Sunday, January 10, 2010

Behind the Scenes at Ancestry.com - Your Questions, Their Answers

Have you ever had a question about Ancestry.com?  (is the sky blue?)  Like you, questions and comments have crossed my mind as I search for the records of my ancestors as well as prepare episodes of the Genealogy Gems Podcast.  This weekend I had the chance to get some answers.

One of the perks of being a genealogy media producer is being invited to events like the Blogger's Day 2010 at Ancestry.com (though considering the wide range of online gen media - audio, video and the written word -  I think Genealogy Media Day would be more a more accurate name.)

This year I had the pleasure of going behind the scenes of the behemoth of genealogy records with:
Diane Haddad, The Genealogy Insider
Kimberly Powell, Genealogy.About.com
Craig Manson, GeneaBlogie
Thomas MacEntee, Geneabloggers
Dick Eastman, Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter
Leland Meitzler - GenealogyBlog
Pat Richley-Erickson  - DearMYRTLE
The Ancestry Insider

I really wanted to pack all my listeners and readers in my rolling suitcase, but it would put me over the airline weight limit.  So instead, before heading for the airport I posted a question on Facebook:  If you could ask the folks at Ancestry one question, what would it be?

Facebook friend Polly Kimmett of the Pollyblog asked a question that preys on the minds of many users: "Are they still outsourcing their indexing?"

Sheri Beffort Fenley of the Educated Genealogist blog chimed in on that topic with:  "It burns my butt that they are doing this when there are so many people here in the U.S. that are out of work."

Heading into this Ancestry sponsored event I definitely shared these same concerns. 

Andrew Wait, Senior Vice President at Ancestry addressed the issue early on in our tour of corporate headquarters.  (off subject note: I Googled his name to verify the spelling for this posting and immediately found his compensation letter signed by CEO Tim Sullivan.  Must be tough to have that out there - one of the perils of going public.  But don't worry, he's doing just fine!!)  I must say that Andrew made a solid case for the indexing outsourcing. Here's the background:

  • The inside term used is "Professional Indexing"
  • They use 3 firms - 2 in China, 1 in Uganda (a few eyebrows went up around the conference table)
  • Per Wait: "They are FAST!"  And that speed is coupled with high quality output. 
  • Wait also made the case that quality and security is encouraged because the outsourcing firm has to fix problems without additional compensation.
  • The strongest argument made is one that should speak to the heart of all genealogists - the increased accuracy they receive from these firms.  In the case of China, their native language is character based, and characters are really at the heart of indexing.  Interpreting the variations of letters over the centuries is key to accuracy.  "Their brains work that way because their language is character based," said Wait.

The bottom line is that in head to head comparisons, Chinese indexers are more accurate (and also faster) than their U.S. counterparts. And of course accuracy is key to effective research (as we have all experienced) 

It's definitely a financial decision as well, no doubt about it.  Outsourcing is cheaper.  But without the accuracy, I really couldn't see the execs we heard from going ahead with this strategy.  I'm sure Director of Member Services (aka the call center) Tom Foster would have something to say about that when complaint calls would begin to surge!

So like everything in life there are tradeoffs.  To keep new records and indexes coming Ancestry has to make it work economically while providing the greatest accuracy possible with humans at the keyboard.

Over the new several blog posts I will continue reporting on the questions, the answers, the surprises, and the fun from my weekend with Ancestry.

3 comments:

Amy Coffin, MLIS said...

Thanks for the input, Lisa. Interesting what they said about the accuracy rates. I would love to see the data on that. Time to put my library hat on!

Looking forward to Mesa. :)

Cranberry said...

I think their higher accuracy rate is consistent with the way proofreading skills are taught. Their mind's eye would not have the same expectations we do, so they would would see differences whereas we would tend to see what we expect--our mind's eye correcting errors.

Guinevere said...

As someone who uses Ancestry just about every day, I have to say that I submit corrections almost every day as well so their accuracy argument doesn't impress me much. I'm glad to know though what the deal is and thank you for asking what was probably an uncomfortable question.