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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the GenForum

Though there are dozens of forums and message boards available for the genealogically inclined (see Cyndi's List for a good number of them), I frequent only two—GenForum and the message boards of Ancestry.com/Rootsweb.com. Both are now owned by mega-company MyFamily.com, but aside from past misguided attempts to place pop-up ads on the Ancestry boards, and the occasional page-size ad in the GenForum header, the forums seem to function independent of the for-fee portions of the sites.

So which is better? I have always found GenForum easier to navigate. The "Jump to Forum" feature makes it easy to surf from one surname to another, while on the Ancestry boards the same action requires two clicks: one to search for the surname, and then another to reach the forum.

In GenForum one can search within any forum, but don't try to "Search all of GenForum." The search engine hasn't worked for years (though, curiously, the powers-that-be have continued to keep the search box on each page). There once was a way around this, when Google indexed every message on the forum. By limiting your Google search to the GenForum site, you could find any message you needed. Now, though, it is predominantly the index pages which are spidered and appear in Google search results, undoubtedly because MyFamily.com prohibits large-scale spidering of individual messages.

The Ancestry.com global search engine works, but even its "Advanced Search" doesn't permit searching for phrases. So, if I search for "John Smith," the results are messages in which both first and last names appear—whether together or apart (127,878 of them in all). A better way to search: use Google. Individual Ancestry.com messages are spidered (though not cached). Searching for "John Smith" with Google: 193 results.

Which forum is better may depend on what surname, topic or locality you're interested in, and how active the community is in that area. Ancestry.com has more categories of topics than GenForum, but you may find that your topic is not visited often by serious, helpful researchers. And a forum is only as good as the help given.

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