How FindaGrave.com Netted 10-Million Page Views Per Day
When Jim Tipton saw a massive tombstone in a Gainesville, Fl., cemetery that was engraved with the name Waldo, he snapped a photo, developed the film and coded a rudimentary HTML website, which he titled “I Found Him.” The year was 1995, during the Internet’s early days, but the photo quickly went viral, passed by e-mail from friend to acquaintances and beyond.
From that droll joke, which was seen by a few hundred early web adopters, grew FindaGrave.com, easily the world’s most extensive and trafficked online database of graves. On any given day FindaGrave.com serves 8-10 million page views. The crowd-sourced knowledge base even tracks down the final resting places of individuals. Ask the site’s users to locate where dead loved ones lie and, according to Tipton, 80 percent of the time you’ll have an answer.
“It’s something that happened to me rather than something I did,” Tipton told me over the phone a few weeks ago, referring to the success of a site he started as a lark. He had just watched his 4-year-old daughter score a goal in her Provo, Utah, rec league soccer game. Crickets chirped as he explained the fundamental irony of the find-a-grave project. Cemetery walking tends to be a solitary endeavor. Tipton calls graveyards “parks for introverts,” so the growth of such an engaged community around a lonely pastime was unexpected. After visiting famous graves, like those of Al Capone and Karl Marx, Tipton added better known burial places to the site, which he officially registered in 1997.
That meager collection snowballed into database that became huge. “The power of the crowd really energized the site,” he said. People whom Tipton affectionately calls the black sheep, death obsessed, cemetery walkers came out of nowhere and added grave after grave. Today, the site’s users add grave records at three times the U.S. death rate. For the past 16 years, he’s just been trying to keep up with the flood.
A visit to the site’s top contributor page offers a snapshot of the motivation of some of its most dedicated users. As Carolyn Farnum writes, “Cemeteries are my passion.” Farnum has uploaded 126,879 memorials in the 11 years she has been a Find A Grave member. People like her have used the site’s relatively arcane design and structure to record over 70 million graves from around the world. Many of the records include photos of the headstone, and all of them record the location and name of the person interred.
Tipton is the site’s only full-time employee, but he has some assistance. HIs wife recently quit her job and answers the onslaught of emails. A group of seven or eight “super users” helps ensure that the entries they receive adhere to the correct formatting. Through a number of third-party ad networks, the site makes enough cash to support Tipton’s young family, although he admits, “I don’t actively optimize monetization.”
In the late ’90s Tipton spoke with a few venture capitalists, but he turned down their advances fearing that the information his users had collected would be put behind a pay wall. He’s proud today that find-a-grave’s “user-created content still belongs to the creators.” Ancestry.com, the Utah-based genealogy giant, is a frequent suitor of Find-a-Grave’s data. Wherever the database ends up, Tipton hopes the information will always be free.
And the site’s rewards are not always so tangible. The seekers Tipton first enabled helped him track down the grave of his mother-in-law, who had died when Tipton’s wife was 16. Last month, they visited her resting place outside of Chicago for the first time. That’s how Find a Grave lets the living connect with the past. Long-lost lovers, army buddies, childhood friends, those ghosts we carry with us can be found by a simple query and the efforts of an army of cemetery walkers sharing their solitary pursuit through Find A Grave.