Archive for May, 2009

Location, Location, Location…

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

The three most important things for a successful retail establishment? Or  for selling real estate? That’s right:

  1. Location
  2. Location
  3. Location

Over the past year and a half, I’ve staffed the Genlighten exhibit booth at more than 20 genealogy conferences in the US, Canada, and Europe. It turns out that (surprise!) location matters for a genealogy vendor just like it does for other businesses.

We’ve seen the most traffic when our booth has been:

  • close to the entrance to the exhibit area
  • within a few steps of the conference workshop classrooms
  • next to the booth of a well-established vendor such as Footnote or  Moorshead Publishing
  • in a place where tired conference-goers tend to congregate, such as near a snack bar or seating area.

At NGS in Raleigh, we were close to the exhibit area entrance AND right across from the FamilySearch folks. At the SCGS Jamboree last year, we were close to an entrance and right next to the booth. At some smaller state or county-level conferences, we’ve sometimes had our booth in the same room that the presenters were speaking. The results have been excellent in all these cases.

But things haven’t always worked out well for us. At this year’s Ontario Genealogical Society conference, we’re in a particularly remote spot. Vendors here are divided up into two separate locations, both positioned far from the conference classrooms. To get to either area, attendees have to follow a serpentine path through the hallways of the Sheridan College student center. The organizers have put up lots of helpful signs, but I still see lots of people with lost looks on their faces asking for directions.


What’s’ more, we’re in the far back corner of a nightclub-like venue, to the side of the stage where visiting bands perform for the students here when school’s in session. When I first noticed this on the conference website, I consoled myself by noting that our table would be right next to the ladies’ restroom, which struck me as a potential high-traffic area. Unfortunately, however, the door to the restroom is labeled — get this! — “Dirty Girl”. As you can imagine, it hasn’t been well-patronized!

On the bright side, the exhibit areas and the dorm-style residence areas have free wireless access, and there’s been complimentary breakfast each morning as well. Visitors who have managed to find our booth have been friendly and positive, as always. And Ontario Genealogical Society volunteers have gone out of their way to accommodate us.

The next conference we’ll be attending is the Colorado Family History Expo. Look for us at Booth 305 (near the entrance, and next door to Generation Maps.)

Benjamin Swetland, Fife Major

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

I’m a little late on the Memorial Day “blog about your ancestor who served in the military” meme. But my wife happened to search Google Books this morning for my 4th great-Grandfather Benjamin Swetland, and she came across a nice find. The Connecticut DAR published a book entitled “Chapter Sketches: Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution; Patriots’ Daughters” in 1904.


Beginning on page 250, there’s an article highlighting Benjamin Swetland’s life and military career. Among some of the highlights:

  • Benjamin served as a fife major in the Third Massachusetts Regiment during the revolutionary war
  • He claims to have been an “Eye Witness” to “the Surrender of Gen. Burgoin at Saratoga in the year 1777″
  • He copied a tune for the fife entitled “God Save The Congress” — a patriotic version of “God Save the King” into his roster book.
  • He later composed “A New Song”, which implored the government to “shake off your slothfulness” and give the “brave boys” the support they needed.
  • A musket he carried during the war and warming pan belonging to him were in the possession of a Mrs. William G. Mayer of Waterville, NY as of 1904.
  • Benjamin’s Roster Book, from which some of the images in this post originated, was evidently presented to the Chicago Historical Society at some point.


We’d encountered a number of sources discussing Benjamin and his descendants before, but this one provided details we’d not been aware of previously. Sounds like a visit to the Chicago Historical Society should be on our agenda soon!

Bibliographic details from Google Books:
Chapter Sketches: Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution; Patriots' Daughters
By Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution,  Mary Philotheta Root,  Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution
Published by Connecticut chapters, Daughters of the American revolution, 1904
Original from the New York Public Library
Digitized Feb 26, 2008
390 pages

Another Week, Another Genealogy Conference

Monday, May 25th, 2009


I’m off to the Ontario Genealogical Society’s 2009 provincial conference this coming week. The event will be held at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, about 35 km down the QEW from the Toronto airport. Genlighten’s booth will be in the Marketplace 1 area of the Student Center.

