Q&A Recap with Geni CEO Noah Tutak

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This past Monday, August 22, 2011, Geni CEO Noah Tutak appeared on a special episode of GeneaBloggers Radio to discuss some of the recent changes in how Geni works for both their free (Basic) users and their paid (Pro) users as well as the reaction to such changes. You can click here to listen to the recorded episode.

Several bloggers and others in the genealogy community have asked for a summary of the talking points from the episode. Below are the question I asked during the show – I forwarded the list to Tutak after the show and asked him to provide answers if possible.

I want to point out that these are not the transcribed answers from the broadcast.  The cost of transcribing the episode is just out of my reach. So if you listen to the episode and try to match up the exact answers, it isn’t going to happen. I ask that we as a community focus on the dialog and the conversation that continues to take place with Geni and on the subject of genealogy websites and the concept of a collaborative world family tree.

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Can you give our listeners a brief overview of what Geni is? Perhaps a quick “elevator speech” for the product?

Geni’s mission is to create a single family tree of the entire world. We’ve built a platform that people can use to document their family history, meet new relatives, and share research. Ultimately, as your family tree grows, it will be merged with other overlapping trees. You then get the benefit of the combined research of thousands of people who share your ancestors.

Let’s discuss the recent changes at Geni. Again, a brief summary as to what has changed for both Basic (Free) users and Pro (Paying) users as of August 11, 2011.

Geni has a simple privacy model – each profile is either public or private. Only close relatives (3rd great grandparents and closer, and 4th cousins and closer) can view and edit private profiles. Anyone can view public profiles, but the editing permissions on public profiles were complicated before the recent changes. Due to this complexity, a user had just enough permission to “tangle” the tree by merging duplicate branches, but not enough permission to clean it up after the fact. Now, anyone that can add to the public parts of the tree can also merge any existing duplicates and clean up any other duplicates after the merge. The goal is to reduce duplication and increase the quality of the data on Geni. As of August 11th, public editing and merging permissions are part of a Pro account. Basic users can still edit any public profile they added to Geni, but they are now required to upgrade in order to add additional public profiles.

In many of the communications from Geni over the past week or so, we’ve heard mention of the “world family tree” or a “collaborative family tree.” Again, what in your mind, or Geni’s vision is such a tree?

Our motto is “Everyone’s Related.” Unfortunately, genealogists spend a lot of time on research that has already been done by someone else who shares the same relative you are researching. By combining all of this research into one tree that everyone can access and work on together, genealogists can spend their time on original research and conclusions. We think this is a better way to do genealogy.

Do you think that the genealogy consumer wants a collaborative tree? What are the advantages? Are there disadvantages that you see to such a tree?

Working with others on the same tree is definitely a paradigm shift for a lot of people. Some people understand the value right away and completely buy into the vision. Other people are skeptical, but I believe that over time the benefits will become clear, and ultimately, a single shared tree is inevitable.

How long has Geni as a product been available to users? Was the collaborative family tree always part of Geni’s mission or at some point did Geni decide to shift gears and become more of a site where users uploaded information to a collaborative tree rather than work on their own family tree shared with close family members?

Geni launched publicly in January 2007. The mission has always been to create the World Family Tree. In fact, if you read the blog post announcing the launch (http://www.geni.com/blog/geni_launches-36151.html), the mission is clearly stated in the very first sentence: “Hi and welcome to Geni, a new website with an ambitious goal: to create a family tree of the whole world!”

With over 6.5 million users, and more than 110 million profiles, almost 60 million of which are connected together in one single tree, I think we’ve made pretty good progress toward our stated goal.

The reaction to the changes Geni has put in place have been . . . well as you described by own post at GeneaBloggers last week, “passionate and honest.” Some would say overly negative. Are we dealing with a small but vocal group of dissatisfied Geni users or is this more pervasive? Why aren’t we hearing more from the Pro users who supposedly are benefitting from the recent changes?

One thing that Geni has always had is a passionate, vibrant user community. Over the last four years we’ve done a lot to encourage this community and give it a voice. We spend a lot of time listening to feedback from the community, but we also look at hard data. So far the data has shown that these changes are having exactly the impact that we had hoped, with more merges, fewer new duplicates and more subscribers. We haven’t seen any data that indicates that a significant number of users are unhappy with these changes.

Why the change now? Has this been planned for some time or is it a reaction to pressures from VC funding and investors? To be honest, many feel that Geni was ill prepared to launch such changes and didn’t take the time to test the waters via focus groups and other interaction with its core users and the genealogy community.

We’ve been working on making changes along these lines for some time now.  We have a lengthy product roadmap, and we simply felt it was the right time to make these changes for the benefit of both past and future efforts.

Is the phrase “Geni has set the bar in such a way so that anyone who can afford their product become the “experts” who can manage the tree entries and merge data. Having the ability to pay does not an expert make.”

We have found that there is a high correlation between users actively engaged in contributing to the tree and users that find enough value in Geni to upgrade to a Pro account. Obviously this system is not perfect, but it works pretty well, and also ensures that Geni is a viable business that will be around for a long time to come. We know that hosting the world family tree is a serious responsibility, and part of that responsibility is ensuring that we remain a viable business. We want to make sure that your relatives stay around indefinitely.

In terms of backlash, do you think that users might migrate back to desktop software for tracking their personal genealogy and be skittish about sharing information?

We believe that desktop software will coexist with Geni for at least a few more years. In fact, we are working with a number of partners, such as AncestorSync, on improving the experience for users who choose to use desktop software in addition to Geni. We’re very happy if people combine the power of desktop software with Geni’s collaborative platform.

Do you think that over time, Geni users and the genealogy community will come to better understand Geni’s mission and embrace the concept of a collaborative world tree for genealogy?

Absolutely. In fact, I believe it’s inevitable. When wikipedia first launched, everyone dismissed it as a joke. The general public doesn’t question the concept of a crowdsourced encyclopedia anymore. Over time, as users better understand the advantages of our model, the world family tree will continue to improve as a resource within the genealogy community.

Could you have handled the changes and the aftermath better? If you had a “do over” what would you do differently?

Yes! We are a very fast moving company. Once we set our minds on something, we turn it around very quickly. Sometimes we move too fast for our own good. We’ve certainly spent some time internally discussing how we can better communicate future changes to our community. We think communication is key, and it is something will always strive to improve.

Tell us where you see Geni one year from today in terms of product, services, and user community.

We will work hard to continue to improve the platform and roll out new features that make Geni an even better collaborative genealogy platform. Geni will gain increased acceptance in the genealogy community, and our API partners will enable you to use your Geni data with a number of interesting services, providing even more value for people who choose to contribute their data to Geni.

In one year, the tree will be bigger and, more importantly, much more accurate. As is evident by these recent changes, we are firmly committed to quality over quantity. You can follow the progress of the world family tree here: http://www.geni.com/worldfamilytree.

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Disclosure:  Please see Disclosure Statements for more information on my material connection with genealogy vendors and organizations.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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