Ancestry Increases Subscriber Base by 31%

Now that Inc. is a public company (ACOM: Google Finance), they are required to divulge more information about their performance than they did as a private venture.

For them, the news is good. Earlier this week, they announced their year 2010 figures, which included notably subscriber growth of 31% year-over-year and a 34% increase in revenue year-over-year. (At the end of December there were 1,395,000 paid subscribers of Total revenue for the year was $300.9 million. EBITDA (earnings before income tax, depreciation, and amortization) was $101 million.

Monthly churn (membership turnover) is 3.9%, which is basically equivalent to the 3.6% in the fourth quarter of 2009, and the 4.0% in the third quarter of 2010.

For 2011, Ancestry expects to have 1,700,000 t0 1,725,000 subscribers and bring in revenues of $370 – $375 million, leading to an EBITDA of $125 – $130 million.

These are very healthy numbers and bode well for the genealogy industry. While a lot of us have some qualms about the size of Ancestry, as well as some of its business practices, it’s still important that this major player is healthy and continuing to invest in digitization and technology.


Black History Month at FamilySearch

FamilySearch made the following announcement on Monday:

Salt Lake City—This month, millions of individuals of African descent are celebrating Black History Month by exploring their family history roots. In the U.S., FamilySearch volunteers have been busy helping digitize historic documents and create free, searchable indexes to them online. Throughout Africa, from Accra to Zimbabwe, where irreplaceable family information and traditions are at risk of being lost due to neglect, war, and deterioration, FamilySearch volunteers are also helping preserve this valuable history so Africans can connect with their roots. Researchers can search the millions of African-related records as they are published online at

They conclude their announcement with the following:

Many of the records collected by FamilySearch are now available for free on More African records will be posted on the site in the coming months. Following are a few samples of some types of records at that may be of interest to those doing African or African-American research. Many of them are works in progress.

    • Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Letters, 1865-1872
    • U.S. Arkansas Confederate Pensions, 1901 to 1929
    • Ghana 1982-1984 Census
    • South Africa, Orange Free State, Estate Files, 1951-1973
    • U.S. Southern States Births, Marriages, and Deaths
    • U.S. Naturalization Petitions

This is tremendous amount of material being made available. Their blog entry about this release says that the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau records total more than 1 million records. It’s an important delivery of documents, and will provide a great deal of help for African-American researchers.

Keeping Your Computer Up-to-Date


The computer is one of our most important genealogical tools.

Many of us remember when this was not the case. I have my fair share of mimeographed family group sheets filled out in fading pencil waiting in a stack to be scanned. But today, with your research findings stored in a digital database and your research consisting of a blend of pay and free websites, with the local and state repositories you want to visit tagged in a Google Map, and with your latest photos of gravestones shared on Flickr and FindAGrave, you need a computer and you need it to work.

Whether you have a Mac or a Windows machine, the key to keeping your system working is maintenance. Just like with a car, you should have a schedule for maintaining your computer. With a car, every 3,000 or 5,000 miles, you need to change the oil; periodically, you need to rotate the tires. It helps to check the air pressure, air filters, and oil level from time to time. There is a similar regimen you should follow to keep your computer running smoothly, so you can focus on your research and not on recovering from a catastrophic computer issue.

Virus Checking

Those of us who use Macs often come off as smug about the lack of a need for virus checking software. This implication is that the superior design of the Macintosh wards off all threats. (We can be such pains!) Of course, the Macintosh is just as vulnerable as any other operating system. Since OS X has been released, not as many viruses written for the Mac, but it takes only one virus to endanger your data or your privacy. So, while Macs are less likely to get viruses, the Mac OS is not without its vulnerabilities. Additionally, with cross-platform files (such as Microsoft Word files) can arrive with a virus and be sent on with that same virus, whether or not the virus infects your machine.

In addition to viruses, it is important to understand that there are spyware applications that are designed to gather data about you and your online identity. These often run based on your browser, and are therefore often platform independent. So, no matter what kind of computer your have, you should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and keep the virus and spyware definitions up-to-date.