I’m looking forward to catching up with the friendly folks at Moorshead Magazines, publishers of Family Chronicle and Internet Genealogy. They took me to dinner at last year’s OGS conference, so it’s my turn this time.

I’m also looking forward to having Internet access in the exhibitor area. After I returned home from last year’s event I opened my wireless bill to discover that I’d incurred hundreds of dollars in wireless broadband roaming charges. I’d had to use my Verizon broadband modem for web access since no Internet connectivity was available in the college gym where the vendors were located. This time, we’ve been told that we’ll have access to Sheridan College’s network. I’m optimistic that will work out, especially given the conference’s title — “From the Printed Page to the Digital Age”.

If you’re planning on attending, please stop by our booth. We’ll have plenty of Dove chocolate to share!

Genealogical Typosquatting — Two Annoying Examples

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

One of the things our recent AdWords experiment has helped us understand is that in trying to advertise a genealogy website, good keywords are hard to find. Or rather, search terms that are both popular and relevant for a website like Genlighten tend to be few and far between.

I’ve also been amused to discover how the curious phenomenon of typosquatting plays out in the online genealogy marketplace. Let me focus on two familiar examples: and

New FamilySearch

Genealogy enthusiasts attempting to visit the LDS Church’s eventual replacement for might be excused for mistakenly typing the URL into their browser as But this turns out to point to a site that has nothing whatsoever to do with New FamilySearch:

Typosquatting example: fake NFS page

Instead, the site is a bland collection of generic stock images and carefully-chosen keyword links, each of which points to a page filled with Google Adsense Ads. If the unwitting genealogist looking for NewFamilySearch clicks on the link “LDS Genealogy Search”, for example, they’ll see this page:

Adsense click harvest page

which is populated prominently with various paid ads from genealogy websites: some highly reputable and others less so. If the confused visitor clicks on one of these ads, the owner of the typosquatting site immediately earns a few pennies (or perhaps more) from Google.

You might say to yourself “This can’t possibly work — no one would ever fall for this. There’s no FamilySearch logo, no nothing.” And you’d be right. Yet sites like this make money precisely because otherwise intelligent people fall for this scheme hundreds of times per day.

In fact,in a March 14th article about New FamilySearch in the Deseret News, the author originally posted a link to this typosquatting site and included an image similar to the one above with the smiling co-ed. This in a newspaper owned by the LDS Church, the developer of New FamilySearch! Shortly after I pointed this out in an email to the paper, the mistake was corrected and the correct link and screenshot substituted for that of the typosquatter. But that’s how well the typosquatting strategy apparently works.

Here’s a second example. Suppose you’d heard of from their ads and wanted to find their site but weren’t sure how to spell “Ancestry”. If you added a single extra “e” in the last syllable and typed  “” into your browser, this is what would come up:

Here at least the owners of the site went to the effort to use some halfway-relevant graphics. But good luck finding the 1930 census here! Once again, the site is simply a list of links reflecting the most popular Google search terms relating to genealogy. Clicking on any of them leads to a page full of Adsense ads. If you happened to find an ad from there, and clicked on that, you’d finally be brought to the real Ancestry site. But only after Google and the site owner made about $0.50-$1.00 from The Generations Network, owner of

So How Does This Impact Me?

Well of course, you and I would never make these errors, right? Well… maybe you wouldn’t, but here’s the thing. Sites like Ancestry and Footnote have to assume that many of their potential customers will make these kinds of mistakes. That increases the amount of money they have to spend bidding on keywords, paying for ad placements, acquiring mis-spelled domain names, etc.. Ultimately, that increases the price we end up paying for our Ancestry and Footnote subscriptions!

What about the impact on Genlighten? Though we’re still analyzing the result of our AdWords tests, it looks as if typosquatting sites make life more difficult for us in at least two ways:

  1. They compete in the bidding process for popular keywords that might be relevant for those searching for the offline genealogical documents Genlighten’s providers offer.
  2. Because they essentially hijack their visitors’ search queries while delivering little or no value to genealogy enthusiasts, these sites may end up reducing the “quality score” Google associates with genealogy-related search terms. This in turn can potentially diminish the perceived utility of those searches, making it tougher for sites like Genlighten to be found on the web by potential new users.

