Get a Clue,!

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Wanna go all out on This screenshot lays it plain - now it will cost you.

Why Geni’s Membership Changes Punish Contributors – and their Families

It’s not often in the pursuit of genealogy that your heart rate reaches red-line levels.

Researching family history is, after all, a mostly quiet endeavor, spent marking time combing through documents and records, digging through photo albums, chatting up great-aunts, gingerly stepping through graveyards to pay respects to our ancestors.

So, credit with at least this much: their recent changes to pricing structure have, at minimum, gotten my blood pumping. Not to mention gotten me seeing red.

How do I put’s November move to limit free accounts to 100 relatives and 1GB of media, while pricing unlimited family members and media at $7.95 a month, in perspective? I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks now, and since I’ve heard from several relatives wondering what the deal is on, let me respond.


OK. Just let me unclench my fists first.

Imagine you were a physical therapist. You’d spent months of close work with a client who suffered an injury that rendered them unable to walk. Through your tireless work and dedication, the patient eventually regains full use of his legs.

How does he thank you? By proceeding to kick you repeatedly in the most sensitive parts of your body.

Or, say you were a local architect. Your town badly needs a community center — a place where young, old and families can gather and, well, be a community.

You offer your design and contracting services pro bono. You spearhead the fundraising efforts. You draw up the plans, hire the builders, oversee construction. You get the thing done.

Then, in appreciation, the community bars you from ever entering the facility.

These two examples, to me, almost describe what has done with its new, um, “membership tiers”. How to make these analogies more accurate?

Have the patient not only kick you but every one of your colleagues and other patients.

Have the community ban not only you, the architect, but every member of your family and all your neighbors and friends.

Oh, unless you pay them just shy of $100 a year to stop.

A Family History Site with No Memory of its Upbringing

I joined in August 2008, on an invitation from my wife’s cousin, Carl Knutson.

I was coming off book tour, and looking for something new to do before the next writing project. I decided to see what I could accomplish by working primarily from online sources — digitized censuses, birth and death records, other archived trees on other sites, etc. For awhile, Carl and I had a friendly competition about adding family members.

Geni’s look and design supported everything I was looking for in a social genealogy site. It was easy to build and view a massive tree. Ancestor profile pages were clean and supported multiple documents, notes and photos. Birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones were recorded and called out on the Home page. And communication between family members active on Geni was easy, intuitive and fun.

I soon invited dozens of family members to join the tree. I not only hoped that they’d be able to easily view and appreciate the work I was doing to unearth our shared history and ancestors, but they’d pitch in and add their own relatives, make their own discoveries.

A lot of them did. In fact, the combined tree for my wife’s and my families has more than 180 living relatives in it. Hang onto that number for later.

Still, most of them aren’t doing any heavy genealogy research. They primarily utilize to send birthday and anniversary wishes, and pay respects to mothers and fathers and grandparents long gone. Hang onto that info for later, too.

As I got deeper into genealogy, I expanded and organized my arsenal of research tools. Geni, for all its interactive perks, has no research capability of its own. Let me say that again (and make note of it, too): has no archives or collections or materials to aid you with genealogical research. Its stated over-arching focus is to build the One World Tree. (Kind of like Tolkien’s One True Ring, with apparently the same nefarious tendencies, judging from recent missteps.) To that end, on Geni, you add profiles, you post pictures, you record dates, you add documents, you manage your tree. It’s entirely user-generated content. That info has to come from somewhere. And relying on Mom’s memory only goes so far….

So I joined sites that actually have information and research materials to offer their paying members. And organized my approach, realizing that to truly map out my family’s history, I’d be committing years, not weeks. Genealogy is a marathon.

I began to use as my main research site. For $13.25 a month, you gain access to all U.S. Collections, with the ability to browse internationally, and their collections are extensive: every U.S. census, digitized; birth, death and marriage records; newspaper collections; military collections; yearbooks and more; and the ability — though seems to be blind, deaf and dumb to the competition here — to browse and connect and collaborate with anyone who shares an ancestor with you. In fact, Ancestry automatically notifies you when your ancestor is matched to records or other users’ trees. You’ve probably seen that in TV commercials — the leaves that pop up. Ingenious.

So, I divided my workload in this way: do the speculative work and hard research on, bolstering that effort with all the free sites I visit, many of which, like Geni, build the data they boast on the backs of contributing members, sites like and I’ve also traveled extensively in my genealogy work, documenting graves and homes and locations and digging through boxes of photos. When I confirm this info, I share it on with my family, and, as a benefit to the site — everyone.

