Since I wrote a blog series about using Cyndi’s List, I thought I’d ask Cyndi some questions that had been lingering after writing about her website. Here are the words straight from the desk of Cyndi. Enjoy!
Give a brief origin story for Cyndi’s List. How’d you get started? What made you want to turn this into a business?
I’m a member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society. Every summer we take time off, but in September we get back together and do a show-and-tell. In September 1995 my show-and-tell was that I had bought a new computer and started exploring the Internet for genealogy. I made a list, a whole page long, of everything I could find online for genealogy. The quarterly editor cornered me and asked if I could make it into a longer article, maybe 5 to 6 pages long. I told her I could, but I would have to probably categorize the links. It was published that fall. And in January 1996 I started teaching myself how to write HTML and put up a rudimentary personal web site on 4 March 1996 that included this little side-page with a list of links from that article. It was never intended to be a business. But by 1997-8 it had gained notoriety online and the various genealogy companies came knocking. I had sponsorship from Sierra Online for about 3 years, started running ads on the site and before I knew it, it was a business.
What has been the biggest frustration of running the website? What’s the biggest misunderstanding of what you do or how the site works? (Or both?)
There are several frustrations throughout the years. In general, it comes down to people and their perceptions of the web site or of me running the web site. I have had people insist that I add links to their sites within their timeline. I have had people argue that Cyndi is not a real person and that there is a team of people who run the site. I have had people copy my work and slap their own name on it. I have had people assume a lot about me, about the contents of the site, and about what I do and how I do it. Most of the time that assumption is that things must be automated, and the site run by many.
First, it really is just me. I have had some help here and there throughout the years, but it is a one-woman show. I do need to sleep and eat sometimes. And I do have other obligations. I do my best to keep up with the requests for links and the broken link reports. But I’m only human. And all this work is done manually, one at a time. I am a genealogist with 42 years of experience. I use that experience and my tech abilities to track down everything I can find for genealogical research. Then I determine ways to categorize and sub-categorize the links to make it as easy to find as possible. I try to outthink my fellow genealogist by cross-referencing whenever I can. And I spend a lot of time educating myself on new topics to build new categories or to improve on old ones. As one person, I would greatly appreciate patience and kindness from the people who use the site.
Probably one of the most frustrating statements I hear is that the site is just too big. That’s like saying there are too many books in the library. What it means is that the general user doesn’t know how to focus their research when using the site. You don’t use the entire site if you only need to look for resources in Ohio. You just browse to the U.S. and then Ohio.
And another frustrating statement I hear, “I used to use Cyndi’s List. Now I just use Google.” Well, if you don’t know that something exists in the first place, how would you know to Google for it? That’s my standard answer and it fits. Browsing Cyndi’s List and the categories, sub-categories, and links is the strength of the site. Finding things that you didn’t know were out there. Or things that Google cannot reach or didn’t reach and bring back in your searches. Please trust this experienced genealogist to find them for you.
And last, I wish wish wish that people would let me know when they change their sites or move their sites. I often get a lot of communication from people who want me to add a new link to their website. But, after that I don’t often hear from them again. I don’t think it occurs to them to let me know when I need to update those links. But, a broken link to their site is not great advertising for their site. And I don’t know when links break unless I physically check them myself or when someone else informs me.
How do you make a living?
The site is free for everyone to access and to use. It costs the visitor nothing. But the site costs money for me to maintain and to run. And my 12-hour workdays mean this is a real-live job. My income from Cyndi’s List comes from advertising and affiliate links. You will see graphic ads around the edges of every page – along the top, sides, and the bottom. Google AdSense is also inserting some new ads that popup and sometimes get inserted in the text (not yet sure how I like those, but the Google ads are necessary). And some of the commercial text links in the site are coded for affiliates. Viewing these ads, clicking on these ads and links, and sometimes even making a purchase after you have clicked, will help to generate commissions for Cyndi’s List. It costs you nothing, but it helps to support CL. After the last major upgrade of the site in 2011 I also added a PayPal Donate button. It took 5 years, but users of Cyndi’s List helped me pay for that upgrade in whole. You can shop using any of the affiliate links here: https://www.cyndislist.com/shop/
How do you handle broken links?
Broken links are the biggest issue online. It is the nature of the Internet. Links will break on Cyndi’s List, on Google, and everywhere in between. I have some links from 1996 that still work, and I have links that are only a year old that have already become broken. Every time a web site is rearranged, the URLs get changed and links break. I spend at least half my time updating broken links, if not more. People can use the purple tab on the left side of the pages to Report a Broken Link to me. I will do my best to fix the link and will likely email you when I do. And often if you report one broken link to me it means that I will fix multiple other links that relate to that one. Sometimes I also find new links to add to the site while I’m busy locating a fix for the broken link. Overall, it is a win-win for everyone if you report just one broken link to me. I don’t know that a link is broken unless you report them to me or if I happen to click on one myself. I really appreciate any help you all give me by letting me know about them.
What has been the best thing from doing the website?
One of the best things ever is hearing of success stories because someone used Cyndi’s List. I love knowing that it has helped people in their research. I learned early on that Cyndi’s List helped people learn how to do research too. Browsing the categories gives them ideas for new research avenues to follow. It teaches them about new topics and methodology. Using the site helps them become better researchers. I’ve also been incredibly lucky that something I love to do has also served as my job and a way to earn an income from home as I raised my son and now care for my mother.
Is there anything else you’d like the world to know?
I’m incredibly proud of what I created. It started as a small way to help my local genealogical society and ended up as a massive way to help genealogists all around the world. I want the world to know that I’m still here and I’m still happy to help. Please submit a new link or report those broken links and we will keep plugging away together!