The World of a Genealogy Giant
“It boggles your mind to think that it’s [FamilySearch.org] a free service,” –Robert Kehrer, FamilySearch Senior Product Manager
"Fifteen years ago Apple was a beleaguered tech company. Today, it is a transformative leader across multiple industries (computers, smart phones, music, movies, wearable technology),” said Robert Kehrer, senior product manager for FamilySearch.org’s search experience and former manager at Apple. He believes nonprofit FamilySearch, a world leader in the growing family history market, is undergoing a similar, fundamental transformation.
By Paul Nauta
“Fifteen years ago Apple was a beleaguered tech company. Today, it is a transformative leader across multiple industries (computers, smart phones, music, movies, wearable technology),” said Robert Kehrer, senior product manager for FamilySearch.org’s search experience. He believes that FamilySearch, a nonprofit and a world leader in the growing and expanding family history market, is also undergoing a fundamental transformation. He knows because, as a former manager at Apple for most of the last decade, he participated in the change and clearly sees the similarities.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with Kehrer following an industry presentation he made to hundreds of family history enthusiasts. He calls Utah home, which is no surprise as Utah, called appropriately Silicon Slopes by those in tech circles, is home to some of the fastest emerging tech companies and communities outside of Silicon Valley.
Sitting casually in his office with views of the expansive Rocky Mountains, Kehrer explained that nonprofit FamilySearch is seeking to change the very landscape of genealogy, now a multibillion dollar industry anchored by popular commercial services like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, and Findmypast.com. “[FamilySearch] is a different organization today—focused on the customer and quickly delivering value,” said Kehrer. “Companies that change the fastest to meet customer needs today are the most effective.”
He compared FamilySearch.org’s transformation to that of an older house that has undergone extensive renovation from its roof to its foundation. “The only thing that has changed with FamilySearch.org is, quite frankly, everything. It has been completely reinvented over the last few years,” Kehrer mused. Referencing the consistent delivery of rich new user experiences and ever-expanding online sources available, Kehrer said, “It boggles your mind to think that it’s a free service.”
It’s free because it’s a philanthropic subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—which shoulders the bulk of the cost of FamilySearch’s impressive worldwide operations, fueled by the support of hundreds of thousands of volunteers online and on the ground. And all for the sake of helping people make personal family history discoveries and connections.
Kehrer unabashedly believes FamilySearch.org has one of the best search-engine experiences anywhere, hands down, including a robust and very accurate hinting feature that quickly pulls from an ever-growing online database of 5.5 billion ancestral records and matches it to a patron’s deceased ancestors on record. Patrons can take confident matches generated by the custom search engine based on their personal family history information, and add them easily to their respective ancestors in their Family Tree online.
The collaborative-based FamilySearch Family Tree, Kehrer believes, is the largest and best-sourced of its kind on the Internet. Users add 360,000 new sources a day from all over the world and 37,000 new names a day to the Family Tree. It’s also available in 12 languages.
Keeping up with the times and evolving consumer appetites for portability, Kehrer noted there are two integrated mobile apps—FamilySearch Family Tree and Memories. The Family Tree app gives mobile users almost all the power of the online Family Tree so they can do real genealogical research remotely from their smart phone or portable devices. The Memories app enables you to organize all your family photos, documents (think fun artifacts like correspondence between your grandparents, birth and death records, certificates of achievement, and religious ordinations), stories, and audio files, upload them to Family Tree, and attach them to applicable ancestors.
In this day of “everyone’s a researcher thanks to the Internet”, Kehrer explained that a common problem is differentiating good information in a collaborative tree online from let’s say, hearsay. A helpful solution? SourceLinker. A simple tool for attaching sources of online or digital artifacts to the applicable ancestor’s profiles on FamilySearch.org.
On your next visit to the website, Kehrer encourages you as a user to check out the incredible free help systems, the phenomenal torrent of new records published daily (over one million new historic records per day), cool integrated products and services from emerging partnerships, third-party products, and a totally new volunteer indexing experience. And that’s just getting him started.