For both the Mac and the PC, the two mainstays of the security market, Norton ( and McAfee ( offer a suite of products that provide protection against viruses, adware, spyware, and a variety of other online threats. The biggest hurdle for me in using virus protection like the programs sold by McAfee and Norton is hat they sometimes take over your computer when you are not expecting it to do so. For the Mac, there is also ClamXav (, a free open-source virus protection software package. While ClamXav is free, it does not proactively scan new or changed files; you have to remember to run it. Therefore, you get less protection, but also more control over what your computer is doing at any given moment.

Virus and malware protection fall in the category of adaptive maintenance. They are ways of adapting to changes in the environment.

System Security Updates

Both the PC in Windows Vista and Windows 7 and the Mac in OS X provide periodic updates to the system software. Some of these are optional. They might be updating a component of the operating system that you do not use, for example. But, often the updates will be issues to close up security holes in the operating system. This is known as “adaptive maintenance.” The Whenever you receive a security-related upgrade for your operating system, you should allow it to install. The software vendors will usually not announce security issues with their software until a fix is available, so you will probably not even know there is a problem. However, those who would like to exploit security issues with the operating system are constantly on the lookout for these issues, so you should let the experts at Microsoft and Apple give you the benefit of their attempts to keep you and your genealogical data safe.

Security issues are often also discovered with desktop application, especially Adobe Acrobat and the various browsers, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Be aware of how your software vendor will make updates available. Some updates, such as system updates for Windows or the Mac OS and many applications will be delivered to your system automatically, whenever it is connected to the Internet and there has been a patch released.

In general, you should install these system and application updates as soon as it is feasible to do so. If you have any concern with whether the updates you are receiving are authorized by and delivered from the vendor, go to the support or downloads area of their website to verify that the change is valid, and learn what defect or vulnerability the change is intended to address.

Simply Staying Current

You have invested money in the software you use every day. More importantly, you have invested time in it. You have spent time learning how to use it, figuring out its features and foibles. Any software that you use a lot for your genealogy research, whether as a database for your records, or as a way to write or share your findings, should be protected in another way. It should be kept reasonably current. This does not mean that you need to be as assiduous as you should be with installing OS security patches. However, you should not be more than two major releases behind the released product. In other words, if the product is on version 7, you should be running at least version 5. This is a general rule of thumb, and may vary depending on how much the vendor has changed its product.

There are a couple of powerful websites and desktop applications that can help you keep on top of keeping your applications current. For both the Windows OS and the Mac OS, there is CNet’s TechTracker (formerly VersionTracker), with both free and subscription services ( For the Mac OS, there is a handy desktop software package, AppFresh ( which uses the website to keep track of changes to applications, widgets, preference panes and application plug-ins. In addition to checking for new versions of all the applications submitted to, AppFresh also keeps track of Apple and Microsoft Updates (and soon, Adobe updates), to help you keep your system current with the latest releases of the software you use on a regular basis. The tool also allows for Sparkle updates, which are built into many Mac OS products to automatically keep an installed product aware of updates.

Regular Maintenance

With your computer operating system and the applications you run on it safe, you can focus the bulk of your energy on the search for and analysis of genealogical data. After all, your computer is simply a tool for your research, for finding, gathering, arranging, and storing your genealogical findings. You are doing the key intellectual work of assessing sources, thinking through unique ways to find your way past “brickwall” problems. It would be a shame if this work were lost because of a virus or a security hole. More commonly, simply by neglect of a standard process, your system may degrade in its performance, and you will lose the benefit it can provide you and get drawn into many hours of maintenance and repairs, of trying to reassemble the content you have brought together. We all know, and I have talked about in this column, the need for backups. In addition to backing up your system, you should also maintain what you have.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the National Genealogical Society Magazine. Used  by permission.

Pam Slaton: “Searching for …”

Pam Slaton, host of "Searching for ..."
Pam Slaton

Update: 9 March 2011

I am not Pam Slaton, and do not even know her. A lot of folks are posting here thinking they are contacting Pam, but, unfortunately, they are not. I wish I could pass information on to her, but I am not in touch with her.

