Paying Off

By Diane Haddad Premium

They don’t call it the Web for nothing. You start on a free genealogy site someone recommended, and a dozen or so clicks later — just when you think you’ve found answers to your burning ancestral questions — a window pops up telling you to fork over a fee if you want to see any records.

It’s not hard to get lost in the maze of the Internet. Web-savvy marketers know you’re keen on getting free stuff and use a myriad of means to draw you to pay sites, hoping you’ll find enough value there to type in your credit card number. And plenty of people gladly pay for subscription sites such as < > and Footnote <>. Where else can you search so many records quickly and easily, without leaving home?

But when you’re expecting free, running up against a sizeable fee (often without knowing for sure a record names your ancestor) can make you want to head-butt your LCD. To avoid a concussion, watch for these paths that may lead to paid sites:

• Affiliate programs: Many subscription sites offer commissions to other sites that bring them business. The affiliate webmaster places ads on his site. When his visitors click those ads and then buy something from the subscription site, he gets a cut (like a finder’s fee). The ads often show a search box for the fee-based site — so unwary visitors might think they’re searching the free site.

• Sponsored links: Companies can pay to make sure their sites turn up when you type certain terms into a search engine. The links, usually at the top and right side of the results page, bear an inconspicuous Sponsored Links label. The sites will match your search criteria; but you probably won’t find a free site paying for a sponsored link.

• Links lists: Portal sites — those linking to other genealogy Web sites — might not clearly distinguish between free and fee-based resources. Some also may accept paid listings.

• Google ads: Google automatically feeds these ads to a host site, where they usually appear in a box at the side or bottom of a page. Hosts have little control over which ads appear, but can block certain ones. Most Google ads are for legitimate businesses, but anyone can buy an ad, so click with care. One on RootsWeb promised “Find Your Genealogy in Only 1 Min Using The Database of Government!” The linked site offered a fee-based search of county auditor, unclaimed funds and other public-record sites — all likely to contain recent data available free elsewhere on government sites. The unreasonable one-minute claim and the site’s geneology misspelling are good reasons to be suspicious.

Don’t be too hard on free sites that host ads, or the legitimate companies that place them. It costs money to store data and maintain a Web site, so those ads and affiliate programs help you by keeping free sites up and running. It’s up to you to be a smart surfer.
From the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine