope chacha.com gets some traction, because this is a cool vision.
  • We discussed how Spot Runner (which was founded by the folks behind Firefly and PeoplePC and has already raised $40 million in VC) is aiming to make local, targeted television advertising available to virtually any small business. They have divided businesses into 4,000 categories, and are producing generic TV spots for each type of business, that can be customized (new voice over, logo, phone number, address, and etc, I suppose) for any company, and then run on cable TV stations targeting local audiences. The founder rebuts the “TV is too expensive myth” because they sell these customizeable video spots for $500 and then help you place the ads for cheap: “You can buy 30 seconds of prime time on a premium network in almost any local market in the country for less than $200. Outside the top 10-15 markets, it’s less than $100. Outside prime time, it’s less than $50.” Google will certainly be competing soon with Spot Runner, so this space will become very exciting to watch.
  • RightMedia.com did $150m in auction-based online advertising sales last year and expects to triple it this year. Yahoo recently paid $45 m for 20% of the company, and offers billions of impressions on its web sites for sale via RightMedia.com. I haven’t tried this site yet, but encourage people to try this and see how well it works for them.
  • We discussed how PayScale used public domain data from the federal government to attract search engines and go from 10,000 monthly visitors to 1.2 million, primarily through natural search traffic (and word of mouth) without spending any money on advertising. And now, it has wage data on 5.5 million US employees, nearly 5 times as much data as the leading traditional wage consulting firm. Using public domain data to attract initial customers, and user generated content to keep people coming back and signing up for your free salary comparison reports, so you can upsell them to your $19.95 for six months subscripton to more detailed reports that can help someone get a pay raise, is a brilliant business plan. I’m very impressed with this company and its model. It generated $5 million last year.
  • We also looked at Mojopages and Yelp both of which are yellow pages sites trying to supplement their data with user reviews. Mojopages expects $500k in revenue during the next 12 months, while Yelp already has a great Alexa ranking of 1,744 and a nice three year chart.
  • Finally, we looked at Meebo.com, a VC backed company that lets you put IM windows on your blog or webpage (kind of interesting), and Pickspal.com, which facilitates office pool betting, and has attracted 200,000 registered users since October and has 1 million monthly unique visitors. I dislike gambling and anything gambling related. I simply showed this site because it has a novel viral marketing approach. The founder “created an incentive for users to invite their sports-obsesses buddies to the site: if they win a prize, so do you. ‘I’m going to be giving away two of a lot of things.’”
  • Finally we looked at Dogster, a profitable (since July 2005) social networking site for dog lovers, which had $1.1 million in revenue last year and doubled the number of users. We highlighted their iterative and rapid approach to web development, which I wholeheartedly agree with: “Instead of working on a feature for months trying to get it perfect, we’ll work on something for two weeks and then spend two or three days listening to users and fine-tuning it.”

International Genealogy and Search Engine Rankings

For many years I have wanted Ancestry.com to go international, since the world population is more than 20 times larger than the U.S. population. I felt that a Rootsweb-type model could be done in virtually every country of the world, followed at sime time, by an Ancestry-type subscription model. The one (a user generated content model) would lead to the other (a premium database model.)

Note: I left the company in February 2002 and have no inside information about the company or its plans.

Since the company hired Tim Sullivan as its 6th CEO in 8 years (I was the first, then hired my brother Curt, who was replaced by Greg Ballard, and then Dave Moon, Tom Stockham, and now Tim Sullivan), there are strong signs that Ancestry is going international, and in a big way. It’s very exciting for me to watch. I’m very pleased with the German web site that Ancestry launched, and of course the company has done great things in the UK and Canada.

When I first learned about Tim Sullivan, I heard that in his previous role as CEO of Match.com he had helped Match.com go into 27 countries, or something like that. So I suspected this was coming. This is a very good thing for the company as well as for genealogists worldwide. Tim has made a number of very good decisions in the past year, and in the past few months I’ve seen an acceleration of good moves being made by the company. I’m very encouraged.

