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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 [steve@cleardigitalmedia.com]

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and is the webmaster of Cemetery Records on the Internet.

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