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Genealogical Typosquatting — Two Annoying Examples

Posted On: May 23rd, 2009 | Posted by: Dean


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: New.FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.

New FamilySearch

Genealogy enthusiasts attempting to visit the LDS Church’s eventual replacement for FamilySearch.org might be excused for mistakenly typing the URL into their browser as NewFamilySearch.org. 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.

Ancestry.com

Here’s a second example. Suppose you’d heard of Ancestry.com 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¬† “www.ancestery.com” into your browser, this is what would come up:

Ancestery.com

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 Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com.

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.

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