Genealogy Blog

Faster is Better: Turbocharging our SEO

02 Oct 2015

At Mocavo we take a lot of pride in our technology. Whether it’s a core product like Mocavo’s custom-built genealogy search engine, or experimental tools like our handwriting recognition technology, we have some incredibly talented engineers creating technological breakthroughs to bring family history resources online.

One particular challenge about searching over 275,000 datasets for billions of names is to ensure that results are lightening-quick. A fast site is good for many reasons; importantly, our users can quickly find new discoveries and search engines like Google can expose our free content to new people.  In fact, over the past few years Google has incorporated site speed as a critical factor in its ranking algorithms; through meticulous testing, they found that faster sites = happier browsers. And they reward swift sites accordingly.

In the summer of 2013 our engineering team set out to re-architect the way we serve up our site, to make it lightning fast for users as well as search engines. This process of optimizing our site for search engines is known as SEO (Search Engine Optimization). I’d like to share the progress.

Size Matters

First, let’s put some context around the size of our collection: my colleague Derrick provided an excellent overview of how we manage our datacenter, which includes over a petabyte of storage. A petabyte is a unit of data storage, represented by a 16 digit number. That’s over 1000 times larger than the storage capacity of the average new PC sold today. For context, a petabyte worth of music would play continuously for over 2000 years; a petabyte of movies would fill over 223,000 DVDs.*

That’s a huge amount of data!

So to create a lightning fast site, we had to figure out a novel way to distribute this massive (and growing) dataset across the servers in our datacenter and retrieve results very quickly with our genealogy search engine.

Changing Search Retrieval Time

Last summer before we started this project, our average end-user load times were more than 4 seconds. Roughly a quarter of this load time was spent on retrieving search results.

After several weeks of testing out different methodologies, our engineering team created a system of custom caching servers that can store and index all of the content very quickly. That means that our site stores a ‘copy’ of every record on our servers and can retrieve this content without a lot of processing overhead. This new caching mechanism allows us to retrieve some records from our search engine in under 20 milliseconds and most book pages in under 75 milliseconds.

Additionally, we spent some time simplifying other client- and server-side code, further reducing page load time. Once all of these changes were deployed in October, our aggregate page load times dropped in half:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.26.43 AM

Other SEO Friendly Changes

Another important SEO consideration for us was to update and standardize our URL structure. During the previous two years of rapid growth, our URLs assumed various different styles, some legible to users, others not so much. And some of these versions were less-than-ideal in terms of search engine friendliness.

For example, for our popular Social Security Death Index collection, we had all of the following URL styles at the same time:


As a user browsing through a set of results on Google, which style most intuitively indicates what the page is about? Indeed, the third version quickly tells you the who, what and when about the page. Something like /ssdi/16889126271618839064 doesn’t communicate a whole lot of context.

So after careful considerations like this, we overhauled the entire URL structure of the site and then submitted new sitemaps to Google.

Google Crawl Rate

With the combination of a faster site and consolidated URL structure, Googlebot is now eating up our content as fast as it can. In August 2013, Google crawled as few as 75,000 pages per day as the site took over 1.5 seconds to deliver a single page. But after we rolled out and tweaked the custom caching solution, the time for Googlebot to download a page dropped to roughly 242 milliseconds.

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.28.25 AM

As the page loading time decreased, Googlebot increased the number of pages per day that it crawled. Today they’re accessing about 2 million pages per day; that’s over 23 pages per second!

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.29.42 AM

It took a few weeks for Google to digest the various changes, but we’re proud to report that the number of Mocavo pages indexed by Google has increased nearly 10-fold in a few months. Here is a great screenshot from Google Webmaster Tools showing the evolution of our site in the Google index:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.30.25 AM


A Big Slice of the Web

But just how big is that?  According to estimates from, there are somewhere between 20-50 Billion webpages online. That means Mocavo’s index represents somewhere between 0.11%-0.29% of the entire web. And it’s growing every day!

We’re quite proud of this investment in SEO as the growth in Google means our content is available to an even greater audience, all of it free forever.



