Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Fears – Ancestry’s “New Search”

It’s been an interesting few days on the APG mailing list.  Ancestry has announced that it will end access to its “old search”.  This means that all users will have to use “new search”.

Before I go any further, for those who don’t follow Ancestry, “new search” has been in place for years, so it’s not really all that new.

What’s been interesting is watching the outrage from professionals on the APG mailing list.  Many of those folks, it seems, have been using the “old search” as it gives them better results than the “new search.”  For the record, I’ve been using the new search for so long that I had forgotten that there was a different way to search.  This may be why I’m having so much trouble understanding the annoyance these professionals have been showing due to Ancestry’s business decision.

What Ancestry has done really isn’t any different than what any software company does.  They come up with a new product, and end support for the old version.  Microsoft does this with operating systems every few years.  Like Microsoft, Ancestry supported the old system for a number of years, but now, likely for business reasons that users are not privy too, must end support for that system.  As a developer myself, I can tell you first hand that it’s no fun trying to support different systems, especially when you know that one is unprofitable or, as Ancestry has stated in regards to “old search”, little used.

To a point, I understand the user’s frustration.  No one likes changing their habits.  However, my personal opinion is that Ancestry gave folks plenty of time to learn the new system before retiring the old.  The most common complaint that I’m seeing is that the new search returns too many results.  Understandable, but these complaints are coming from folks who routinely browse old records on microfiche, often with no help from any sort of search engine.  They should be used to sifting through large amounts of data.

A few weeks ago, on the Transitional Genealogist’s mailing list, there was a discussion about computer algorithms and how they could be used in the future to sift through large amounts of genealogical data.  The general opinion that I saw with that discussion basically boiled down to “a computer could never do what I do.  It will miss results.”  Ancestry’s new search sort of swings the pendulum in the opposite direction.  It doesn’t miss results, because it’s willing to show unrelated results (and often does).  It leaves it up to the user to filter the obvious misses out.

Okay.  So one group says that computers can’t refine data as well as a human.  Another group says that they want the computer to refine the data they look at.  Which group is right?

Both, I’d say.  This, I believe, is one of those impossible tasks of trying to please everyone.  There’s probably a middle ground, but Ancestry hasn’t found it yet.  Keep in mind that Ancestry is also a business.  Their product is crafted for a wide audience.  Maybe they are missing their target demographic, or maybe they know exactly what they are doing based on their own business analysis of years’ worth of “old search”/”new search” data.  Either way, Ancestry changed their method.  It works for some, but not others.  The others will either adapt, or leave Ancestry.  It’s a natural process.  Users can fear it (it is change after all), or try to embrace it.  My hope is that genealogists will adapt.  That is, hopefully, what we do.  If we didn’t, we’d always be looking for the same information in the same places, never learning anything new.

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