Saturday, February 25, 2006

Looking for Sites with Automated Research Tools

The bottom line is that I’m a lazy person. Many would disagree and say I’m a hard-working individual, but the truth is that I don’t like having to do more than is necessary. So, when it comes to technology, I feel the computer should earn its keep. The same goes for web sites. The problem I find with online research is that with good genealogy sites (i.e. ones that add new information regularly), you have to keep going back to see if they add something you’re looking for. Shouldn’t the site (not the webmaster) be able to tell you instead?

Back in 1998 (seems like ages ago), I had the idea to equip my personal web sites with a tool that would allow visitors to be notified of new user contributions by email. I called it GenWatcher, and it is still a popular feature of my sites at the D’ domain. [Read the 1998 announcement, “Test Drive Our New GenWatcher Service“] It wasn’t very sophisticated. Basically you entered a surname and your email address, and whenever someone else added something to one of our databases, the site (while it was saving the information) would check the GenWatcher list and send an email to anyone who was looking for that particular surname.

Surname Tracker - The Genealogy Research Agent (click for close-up)The idea received such good feedback, that a similar service was developed for Genealogy Today in 2003 called Surname Tracker (sample email pictured right). The difference with this new service is that it has access to much more information, and can tell registered users when new names are added to our databases. By the way, I use both of these services for my own research — you never know who may add some D’Addezio information! Well, the Surname Tracker is quite popular, with over 45,000 people registered and monitoring their surnames.

In 2002, the web site CousinConnect added a query notification service similar to our GenWatcher, but for their genealogy query boards. They even added a twist — you can decide if you want to be notified for “exact” surname spellings, “partial” surname spellings, or “soundex” matches.

Then sometime in 2003 (as I can best recollect), finally added an equivalent feature that is now simply labelled “names and locations I’m researching” (it’s under the My Research tab). Later, when they introduced their Obituary collection, they added another agent service called Obituary Hunter. The web site still says it is in a “beta period”, but it been around since December 2003 when I added D’Addezio to my account. I never used the former service, but just added my surname and a few variations as I’m writing this post. It’s simple to do.

While I’m excited that people are using and benefiting from these services, the lazy part of me wants to know when we’re going to see more of them and/or better technology to make this easier for smaller sites to accomplish. Well, perhaps it has!

As many blog readers have learned (some unknowlingly), there is a new technology, called RSS, that allows you to read news feeds offline and quickly and easily see what’s new. You’ve probably seen the little orange XML boxes and others like “+ My Yahoo!”. These are the links for adding an RSS feed to your reader. So, how well could this technology apply to a SURNAME feed?

To my knowledge, CousinConnect is the only genealogy web site to offer a service of this nature. From their home page, search on your surname and then on the results page, scroll down and on the right hand column you’ll see “RSS Newsfeed” and those familiar buttons. Add the RSS feed to your reader and you’ll always see the latest queries for your surname. I just added D’Addezio!

This seems like the right direction for web sites to follow, but I’d like to get some comments from anyone who has used it (or the other services). I imagine it would be great if all sites with real data could provide a similar feed and then every morning when you opened up your reader (e.g. My Yahoo!) you’d see what ancestors have awoken with you.

I’m thinking of adding a similar service to Genealogy Today, and extending it beyond the bounds our own databases by offering to index new information posted by other webmasters. We already do index some other sites, but if I added RSS surname feeds, I would probably expand this to index others.

If you are aware of any other sites that offer either an email-based agent or RSS surname feeds, please let me know.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anonymous Genealogy

Everyone has pet peaves, right? Well one of mine is the proliferation of genealogy web sites with little or no identification of the owner and/or the source(s) of their information.

How would you feel if you went into a library, picked up a book on your favorite subject and after reading it, wanted to know more only to discover that there is no author or bibliography listed!

The Internet is a publishing platform, and yet so many of the established standards adhered to by authors (for as long as there have been printed documents) have gotten lost along the way.

The webmasters of these sites fall into two categories: those that don’t realize what they are doing, and those that deliberately don’t want you to know who they are. This post certainly will have no impact on the latter.

Genealogy is a hobby with tremendous emotional impact. As people discover information about their ancestors it can affect their lives. So, it is critical that we (as an industry) make sure that the information we publish is accurate and properly sourced.

It’s one thing for a genealogist to be sloppy with their research, but it’s simply unacceptable for webmasters to do likewise.

Well, here’s the bad news. There is no one policing the Internet, so we have no one to turn to for help. The only solution is for YOU, the genealogist, to demand better quality of information from webmasters.

If you come across a web site and cannot tell who created it, or where the information came from, write to the webmaster and complain. Let them know that you want to use their information, but cannot TRUST it without them coming out of their shell.And if you cannot find a way to contact the webmaster on their site, contact me and I’ll do my best to help you identify the owner.

Of course, this does make me wonder if there is a need in our industry for some sort of service where you can find out who is responsible for a certain web site. Hmmmm…

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Look Who's Talking Genealogy

It’s great to see new technology come along, but it’s even better to see it applied to the field of genealogy. What am I talking about? Podcasts!

Podcasts differ from traditional internet audio in two important ways. In the past, listeners have had to either tune in to web radio on a schedule, or they have had to actively download individual files from webpages.I recently purchased a Samsung SCH-a950, the V Cast music phone, and now download these pods every week to my phone and listen to them in the car or anytime that I’m hanging around.