This was news to me: Oprah Winfrey’s OWN television network has a show that follows a professional genealogist. The show, entitled “Searching for …” runs Monday nights at 9/8 Central. Pam Slaton, the genealogist the show focused on helps reunite the adopted with their birth families, and other family members with one another after they have been separated for some time and lost touch with one another.

On the OWN site, they write:

“Searching For… is a documentary series that follows the real-life work of Pam Slaton, a professional investigative genealogist, stay-at-home mom and New Jersey housewife.

“Viewers can expect an intensely personal ride when cameras follow Pam and her clients through each step as they track down lost loved ones. Each searcher’s story is different, and the results are unpredictable and emotionally charged. Whether Pam’s clients find a joyous reunion, painful rejection or tragic loss, they all walk away with the closure they were desperate to find.

“Pam Slaton’s career as a professional investigative genealogist began nearly 20 years ago. Wanting to find her own birth mother, Pam hired to a professional searcher. The experience was the most devastating of her life, and Pam vowed that no one else should have to go through what she did. She keeps her own pain in mind when helping clients on their journeys. And her results are astounding! Pam has an 85 percent success rate, follows a strict “no find, no pay” policy, and is one of the most sought-after professional searchers in the country.”

I will have to take a look.

One of the key aspects of genealogy shows, which this one looks to have in spades, is an emotional component that most non-genealogists seem to not expect. With a focus on re-uniting living people, Pam Slaton’s niche in genealogy seems to be focused directly on emotional content which should drive the show. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many people know about this show.

Google Docs Goes Native

Google Docs was once an application that was “like Microsoft Word” or “like PowerPoint”, and could read and write files from those programs as well as Excel. But mainly, you understood that you were editing your file and storing it, in Google’s proprietary format.

Then, in January 2010, Google announced that they would allow users to store any file format in their Google Docs environment. That started to look like another cloud storage offering. Frankly, it didn’t make a lot of sense to upload files you cannot even open in that environment. Google took a big step toward addressing that week, making some key formats natively viewable within Google Docs.

On their blog, they say:

The Google Docs Viewer is used by millions of people every day to quickly view PDFs, Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations online. Not only is viewing files in your browser far more secure than downloading and opening them locally, but it also saves time and doesn’t clutter up your hard-drive with unwanted files.

Today we’re excited to launch support for 12 new file types:

  • Microsoft Excel (.XLS and .XLSX)
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 / 2010 (.PPTX)
  • Apple Pages (.PAGES)
  • Adobe Illustrator (.AI)
  • Adobe Photoshop (.PSD)
  • Autodesk AutoCad (.DXF)
  • Scalable Vector Graphics (.SVG)
  • PostScript (.EPS, .PS)
  • TrueType (.TTF)
  • XML Paper Specification (.XPS)

Not only does this round out support for the major Microsoft Office file types (we now support DOC, DOCX, PPT, PPTX, XLS and XLSX), but it also adds quick viewing capabilities for many of the most popular and highly-requested document and image types.

In Gmail, these types of attachments will now show a “View” link, and clicking on this link will bring up the Google Docs Viewer.

For me, one of the few annoying aspects of how Gmail and Google Docs work together has been that, in the early days, simply opening up a Word document in my Gmail would automatically create a document in Google Docs, or that it wouldn’t allow me to preview it, and would force me to download the file. Now, I will simply be able to View these documents, and have them disappear into the browser cache at the end of the session.

More Technology News for Genealogists


Earlier this week, Apple announced a new subscription payment model for the iPad.

Google responded yesterday with a much more flexible subscription model using Google Checkout (a PayPal competitor), and providing 10% in revenue for Google (in comparison with Apple’s 30%). Google does not require that the in-app purchase price be at least as inexpensive as any other web offering of the product. It’s a more open program, and hopefully will gain traction and help foster a more sustainable sales model for content providers.

Until and unless other models come along, expect to see genealogical content providers, as they move into the tablet space, to opt for the Google pricing model, which will better align with their operating profit margins.