Four Steps to Creating the Perfect Holiday Gift for Your Family

11 Dec 2013

Hoping to be the supreme gift giver this holiday season? Use these four simple steps to hone your skills and get off to the right start when creating the perfect holiday gift to celebrate your family and its unique history. Also, if you’re running out of time to make a gift this holiday season, here are some extra gift ideas that are guaranteed to excited family members and friends.

4 Step Holiday Gift Giving guide-2

Ways to Give Back This Holiday Season

03 Dec 2013

With all the excitement of Black Friday and holiday shopping, it’s easy to forget one of the most important tenets of the season ­— giving back to the community. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to find a way to give back this December.

In an effort to create a national day of giving to kick off the holiday season, organizations and individuals around the world are taking part in a movement known as GivingTuesday. The campaign was created last year to celebrate and encourage charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. In their words, “It’s time to ‘get out the give,’ and put ‘giving’ into the giving season.” Very similar to the way that retailers take part in Black Friday, the founders of GivingTuesday encourage the community to come together to give back during the holidays.

They have some great ideas for giving back:

1. Bring the family together to find some nonperishable foods in your cabinets. Then, bring your donation to your local food pantry.

2. Look in your closets at home and collect any extra items such as towels, blankets, etc. Donate your items to a program that sets up families in new homes.

3. At the beginning of a new season, think of one item that is needed. Then do a collection in your neighborhood for that one item and donate it to a local charity.

Check out the GivingTuesday website for more ways you can give back to the community this year.

We also can’t forget our own community! As genealogists, many of us could use some extra help breaking through our brick walls this holiday season. Inspired by the mission of GivingTuesday, we wanted to spread the word and share ideas for some of the many ways that folks can give back to the genealogy community this year.

Mocavo was founded with the belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to discover his or her family’s story. It was with this mission in mind that we created multiple free resources to empower members of the genealogy community to help one another discover his or her story.

Three Ways You Can Give Back to the Genealogy Community this Season

1. Volunteer for Genealogy Karma 

Modeled after Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, we created Genealogy Karma to connect researchers all around the country. If you’re looking for information about an ancestor who lived far away, we will connect you with family history volunteers who can do this research for you in other cities. If you have some time to spare this season, try fulfilling a request for a fellow genealogist. See all requests, or become a volunteer here.

2. Post information in Mocavo Surname Groups

Mocavo’s Surname Groups help family history researchers tap into the collective knowledge of thousands of other genealogists. If you have information about a particular surname, share your findings by posting a message on the group’s surname page. Your information may help someone make a breakthrough in his or her own research (You can also, of course, post questions about a surname for others to respond to).

3. Preserve Your Story and Help Solve a Mystery with Mocavo Free Scanning 

Do you have piles of research laying around? Old books gathering dust? Historical documents sitting in boxes? Now is the time to take advantage of Mocavo Free Scaninng. We scan books, documents and any standard-size paper sheets to bring them online for you and the rest of the Mocavo Community. Your dusty pile of documents could hold the clue to solve another genealogist’s riddle. Let us help you tell your story to the world.

There are many ways to give back during the holidays. Whether you give back to your local community, or the genealogy community, be sure to donate some time this December to help others in the spirit of the holiday season.


Slideshow Presentations

10 Dec 2012

Slideshows can be one nice way to present your family research with family pictures.  One way to create a slideshow is to enlist the aid of family members at holiday gatherings. It’s easiest to break this project out into two family gatherings. For example: at the first family gathering you can interview your relatives to discover the inside scoop on your family history. Then for the second family gathering, you can present your findings. Of course, you can create a slideshow without participating in a family gathering, but since it’s holiday season, family gatherings might be a good place to showcase your work. Place the emphasis on the most interesting images or stories.I’ve included some suggestions to give you a little direction.

Add period music, photos and visual aids if you want to add a little more color. Remember though, photographs and musical pieces are covered under copyright law, so be careful about using them indiscriminately. If you’re distributing the slideshow on an individual basis, this may not be a large concern.  However, if it’s going on the Internet, be very careful with the music you use and its copyright qualifications. What family photos do you have that really capture the best moments in your family history? Are there specific songs that remind you of times in your life?



