Modern Software Experience

2012-11-30

Geni.com not going or gone

growing through acquisitions

The 2010 article MyHeritage growing through Acquisitions first noted MyHeritage's aggressive growth strategy. As a large genealogy site, MyHeritage benefits from the network effect, but MyHeritage's ambitions exceed their natural growth.
Their first acquisition, back in 2006, was Pearl Street Software. MyHeritage obtained the GenCircles site and the Family Tree Legends (FTL) software, and has made the most of Pearl Street's SmartMatching technology. In 2008, they bought Kindo, an up-and-coming competitor, before Kindo got as big as the OSN Group. They bough the OSN Group, better known as DynasTree and Verwandt.de, in 2010, and that was quickly followed by a fourth, minor acquisition, the multi-lingual Dutch Zooof site.

MyHeritage acquisitions

  1. Pearl Street Software
  2. Kindo
  3. OSN Group
  4. Zooof
  5. Bliscy.pl
  6. BackupMyTree
  7. FamilyLink
  8. Geni.com

modus operandus

These early acquisitions revealed a modus operandus that holds true today; MyHeritage would have silent negotiations, close the deal, and then make as much of the press moment as possible. In fact, MyHeritage probably have bought Zoof because the press value was much more than the acquisition value; the site had less than 10.000 users and the entire site contained less profiles than my own research database does.
MyHeritage has a great track record of keeping on-going acquisition negotiations secret. MyHeritage's latest acquisition, Geni.com, was announced after, a Wall Street Journal article reveals, almost a year of negotiations. However, in the case of both OSN and Zooof, maintaining complete silence until the press release, may have violate of the Terms of Service these site offered their users. The acquisition of Geni.com does not seem to violate Geni.com, Terms of Service, but is in fact already very good news for many dissatisfied Geni users.

MoreHeritage

MyHeritage continued with relatively minor acquisitions. They bought the Polish site Bliscy.pl while it was still in Beta, and the BackupMyTree service when it was just a year old. The BackupMyTree acquisition did not add much value to MyHeritage, but did allow its founder to focus on another start-up, the Mocavo search engine.

MyHeritage acquiring former competitor FamilyLink may have sounded like a big deal, but FamilyLink was in bad shape, and had been selling off assets for some time. MyHeritage was buying the remnants of FamilyLink, and was not even buying all of it.
The FamilyLink deal was significant nonetheless; MyHeritage acquired WorldVitalRecords, and that signalled their expansion from family trees into genealogy records. This year, MyHeritage continued its expansion into records by becoming one of the companies offering the 1940 USA Census.
The 2011 article MyHeritage buys FamilyLink suggested that MyHeritage will integrate WorldVitalRecords into its existing product portfolio, and start offering record matches to MyHeritage users, thus playing feature catch-up with Ancestry shaky leaves and Geni.com record matches. In September of this year, MyHeritage introduced the suggested WorldVitalRecordMatching as MyHeritage Record Matching.

Geni.com is MyHeritage's eighth acquisition, and it is definitely a major one. It is their largest acquisition yet. Late in 2012, Geni.com introduced a page that shows some key Geni.com statistics, and today that page shows that Geni.com's World Family Tree, popularly known as the Borg Tree, contains more than 65 million profiles. The entire Geni.com site actually contains more than 135 million profiles already, but the large connected tree is what Geni.com is about.
The MyHeritage site boasts about 1,2 milliard profiles, but that still doesn't make Geni.com a minor acquisition. MyHeritage gobbling Geni is a big deal.

MyTerms

MyHeritage is a privately held company, and has never disclosed the terms of an acquisition.
It hardly seems coincidence that MyHeritage just raised US$ 25 million through yet another funding round, but that does not imply that's what they paid for Geni.com.
The Reuters news item MyHeritage buys Geni.com, raises $25 in private funding round states that it was an eight-figure deal in a combination of cash and equity.
That strongly suggests that Geni.com's founder David Sacks negotiated an interest in MyHeritage. PayPal Mafia member Sacks made a fortune when he sold Yammer to Microsoft for than US$ 1,2 milliard, and now joins the MyHeritage Board of Directors.

