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Does Ancestry Really Work? Is Ancestry a Scam and a Rip Off?

Ancestry.com quietly announced, via press release, a major investment of $2.6 billion dollars by Silver Lake and GIC - has Ancestry just been sold?

Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee discusses user claims that Ancestry and other genealogy websites are just out to scam and rip-off customers.

A common question I am asked when I tell someone that, for a living, I help others find their ancestors, is this: “Does Ancestry really work?”

And my answer? “Yes, if you understand how the website and genealogy research work.”

Lately, and especially with Ancestry’s free access offer over the past Labor Day weekend, I’ve heard in person, received via email, or read the following statements on social media:

  • Ancestry is a rip off. They are charging for access to records that should be free.
  • Ancestry free access is a scam. You have to set up a 14-day free subscription and they count on you “forgetting” to cancel.
  • Ancestry preys on old people through its “auto-renewal” options.
  • Ancestry forced me to use the “New Ancestry” to see the latest free records and then they forced me to use New Ancestry for all my other research going forward.

Having worked in the genealogy industry for years, NONE of these oft-heard claims are true. The fact is that most users of Ancestry don’t do their homework before they begin using the product and have unrealistic expectations as to how genealogy and family history research really works. The same is true of ANY genealogy website offering access to records and the ability to build an online family tree.

Read the Terms of Service

As a user of any website, even if you don’t “sign up,” your activity and access are governed by that site’s Terms of Services (TOS). Before you go through the trouble of surrendering your contact information or revealing your credit card info, read the TOS. Everything will be outlined and usually in “plain language” instead of legalese.

If the terms are not agreeable, then don’t use the website. It’s that simple.

The Marketing Basics of “Free Stuff”

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But do you know the origins of that phrase? In the early 1900s, many bars would cater to working men by advertising a free sandwich with purchase of a beer. Of course, you didn’t always get a wide choice, and the sandwich was so salty that you’d be induced to purchase another beer . . .

Why do genealogy vendors offer free access to records or free downloads? In the world of marketing, these items are called lead magnets. I employ the same concept with many of the “freebies” that I offer. Here is how the process works:

  • You come up with something to give away, such as a PDF document on free genealogy education resources.
  • You’ve invested time in creating this document, and it is likely that you could sell this either online or at a genealogy event for a fixed price. And hopefully, you could sell enough copies to not just cover your costs, but to make a profit.
  • Instead of charging for the document, you opt to provide free access via online download. If you simply post a link to the document in social media, what do you as the creator receive in return? This is where you set the terms of access.
  • For many, the price of the free download is your contact information, mainly your email address. In my case, your email address is added to my e-newsletter mailing list and you can unsubscribe at any time. Your email address has value to me, since I can then contact you with future offers for my publications or any affiliate offers.
  • In other cases, such as a free Amazon Kindle e-book, the “price” is the agreement to allow Amazon to place a tracking cookie on your computer for a 24 hour period. I use this method of marketing as well, most recently with my new book The 15 Habits of Highly Frugal Genealogists. The link is my “affiliate” link and each time a user clicks it, through that cookie, I have the potential of earning up to 8.5% of any Amazon sales generated through a user’s purchases. Often, the income generated will be much more than the income from a simple sale of the book.
  • And even if a download were totally free with none of these marketing mechanisms, at the very least the provider is building “good will” with you, a potential consumer of their products. The next time you shop for a genealogy-related item, you may think “I’ll go check out the __________ website. I remember they have had some great free content lately.”

“Ancestry Free” on Ancestry’s Terms

Ancestry is in the process of migrating its users to New Ancestry complete with a new look and new features. While debates still rage as to the usefulness and need for New Ancestry, the fact is that Ancestry has every right to control how its users access its data.

Personally, I think that requiring the recent free access for United States Wills and Probates via New Ancestry was an effective way of introducing the new features to various user populations. I’m also certain that in the background, Ancestry was collecting data as to how long users stayed on specific pages, how many converted back to Old Ancestry etc.

Many users stated that much of the Wills and Probate collection data being offered for free was available via FamilySearch. This was partially true: the images were available, but the index was not. For many record sets, there seems to be a second access point, so it is advised to search for another website with the records if you aren’t happy with the access terms offered by a website.

And It’s Not Just Ancestry . . .

Now that you understand the marketing techniques used by Ancestry, you should realize that ALL of the major genealogy vendors including MyHeritage, FindMyPast and others employ the same mechanisms to attract new users and especially new paying subscribers.

At a minimum, you will need to set up a free account that is validated via e-mail. And it is likely you will be added to a marketing email list, although you should be able to unsubscribe and/or opt out of the list at some point.

At a maximum, you’ll need to sign up for a trial offer and enter your credit card information. If you forget to cancel your membership within a specific period, you’ll be charged for membership, usually for a full year. In addition, your account will be set to “auto-renewal” meaning that you will be charged the prevailing price for membership each year on your account anniversary date.

Most offers will require that you “give something” to “get something.” Above, the “give” is your contact information. For the recent offer to access the new Wills and Probates collection at Ancestry, the “give” was to switch from Old Ancestry to New Ancestry.

Again, just like the Terms of Service, it is your responsibility to understand the offer being made by the vendor and what is required of you in order to comply and access free content.

Ancestry and Most Genealogy Websites Are NOT Scams

I’m convinced that the price of Ancestry’s success in the genealogy industry is, unfortunately, being paid by the entire genealogy community: finding your ancestors is pitched as an easy thing to do, and success is all but promised. But this makes sense from a marketing standpoint, doesn’t it? Who would sign up for a product that was difficult to use? And on the flip side, if Ancestry or any genealogy research website were easy to use, I and many other genealogy educators would be out of business. Even through the creation of the new Ancestry Academy, Ancestry admits that genealogy takes work.

And we need new people in genealogy, right? If we didn’t have newcomers, we wouldn’t have people building new trees, adding new information and sharing new evidence, even if some of it is erroneous.

There is no easy button in genealogy. And this is not a bad thing. Genealogy for me, and for many, is fulfilling. It has sustained me through very tough times by connecting me to my ancestors. For some of us, it even allows us a spiritual and religious connection with those who came before us.

If genealogy research were easy I just don’t think it would have meaning. And anything with meaning that requires effort on your part, usually means you need to educate yourself and gather up all the facts before making a decision to move forward.

©2015, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.

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