Archive for the ‘Genlighten Strategy’ Category

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.

Genealogy: 20 Minutes per Week

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I have a difficult time staying on track with my family history research.  I’ll spend a few hours at it one evening and make some real progress, but by the time I get back to it three weeks later I’ve forgotten where I left off.  As a result, I don’t move forward as efficiently as I could.

I started Genlighten as a partial solution to this challenge.  I hope to reduce the momentum-stealing wait for records held by remote repositories from about 4-6 weeks to more like 4-6 days.  The key to this is building out a network of local researchers with access to those repositories who can retrieve genealogical documents quickly (and affordably.)

Charles Knutson of BYU’s Computer Science Department is building a tool that offers a different solution to the problem of maintaining momentum in genealogy research. He gave a marvelous talk during lunch at the Family History Technology Workshop on Thursday entitled “What Was I Thinking About?  The Dilemma of the Part-Time Genealogist”.  The research paper he based his talk on begins with this abstract:

“What can you possibly do to be productive as a family history researcher in 20 minutes per week?  Our studies suggest that currently the answer is, “Nothing.” In 20 minutes a would-be researcher can’t even remember what happened last week, let alone what they were planning to do next.”

The software engineering class he teaches works each semester to develop “The 20-Minute Genealogist”, a software application that will act as a genealogist’s research companion. Log in and the program will remind you where you left off in your research last week.  It will also suggest promising directions you could pursue today, based on what you were working on before.

This impresses me as a truly innovative and exciting idea. It will be difficult to implement, but tremendously valuable. It sounds like they eventually plan to integrate it into NewFamilySearch several years from now.

In the meantime, I think this idea represents a marvelous business opportunity for a genealogy-savvy startup to tackle.  Prof. Knutson has a company associated with his class already, but I imagine he would welcome some competition.

His course page is available here.

Will new Pro Accounts help Geni become profitable?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Geni logo

It doesn’t appear to be mentioned on the Geni blog yet, but I received a Twitter update this morning from Geni announcing the introduction of “Geni Pro Accounts”.  For $4.95 per month, Geni Pro users can get a higher level of functionality and support options from the site than is available to non-paying users.  At their forum, you can read the following:

“Today we released the initial Geni Pro Account offering which includes these features:

  • Forest GEDCOM Exports – Export your family tree and all connected trees into a single GEDCOM file (up to 100,000 total individual and family records) with one click.
  • Priority Support – Geni Pro users receive faster response from a dedicated Priority Support queue.
  • Geni Pro Badge – Identify yourself as a Geni Pro to family members and genealogists.

You can sign up for a Pro Account for $4.95 a month. There are a number of features which we plan to add to Pro Accounts in the following months. As a subscriber, you will receive instant access to additional Pro Accounts features as soon as we add them.”

I’m excited about this for several reasons:

  • This move signals Geni’s transition to a “Freemium” business model, which may allow them to sustain their service for the long-term (if enough users sign up).  37Signals, a highly-respected software development firm, is perhaps the most frequently-cited successful practioner of this model.
  • To justify the “Pro” label, Geni is likely to roll out features such as support for source documentation, which would make the site much more attractive to me as “the place” for my genealogical data.
  • The Geni customers who sign up for Pro Accounts stand a good chance of being interested in obtaining genealogical source documents, which would make them potential Genlighten customers (yay!)

Of course the big questions here are:

  • What proportion of the users who’ve been attracted to Geni by its zero-cost offering will be willing to pay for the ‘Pro’ features?”
  • Will that fraction be large enough and loyal enough to help make Geni profitable over the long term?

I certainly hope that this new strategy proves successful for Geni.

What features would Geni need to add to get you to pay them $4.95/month?  Please let me know in the comments.  I’m currently preparing a presentation for the South Davis Family History Fair (to be held next March in Bountiful, Utah) in which I’ll compare the various web-based family tree sites like Geni, so your input would be greatly appreciated.

