Commercial Genealogy Websites
by Steve Paul Johnson, July 10, 1999
With the ever-increasing popularity
of the Internet, more and more genealogy websites are charging access
fees. Should we be concerned about this?
Quite often during discussions on a newsgroup or mailing list,
the bashing of commercial genealogy websites come up.
Should we be so judgmental of commercial genealogy sites? I suppose
it depends on the site's motives. Ok, you say that the motive is
to make money. Well certainly. But what separates one site from
another is in the quality of the service it provides.
A site that takes your money and then closes up before providing
you with any benefit, is certainly a scam. I have visited some of
these websites. There are also internet genealogy societies
that ask you for a contribution, and in exchange, grant you membership.
However, as it turns out, membership in some of these "societies"
doesn't give you much except for an occasional e-mail; you still
have to pay extra to access their resources!
However, I have visited others that charge a nominal fee and make
a good faith effort to serve the average "net genie".
The argument I most often hear is that, "genealogical data should
be free for everyone to access." I agree to some extent. From what
I've seen so far, however, the "honest" commercial genealogy
sites are not necessarily charging for the data, but charging for
the search services. A site may take several databases and link
them all together into one search engine. Or, another site may take
hundreds of thousands of GEDCOM files, and put them into one large
super-GEDCOM file, and put a search engine on it.
These sites are not trying to own the data they collect. I don't
believe anyone can really "own" genealogical data. To me, this really
is public domain information. Rather, it is the service of finding
the data, which is what these sites are charging for.
For example, if you were to go to a family history library to find
out who your great-grandfather's parents were, you might spend weeks
and months, researching through all of the records. If you are not
skilled enough, or you do not have enough free time, it could take
years. So, you might a hire a professional genealogist, who will
dedicate his or her time on finding the answer. The professional
might visit the same library, or visit several other libraries.
Whether or not the genealogist has found the information, you must
still pay them for their research services.
This is similar to a commercial genealogy website. The search engine
is the electronic genealogist that you are paying to find information
across all the databases. Whether or not you find the information
you are looking for, you must still pay for the search service.
In fact, for several decades, amateur and professional genealogists
have been buying books of genealogy data. Who has not purchased
a book of census records, cemetery records, marriage records, etc.?
And now days, they are on CD-ROM. Who has not purchased the same
stuff on CD-ROM? It's no different than paying access fees
to a website.
On the other hand, I would not pay money to a website that did
not offer any kind of intuitive search and cross-referencing tools.
Just like you wouldn't pay money to enter a library, and then still
have to spend months or years finding the information yourself.
Be careful when spending money on a genealogy website. The search
engines are limited to the databases they have on-line. Whereas,
a professional genealogist will use the whole world as their database.
Furthermore, a genealogist is only as good as his or her research
skills, just like a commercial genealogy website is only as good
as it's search and cross-referencing capabilities.
Before you give your money to a website, ask other people you meet
(in chat rooms, newsgroups, e-mail lists, etc.) about the site.
Don't be fooled by "money back guarantees" either. It's tough to
go to a website and demand your money back. It's not like you can
visit a physical store, stand in front of the clerk and put them
on the spot. E-mail can only do so much, and is easy to delete.
Imagine if you were a store clerk, and all you had to do to make
an irate customer go away is to hit their delete button? That is
the advantage of operating of a commercial website.
In any case, there is nothing much different about spending money
on a commercial genealogy site, than to spend money on a book or
professional genealogist. The basic premise is all the same. With
the popularity of the Internet, it is expected to see money being
made. What you are buying is Convenience. You just need to
make sure that the service is worthwhile.
- Steve Paul Johnson [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and is the webmaster
of Cemetery Records on the Internet.