But all is not lost… it just means we’ll need to be a little more creative and work a little harder to get our message out. That’s a challenge we’re eager to take on.

Signing Up for Genlighten’s Provider Beta

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

We’ve seen a nice spike in traffic to the last few weeks. The combination of our brief AdWords experiment, last week’s NGS conference, and a mention on Diane Haddad’s Genealogy Insider blog gave us some of the highest one-day unique visitor totals we’ve ever had.

Even better, as part of the traffic surge, a bunch of potential lookup providers have signed on for our upcoming private beta. I’ve been impressed with the experience and expertise these individuals can bring to Genlighten. Here’s a sample:

  • a genealogist with access to extensive records in Pittsburgh / Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
  • a researcher specializing in African American research, Indianapolis records, and Indiana cemeteries
  • a published family historian with 20 years experience and expertise with court records and probate records from Guilford County, North Carolina.

We hope to show them and the hundreds of others who have signed up to be Genlighten providers that we’re building something they’ll be proud to be part of.

How Genlighten Works

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Diane Haddad was kind enough to mention Genlighten on her Genealogy Insider blog today. For those of you who are visiting this blog as a result of Diane’s post, I thought I’d offer a brief overview of “How Genlighten Works”.

First and foremost, we’re an online marketplace for genealogy document research and retrieval services — or genealogy lookups for short.

If you’re looking for specific genealogy documents — death certificates, marriage licenses, obituaries, probate records, etc. — and they’re not already available online, you can use Genlighten to connect with a local researcher who may have access to the documents you want. You can get help from our local researchers — we call them lookup providers — in two different ways.

First, you can search our lookup listings geographically by county. For example, if you need a record for Chicago or elsewhere in Cook County Illinois,  you simply select that locality on our lookup search page. You’ll see a list of our providers and the lookups they offer, their fees, and client ratings they’ve received. If you see a lookup you’re interested in, you’ll click through to get more details, enter the data the provider needs to perform the lookup, and add the lookup to your shopping cart. The provider will then retrieve the document and upload a digital image to the site for you to view and download.

Second, if we don’t currently offer the lookup you’re after, you can submit a custom lookup request. Here you’ll define a document retrieval task you’d like performed, set a target price and a specify a deadline. Our providers will be alerted to your request and submit quotes. You can then choose from among them the one that best meets your needs. Providers can’t see each others’ quotes, so there’s less chance of a “race to the bottom”.

Our site is still not fully operational yet, and we won’t be open to a wide audience for another month or two. For now, you can register to be invited to our private beta. We’ll send you an invite code when the site is ready for you to try out. If you have questions in the meantime, please feel free to click on the “Contact” link above for ways you can get in touch with us. If you’re interested in becoming one of our lookup providers, you’re welcome to download a copy of our free Provider “How To” Guide. Thanks!

Some Results From Our AdWords Experiment

Monday, May 18th, 2009

I mentioned in a previous post that a group of MBA students from Kellogg was helping Genlighten with a Google AdWords experiment. They’re part of an annual competition that’s supposed to help teach participants how Google Ads work. Here’s a snapshot of the results they’ve gotten thus far for their ads aimed at recruiting lookup providers:

Provider Campaign Results

Provider Campaign Results

I’ve only shown three of the most popular variations of the ads they created. The columns to the right summarize some of the key ways of measuring the ads’ impact:

  • “Clicks” is the number of times the ad has been clicked on
  • “Impr.” is the number of times the ad has appeared, either on a search results page or on a website that accepts Google ads.
  • “CTR” is the click-thru rate, basically the the number of clicks divided by the number of impressions. Yup, it’s actually that low.
  • “Cost” is how much we’ve  been charged for the clicks we’ve received. The cost of these ads is running around $0.30-$0.50 per click, sometimes even less. During the early part of the campaign, the team set the maximum amount they were willing to pay per click at $0.50. They’ve since raised that slightly.

