Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ancestry.com (TGN) Town Hall Webinar - From My Viewpoint - May 2009

Last night, I listened to Ancestry.com's first Town Hall webinar live. Apparently only World Deluxe Ancestry subscribers were invited to attend and we were promised "unprecedented access to senior management at Ancestry.com. We will share important news about your membership and outline the direction for the remainder of 2009, including key web site and and collections projects. We will also take time to address questions from you, our loyal members..." Quote link

Now I'm not that familar with the idea of 'town hall meetings' but my understanding is that usually at a 'town hall' most anyone can attend, ask questions, voice opinions, and engage officials and politicians in discussion and debate. This was not that kind of meeting - each Ancestry.com participant gave us a presentation about their area, but as mentioned above there was an opportunity to send questions in. A few of these were answered in a question and answer period towards the end of the webinar. We heard that about 1,000 people attended this session and that 500 questions were sent.

I did take notes, and hope I am presenting the information given faithfully. This post, however, may very well be my own idiosyncratic take on things. We were told this Town Hall webinar will be available on-line for viewing in a few days. I'll post that URL/web address here when I know it.

Oddly, I never received an invitation, although I've been a World Deluxe subscriber forever, I think. That didn't put me off - I found the registration URL and was able to register. I had also sent a note to Ancestry and was e-mailed the same registration information the day of the webinar. No explanation as to why I wasn't on the list though.

The invitation I saw on-line posted by DearMRYTLE said: This is an exclusive opportunity to shape the direction of Ancestry.com and be heard. Strong stuff!

Participants in the webinar were:

Timothy P. Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer, The Generations Network (TGN, aka Ancestry.com)

Andrew Wait, TGN Senior Vice President, General Manager of Family History

Gary Gibb, TGN Vice President, U.S. Content

Eric Shoup, TGN Vice President, Product

and as DearMYRTLE notes, these were the same Ancestry.com executives that met with the group of genealogy bloggers invited to a 'secret' Ancestry session early in January of this year. Here is a link to a list of posts describing and discussing that visit.

A few things struck me during and after the presentations.

I don't really remember anything specific about memberships or exclusive opportunities to shape Ancestry? Perhaps I missed something there.

I did notice that some recent complaints about Ancestry's customer service hours were mentioned and - really - dismissed. Some Ancestry searches didn't work correctly at all last month on a weekend and subscribers asked on the Ancestry message boards why there was no weekend or 24 hour/7 day a week service. The answer given during the webinar was that Ancestry's customer service staff are all very experienced people who "need normal lives" and it's just not possible to hire people from Mumbai in India to do this job. Not sure I want to comment in print on this except to say that most days I think of myself as a normal, experienced genealogist and during my various careers, I've worked lots of weekends and many nights!

Gary Gibb did mention new Canadian material is coming but said he was under a "gag order" about that. A schedule for Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and Ancestry/TGN census projects is up on-line and gives the dates when various years of page images and indexes will be available free on-line at LAC. I was very disappointed not to hear yesterday when the 1861/1871 census images and indexes will be available at Ancestry. And, of course, LAC and other Canadian archives and libraries have many more Canadian resources that could be digitized. Nothing specific was mentioned about new projects here in Canada.

One of the most intriguing points made, I thought, was by Andrew Wait, who said that Ancestry now is in regular communication with a group of its most "passionate critics" everyday? I do wonder, of course, who these people are. Could some of the 'secret' genealogy bloggers be involved? That might explain why critical comments about that session seemed generally muted.

Overall, I thought all Ancestry (TGN) participants stressed four things in this webinar -

First and foremost, that Ancestry.com is an experienced provider of genealogical material with a considerable investment in technology and other assets and that the top executives and indeed all of Ancestry.com's employees are 'real' people who care about genealogy and family history.

Second, that Ancestry knows that continuing to present new 'content' is vital and that new content is indeed coming, particularly for the US, but also in other areas, including Canada, Germany and England and Wales. Some will see more of the same types of records, additional jia pu for China, for instance. It does not sound as it Ancestry will be expanding to other geographical areas though (Poland was mentioned in this regard) and there was some discussion of the difficulties in finding appropriate collections and getting permission to use them.

Third, that the many complaints about the more technical side of Ancestry, poor date and place results from broad searches, for example, have or are being dealt with. Just last week, a 'lifespan' or date filter was introduced (yes, this does seem to work!) and a place filter will be on-line later this year. (Excellent news! We will soon forget how long we've been asking about this, I'm sure.) And image collections are being enhanced to improve their readability - something for us over 50s who make up the bigger portion of Ancestry subscribers !

Fourth, that Ancestry is planning to offer members more opportunities to contribute to the site and to assist others. Eric Shoup spoke about this - saying that Ancestry has 3 themes - connecting members and content; members helping members; and improving the overall user experience.

The TGN World Archives Project was mentioned; members are already indexings records but this will be in full swing later this month; Ancestry's member messaging service has been improved; a way for both 'professional' and experienced amateurs to offer their genealogical services will soon be introduced (this will be Ancestry's soon to be announced ExpertConnect which has been quite hotly debated in some circles).

And, very soon we will be able to correct and add to indexes and transcriptions as we view record images. (Currently we can offer only transcription corrections to names.) This I found one of the most interesting things in this session.

The other thing I felt was most interesting was the great emphasis on member contributed content - in the family trees. Gary Gibb told us five million records were attached to Ancestry trees last week - in "five million magic moments". By the summer there will be a new, easier to navigate tree viewer. Now these contributions, like the member indexing, provide new, and 'free', content for Ancestry, but I think this emphasis is also a response to the great popularity and unique ideas at Footnote.com, an strong Ancestry rival, I suspect, at least in the field of US records.

For the most part I found the Ancestry.com Town Hall webinar worth listening to. It certainly wasn't as lively as the webinar I hear in 2008 about the then new 'search experience'. (For example, from yesterday, I probably don't really need to know how many people work for Ancestry, but I believe I understand why that information was presented.)

I use Ancestry every day - as things are I wouldn't want to do without it - but I do think Ancestry still has a ways to go in responding to subscribers' (customers!) comments and questions, and yes, complaints.

The blogs, webinars, surveys and Ancestry's attendance at larger conferences are all good avenues, particularly for information, but the personal touch is often a bit lacking or even heavy handed. I note, for example, that Ancestry's recent removal of a new Rootsweb e-mail list for the discussion of topics relating to Ancestry.com was not discussed. That list is now active elsewhere. I don't remember RootsWeb being mentioned by name at all, in fact, nor anything about a very recent discussion on-line about difficulties in locating and using unidexed material at Ancestry.com. See Randy Seaver's post at his blog, GeneaMusing and DearMYRTLE's too.

However, I am sure that all the questions that were submitted are being looked at and since this was Ancestry's first Town Hall meeting, I'll be looking forward to more meetings of the same kind, but I hope with more active participation from members.


Randy Seaver said...

Good report, thanks! For the record, I went to the January meeting and have NOT been consulted daily by A.com people. I have been interviewed several times about search techniques. I don't think that the January meeting has prevented me from moaning and whining about a.com when necessary ;)

Cheers -- Randy

M. Diane Rogers said...

I've been reading your recent posts about searches and about the unindexed material at Ancestry.com (TGN) with great interest, Randy! Hope Ancestry is learning from your articles too - for instance, they could make those unindexed resources more accessible now even if they intend to have them indexed soon. And yes, even 'loyal members' sometimes need to question and complain!