MyFunding

Naturally, the focus of attention is on the acquisition of Geni.com right now, but this funding round is important too. The MyHeritage raises $25 million of new funding blog posts tells what the money will be used for:

The new investment round will be used by MyHeritage to boost growth of our historical content services, expand commercial operations worldwide, acquire significant record collections from Europe and roll out global crowd-sourcing projects.

I believe that MyHeritage already has a crowd-sourcing platform in Private Beta, that it used that platform to index the USA 1940 Census, and that the USA 1940 census indexing project was the big test for their platform.

MyGeni

MyHeritage has repeatedly bought competitors to migrate their data and users to MyHeritage. It is tempting to think of MyHeritage buying Geni.com as another tactical acquisition, another case of MyHeritage buying a competitor before it becomes too much of threat, but it is not as simple as that.
Sure, MyHeritage and Geni are both active in the genealogy space, and compete for users and subscriptions, but it are two very different sites. On the MyHeritage site, each user maintains their own family tree separate from all the other trees, while Geni.com is a Shared Web Tree; all users share access to same database, to build a single tree.
I should probably mention that I've offered some strong criticism of Geni's particular approach in Geniology, but the important thing here isn't which approach is right or better than the other, but simply that the MyHeritage and Geni approach are so different, that MyHeritage will not try to migrate Geni data or users.
Geni is MyHeritage Geni now, but will continue to run independently. That does not mean nothing will change. Geni.com will change. In fact, Geni.com has changed already.

Geni Changes

Geni has gone through growing pains. Geni has made many changes over the years, and some of these changes had users grumbling. Geni has in fact managed to upset so many users so much that it has become the lowest rated product on GenSoftReviews.
The Geni Changes article is about the user response to changes made in August of 2011. Those changes took away any control free users had over the merging of profiles, Users naturally complained about these changes themselves, but also criticised Geni for not making the Geni Pro subscription more attractive by adding features to Geni Pro accounts, but by removing features from Geni Basic accounts.
Many users were so disappointed by the changes that they left Geni for competing sites. The weekend following the changes, WikiTree reported a 30% increase in traffic and WeRelate reported a 100% increase in sign-ups. Geni Stats Down noted that Geni's own numbers showed a significant decrease in activity as well. By the way, a quick look at today's numbers indicates that activity has continued to decrease, but the most recent changes and changes yet come may reverse that trend.

In November of 2011, Geni restricted free users even further, limited their ability to build a tree to just 100 profiles.
In 2011 December, some users started the FaceBook Group Former (or dissatisfied) Geni.com users.

MyChanges

The Geni.com blog post Geni is joining the MyHeritage Family! publicly informs all Geni users and interested parties about the acquisition. It is a blog post with many images, ad not so much text, as Geni has relegated most information about the acquisition to a FAQ, but there still is some real news in that blog post. The blog post announces several immediate changes to Geni:

Here are a few of the great changes we’re making right away:

  • No more tree limits – all users can now add unlimited profiles for free! Discovering relationships to historical figures and merging duplicates in your tree are also now free to help you grow your family tree faster.
  • We’re increasing privacy – all profiles of your living relatives will now be private.
  • Free family tree chart downloads – All users can now download a high quality chart of their family tree to their computer at no charge. These are great for sending to relatives or for printing at home as beautiful tree posters.
  • No more ads – by providing an ad-free environment, everyone will have cleaner and friendlier experience on Geni.

Geni CEO Noah Tutak also sent out an email to Geni users, and the quick overview of changes in that email is more extensive than the blog post:

Here are some of the benefits that you’ll see immediately:

  • Unlimited profile adding is now free – All users can add as many profiles as they’d like to their tree without upgrading to a paid account. No more limits to the size of your tree.
  • Merging is now free – All users can now merge duplicate profiles in their tree (privacy and permission rules still apply). This is great if your tree has been merged with another tree, or if you’d like to connect to the World Family Tree.
  • Relationship paths are now free – Discover your relationship to historical figures and celebrities, even very distant relatives.
  • Free family tree chart downloads – All users can now download a high quality chart of their family tree to their computer at no charge. These are great for sending to relatives or for printing at home as beautiful tree posters.
  • No ads - We’ve removed ads for all users for a cleaner interface with less distraction.
  • More privacy – living people who have not joined Geni will become private and will not be searchable on Google.

The most important change that's mentioned in this email while it was not mentioned in the blog post, is that profile merging is now free.

