Wednesday, August 20, 2008

JewishGen-Ancestry deal called an alignment of interests

The big news at this year's IAJGS meeting was the Tuesday night announcement of an alliance between and While an announcement was expected, the details of the relationship go deeper than I had imagined.

Under the deal, Ancestry will make much of the content of JewishGen databases freely available on the Ancestry site, develop new search capabilities that will make that data more accessible, and take over the hosting of JewishGen's site. Except for technical services, JewishGen will continue to operate independently.

The deal gives Ancestry instant credibility as a repository of international and U.S. Jewish historical and genealogical records. For JewishGen, it provides a robust technology platform for future growth, along with a modest flow of income coming a one-time payment and ongoing affiliate revenue share.

Jewish genealogists and researchers are expected to benefit from the integration of JewishGen content and Ancestry technologies. Perhaps that accounted for the palpable buzz in the main conference ballroom Tuesday night before the announcement. Many Jewish genealogists have something of a love-hate relationship with Ancestry, the world's leading commercial genealogy site. Clearly something big was in the works that went beyond the advertised subject of the session, "The Jewish Collection at"

The first one up to announce the news was David Rinn, chief financial officer for The Generations Network, parent company of Ancestry. com. At first, I wondered why the CFO instead of the CEO, until Rinn began to display his own Jewish family tree. He emphasized that he was speaking both as an executive employee of TGN but also as a user of Ancestry and JewishGen.

He frankly acknowledged the current limitations of Ancestry's Jewish resources, which contain more than 9 million records but are mainly limited to collections from the United States. Rinn ticked off the many international projects that the company has underway, but then said that as a Jewish researcher "I would consider suspending my Ancestry account until it provided eastern European content."

Rinn's family history and candid comment began to warm up skeptics in the audience, many presumably wondering how Ancestry's aggressively commercial business model might mesh with JewishGen's community ethic. He emphasized that JewishGen content will be accessible for free in front of the Ancestry "paid wall," but that advanced search capabilities and other special features would be added value for Ancestry subscribers.

Then he turned over the podium to David Marwell, the director of JewishGen's parent organization, The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Here is the gist of Marwell's remarks:

Earlier in the conference, JewishGen founder Susan King had been honored. Now begins a new chapter in the life of JewishGen. It was a long negotiation conducted with good will on both sides. The principles of the deal: (1) records remain free and freely accessible, (2) provide a stable technical foundation, (3) provide more data more quickly.

While Ancestry and JewishGen have differing business models, the deal is possible because of a happy coincidence of interests. Ancestry opens a major new market for selling its services. JewishGen gets a technology platform that ensures its future. In addition, JewishGen gets unspecified compensation in the deal, plus will get a percentage of revenue from future Ancestry signups referred from JewishGen.

The technical deal is for so-called pipe and power. They provide the servers and the bandwidth. JewishGen will administer its own site but may get help from Ancestry in improving the JewishGen user experience.

Marwell ended by thanking various members of JewishGen leadership with their help in reaching this important agreement. Then Rinn recapped the news and handed the session over to Ancestry indexing director Crista Cowan for a deeper dive into Ancestry's plans for its new Jewish collection.

I won't describe her full talk, other than to say the future she described of Ancestry features overlaid on JewishGen content is pretty compelling. Ancestry provides myriad capabilities that would greatly enhance the user experience and success rate.

Of course, that will all happen on the other side of Ancestry's wall. Clearly the company's goal is to get as many Jewish genealogists as they can to cough up $30 a month or $150 a year to gain those benefits. How many do so will depend on how much added value Ancestry can provide with its fuzzy searches, community features and sharing tools.

My take is that this is a fair proposition, as long as the playing field stays open. If Ancestry can wow me with its added value, I can choose to pay their fee, but I haven't lost any access if I choose not to.

However, I have to say I'm leery that Ancestry may use its market position to lock in customers. I can use lots of different services, but I want to have one location for my master family file. If Ancestry's service is good enough to convince me to maintain my tree there (or integrated with TGN's Family Tree Maker), will I ever be able to migrate off of it? Am I buying into a life-long financial commitment?

I'm sure these questions and others will be asked at a JewishGen general session Wednesday evening. I am leaving today at 5 pm, so I'll miss that, but I'll keep an eye on the email lists in upcoming days to gauge the user reaction to this important announcement.

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