To date, on, I’ve added 620 relatives, invited 76 family members, manage 579 profiles, added 622 photos (including documents, all from sources OTHER than Geni). Through my work, I’m connected to 2,717 people in the combined Foutz-Knutson tree, and 60.6 million others through the site.

And I’m sure my story is not unique. And I know I’m not the biggest contributor to by any stretch. So why is there a in the first place? Why do they offer as a perk to “Pro” members the ability to search and browse all the profiles and info added to the site? BECAUSE MEMBERS LIKE ME HAVE SPENT COUNTLESS HOURS BRINGING THAT INFORMATION TO GENI TO HELP BUILD THE WORLD TREE.

And now they want to slap all of us green-thumbed genealogists growing the world tree on our callused hands. As I mention above, repeatedly. And our family members, too. But what do I mean by that?

I mean exactly this: if you’re in my family and have joined, whether you’ve added 600 other relatives like me, or you’ve just dropped by to view your beloved grandmother’s page or wish someone a happy birthday (or done absolutely nothing but log in), YOU ARE GETTING THE SAME MESSAGE BLOCKING YOU FROM ADDING PEOPLE AND INVITING YOU TO PAY UP THAT I AM.

That’s right. Because you’re connected to me, and I’ve added 620 people and 622 photos, you’re locked out. Can’t add a new son or daughter or grandchild. Can’t add that long lost great-great-great-great you’ve discovered. You’re stuck.

Gee, when you multiply that $95.40 annual PRO membership by the 187 living relatives listed in my tree you get $17k and change, and you begin to appreciate how the goal of building One World Tree has shifted to compiling One Big Stack’O Cash. All on the backs of contributing users and their families’ history. Nice.

My Modest Proposal: Get Social, Geni

My initial thoughts when made these changes, before I heard about relatives getting fleeced too, were simply befuddlement over why, in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter, they couldn’t come up with an ad-based model to support what is, essentially, a social site.

And a social history site at that, which is what they do best and is fairly unique out there.

My experience, as someone who works in digital advertising, is that people aren’t going to pony up dough for what historically has been a free service, particularly if they’ve contributed the very assets that Geni is selling. But that people are savvy enough to accept changes that help support the longevity of the site when the on-screen advertising formats are regulated and controlled by the site and don’t affect functionality.

Basically, anything short of the site reaching into your pocket is reasonable.

What I would advocate — if indeed Geni must reach into your pocket — is some sort of model that rewards you for contributing to the site, for managing profiles, for adding the source records Geni lacks and building a World Tree that is accurate, comprehensive and, most important, accessible.

You add profile photos for 50 profiles in your tree? Great, you get a month of premium access. You actively manage 100 profiles that go back more than 4 or 5 generations in your tree — great, tack on another 2 months.

Otherwise, what, exactly are we paying for? The ability to send birthday greetings and anniversary greetings to parents and in-laws? Hell, practically all of them are on Facebook now. The ability to share all the info I’ve dug up (elsewhere,, remember that?) I’m already doing that on this blog, though admittedly, the graphical ease of navigating profiles on (or Ancestry) is, to me, the best way to really dig into a family tree and learn about your ancestors.

In short, needs to capitalize on what it does well — the social aspects, the collaboration aspects — and put its collective braintrust to the task of finding a funding model that does not stick a hand out to the very people who are helping to build the world tree. There are too many other alternatives out there, paid and not.

Otherwise, when somebody kicks me in all my sensitive places or bans my family and friends from enjoying what we’ve worked to build? I take that resourcefulness and apply it elsewhere.

Categories: General Genealogy, quickie post | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Get a Clue,!

  1. I avoided Geni for a long, long time. For one thing, I’m a web programmer, so I wrote my own site. I didn’t do the social networking part, but I’ve updated and kind of started that, but not really so much. Then when some cousins contacted me and sent me some info, I saw that they used Geni. I decided to be social. I input 62 people, which was my pedigree and a couple extra people to connect to their tree. (I’m not adding 3000 by hand. Now I’m glad there was no gedcom upload anymore.) I ended up merging with a different cousin. Soon after, my 62 people was counted as 225 and I can’t do anything more. I don’t know if anyone in my merged tree has paid, but I hope not. I’m glad I didn’t put in any more time than just the names and most basic data. Have you tried to delete? I’m sure I didn’t try hard enough to be absolutely sure, but I’ve read that once you merge, you can’t delete anyone. So like you said, they collected our data for free, now they’re selling it back to us.