Contrary to some hasty reports, Geni is not entirely free now. Geni is still a freemium service, but the most important restrictions that limited free users and thus the growth of the site have been lifted.

FaceBook Group

Throughout the past year, the two main topics in the FaceBook group Former (or dissatisfied) Geni.com users have been various issues with and alternatives to Geni. The last few days, discussion has focused on the acquisition by MyHeritage and the recent changes. The overall response from this critical group to the recent changes has been quite positive. That is not surprising, as the recent changes address the two main complaints about the 2011 changes; There are no arbitrary tree size limits anymore, and free users can merge again. One user's response was literally mission accomplished and there is talk of changing or abolishing the group.

matching

MyHeritage announced that it would incorporate both their SmartMatching and their record matching into Geni.com. The way MyHeritage announced it, you'd might be forgiven for thinking that it was something new for Geni users. Fact is, Geni already has its own matching technologies.
Geni is about building a single tree, so matching & merging duplicate profiles has always been important feature. Geni's matching & merging feature has seen frequent improvement over the years, and Geni introduced record matching before MyHeritage did. Geni introduced record matching on 2011 Sep 29. That original release matched against record held by Archives.com and GenealogyBank, and support for Find-A-Grave was added in November.

MyHeritage SmartMatching and Geni's matching are different developments for different sites. It remains to be seen whether MyHeritage's SmartMatching is a smarter match for Geni.com than Geni's own matching is.

MyHeritage record matching compares profiles to records in their WorldVitalRecords collections. That's a different collection of records than Geni matching currently supports, so that seems a worthwhile addition, that users can benefit from.
MyHeritage's plans for Geni's existing record matching feature are unknown at this time.

data transfer

MyHeritage will keep the MyHeritage and Geni web site running separately separate. However, there are users who have accounts on both sites. Those users might benefit from a two-data transfer, and MyHeritage announced that it may provide such technology, but don't hold your breath; their announcement also states that it will looking into this over time, and that it may take a few years.

MySync

One synchronisation technology that has been in development for Geni.com, and MyHeritage as well, is AncestorSync. That development is one reasons that MyHeritage does not have to hurry to offer something themselves. However, AncestorSync is a commercial third-party product, and MyHeritage will eventually want to offer two-way synchronisation themselves, so that their users will not have to pay a third party for that feature.
It is likely that MyHeritage is looking into upgrading its Family Tree Builder software, to not only support MyHeritage, but Geni.com as well. It is not impossible that MyHeritage has already decided to make its own MySync, just like Ancestry.com has TreeSync, but simply does not want to announce it until it is done.

MyGeni.com

One big company acquiring another decreases competition. It often decreases choice as well, but that isn't the case this time. The Geni.com site will not disappear.
The recent Geni changes that reversed past decisions have made the site more attractive already, and MyHeritage seems eager to improve Geni.com further.

updates

2012-12-08: Geni unilaterally cancels lifetime subscriptions

Geni used to offer lifetime subscriptions. It stopped doing so, as we know now, during the take-over negotations with MyHeritage.
Geni has just sent a letter to existing Geni Lifetime members, announcing the cancellation of their lifetime subscription.
From that letter:

As a lifetime subscriber, we have some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news is that MyHeritage doesn’t support lifetime subscriptions; we are replacing your lifetime subscription with a 5-year Geni subscription that starts today.

The good news is that we are giving you a valuable gift – a 5-year MyHeritage data subscription (a $600 value) – at no additional cost to you. With this subscription you can take full advantage of MyHeritage’s SuperSearch search engine for historical records.

The gift may soften the news, but it is still unilateral cancellation with a five-year notice.
MyHeritage does not support lifetime subscriptions, but Geni is still running as an independent company.
Moreover, it also seems in direct contradiction of Geni's own MyHeritage acquisition FAQ:

How will this affect my Geni membership?

Your membership will stay the same and you will continue using Geni as you always have, but with a few more benefits. Soon, Geni users will have the opportunity to benefit from MyHeritage’s Smart Matching and Record Matching technologies that will make building your family tree even easier. By joining MyHeritage’s diverse community, you will have even more opportunities to discover new relatives or overcome those brick walls.

MyHeritage products, such as DNA tests, will also be available soon to Geni users.

If you are a paying user, your current subscriptions will remain the same. As we continue to move forward, we’ll keep you apprised about new benefits and capabilities.

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