When I decided to get back into the genealogy industry full-time, just a few months ago, we decided to try to focus on things that were not being addressed yet by the larger companies in the genealogy space. We have started beefing up our international search engines, and working on user generated content features that will be rolling out in the coming weeks. In addition, I’m planning to travel internationally to work with content partners worldwide. I have several such trips in the works.

Even though we are a small company, we have a generous approach to working with content partners and an incredible online marketing team that is generating more traffic and customers every month, so our royalty pool is becoming sizeable. We know we will make a good partner for many international content owners.

One of our keys to success internationally will be search engine optimization that will enable us to attract visitors from all over the world to our web pages with no marketing costs. With pay-per-click costs increasing, natural search becomes the key way for a company to grow and grow profitably.

Our efforts in this regard are beginning to pay off. We rank #1 on MSN.com for “china genealogy“, “chile genealogy“, “kenya genealogy“, “philippines genealogy“, “portugal genealogy“, “tonga genealogy“, “turkey genealogy“, and “vietnam genealogy.” We rank in the top 10 in Google, Yahoo and MSN for many other countries already. And as we roll out genealogy web pages for every town and city in the world, and for every surname in the world, and as our users beginning sharing content with each other, all of this content will be optimized for search engines as well as for mobile phones.

After leaving MyFamily.com in 2002 I ran an internet marketing agency called 10x Marketing that did search engine optimization, pay per click marketing, and affiliate marketing for many companies. And our World Vital Records team has excellent skills in these areas as well.

So keep an eye on World Vital Records and our forthcoming FamilyL— web site, as our natural search rankings continue to grow our total web site traffic will get very robust.

We know that having 13.8 million pages of content indexed by Google, like Rootsweb does, almost all of it user generated, is a great way to attract millions of monthly visitors, the way Rootsweb does.

We have only 17,400 pages indexed by Google right now, but this should grow by two orders of magnitude this year as our strategy begins to play out. And when it does, we will become a significant participant in the international genealogy space.

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.

International search engines for genealogy

World Vital Records most popular international search page is our German Genealogy Search page. According to Overture, there were 1045 searches on the Yahoo Network last month for “german genealogy” and 292 for “germany genealogy.”

After Germany, our most popular international search engines are England, Ireland, Australia, Italy, France, Austria, Scotland, Wales, Hungary, Sweden, China, Slovakia and Brazil. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed Slovakia has recently been one of the leading sources of international traffic to my personal blog site, paulallen.net.

As we begin to enable our site visitors to share content with each other and to connect with other researchers, the popularity of our international search engine pages will grow.

We also invite libaries, archives, publishers, website owners and authors worldwide to contact us if they would like us to index their content and make it available to our growing audience of worldwide genealogists. We pay higher-than-average royalties to our content partners, as well as to our online affiliates.

We are doing all we can to keep our overhead costs low so that more people can afford to access online family history resources than ever before. With Google Book Search scanning millions of public domain volumes and with FamilySearch‘s digitization of the famed Granite Mountain Vault in the next five years, so much family history content will be free. There will be valuable collections of exclusive, proprietary content that people will pay for, but many more will be able to enjoy the family history hobby with just an internet connection.

We are currently designing a second web site and a business model that is designed to prosper in a world where much (if not all) genealogy data is free. That is a daunting task for those of us who launched the first online genealogy subscription site (Ancestry.com in April 1997) and then watched as hundreds of millions of dollars of subscription revenue were generated over the next ten years.

Our World Vital Records site will be subscription based and our forthcoming site (soon to be publicly announced–the domain name starts with FAMILY) will be free and supported by advertising and other revenue streams.

We appreciate every new customer who purchases a subscription on World Vital Records — I wish I could call and thank every one of you — because it gives us the resources we need to continue to develop that site, with its international databases, and to launch this new site which we hope will provide a value service to millions of family historians.

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.