These metrics make up one component of the “return on investment” calculation we need to do to decide whether Google AdWords are a good way for Genlighten to recruit providers. The other component is the number of interested providers who sign up to download our Provider “How To” Guide and receive an invitation to our private beta after clicking on one of these ads.

Depending on how we count them, that number is probably about 5. That’s out of 150 total clicks across all variations of the provider-oriented ads. So the “conversion rate” — the percentage of those who come to the site via our ads who express interest in becoming providers — is only about 3%. At $0.50 per click, that means we’ll need to pay about $15 to recruit a single provider.

Is that a good result? It depends on how many lookups that provider is able to get clients to order, obviously. But based on what I know now, I’d be pretty happy if we could reproduce that number consistently. I typically spend several times that to recruit providers at genealogy conferences such as those put on by NGS, NERGC and Family History Expos.

But is the comparison an appropriate one? When someone visits my booth at a genealogy conference and expresses interest in becoming one of our providers, it’s usually pretty clear to me that they’re a) serious and b) qualified. I don’t have any such evidence for those who come to our site via AdWords. And I won’t really know for sure until I see how they perform as providers. That concerns me.

For now, though, I’m pleased with the AdWords experiment and the tremendous amount of data we’ve been able to gain from it. In a subsequent post, I’ll talk about our results in trying to attract lookup clients via AdWords.

I’m curious… what do you think of the ads the Kellogg students composed? Would you have clicked on them had you come across them on a Google search results page or on a genealogy website? Please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

Colorado Family History Expo, June 12th-13th

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Genlighten will be an exhibitor at the Colorado Family History Expo 2009, to be held in Loveland, Colorado June 12th-13th. Stop by booth 305 for a well-deserved chocolate break (if you’re into that kind of thing!) I’d very much enjoy meeting you there.

I’ll be giving three presentations at the Expo:

  • What Family History Center Consultants Should Know about — Friday, 3:00 pm
  • Twitter: A Promising Tool for Genealogy Microblogging — Saturday, 9:30 am
  • Providing Fee-based Lookups Through — Saturday, 11:00 am

This is the first time Family History Expos has put on one of their events in Colorado. I’ve been impressed with their St. George and Mesa Expos in the past, and I anticipate this one will be well worth attending.

I’m particularly excited for the opportunity to recruit lookup providers from Colorado. The web development firm that helped us develop the current front end design for Genlighten — Slice of Lime — is headquartered in Boulder. During our initial discussions of how the site would look, they created wireframes showing sample lookup offerings using fictitious Boulder records and providers. They kidded me (in a nice way) about not having any actual Boulder-area providers signed up yet. I would love to come home from this Expo having met with potential providers not only from Boulder, but from Larimer, Broomfield, Jefferson, and other nearby counties.

When You Google Your Family Tree, Do You Click on the Sponsored Links?

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

For the last several weeks a team of Kellogg MBA students has been experimenting with Google AdWords ads on behalf of Genlighten. It’s been an interesting exercise — by which I mean educational, rather than dramatically successful.

As evidenced by the popularity of books like Dan Lynch’s Google Your Family Tree, a lot of genealogists are using the world’s favorite search engine as a research tool. Here’s what I’m wondering, though: do any of them ever click on the “Sponsored Links” next to their search results?

Try this experiment (in another browser window!) Type the single word “genealogy” [no quotes needed] into Google’s search box. If your experience is like mine, you’ll see one sponsored link (with a shaded background) above your search results, and a list of nine more in a column on the right-hand side of your browser window. Two questions for you: 1) who’s buying these ads; and 2) are you at all tempted to click on any of them?

On my results page for a search on “genealogy”, I see Ancestry’s ad in the number one position (at the top of the page) and ads for, and, among others, along the right-hand edge. Since I’m already familiar with these sites and their costs/benefits, I’m not at all inclined to click on any of their ads.

The ads for sites I’ve never heard of, however, do pique my curiosity some. “Free Genealogy Records” reads one. “Free Genealogy Search” is the headline for the one right below it. I’m not sure why, but my internal “bait and switch” alarm goes off when I see these. What comes up when I click on the ad?