Here are two shows from some familiar names:

The Genealogy Guys - A weekly genealogy discussion by George G. Morgan and Drew Smith (new podcast every Sunday night)

DearMYRTLE’s Family History Hour - Great guests and excellent regular features. (new podcast every Tuesday night)

I hope this trend continues and more “shows” begin to appear. Please give me your feedback on these shows (e.g. length, format, topics covered, etc).

Podcasts are more flexible and much easier to get. They can be listened to at any time because a copy is on the listener’s computer or portable music player, and they are automatically delivered to subscribers, so no active downloading is required. More information…

For a listing of additional shows and details for how to get on our upcoming episode notification list, visit the Genealogy Podcast Schedule and Audio Guide at Genealogy Today.

St. George Jamboree 2006

click to enlarge The Genealogy & Family Heritage Jamboree was held on Feb. 10th and 11th in St. George, Utah, and Genealogy Today attended (booths #120/119) for our second year. Pictured to the right is our booth (click on it to see an enlarged version of the photo)

This event was sponsored by My Ancestors Found’s very own Holly Hansen and Jenni Johnson. Holly was the Jamboree Chair, coordinating all aspects of the event during the past year. Jenni did massive amounts of work behind the scenes including the website, marketing collateral, the program, the 300+ page syllabus and so much more.

Dick Eastman (blog) wrote “My Ancestors, Inc. and the volunteers from the Washington County PAF User’s Group staged a first-class genealogy conference with lots of presentations from some of the leading genealogy experts of today. The vendors’ hall was full of exhibitors and often was full of attendees.”

Our own Betty Lindsay (editor of GenWeekly) handled the Genealogy Today booth, sharing the exciting developments on our site and all of the unique information we have available.

The funeral cards drew a LOT of interest. People were really intrigued. It set them to thinking about what kinds of things could be used as resource material, and it provided a great lead-in to talking about the other “unique” sources we have in the Family Tree Connection.

This show has really seen some great growth with over 1,000 people attending (although the Dixie Center estimated traffic at well over 2,000), and has become a great event to kick off the year’s conference schedule. If you’re not familiar with St. George, it’s in the southern part of Utah, and just a short drive from Las Vegas.

You can count on us being there in 2007! (Scheduled dates are Feb. 9th and 10th)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Do Less with More?

Seems like the opposite of what some companies are doing, however, it also may be the right tactic for the challenging financial times we’ve been facing since 9/11. Well, this is my mantra for 2006 and I’ll explain why.

If you’ve been to a national genealogy conference in the past few years, there are always a bunch of small booths, and then there is the BIG one. Yes, the Heritage Creations booth run by Leland Meitzler (blog). The vast quantity of books and CD’s and the unique displays for concentrating his inventory in a relatively small area, were an impressive feat.

Well, much to my surprise, Leland blogged that Heritage Creations [was] Filing for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, and spelled out the history of how his company arrived at this point. Leland and I have exchanged emails over the years, and even had the pleasure to meet and hang out at the 2005 NGS conference in Nashville, TN.

Recently, Leland said something to me that struck a chord. He “wasn’t making a profit at [genealogy conferences] and wasted a lot of valuable time chasing around the country.” It sounded to that he was trying to do more with less (income in return).

Was I following, albeit at a smaller scale, in his footsteps? I reflected on the things I’d accomplished with Genealogy Today, and decided it was time to focus on those things that I was really good at (i.e. core strengths), and had the potential to generate revenue.

Another recent event in our industry was the extensive, Inc. layoff. Dennis Partridge (blog) wrote about the “tragic loss for the employees and families involved,” which I don’t dispute. But the real messages, and the people to “blame”, are that (in my opinion) management allowed the company to grow too rapidly and invested energies in areas that offered less value to the organization.

Rather than haphazardly expand my holdings with smaller, less valuable content month after month, my plan is to stay focused, measure every opportunity against a more refined set of criteria, and begin to grow the company at a faster (yet managable) rate.

If someone were to ask you, “what exactly does your company do?”, would you have a clear answer for them? The ease of Internet technology and the abundance of information floating around us promotes a “heck, why not” kind of attitude when it comes to new prospects. Don’t go adrift, identify your core competencies, and build on them.

(Genealogy Today is an affiliate of, a unit of, Inc.)

Lucky Seven

Image obtained from iStockPhoto.comThis month celebrated its seventh anniversary, and just as people get wiser as they get older, so too has the site evolved (slightly) to better reflect it’s core strengths.

All aspects of the company have been adjusted to follow a more focused direction, everything from how frequently we publish articles, to how we want to appear in search engines, to the messages we give in our printed advertisements, and to the creation of this new blog-formatted corporate site.

The revised home page highlights our emphasis on providing information through articles, news and databases. We moved the search box to top position of the page, and moved the key feature links higher up.

With theses superficial changes, come serious growth in the data we provide. Beginning in 2006, we’ve set a goal of adding 10,000 new names every week. Because we are a firm believer in the importance of balance (you know, Ying/Yang), we’ve also set an internal mandate to ensure that we maintain an equal level of free versus paid information in the databases (collectively).

What’s the ultimate goal? To continue providing our visitors with meaningful value, the most professional service, and establishing long-term relationships built on trust and our integrity. The goal hasn’t changed, but how we approach it has.