Modern Software Experience

2009-08-17

American Records

press release

On August 10, a FaceBook updated by FamilyLink employee hinted at a big announcement for today. Quite naturally, I guessed that they were going to officially announce GenSeek for FaceBook, which I had just revealed in GenSeek on FaceBook, but FamilyLink seems content to let me have the scoop and themselves remain surprising silent about it.

Early on the morning of August 11 I received a press release from WorldVitalRecords alerting me to three days of unlimited free access to WorldVitalRecords, starting that day.
This was later extended with another few days, through August 18.

late

I immediately tweeted that news, but could not help but wonder about the timeliness of an announcement that arrives when a quarter day of the three-day period has already passed. Would it not have been better to either announce earlier or postpone the three free days, so everyone would have had time to inform their readers?

failure

After tweeting the news, I immediately give it a try. Alas, when I tried the offer, I found that it did not work at all. The site kept demand that I sign up for a paid subscription. It offered neither unpaid membership nor membership-less access.

Asked why they were six hours late and why it still did not work, the answer I received was that it did not start until tomorrow, thus contradicting their own announcement. Sigh.

world-class fail

They have not admitted their mistake yet, but I figured it out already, and it is a rather embarrassing for a site that calls itself WorldVitalRecords; they apparently do not know that the world is spherical, do not know the world is divided into time zones, and do not know that the World Wide Web uses Internet Time either. That is literally a world-class fail.

trying it

All joking about WorldClassFail aside, their offer was interesting. There are several competing services that offer access to genealogical interesting collections of sources. None of these sites is cheap, and free offers like this let you explore the content and get some idea how useful it for your own research - not unimportant when most of these sites are extremely Americentric and your own research is not.

late

The biggest problem with this particular free access offer was simply that the sign-up was not live until some six hours after the announcement and half a day into the offer. Early visitors did not get the free access they came for, but were still prompted to sign up for a paid subscription. This led to public complaints accusing WorldVitalRecords of bait and switch practices. The simple truth is that special promotion was turned on too late.

signing up

The press release claims that the public would have unlimited access, but that is misleading. You did need to sign up and become a member before you got access.
Additionally, a comment I received from an existing member on a limited membership plan suggests that those members do not enjoy the unlimited access. That would be a silly limitation, and I suggested they use an alternate email to take advantage of this offer anyway. According to FamilyLink, members with an US collection account did have full access during the promotion.

privacy

WorldVitalRecords free

In the afternoon, I finally got to see this dialog box overlaying the home page. Turns out even the phone number field is mandatory. The site’s privacy policy says that We, at WorldVitalRecords.com, won’t rent, sell or trade your personal information or email address to any third party.

phone number

That sure sounds nice, but just why do they want everyone's phone number? And am I the only one who notes that the quoted sentence does not seem to preclude the option of giving your data away - perhaps to AdMazing, another FamilyLink-owned company, and, by the way, a company that does not post any privacy policy on their site at all?

six instead of three

After filling in all fields, you get an email to validate your email account. After clicking the validation link you get a surprise offer: Click here to share this deal with your friends on Facebook now and get 3 more days of FREE, unlimited WorldVitalRecords.com access - so that is six days of free access instead of three. I customised my message and I urge you to do the same; you do not want all your FaceBook friends to see same message again and again, do you?

what’s on offer

WorldVitalRecords came up with the three days of free access offer as a way to highlight new additions to their collection (and steal a bit of thunder from Footnote of course). Their press release notes that they added content from Newspaper Archive, many ship passenger lists and a lot of yearbooks.

Initially, that press release was not on their site, but after I pointed that I posting it to their blog would earn them a free link, they did post it to their blog.

WorldVitalRecords includes a few major collections you find will find at several sites, such as the U.S.A. Social Security Death Index (SSDI), U.S.A. World War II Army Enlistment and the U.S.A. Texas Marriages Index.

SSDI

Right now, the best place to check the SSDI is probably the Interactive SSDI at Footnote. The interface is a bit busy, but you may luck out and find that someone added information to the Footnote Page that Footnote creates for every SSDI record.

more free stuff

You can find the Ellis Island Passenger Arrival Records on the freely accessible Ellis Island web site, and you do not need a WorldVitalRecords account to search either Find A Grave or Google Books.