SlideShare is a site that allows you to upload PowerPoint-style slides to share with others. (I post all my slides at SlideShare: This week they announced a free 1-click conferencing product, Zipcast. I have not tried it, but it looks interesting, as most conferencing systems that share slides require that the slides be uploaded in real time, as images of from the person sharing the slides. Zipcast might be faster, because the slides will not need to be uploaded during the meeting, and will already be optimized for web viewing at SlideShare.

Don’t be surprised if your next genealogy meeting does not happen in person, but instead over SlideShare’s Zipcast.

Subscriptions on the Apple App Store

Magazines on the iPad
Apple's iPad

Apple announced today that they will be supporting subscriptions on the AppStore. A lot of us have been thinking that would make for a good day, as it never made sense for owners of the iPad to only be able to buy something like a magazine for the iPad one issue at a time (often for more than a print single copy).

However, the way that Apple is doing this is causing a great deal of consternation outside of Cupertino.

First, they are demanding 30% of every subscription sale. This is a similar rate that is paid on magazines at the news stand, but not having to provide that discount to magazine stands is part of what allows magazine subscriptions to be so inexpensive. Apple does allow people who sell subscriptions to do so “outside the app.” But, again, the bargain they are asking people to make is draconian. In their press release, they write:

“However, Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app.” In other words, the time honored tradition of the “cut-out-the-middleman” buy direct discount is not going to be allowed.

This means that Amazon cannot sell books in the iOS version of the Kindle reader, even though that reader only has a link to Amazon’s website to make that purchase. (For titles sold through Amazon’s Digital Text Program, authors and publishers get a 70% royalty. Simple math shows that if Amazon gives Apple the remaining 30%, they will be spending money to support publishers, authors, and Apple, without a penny going to pay for Amazon’s server farms, let alone its employees or shareholders.)

Amazon does not have a similar policy. If you sell a book on Amazon, you can set the price, or let Amazon set guidelines on the price ($2.99 – $9.99 and 20% less than the cheapest print version of the title), and get a better percentage of the sales price. But there’s nothing to stop someone from selling a Kindle-formatted book for $9.99 through Amazon and $7.99 directly from them. This is called the agency model, and it means that when Amazon acts as the publisher or author’s agent, they get income, when they don’t … they don’t get income, and furthermore, they make no stipulations about how much the author or publisher can sell the Kindle book for outside of the Amazon store.

At best, this announcement by Apple will make legitimate vendors of books, magazines, and audio and video think twice before offering their services at current prices through the App Store, since doing so would incur a steep fee that they did not have before. At worst, some companies will play, but others will be left out. It seems like a sure way for Apple to make good revenue from those who remain, and to stifle competition from the likes of Hulu and Netflix (video rentals), Amazon (books and magazines), and Rhapsody (music).

A comprehensive article on the reactions appears on ReadWriteWeb: “A Round-Up of Reactions: Apple’s Greedy, Anti-Competitive, Evil, Brilliant Announcement.” This article points out that the Wall Street Journal muses about the legality of the announcement:

“Apple Inc.’s new subscription service could draw antitrust scrutiny, according to law professors,” writes the Journal’s Nathan Koppel. According to the article, the antitrust argument hinges on two primary points – whether or not Apple is exerting “anticompetitive pressures on price” and whether Apple is a “dominant player in the market.”

But what does this mean for genealogists? We may never know for sure. If Apple’s strategy goes forward, but actually does have a chilling and anticompetitive impact, a lot of content and services, some not yet conceived of, may not come to a dominant platform. Genealogists are ravenous consumers of books, including e-books and audio books. This may delay or stop the delivery of a lot of titles that might otherwise have been available. Hopefully, Apple will re-think their announcement, at least as it concerns how vendors price and sell their content off the iPad.

Using the Wayback Machine for Genealogy

Geocities Has Closed
Geocities Has Closed

The Wayback Machine, a project of The Internet Archive, (current version:; new beta version at is an attempt to archive the complete content of the Internet. Brewster Kahle, the co-founder of the Internet Archive spoke about the project at the Saturday keynote address at RootsTech 2011.

The key purpose of the Internet Archive is to make the Internet available for future historians and other researchers, in order that they might know what we were saying and doing in this often ephemeral environment called the Internet.

