Inside the remarkable rise of the genealogy industry
When MyHeritage, a genealogy site with around 80 million members, appealed to its users several months ago for photos of members who closely resembled their ancestors, responses poured in from around the world. About 110 users submitted photos as part of a contest to win a family photo shoot. Many photos appeared to be of the same person.
Easy image availability and fast scanning technology transform a process that would have taken months before into seconds.
While MyHeritage leveraged the photos for user promotion, they are also the latest example of an ongoing arms race between genealogy services to attract users, build content bases, and most importantly, secure family records. memorabilia and historical documents that their competitors do not have.
Writer and journalist AJ Jacobs, who is currently working on a genealogy book, said fast company that “websites have an increased interest in genealogy. There are many people who have become addicted to websites and want to go further and hire professional genealogists to do more in-depth research. Indeed, professional genealogists use other resources, in particular by accessing physical archives that are not yet online. Jacobs recently hosted the Global Family Reunion in New York, and special guests included David Blaine, George HW Bush (via video stream) and Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor and host of the PBS genealogy hunt series. Find your roots. The event, billed as “The Largest Family Reunion in History,” was organized in conjunction with MyHeritage, Ancestry.com and several other genealogy websites. Another meeting is in preparation for 2017.
Genealogy as Big Business
MyHeritage, an Israeli company founded in 2005 to target a global audience, is one of the big players in the genealogy block. The company, which operates MyHeritage as well as a companion site called Geni, competes with US-based Ancestry and a slew of smaller competitors.
The two companies operate under different business models. Ancestry operates on a subscriber model, with monthly subscriptions ranging from $19.99 for a basic plan to $44.99 for an all-inclusive plan, and discounts for annual subscriptions. MyHeritage and Geni instead opt for a freemium model where access to the site is free, but customers pay varying fees for standalone software or additional access to records.
For Ancestry, MyHeritage and their competitors, genealogy is big business. Enthusiasts tend to spend a lot of money — the average cost to find roots ranges from $1,000 to $18,000, according to consultancy Global Industry Analysts.
Also, exporting data from one service to another is a hassle, and signups tend to have a network effect. If one or two relatives interested in genealogy sign up for a service, their cousins, aunts and uncles also come. If a service is able to secure hard-to-find resources like old family photos, church records, or scans of old documents, that gives it an edge over its competitors.
An Ancestry representative said fast company that “We have created multiple paths for everyone to learn more about their family history, and in turn about themselves, whether that be collaborating on a family tree with a parent, starting a family tree on our Facebook app or our Ancestry mobile app, or by taking an Ancestry DNA Test. Although we do not track multiple family member registration data, we believe that our site has network effect characteristics.
The way families are analyzed also varies from site to site. In an email, MyHeritage communications director Aaron Godfrey explained that “Geni is focused on building a global family tree of humanity, and anyone can contribute to it and add profiles. It’s kind of like a family history Wikipedia, meanwhile, MyHeritage lets you discover, preserve, and share your family history on your own private family website.
The race for resources
In the case of the old family photos featured above, MyHeritage reached out to members who opted in to receive emails and read the company’s blog.
Stavit Shalev, director of the Institute of Genetics at Israeli Emek Medical Center, said fast company by email that it is relatively common for people to look more like distant ancestors than do or looked like their ancestors’ own children.
“Each person has their own unique composition of genetic material,” he told us. “Even brothers don’t get exactly the same traits from their parents. There are dominant traits where certain traits are enhanced, while others are less affected. A grandchild can look like a great-grandparent because it has a high genetic similarity of 12.5% On the other hand, the rest of the genetic makeup can include characteristics that will be very different.
In other words, if a child grows up to strongly resemble a parent or ancestor, it’s a bit like rolling the dice. A child may look much more like their great-grandparents than their parents, or be the spitting image of their parents with relatively little resemblance to their grandparents.
For MyHeritage, getting users to share photos of their ancestors or their archives is an engaging business strategy. Turning into an ancestry information clearinghouse means building user loyalty. The goal is for users to share photos and other genealogy-related content through their site, rather than on Facebook and email, and especially with the competition.
So far, over 78 million photos and scanned documents have been uploaded to MyHeritage by users.
Part of the challenge for MyHeritage and Ancestry is to ensure that amateur genealogists pay for them, rather than (or at least in addition to) outfits such as 23andMe and National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Both of these companies focus their efforts on DNA analysis that tells users about their “deep ancestry” – their ethnic heritage dating back thousands of years and the geographic distribution of their blood ancestors. Instead, Ancestry and MyHeritage records focus primarily on ancestors who lived decades or centuries ago. 23andMe, on the other hand, focuses on where your ancestors were during the agricultural boom.
For all of these sites, there is also an additional challenge: expanding the breadth and breadth of their user base. Amateur genealogists are predominantly Caucasian (as the slideshow above points out) and from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, at least in North America. Despite the existence of groups such as the African American Historical and Genealogical Society and the outreach of other genealogical organizations, this has been an ongoing problem for the genealogical community. Asian users are stymied by the destruction of historical records during geopolitical traumas such as World War II, Cultural Revolution, Korean War, and the Partition of India, while African American users are faced with the relative lack written documents from before the Civil War.
as doors of Find your roots puts it bluntly, “Finding pre-Civil War records is a hurdle for many when researching their African-American heritage.”
The Mormon Connection
In their search for data, genealogy firms often turn to an unlikely source: the Mormon Church.
Although now majority-owned by private equity firm Permira, Ancestry.com was founded by two Mormon Brigham Young University graduates, Paul B. Allen and Dan Taggart. The company’s headquarters are still in Utah.
The Church of Latter-day Saints is well known for its interest in genealogy. Mormon religious beliefs emphasize the discovery and reconstruction of family trees (a practice that has sometimes led the Church to controversy due to the practice of baptism for the dead), and the Mormon Church and businesses Mormon-owned private homes have been at the forefront. of the genealogy industry for decades.
That’s why Israel-based MyHeritage has an agreement with the Mormon Church’s genealogy site, FamilySearch. FamilySearch, which sits on top of a massive cache of historical records and family trees, has entered into a resource-sharing partnership with MyHeritage. In exchange for sharing their data, FamilySearch was able to leverage MyHeritage’s engineering and back-end resources.
Ancestry.com also struck a similar deal with FamilySearch, highlighting how difficult the battle for proprietary data has become for genealogy sites. There was also a bonus for active Mormons: Under both agreements, Church members received free premium subscriptions to Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.
FamilySearch, which is a service directly provided by The Church of Latter-day Saints, has 6.4 million registered users, 267,897 unique visits per day, and more than one billion records in their family tree.
Keep users clicking
The MyHeritage contest saw dozens of users submit photos of ancestors who looked suspiciously like them. Because genealogy websites often depend on one or two relatives uploading the bulk of their extended family tree content, Ancestry, MyHeritage and their competitors must do what sites around the world do: send email reminders. e-mail users and status updates.
Geni and MyHeritage send frequent email reminders. Geni focuses on the open-access, Wikipedia-like family trees mentioned earlier in the article, while MyHeritage focuses on matching newly acquired historical records and data with individuals in family trees.
For genealogy sites, the secret to success is pretty much the same as for any other web service: get as many eyeballs as possible. But in this case, the hook is being able to show your extended family that you really, really look like your great-grandparent. As for MyHeritage, they will soon announce the winners of their contest. Which of the images above do you think has the strongest similarities?