Crunch Time — Hosting Decisions

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

We’re probably within 6-8 weeks of having our Genlighten private beta ready for interested providers to try out (though everything always takes longer than we’d like).  One of the decisions we need to make in the next few days has to do with where Genlighten will be hosted long-term.

Up until now, the alpha version of the site has been built in PHP and hosted at MidPhase on a “shared” basis.  This has been a cheap option while we’re just trying things out, but it’s time to get more serious.

The beta version of Genlighten is being built in Ruby on Rails (RoR) and will need a more sophisticated (and reliable) dedicated hosting environment.  Ideally, our new host would have startup-friendly pricing that would let us pay for only the storage capacity and bandwidth we need, then let us scale the amount we pay as traffic (hopefully!) grows over time.  Another criterion, since we can’t yet afford to hire an engineer who focuses her/his time specifically on server setup and management, is that the host offer a fairly high level of support, quick response in the event of a problem, and robust backup options.

We’re focusing on two main candidates right now:  Joyent and Engine Yard.


Joyent is located in Marin County, CA and has been around for several years.  They’re backed by Peter Thiel, former CEO of PayPal, currently president of Clarium Capital Management and managing partner at Founders Fund (the VC firm that invested in

Joyent provides hosting for both PHP and RoR applications.  So for example they have offered free PHP hosting for developers of Facebook applications.  They’ve also provided RoR hosting for Twitter, though that relationship ended amicably earlier this year.  Both of these examples speak to Joyent’s ability to help web apps scale to large numbers of users.  Here at Genlighten, we hope we’ll need that kind of scale someday!

Joyent offers what they call a 4 GB Accelerator with 4 GB of RAM, 50 GB of storage, 1 CPU core and 10 TB of data transfer for $500/month and a one-time setup fee of $500.  That comes with a relatively modest level of support (including help if the site becomes inaccessible or slow).

Engine Yard

Engine Yard has been called the Ferrari of RoR hosting.  They’re focused exclusively on Rails.  Investors include Benchmark Capital, New Enterprise Associates and  Engine Yard enjoys an excellent reputation in the Rails community.  They’re known for hosting both Github and Lighthouse, key developer tools for version control and bug tracking.

They offer a higher level of “managed support” — even for their entry-level monthly offering –  than Joyent does (or at least it appears so from their website).  You pay for that, naturally.  It’s tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison with Joyent, but I’ll give it a try.

Engine Yard recommends early-stage web developers start out with three slices — two for production (including one for backup) and one staging slice.  That costs about $1,050 per month (plus about $800 for initial setup), and includes 768 MB of RAM, a dedicated processor and 45 GB of storage.  Note that this is much less RAM than Joyent includes.  It’s not clear to me how much bandwidth we get for that price.

What makes this attractive are the support features.  Even at the entry-level we’re looking at, you get 24/7 support, database backups, Github and Lighthouse subscriptions, and shared load balancing.  From what we can tell, a lot less of our CTO’s time would need to be used for server maintenance and database management with Engine Yard’s service.


There’s another option we might consider if either Joyent or Engine Yard look like they’re going to be too expensive for our needs at this stage:  Slicehost.  Their service is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Engine Yard’s:  a quality service, but one designed for those who can handle server maintenance, software installation and downtime recovery themselves without the need for extensive support.

In return for a lot more of our CTO’s hands-on involvement, we could get by with a much lower monthly fee:  somewhere between $70-$250/month for a 1 GB or 4 GB slice, with 40-100 GB of storage and 400-1,600 GB of bandwidth.  Since we would do the setup ourselves, there would be no setup fees.


The hosting decision is an important but difficult one for us.  We want a hosting provider who can support as we grow but not charge us for services we don’t need yet.  On the other hand, we want a partner who will handle back-end server maintenance tasks as we scale so we don’t have to rush out and hire an engineer the minute traffic spikes due to a favorable review by a genealogy blogger.

In a recent presentation to entrepreneurs on how to survive the economic downturn, the famous VC John Doerr recommended:

“Negotiate. Negotiate with all your supplies and vendors, get more favorable payment terms.”

Our hope is that we can find a high-quality hosting company that can become a long-term partner, but that will consider offering us favorable terms while we’re still building our early customer base.  If you have any suggestions or recommendations, please let us know.

Genlighten’s Downturn Survival Plan

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

Scary Times

It’s been sobering to note the impact of the current economic uncertainty on web-oriented startups.  The tech blogosphere has been rife this past week with announcements of:

So how does Genlighten plan to weather the downturn?

Our Strategy

To begin with, since we’re completely self-funded, we’re not worrying about reassuring anxious VCs or angel investors.  We don’t have any non-founder employees (and we’re not paying ourselves) so no one’s going to get laid off.  We’ve got enough cash on hand for at least a year of operations at our current burn rate.  And we’ve all kept our day jobs, so our personal finances are in reasonable shape.

We are being a bit more selective about our attendance at genealogy conferences.  We had planned to be at the Who Do You Think You Are Live 2009 show in London this coming February.  But with airfare, lodging, exhibit fees and utilities for that show running about 10x of expenses for other major conferences, we decided that we just couldn’t afford it while we’re still in pre-revenue mode.  We do plan to be at FGS, NGS, IAJGS and the various shows put on by Family History Expos next year.

Heads Down, Moving Ahead, Preparing for Launch

Beyond that, we’re basically designing, wireframing, and coding like crazy — just like we were before the Wall Street turmoil began.  Our focus is still on building out the initial set of features for the launch of Genlighten’s public beta early next year.  Recently, we’ve been working on:

  • streamlining the lookup offering process
  • simplifying the checkout procedure
  • incorporating a lookup activity feed in our user dashboard, and
  • building out the design of our user profile pages.

Striking the right balance between optimum functionality at launch, sufficiently broad geographical coverage of our provider network, and the desire to simply “get something up and running” has been tough for us.  That and our transition from PHP to Rails have been the main reasons that our launch has been delayed thus far.  [That and the "keeping our day jobs" strategy.]  We know a number of you who we’ve met over the last year are anxious to see us finally go live.  Be assured that we’re eagerly anticipating that day as well, both so we can keep our commitment to you and so we can begin to bring in some revenue.

Building Our Provider Network

In parallel to our development efforts, we’re continuing to actively recruit potential lookup providers interested in offering feedback and participating in testing of the site prior to launch.  If you’d like to sign up for access to our private beta, you can do that here.  We’ve been highly gratified by the response we’ve gotten so far.

Staying Optimistic

Amid the gloomy prognostications of a potential startup apocalypse,  it’s been gratifying to hear a few voices quietly urging optimism, perserverance and long-term perspective.  In particular, entrepreneurial pundits are advising startups that the best way to survive in tough economic times is to focus on saving people money and helping them make some of their own.  Fortunately, that’s exactly what Genlighten is designed to do — for genealogists everywhere.

A few important updates to

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

I’m here at the FGS Conference in Philadelphia looking out from our booth on the exhibit hall, which is buzzing with conference-goers.  We’d originally hoped to announce our beta release at this event, but as with many software projects, our milestone estimates turned out to be optimistic, and we’ve had to move our anticipated launch date back by several months.  We now anticipate the public beta being ready by early 2009, with access to the private beta available towards the end of this year.

What’s Taking Us So Long?

For the most part, the delay is a natural consequence of our business strategy, which can be summed up as “Don’t quit your day job!”  Genlighten continues to be primarily a “nights and weekends” project for Justin and me and it will likely stay that way until revenue justifies otherwise.

Of course, we could put a lot of effort into getting angel investors to fund our early-stage development, allowing us to work full-time on Genlighten and hopefully get it launched and producing revenue a lot faster.  That’s a strategy we’re considering, but our team is well aware of the immense challenges and pitfalls involved, so for the time being we’re not ready to head down that road.

In the meantime, just in time for FGS, we do have a few updates to the Alpha site to announce.