It is nice that the WorldVitalRecords search engine finds those records, but to make the most of your free access, and figure out whether it might be worth paying for, you need to check the matches on content that is not freely available elsewhere.

local genealogy

It sure seems that the bulk of WorldVitalRecords databases are the big one that are available for free on their site, and that the bulk of the rest consists of paid access databases that are available on many other subscriptions sites.

I did find a reference to local genealogy I did not know about yet, and WorldVitalRecords did not just provide an index, but had the document and showed the page on which the hit occurred.

It was nice that it had this document, but it did not provide any new information for the name I was researching. The document merely lists the parent family of a partner - and it does include the names of the parents in law for all siblings of that partner. That is not immediately useful, but it may help find other information later.

user interface

The user interface provides an image of the page that WorldVitalRecords had matched through OCR. That image revealed a rookie mistake; the page is full of the artifacts typical of scans stored in the lossy JPEG format. No self-respecting professional archivist wants to be caught using that.

WorldVitalRecords viewer artefacts

Zooming in and out was easy and the viewer responded fast. Downloading new images such as the next page took some time, partly because the images are sizeable, partly because the WorldVitalRecords connection is a bit slow. However, once the page has been downloaded all page operations are done locally and response is near-instantaneous.

The biggest failure of their viewing app is that it downloads pages but does not remember what it downloaded; if you page forward and then backward again, it will not display the page from cache, but will make you wait while it downloads the same page again.

Overall, I found this viewer to be quite pleasant compared to the immensely awkward viewer that Footnote uses for the 1930 census. It is a fairly straightforward viewer without silly bells and whistles, it is easy to use and responds fast once the picture has been downloaded.

newspapers

On one of my searches, WorldVitalRecords did report some matches in the newspapers collections, in particular a Canadian newspaper. I found these matches to be practically unusable.

low quality OCR

The first problem is the low quality of the OCR. Your results are likely to contain gibberish such as Y n m em 7 12 pl ys and 8 8 u c m n co r (no, I am not exaggerating, nor making this up, that are actual and quite typical quotes from the search result). The remarkably low OCR quality should be enough to make you wonder how many mismatches there are in the list of ostensible matches and, even worse, how many actual matches have been missed.

PDF wrapper

The scans are sharp, but they are not even greyscale scans, they are black and white scans. Worst of all, each links links to a separate PDF file, for no good reason whatsoever. Each PDF file contains an image, and when you search the PDF file, you do not get any match, because there is no text at all.

So, first they made a hard contrast black and white image to save on image size and bandwidth, never mind the low quality, yet they then proceeded to embed each image in its own PDF, which increases the file size.

unusable interface

Why are these PDF files not searchable? Why not use the same image browser, and highlight the match? This kind of nearly unusable interface really makes me wonder whether they ever bothered to try and use their own search engine and opening a dozen matching PDF files? Just serving the images without the superfluous PDF wrapper would be lot better already.

If you have more patience for such created by-lowest-bidder, broken-by-lack-of-design, never-tested interfaces than I do, you may yet be disappointed - by the lack of content.

low content

Most of my distant American relatives are in Michigan, and WorldVitalRecords did not come up with even one newspaper article for any of them.

It did found a few incidental hits in other regions. I had a look at a few of these. These results were presented using their own viewer again

One match seemed to have perfect OCR text, and in the image, it was highlighted with a yellow background. Sounds ideal so far, good OCR, a usable viewer and a highlight, what more could you wish for?
Well, a readable paper would be nice. The scan they show is unreadable, even articles heading are near impossible to make out.

WorldVitalRecords unreadable paper

I do wonder whether the images they offer for viewing are the same images they used to OCR the text, because I do not consider the body text to be readable at all, and do not believe OCR would make much of the image they offer.

Another paper was barely legible, the yellow highlight was missing, and the brief segment of OCR text made me doubt already whether this was a real match or OCR gibberish that happened to match my search text. I really do not want to search through an entire newspaper page of almost undecipherable classifieds to find out. I might do so if I trusted the OCR and eager for a bit of information, but not when the OCR is of such low quality, that I seriously doubt there is a real match at all.

plug-in failure

I searched for another Dutch name, and was surprised to find one family in the 1861 UK Census. I clicked to check out the image, and Firefox told me I had to install a plug-in. When I allowed that, it told me the site did not provide the plug-in the page needed.

