Ancestry.com is a good web site. It’s a tool for researching and maintaining family history, genealogy. It’s also a remarkably sophisticated database, data repository, and user interface with a lot of lessons for people who design webapps. I’m particularly fascinated that their target market is older people, your grandma who’s not so good with computers but has gotten interested in family history. But in no way is Ancestry dumbed down.
The web UI is great. The primary view is a visual family tree, a refocusable graph view that’s not much like a web page but works great in the browser. You then click through on a name to get to a person’s profile page that’s more like a normal document view. From there you do extra research, add information, etc.
The facts and sources tab on a person’s profile is my favorite part of Ancestry. They don’t just track a fact like “Born on 29 May 1917”, they also track the source of that fact, like “birth certificate” or “census record”. With a link right to a scan of the source document with the relevant information highlighted. Most people’s genealogy is full of bad data. (No, you’re probably not related to that 16th century king.) Ancestry provides a model for establishing the veracity of the data you record. Crowdsourced databases like OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia would benefit from more explicit attribution.
Ancestry is particularly useful because they have a fantastic collection of American genealogical records. The census records are the ones I use most frequently. Meticulously transcribed images of 100+ year old handwritten pages, completely searchable on fields like name, address, age, etc. They’ve collected all sorts of other data too: immigration records, social registers, railroad payrolls.. All this diverse hand written data, presented in a uniform computer search interface. They even proactively find hints for your family members for you to review and add to your data.
The app has some problems. Most of their data collections are only useful for researching Americans. Grassroots genealogists complain about Ancestry being too commercial and proprietary (see GEDCOM). Some people snark about the site being so grounded in Mormonism, although that criticism seems unfair to me. I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of family research in Ancestry. Mostly I’m impressed with the usability of the web app given how complex the data is.