A software company is marketing a new program to Internet advertisers that could quickly generate Web sites full of extensive, but fake, family trees.
Critics say the approach appears to be part of a new money-making scheme to lure people who search for family names on Google, Yahoo or other search engines to Web sites that use bogus data to help ensure they appear high on "hit lists." They then make money if visitors click on advertisers' links.
They worry that novices might download false information that is designed to look real, and then corrupt others' family trees if they share that bad data online or through family history databases such as those offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the commercial Utah-based Ancestry.com
However, Don Harrold, co-creator of a program called "Fake Family," which he sells for $75, says data it produces has "absolutely zero chance" of matching any real person or family. He says he has offered the program to fewer than 30 self-described Internet advertisers, so its use is not widespread, and he has not made money on it.
Why make it then? "Why not? I enjoy trying to find ways to create computer simulations of organic life," Harrold told the Deseret Morning News.
But online chat groups of both genealogists and Internet advertisers are buzzing about what the new program could do to genealogical research, and why Harrold is marketing it, even if, as he says, to a small group.
Dan Eastman, author of Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, wrote this past week that he believes Harrold "wants to flood the Internet with bogus genealogy material, all for the purpose of making easy money."
Online information that Harrold wrote says his product can "create thousands of pages of unique . . . content with almost no effort. Neither humans nor search engines will be able to tell whether the content is 'real' or 'generated.' "
How could that make money?
Josh Anderson, an Internet advertiser from Idaho, who also is a genealogist concerned about the product, explains Web hosts can program their sites to display "sponsored links." Advertisers pay search engines to have these appear on screen whenever certain key words such as "genealogy" are part of a search.
When such links are clicked by a visitor, the Web site host and search engine company split revenue from an advertiser. (Of course, Web sites can also offer other forms of advertising.)
"It can be a very profitable source of income. Some people make millions of dollars a year doing it," Anderson said. "The whole purpose (of Fake Family-style sites) is to trick the search engine, so they get a top listing for some search words" to attract more visitors and potentially more revenue-producing mouse clicks.
Search engine companies say they hunt for and remove from listings any sites that are bogus or that scrape content from other sites merely to act as a vehicle to carry advertiser links.
But Fake Family boasts in written information that it can fool search engines. It does not merely produce lists of random names, but links them generation-to-generation with bogus birth, marriage and death dates and places.
It adds that its randomly generated names "are era-specific," meaning you will get more names such as Orville and Bertha in the 1880s than the 1980s. Infant mortality, marriage rates and migration data is also encoded, and more. It's the rich family "experience" that Fake Family provides that is significant and makes the output stunning in its ability to look real to humans.
Internet advertisers helped the Deseret Morning News identify a few genealogy sites that appeared to contain only bogus information, along with plenty of advertiser links. Harrold, however, said he only knows of one generated by Fake Family (even though he said in written information that he has "monetized" several family history sites).
"This is scary to me," said Mindy Koch, an Internet advertiser from North Carolina and an avid genealogist. "There is a great chance that a novice could think this is real. If they download it, and then later upload it into repositories like (the LDS Church's) Ancestral File, those databases would include lots of people who never existed."
Also, she added that it potentially could make search engines more difficult to use for genealogy if bogus sites slow them or account for all the "top hits."
Harrold says such threats are imagined and not real. He said the chances of randomly selected first and last names, coupled with randomly selected places and dates, being shown as married to the same persons as people who actually lived "are not just slim, they are nonexistent."
He said if someone still mistook such information as real and downloaded it, "that's their fault." He adds, "If you want real family information, why are you not looking at Census records? If you're not paying for it, and I didn't ask you to take it, and the name and date don't match your family tree, why are you taking this information? Any onus is on the people who take this information."
Some in genealogy chat groups, however, complained that a name that looks even roughly plausible could be mistaken as real by a novice, or cause even a genealogy expert to spend a lot of time and money to eliminate the possibility it is the person for whom they are seeking.
"Boo hoo," Harrold told the Morning News in response to such complaints. He said "the real story" is how Google and other search engines do not verify content they seek and guide others to for profit. He said databases by the LDS Church and Ancestry.com also contain some incorrect information submitted by patrons. His obviously false data creates less threat to genealogy research than they do, he said.
Harrold suggested in chat groups that he might sue people who referred to his work as a "scam." He also warned the Morning News to be careful what it said about him.
In turn, makers of the Legacy Family Tree software threatened to sue Harrold if he did not remove from his Web site instructions about how to download free software from them that could assist the Fake Family program.
Meanwhile, Mary Kay Evans, spokeswoman for Ancestry.com, a Utah company that, as part of its service, offers a large database of names, said, "It is so unfortunate that there are predators on the Web who target people interested in their genealogy. Genealogy is such a popular hobby that predators are moving to take advantage of that."
Evans, as well as many genealogists and even Harrold himself, urges genealogists to verify carefully all sources of information in genealogy, especially any obtained online from people they do not know. "That is a primary role of Ancestry.com, to help people see source records," Evans said.Anderson, who operates a small family Web site, also encourages genealogists to actually talk to people operating such sites and ask for all source information.