But it can also help us in the here and now. If you ever encounter a publicly available site that has disappeared, you may find it elsewhere on Google, but, failing that, you may find it in the Internet Archive.

For example, on an old Rootsweb page that I am in the process of migrating to this site, I have a link that is no longer working. (As the lingo goes, I have “link rot”.)

I try to link to:

When I try to navigate to this site, I get a message saying:

“Sorry, the GeoCities website you were trying to visit is no longer available.
GeoCities has closed, but there’s a lot more to explore on Yahoo!”

This does not offer much solace. However, when I go to the Wayback Machine and enter the URL I was searching for, I receive the following link:*/

Alternately, if I go to the beta version of the new Wayback Machine and enter this search I get to:*/

This page shows me the various snapshots the Internet Archive got around to making of this page. When I click on the most recent, I see that it has a link to a new location:

I can also look at other snapshots to see what the site looked like at that time.

The Internet Archive cannot instantaneously capture the whole Internet, but every couple of months, it traverses most of the public web, captures what has changed, and moves on. You should not rely on it, either as a web user, or as a webmaster, however it can prove very handy at times. Try it the next time you run across a link that you are sure used to work, but no longer does.

RootsTech 2011: Towards a New Genealogical Data Model

On Saturday at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, there was an open discussion session on genealogical data standards. There has been a heated discussion, literally going on for years, about a new data model that could replace GEDCOM. A new GEDCOM standard would address GEDCOM’s gaps – for example, being able to store evidentiary analysis within the data model – and be a living dynamic standard, unlike GEDCOM, which has been static since 1996.

In the first hour, the discussion identified several issues with the data model:

  • Data in Proprietary Formats – Because of gaps in GEDCOM, and the lack of a standards body to address this issue, most software vendors developed their own proprietary extensions, which limited the ability to share data.
  • Lack of Persistent URLs (PURLs)
  • Unstructured Text
  • Tag & Link Issues
  • Inconsistent Search Experience
  • Data Versioning (Diff/Merge)
  • Inability to Transfer Rich Data (rich media)
  • Inability to do Cross-Repository Search
  • Documentation (in other words, capturing the source of a genealogical statement, the ability to provide
  • Key as seen (Representation) – In other words, how do we normalize data while preserving the original “as-keyed” version?
  • Static data interchange

After the first hour, devoted to creating this list, we were to vote on buckets of technological or feature issues to come up with one or two we could discuss. For me, the biggest issue was not any of these technical issues, it was the lack of a governance model. Since no one was signed up to maintain GEDCOM, it did not change with the times, and died as a standard; in other words, people saw gaps and addressed them in a proprietary way, since there was no way to get issues addressed within the standard.

I got up and suggested we talk about how we build a working governance model instead of the issues that the governance model would help us solve. For more than a decade, people have been lamenting the lack of a standards body to adjudicate issues, develop a common standard, and submit it for public review. At the same time, people have pointed out the feature gaps, and proposed ways to address them. For the feature gap discussion to have an effect, however, we need to have a place to have these discussions that is actually designed to maintain a working standard. Lack of governance, not lack of technology, is the issue. We voted, and changed the direction of the meeting to discuss governance.

It was at about this time that Tom Creighton, the CTO of FamilySearch, got up and announced that FamilySearch is nearly ready to announce a new proposed data model. This changed the meeting immediately. Instead of an open discussion, it became more like a press conference, with Tom fielding questions about what they have done, when the work will be shared, and so on. There was not a lot that he was able to divulge at this point.

Key portions of the new proposed standard are based on the GenTech genealogical data model owned by the National Genealogical Society (full disclosure, I am on the Board of the NGS). The decision to make the new proposed data model public and free has not yet been made by the management at FamilySearch, but is being discussed. This means that there cannot be a date set for the launch of the new standard, as it could remain the intellectual property of FamilySearch, and unavailable outside of FamilySearch. (Mr. Creighton said that they had discussed the fact that they were developing a new standard with several software vendors, but had not provided any of them any more detail than that they were working on something.)