    Also, merging is only allowed on pro accounts? I didn’t even notice that change. They snuck that one in quietly.

  2. I completely agree with you. I have had issues with geni in the past, with trying to merge 2 duplicate accounts…which is rather hard with the one e-mail account no longer in service…how can I say yes to a merger when I can’t log on to that account?!! I have also had that happen with MyHeritage. It was originally free on gencircles, and then when MyHeritage took over, my info was free for a while. Then, they decided to start charging for over 500 names. 500…HA! So, instead of paying for something that I already had on there for free, I deleted my old trees, and uploaded 499 names. 🙂 I do enjoy Ancestry, and those waving leaves. My only beef with them right now is the TreeSync option with my Family Tree Maker. It worked great for a few months, and now it is telling me that I may have to upload a new tree. Oh well, at least I wasn’t too invested in the last tree I posted.

  3. Tim S.

    I also agree. Their approach should, instead, be to reward people for contributing and spending time, not penalizing them (as geni is currently doing). If it were to cost $17K for your closest relatives to pony-up and pay, if that money were available, it would be wiser to invest it by building a new website from scratch that addresses needed issues. What genealogy needs is websites that encourage and reward research efforts.

  4. Pingback: Another View of the Hotel Morgan « Whispering Across the Campfire

  5. Larry

    I posted a link to your comments at a Facebook group of former Geni users

    • Thanks, Larry. My thoughts exactly. Already applied to be part of that group.

      • Larry

        The group now stands at 80-90 members and a very unofficial tally indicates that the members are responsible for approximately 75 thousand profiles added to Geni. However, not every member supplied their profile count to the list, so it’s probably safe to assume that the ‘former’ members were responsible for adding over 100,000 profiles. While that’s a small figure compared to the Geni database, it is a very real indicator of what Geni has destroyed.

  6. Great post, Colt! Respectfully, and not to sound too spammy, but you may want to check out our site

    • Saw mention of what you’re doing with WikiTree in the comments on’s “help” page, Chris. Keep up the yeoman’s work!

  7. Apparently you are not alone in your views on the matter. See all the comments on their help page:

  8. Earl

    Already locked out of what was my passworded account … don’t know where that goes. Like the pamphlet says … “Choose a Plan.” Ok, well like Colt, I bemuse a plan that as soon as our clan tips over 100 feuds, we get a bill for $10,000 smacks. “Whoa, big pony” as my grand-pappy would say. My plan “A” will be to save the a file (probably file-size limited) to a standard format., I think, uses a standard format saving the work. Colt has done some fine work, and I feel like it is safe. But, alas, we may all have to move on and make some changes for the enterprise. A coordinated change would make me very happy. Think of it this way… we are all joining the fight, bonding together, and getting to know each other better. On the other hand, I do not think will retreat and restore. Keep the faith. Your cousin, Earl Ley

    • Hi, Earl. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We *could* always subsidize one or two “manager” accounts through which we can share logins and add/update the tree that way. still allows you to edit text info for existing profiles, just not add any more photos, docs or people. One thing Geni does do, for now, is allow free exports of the tree in GEDCOM format, which is compatible with Ancestry’s Family Tree Maker and most other genealogy programs.

      Another point that Geni seems blind to is that does indeed allow single-account users to add free collaborators to trees, giving both viewing and editing powers. I’ve done that with my mom and Katie’s cousin Carl. All for the one monthly fee.

      Another point in our favor is that I have all of my docs and photos backed up offsite. And organized — hey, hey! They can beat us, but they can’t keep us down!

  9. katiefoutz

    I’m more of a birthday/anniversary-card-sending, occasional-personal-details-adding Geni user. But this paywall sucks. Also, I love that you compared the One World Tree to the One True Ring.

  10. Sara

    I agree with you Colt. I joined years ago wih a family member on my dad’s side. I put a lot of info on the site for family members to share. All other family members contributed was their immediate family and recent pictures. i do not begrudge them the info that I contributed of anestors back to the early 1800’s. But I had hope they were interested in expanding my data and help look for areas that I have not covered or I am aginst the “Brick Wall”. I am consider saving my money and not rejoining Geni.

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