Kehrer revealed that the current focus of much of FamilySearch.org’s product development is on the most pressing customer needs:
- More historic records—faster
- The ability to preserve and share personal family records online
- More mobile-focused (ability to do more on cell phones and tablets)
- More accurate and full-featured search experiences
- Other online sources gathered easily and completely at a patron’s fingertips and in one place
- A genealogically sound FamilySearch Family Tree
- Integrated resources with partners and industry leaders
Since 2013, FamilySearch.org has seen significant increases in its nonLDS customer base (Remember FamilySearch is a charitable operation funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although the free service is publicly available to everyone). The increases are attributed to improved customer experiences. The number of searchable historic records has increased 700 percent, from 750 million in 2010 to 5.5 billion today, grouped in 2,112 collections from around the world.
Making the World's Historic Records Easily Accessible
Where do all the historic records come from? FamilySearch is digitally converting the bulk of its 2.4 million rolls of microfilm it began capturing in the 1930s, and is expanding its more than 300 digital preservation camera teams worldwide. Over 125 million new images are published online yearly from the field cameras alone, with plans to grow that production curve in the future.
FamilySearch’s new indexing program—a community-based initiative to engage hundreds of thousands of online volunteers to make the deluge of digital record images easily searchable online by name and other variables—is currently being rolled out in waves. A recent global indexing event attracted 115,000 online volunteers over a single weekend to help with the initiative. They created indexes to over 10 million historical records in just three days.
Kehrer says in the future they are working to make the indexing technology completely web-based. That will enable more volunteers to contribute on mobile devices besides laptops. It will also make volunteering more collaborative, meaning volunteers and organizations can create their own social groups to tackle select projects of interest, track their progress, and message each other. And the new interface will enable users to customize their digital workspace in the software, like reorienting the way they view images and enter data according to personal preferences.
With most tech companies thinking mobile first, the question begs to be answered, why haven’t they done so already with FamilySearch's indexing technology? Kehrer says they are making progress. A big challenge lies in the multitude of variations in historic record types across geographic areas, the quality of the original images, and mobile devices. FamilySearch gathers records from most countries in the world. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century before record keepers began using uniform ledgers for logging births, marriages, deaths, and religious ordinances. The lack of uniformity from record to record means adjustments must be made for every single ledger across the myriads of records—that’s not scalable or cost effective. There are also variations in handwriting amongst record keepers that adds an entirely different level of complexity.
But FamilySearch’s engineers seem undaunted by these challenges. They are confident they will continue to make pioneering advancements in the technology required to create more name level searches of the billions of historic record images in their keep.
For example, automated indexing is an exciting new technology FamilySearch is developing that scours typeset ASCI-type historic records and identifies genealogically relevant data, such as names, dates, places, and relationships, in each document. The more personalized a group of volunteers can make a project, the more engagement they can generate—and that means more searchable historical records for FamilySearch patrons. “This new process will vastly increase the publication of indexed collections online and free up online volunteers to index older, handwritten records that are harder for technology to index with high degrees of accuracy,” said Kehrer. FamilySearch publishes over 600 million new indexed records each year from its volunteers’ efforts.
In the Near Future
Kehrer’s primary responsibility is FamilySearch.org’s search systems. A new addition to the search experience his team is working on is FamilySearch’s evolving hinting feature—a service that automatically scours the rapidly growing body of digitized historical records for the ancestors you have in the FamilySearch Family Tree and presents their records to you. “It is absolutely astounding how effective and accurate this [hinting] tool is,” said Kehrer. “Think about it. It’s working for you when you’re not. It’s finding your ancestors in the growing mountain of historical records that the average person might have never considered. And it’s a piece of cake to add them to your family tree.”
The location-specific research pages, accessed when you click an area in the world map in Records Search, bring together location-relevant content from across the FamilySearch.org site (digital image collections, indexed records, and catalog, wiki, and help content). And when you look at an image of a historical document, it now shows relevant indexed data at the bottom of the same screen. “Seeing the image and the index results together on the same screen significantly enhances user efficiency,” said Kehrer.
And if that’s not enough enticement, Kehrer said they just enabled a new feature that enable site visitors to browse quickly through the billions of digital images or search the film’s indexed records directly from the FamilySearch.org catalog.
When asked what’s coming around the corner, Kehrer smiles in anticipation like a magician that knows not only the next act, but the secrets behind it. “Expect more impressive tools and more functionality for the FamilySearch mobile apps, Memories feature, online catalog, and partner initiatives,” Kehrer baited. “And advancements in search capability will be applied to all these applications.”
Build your family tree, capture your family memories, and try out the enhanced search experience at FamilySearch.org.
Paul Nauta enjoys family, the great outdoors, and family history with a bias for anything Italian. Follow him on twitter @nautapg.