Updated Flyers, Document Delivery Strategy, and Provider Criteria

First, the PDF flyers available on the site have been revised to reflect our new anticipated private and public beta availability dates.  The new flyers also reflect our intention to deliver most (if not all) documents as digital images via download from the site itself, rather than having our providers mail paper copies.  Accordingly, we’re looking for potential providers who have ready access to a digital scanner and are confident creating good-quality images from scanned documents.  These adjustments to our strategy reflect input we’ve received from several generous advisers in the genealogy research community.  Look for more details on this approach in a future blog post.

New Mailing Address

Second, we’ve changed our mailing address.  The new one is:

P.O. Box 893
Wilmette, Illinois  60091

This move doesn’t reflect anything particularly strategic.  Our previous commercial mailbox provider just happened to go out of business (about a month after we had business cards printed, unfortunately.)

Privacy and Security Policy

One of the main unfinished tasks from the initial alpha version of the site was developing a privacy and security policy.  I’ve noticed from our traffic logs that many people visit the blank placeholder page we’ve had up to this point.  I’m happy to be able to say that we now have posted our Privacy and Security Policy here.  Please take a look and let us know what you think.

Thanks for your patience…

I’m keenly aware that some of you have been following our progress for the better part of a year now.  I just want to let you know that we appreciate your patience and we’re working hard week-by-week to deliver what we’ve promised you.  Thanks for your ongoing encouragement and support — it means a great deal to our entire team.

Genlighten: we’re kinda like “x” for “y”

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

I love it when someone at a genealogy conference stops by our exhibit booth and says “So, what exactly is Genlighten?” (usually while unwrapping a chocolate from our candy bowl). As you can imagine, I’ve given lots of different answers to that question over the past year.

How I answer the question “What does your site do?”

An example: I often tell a story about wanting to get an obituary for one of my ancestors from Jefferson County, New York and how nice it would be to find a local researcher in Theresa or Watertown who could track it down for me. “Genlighten helps you do that,” I say.

But most of the time I try to get out a simple, succinct “elevator pitch” — something like:

“We’re an Internet-enabled, human-powered search and retrieval network for genealogical documents;” or

“We connect you with local researchers who can help you find the genealogical records you’re looking for.”

Sometimes people get the concept right off, but often they don’t. They seem to need something to mentally compare us to… an existing business concept that they already grasp.

A “high concept” startup

Over time, I’ve tried to improve on our elevator pitches and craft a phrase positioning Genlighten as what Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners calls a “high concept startup“. That’s where you describe your business model using an analogy to an existing business that people already know well. The best I’ve come up with in this vein is probably:

“We’re kinda like eBay for genealogy document retrieval services.”

But there are several problems with that one. First, not everyone likes eBay, particularly lately. Also, Genlighten isn’t focused on bidding or auctions of genealogical services, so the analogy doesn’t really hold that well. Plus, at least one other genealogy-oriented startup is now using the eBay analogy — and it fits them better.

When I learned about Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade-crafts, I tried saying “We’re kinda like Etsy for genealogy lookups”, but few inside the genealogy community seemed to get the reference.

Tapping the wisdom of our exhibit booth visitors

On more than one occasion, visitors to the booth have come up with their own high-concept pitch for us. I heard it again a few nights ago at the IAJGS Conference here in Chicago:

“So, you’re kinda like Random Acts, only you’re not free.”

This one made me cringe the first time I heard it, at the FGS meeting in Ft. Wayne, Indiana over a year ago. It still does a little, though it’s actually starting to grow on me with time. It’s true, we are a little like Random Acts — we help you find people who can find genealogical records — and it’s also true that we’re not free. But we differ from Random Acts in several highly important ways, and those differences are part of why we feel justified charging for our services.

How is Genlighten different from Random Acts?

If you’re not already familiar with it, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) is a marvelous website that lists volunteers willing to perform genealogical lookups for free (or for just the cost of copies or gas). It embodies the spirit of volunteerism that powers much of the genealogical community: researchers help other researchers without expecting to be paid for their time.

