‘The Checkout’ takes on Ancestry and WDYTYA

Last week an Australian TV series called ‘The Checkout‘ released an episode which parodies Who Do You Think You Are. The video, entitled ‘Who Do They Think They Are?‘, takes many jabs at the TV show for making genealogy look easy, but takes many big swipes at Ancestry.com for their subscription tactics. Go ahead, watch the video now.


Pretty funny stuff, though nothing that we haven’t seen people complain about before. Ancestry.com provided a response to the piece which was posted to The Checkout’s Facebook page.

While many of us in the genealogy community have complaints about Ancestry.com, myself included, we also have much to thank them for. Multiple indexes to the same (otherwise free) data is a good thing. They have numerous datasets nobody else has, free or subscription based. When used appropriately, their large user base facilitates collaboration and provides research leads. But perhaps overlooked is their sponsorship of WDYTYA has helped genealogy in general reach millions of viewers. More people taking an interest in genealogy and more people willing to pay for subscriptions means better access to more records for all of us.

Decoy Death Dates

Have you ever come across decoy death dates in your genealogy research… dates intentionally incorrect (for any event, not just deaths)? It occurred to me there is a parallel between genealogy and one of my other interests, maps. In both cartography and genealogy multiple people or groups are working towards one truth. Sometimes people work together but often it is independent.

Cartographers have a history of deliberately including small mistakes in various versions of their maps. These are called ‘Trap Streets‘. The deliberately misleading data is used to catch people copying work that is otherwise copyrighted.

I wonder… does this ever happen in genealogy? Certainly people copy each other’s mistakes too often, but are any of those mistakes ever deliberate?

There is a risk that so many people will copy the fake data the incorrect data will become “truth”. Even though it wouldn’t pass the Genealogical Proof Standard a quickly replicating error might be difficult to stop.

I’m certainly not advocating people using fake data– I don’t think this is a good idea for a number of reasons. But I do wonder how often it happens.

Dick Eastman’s Complaint About Genealogists

Dick Eastman has a complaint about many genealogists.

I am appalled that some people apparently expect a company to spend money gathering free records, spend money scanning it, spend money building data centers, spend money buying servers and disk farms, spend money on high-speed Internet connectivity, spend money for programmers, spend money on customer support personnel, and spend money on advertising to let you know that the information is available, and then expect that same company to make the information available free of charge! [..] Where did they learn economics? At the Tooth Fairy University?

I agree. Genealogy is cheaper today than it ever has been. Physically going to retrieve a single record from a remote repository can be very expensive.

My pet peeve it slightly different– the paid record lookuprequests. As Judy G. Russell eloquently points out, just say no. In most cases you are violating the terms of service you agreed to and the lost revenue means fewer records for those of us happy to hand over subscription dollars.

Ancestry Clarifies “Ancestor Discoveries”

Last week Ancestry.com announced a new feature, ‘Ancestor Discoveries’ and claimed a “Breakthrough in DNA“.

Imagine that you know nothing about your 3rd great-grandmother on your father’s side. You haven’t been able to find her name, you’ve never seen a picture of her, and you don’t know where she was born. Now by taking the AncestryDNA test you may finally discover that piece of your story. This is the power unlocked by New Ancestor Discoveries as we push technology and DNA science to the next level.

That is quite a claim, and one many quickly asserted was too good to be true. I completely agree. Sharing DNA is certainly an indication of a common ancestor– revealing whom that ancestor was is another matter. It is far too easy for a whole group of people to follow the same (wrong) tree. Ancestry’s software will then possibly match the shared DNA segment with the ancestor the group members incorrectly have in common.

Ancestry.com also doesn’t give us the proper tools to analyze the data ourselves, namely a chromosome browser. DNA research is tough enough as it is. I’ve tested at all three major autosomal testing companies and it is very rare when I can identify a common ancestor from my thousands of matches. I can see Ancestry’s motivation for not providing a chromosome browser and respect their drive to keep DNA research simple. But simple, DNA is not.

Today, Ancestry provided a bit of clarification surrounding the new feature and you could even say backpedaled a bit. The blog post does a good job discussing the limitations of the predictions as well as new information surrounding how they calculate confidence. The same clarifying information should also be presented alongside the DNA results rather than such optimistic marketing lingo as “it is now possible to simply take the AncestryDNA test and see the name of an ancestor from your family’s past appear in your DNA results”.

I can’t personally evaluate the accuracy of their results because not only do I not have any ‘New Ancestor Discoveries’, I don’t have any DNA Circles either.

Tim Flight

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I'm a web application developer, generally working with PHP and MySQL. I'm also a genealogist with primary research expertise in New England, the Maritimes of Canada, and Sweden. And I'm a former National Champion snowboarder. Formerly I was a full-timeprofessional blogger.