The “landing page” I see after clicking starts off innocuously enough, with a search box that allows me to enter the name of the individual I’m looking for. But the word “free” is noticeably absent. They’ve already dropped that claim. (Turns out I won’t see any results without paying $29.94 first.)

The remainder of the text on the page has an odd ring to it, almost as if it were created by a computer algorithm that was well-trained to compose English text, but didn’t quite pass the Turing Test. For instance, the word “Ancestry” shows up repeatedly, in odd contexts. And then there are those long, repetitive lists of terms such as “<name of state> Genealogy Searches” and “<name of state> Ancestry Search”. What’s going on here?

The answer lies in the arcane field of Search Engine Optimization / Search Engine Marketing (SEO/SEM). The company that purchased the “Free Genealogy Search” ad — for a genealogy search that isn’t free — is simply utilizing techniques that have been demonstrated to produce good results on Google. They’ve included words and phrases in the text on the page that have been shown to be popular with Google users.

The word “Ancestry”, for example, is a very popular search term. Why? If I want to visit, wouldn’t I just type that into my browser’s navigation window? Sounds reasonable, but the data show that many people instead type Ancestry into Google’s search box instead, and since Ancestry’s site pops up as the first search result, they click on that link to be taken to the site.

So the company behind the “Free Genealogy Search” ad simply sprinkles the word Ancestry in seemingly random places on their site, hoping to gain some of the “Google Juice” that Ancestry has invested heavily to obtain. Google is currently being sued by companies seeking to prevent similar attempts to piggyback on their brands’ popularity. [To be fair, I'm not accusing the "Free Genealogy Search" people of any such thing.]

Where am I going with all this? As the founder of a fledgling genealogy-focused web startup that will soon need to attract users, I’m extremely interested in the potential cost of “customer acquisition”. Google ads are appealing to advertisers precisely because they make it easy to determine that cost. Google can tell the advertiser exactly how much they need to pay every time a potential user clicks on one of their ads. Combine that number with the “conversion rate” — the fraction of those who click on the ads who actually sign up for the advertiser’s product — and the customer acquisition cost can be specified with surprising accuracy.

But there’s a big unknown that Google can’t easily eliminate for me as a potential advertiser. Who will click on the ads I might choose to pay for? Will they be the kinds of potential customers who will really grasp what Genlighten is all about? And what if I try to use Google ads to recruit potential lookup providers? Will I risk sacrificing quality for quantity in such cases?

I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Do you click on “sponsored links” — Google AdWords Ads — when you use Google for genealogy research? If so, what has your experience been with those ads? I’d love to hear from you.

NGS 2009 Highlights Thus Far

Friday, May 15th, 2009

I’ve been at the booth basically non-stop this week, so I can’t comment on the numerous cool talks I’m sure have been given. But here are a few of the memorable experiences I’ve had here in Raleigh so far:

  • Stephen Morse stopped by the Genlighten booth for some Dove chocolate [I love it when he does that!]
  • The always-friendly head of a major genealogy magazine firm stopped by to invite me to dinner.
  • A potential lookup provider from Michigan who signed up a year ago wondered aloud in a kind way if we still existed… I reassured him that we did and thanked him for his patience.
  • Several potential providers who I’ve had long conversations with have brought up “this lady in Chicago who’s fantastic at getting death records for me.” Yup, that would be my lovely co-founder.
  • Occasionally when a booth visitor has asked what Genlighten’s all about, I’ve slipped and mentioned one or more of our direct or indirect competitors and how we compare to them. The booth visitors have given me puzzled looks, like they can’t think of anyone else that does what we do. That won’t last, but it’s cool for the time being.
  • Randy Seaver was kind enough to mention my few #ngs09 tweets in a blog post.
  • A senior official at one major site stopped by to discuss a very attractive partnership possibility. Nice…
  • I managed to get my son’s macbook pro to act as a wireless router, allowing my two non-apple notebooks to connect to the web by sharing my broadband data card. Glad I didn’t spring for the $700 wireless connection the convention center wanted me to pay for.

Will there be more tomorrow?  Stay tuned!