I’m always honored to be compared to RAOGK, but of course our business model is significantly different than theirs! We want to help lookup providers get paid for their time and expertise (not just their expenses) in retrieving genealogy documents. And we aim to make money ourselves in return for the service our site provides. I discussed our “value proposition” in an earlier post. Here are some specific ways I think Genlighten will be different from RAOGK — different, that is, in a good way:

  • We’ll provide a simple way to enable messaging back and forth between lookup clients and providers without the need to exchange e-mail or regular mail addresses. This should enhance privacy and security and help minimize spam.
  • Each of our providers will have the chance to create a profile describing their genealogy background and experience so clients can make an informed choice when competing providers are available in a given area.
  • When providers are out of town or on vacation, they’ll be able to temporarily put their lookup offerings on hold. That way, clients won’t have to wait for weeks wondering why they haven’t gotten a response to their lookup requests.
  • The site will provide an online payment interface with state-of-the-art security, allowing clients to order lookups conveniently using credit cards or electronic checks.
  • Providers will deliver the documents they find by uploading scanned digital images to our site. Clients can then download the the documents they ordered immediately without having to wait for them to come in the mail.
  • Clients will be able to rate and review each of our providers based on their reliability, responsiveness, and customer service.
  • The combination of client ratings, researcher profiles, and fees set by the providers will create a strong sense of accountability that will allow our users to order lookups from our providers with confidence.

Still in search of the right analogy

So we’re not really like eBay, and we differ in important ways from RAOGK, and we’re a little like Etsy but that probably doesn’t mean much to you. What then is our ideal high-concept elevator pitch? As you probably guessed right from the start of this post, I’m still working on it. And I’d welcome any suggestions that readers of this blog might have.

Five reasons not to “cut out the middle man”

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Phil Hatchard's The Middle Man from FlickrAt genealogy conferences and in some of the responses we’ve received to our recent e-mails to genealogical societies, potential providers have occasionally referred to Genlighten as a “middle man” in the lookup process. Though the connotations of this term can be somewhat negative, it’s a label we’re willing to live with. After all:

  1. We aim to make it easier for genealogical researchers to earn income by offering lookups.
  2. We plan to receive a commission on each lookup request we process.
  3. By creating an online lookup marketplace where genealogy researchers and lookup providers can find each other, we are indeed acting as a form of middle man (though we would probably prefer the term “third party intermediary”).

I’d like to use this post to clarify our intermediary role and explain the value we offer potential lookup providers.

Transaction Fees, but no Listing Fees or Subscriptions

We’ve decided to follow a “transaction fee” business model on our site, rather than a subscription model (such as Ancestry uses) or a listing fee model (which eBay uses). We chose that approach because it lowers the up-front risk to both providers and clients. A provider who offers lookups through us only pays to use our platform when a lookup transaction is successfully completed. If they don’t get any requests, they don’t pay us anything. Similarly, a potential customer pays us nothing unless they find a lookup offering they’re really interested in.

How It Works — A Numerical Example

Suppose the provider sets their price at $10 to retrieve a copy of a vital record from a local government archive. Our commission rate is 15% for independent providers (we discount it to 10% for societies). So when a customer orders a lookup and the provider successfully delivers the requested document, the provider would receive $8.50 and Genlighten would receive a $1.50 commission. [The customer would also pay a separate handling fee to cover the cost of payment processing.]

The Value Genlighten Offers

Why should providers pay us a commission, rather than keeping the entire $10 for themselves? Why shouldn’t they just “cut out the middle man”?

We think we offer a lot in return for the fees we receive. In particular, Genlighten aims to give our providers:

  • A simple tool for creating both lookup listings and customized data input forms, so the provider gets specific, well-defined requests and just the right info they need to fulfill those requests.
  • A secure online shopping cart that handles upfront payments via PayPal, credit cards and electronic checks.
  • A robust customer feedback and rating capability.
  • Targeted advertising on genealogy-relevant sites and searches so prospective clients can easily find providers’ lookup offerings.
  • Aggregated world-wide demand so providers will have enough requests to make the regular trip to the local archive profitable.

Are these benefits enough to justify our fees? We sure hope so. And we’d love to hear what you think, one way or the other.

['Middle Man' image from Phil Hatchard's photostream on]