Now, I noticed that I was not looking at a WorldVitalRecords page at all, but at a FindMyPast page, but that does not mean that WorldVitalRecords can blame FindMyPast for anything. WorldVitalRecords contracted with FindMyPast this service, and are offering it to WorldVitalRecords subscribers, despite its technical issues. As a WorldVitalRecords customer, you have to turn to WorldVitalRecords for a solution.

meta-search engine

WorldVitalRecords is marketed as site that offers many genealogically interesting sources, and it does offer some, but it does perhaps bear more resemblance to meta-search engine that overlays its brand on the sites you visit than to an digital archive that keeps many collections. The FindMyPast page (which does not work) is on the FindMyPast domain, but shows a WorldVitalRecords logo.

WebTree

The WorldVitalRecords search results do contain matches for WebTree.com. I had one hit, followed it, and found a seemingly unmarried, disconnected individual with a living descendant, and no possibility to navigate to any other relations. Nothing in the WorldVitalRecords match indicated that this match was effectively nothing but a disconnected name.

One search turned up a matches in Everton Pedigree and Family Group Sheets, but it was just an in-law, so minimal information there.

Another search resulted in a hit on the Maximilian Genealogy site, but you cannot see how the match fits in until you register with that site. For this match, WorldVitalRecords offer no access, to get at any records you need to be a registered user of Maximilian Genealogy. It is a third-party paid access service with a free trial offer.

problems

As I explored WorldVitalRecords, it became quite clear to me what is wrong with this site, why this supposedly major

low on content

First of all, they have little to offer. Most of what they offer is free content widely available elsewhere, and most of the rest is paid content also available elsewhere. That probably describes more than 999 ‰ of the content that WorldVitalRecords offers. If there is some unique or rare content on their site at all, it hardly shows.

messy site

I noticed that quite a few pages and images are not hosted on the WorldVitalRecords domain at all, and find it hard to escape the impression that they contract with just about anyone who will contract with them, and then put an absolute minimal amount of work into integration. That sure explains the variety of viewers, formats, and plug-ins. It explains the befuddling variation in document quality and user experience that characterises WorldVitalRecords more than anything else.

world

The World in WorldVitalRecords is a bit misleading. The site is extremely Americentric, so much so that AmeriRecords would be a better name. I hardly encountered anything but American and a few Canadian records in my searches - even when I searched for an African name.

There is a news box on the front page that tells me they recently added some Archive CD Books for Australia, the Evening Mail (London), and a cyclopedia for Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti and Cook Islands, so there is some international content, but the fact remains that searches for several Dutch names did not turn up much in the U.S.A. and did not turn up any European content at all.

small success

I did not find WorldVitalRecords completely useless. Despite the problems with the plug-in for FindMyPast, I managed to find some information on my English ancestors using the UK census.

Right now, a 12-month subscription to FindMyPast is about € 105 (£ 89.95) while a 12-month subscription to WorldVitalRecords is about € 85 (US$ 119.40), so WorldVitalRecords is the cheaper way to get access to the UK census at the FindMyPast site than a FindMyPast subscription is.

slowdown

Temporary free offers like this often brings subscription sites to a crawl.
Just ask the folks at Footnote, who are offering free access to the U.S.A. 1930 census this month.

WorldVitalRecords should be relatively immune to the effect of an on-rush of customers, as it is hosted on a cloud service. I visited the site on several days during the promotional period, and although individual image downloads were a tad slow, the overall search experience remained quite snappy.

overall impression

Overall though, I remain unimpressed by the quantity of records. I do understand that not all of their partners provide the same quality of scans, but some are plain unreadable, and some of the OCR text seems worse than having no OCR at all. The inconsistent, messy and sometimes not-working low quality user interface make for a not so enjoyable browsing experience. The overall impression I got is that WorldVitalRecords never bothered with any quality control at all.

GenSeek

Just because WorldVitalRecords reminded me of a search engine, I tried some of the same searches in GenSeek on FaceBook. I dare say GenSeek returned a lot more results, but that does not make it better; every link I clicked led to a page that said This source has not been digitized yet., and that does not advance your research much.

economical

The most important reason to use WorldVitalRecords despite the noted issues is price. A WorldVitalRecords subscription includes access to various collections you’d otherwise have to subscribe to individually. As the FindMyPast example shows, the relatively weak dollar may make WorldVitalRecords the more economical choice.

updates

2010-09-23

Ancestry has acquired Footnote, see Ancestry.com Buying Spree.

2011-08-18 Footnote renamed Fold3

Ancestry has renamed Footnote to Fold3, see Ancestry renames Footnote to Fold3. All Footnote links have been updated.

links

FamilyLink

Fold3

free databases