You can begin with a short autobiography.  What information do you think will be most relevant? Basics such as birthplace, year and early life are great here. Include photos, hobbies, schools attended, love stories, etc. Let people get a real feel for who you are.This is also a great opportunity to share what you think other generations should know about you.

Next, you can organize the rest of your project in a more conventional way by spreading your presentation out through the rest of the branches of your family tree. Start with your parents and nuclear family, and then spread to grandparents, great grandparents, etc.



However,there is another method I prefer a little more. You can organize your information by subject. For example, do you know your family’s immigration story? What about historical context? What major events have your ancestors seen? What stories and anecdotes do you know about your family members? You can even write small personality profiles of your ancestors. Do you see any personality patterns that have been passed down through the generations?

There are few better ways to learn about who you are than to learn about where you come from. For one family gathering, do some interviewing (check out other blog posts for great interview questions). For another gathering, present your findings. This holiday season, take advantage of having the whole family together and see what you can find!


A Visit From Saint Nicholas

06 Dec 2012


Saint Nicholas is sometimes depicted as having a donkey and angels as his helpers.


Today is Saint Nicholas Day! Learning the history of your favorite holiday characters can not only be a fun family activity, but also a great way to discover the origins of your family lineage. Holiday traditions can be based on a number of things like location, ethnicity, nationality, or strictly family traditions. Saint Nicholas is a common theme in many winter celebrations, though there are more traditions around this saint’s day than there are people that celebrate it!  Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of more causes than any other saint but he is most commonly known as the patron saint of children in the Catholic religion.  Santa Claus with a twinkle in his eye and rosy-red cheeks evolved from the Catholic Saint Nicholas. While both their histories are rich and varied, there are certainly some common themes.

In many countries,  Saint Nicholas is accompanied on his journey by helpers, some scarier than others.  In Austria, he is seen with a Krampus, a terrifying creature representing  the less pleasant side of St. Nick’s visits, and deals with the naughty children. Zwarte Piete in the Netherlands, Le Pére Fouettard in France and parts of Belgium, and Knecht Ruprecht in Germany also join Saint Nick as his helper. Aside from these accomplices, Saint Nicholas is usually affiliated with animals as well, whether it is a donkey, white horse, reindeer, or a white Ford Mustang. In Curaçao, Saint Nicholas arrives for his parade in a white Ford Mustang, the closest equivalent to the white horse he rides in the Netherlands.


The Kramus in Austria abducts bad children or leaves them coal in their stockings.


This brings us to the rather blurry lines between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus in the United States. Some American cities still celebrate St. Nick’s Day, and sometimes St. Nick is introduced as Santa’s helper. Growing up in a European-influenced family, I never knew the distinction between the two characters. It is believed that Santa Claus was introduced to America by the Dutch settlers of what is today New York and widely spread from there to the Santa Claus Americans know now, the jolly fellow in a red suit with a reindeer-led sleigh.

The evolution from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus was largely thanks to the efforts of two New Yorkers. The first is Clement Clarke Moore who wrote A Visit from Saint Nicholas, sometimes known today as The Night Before Christmas. Santa made his first appearance here as a jolly elf, dressed in American fur, who delivered gifts to children via a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Later, Thomas Nast created Christmas illustrations in Harper’s Weekly and transformed Moore’s elf into a larger, jollier man who lived at the North Pole, with a large list of naughty and nice children. And so the American Santa Claus was born. To learn more about this evolution, check out the History Channel clip here.


Thomas Nast created this illustration of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly


The next time you see Santa Claus at your local mall, consider his rich history and maybe even look into your family’s traditions regarding Santa Claus if they have any. Do you leave shoes out for Saint Nicholas to give you small treats? Perhaps you light a candle in your doorway to welcome him to the feast like they do in Albania. Or maybe you’ve been to Argentina where they hold a large Tinkunaco festival to celebrate Saint Nick. Whatever your tradition, it can shed light on your family’s heritage and allow you to carry on those traditions to generations to come.