This is an exciting development in the intersection of genealogy and technology. If FamilySearch decides to share their work, and if a governance body can be identified or set up, and finally if that governance body has the trust of the genealogical community, including:

  • the major desktop and mobile application developers
  • the major web databases
  • the NGS
  • NEHGS (New England Historic Genealogical Society)
  • FGS (the Federation of Genealogical Societies)
  • BCG (the Board for Certification of Genealogists)
  • APG (the Association of Professional Genealogists)

we could be near the start of a much more rich technology environment. A new data model, addressing issues with GEDCOM and upgraded and changed through a community governance model could lead to integrated set of independently developed software tools that would allow people to represent their research better than they can with GEDCOM, and better share their data or move it from one vended product to another.

It sounds a little like Shangri-la as I write it here, but we are talking about the incredible potential that would be unleashed if most software vendors did not have to fix independently (or ignore) issues with the current data model, and could instead focus on the next new way to access and work with genealogical data.

Update, 17 February 2011: A summary of the meeting discussed here has been posted on the FamilySearch wiki:

RootsTech 2011: Day 3

Internet Archive
Internet Archive

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, gave an incredible keynote address this morning.

His non-profit has been digitizing and providing on the Internet all kinds of media. As he said, “We are in the business of giving information away.” He briefly mentioned “born digital” data, but focused his discussion on the data we all have in shoeboxes, what he called the “canonical box ‘o stuff.”

The Internet Archives has 23 scanning centers in 6 countries. For example, they have digitized documents from the Leo Baeck Institute, and did so while removing private information via remote curation over the web.

Mr. Kahle also discussed their digitization of video content (8mm, Super8, 16mm,  video tape). He pointed out that some of this kind of conversion is available in the consumer market, for about $200 / hour. Higher grade (HD-quality transfers are also available, but are much more expensive.

Specifically in the genealogical field, Mr. Kahle said that the Internet Archive is involved in creating a free genealogical library – partnering with FamilySearch and the Allen County Library. Recently, the Internet Archive completed digitizing the 1790-1930 Census and making it available for free. They are now working on digitizing passenger records. Soon, they will be announcing a partnership with libraries that will allow for 80,000 e-books to be “loaned” from the library to patrons who are in the library.

For me, this was all powerful, transformative information. But I was most interested in Mr. Kahle’s discussion of print-on-demand digital bookmobiles, which can provide books as people need them, at a very low cost. (One example was that Alice in Wonderland costs about $1 to print and bind.) According to Mr. Kahle, a Harvard study has shown that it takes a library $3 to loan a book, so $1 to give a book away should be a reasonable price. This is being used to provide printed books free in India, Egypt, and Uganda.

One of the most moving portions of the discussion was the fact that the Internet Archive has doubled, to more than 1 million, the number of books available to the blind and text-disabled in the DAISY format for automated readers.

A key issue for any archive, Mr. Kahle pointed out is institutional responsibility: How long, and at what level can a company, or any institution be trusted to store information. He told us not to trust that Flickr, Google, or even his non-profit would be around, or make the right decisions when it counted. So, his recommendation is to not only have one copy in one institution. He said that the Library in Alexandria burned, yes, but it already had lost many of the important texts that it had gathered because of institutional neglect: “the new guys didn’t like the old stuff around.”

In 2002, the Internet Archive handed 200 TB of their data to the Library of Alexandria, which reciprocated with their collection of digitized Arabic materials. These kinds of large scale swap agreements are critical to the redundancy needed to ensure that we do not have another loss similar to what we lost at Alexandria, books by Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides … At this point, the whole Internet Archive is stored in three locations: San Francisco, Alexandria, and Amsterdam. Mr. Kahle acknowledged that an earthquake zone, the Middle East, and a flood plain were perhaps not the best choices, but they were not planning on stopping there.

For us, as genealogists, Mr. Kahle poses the following questions, which should make us think hard about the responsibility we have to take care of our data and documents:

  • Can we learn the stories of our ancestors?
  • Will our descendants know our story?

The RootsTech conference was a great success. More than 3,000 attendees were there, making it one of the biggest, if not the biggest genealogy gathering in the US. Next year, the second RootsTech conference will be held at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah from 2-4 February. I plan to be there.