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Genealogy: Expanding the family tree

It was done already. That's why Sean Sullivan, 57, never did much family history, until the Provo resident discovered he was related to Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain .

Sean Sullivan made the connection on Relative Finder, a Facebook application that uses data from to show how users are related to friends and famous people. Since then, he has spent hours, logging 40 hours in one week, digesting ancestor research online.

This year family history viewers have topped 149 million, based on website statistics from, as users, typically aged 45 and older, seek out connections to relatives.

More than 100 million records will be made available this year via companies like Salt Lake City-based FamilySearch International, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo-based Inc. and Palo Alto, California-based Part-time ancestral sleuths are turning to the Internet to find their progenitors, with companies trying to keep up with a growing market.

"Stuff keeps changing on FamilySearch almost daily," Sullivan said. "You go back today and look at a family line, you may find it goes back deeper than it was last week, or even yesterday. For some reason I hadn't tapped into it before."

With more interest in the market, there is a scramble to gather content in order to keep up with the growth. This has even led to major partnerships, including FamilySearch partnering with Ancestry to digitize the content in the LDS church's Granite Mountain Records Vault, where only 20 percent of the 4 billion records have been digitized.

Market size

Because family history interest is hard to quantify, analysts are finding ways to gauge the size of the total accessible market.

In a April 29 report on, analysts from BMO Capital Markets said the 6.3 million viewers of "Who Do You Think You Are?," an NBC reality show featuring celebrities learning about their family history, along with the 5.5 million average monthly visitors to the site put the potential market "in excess of 10 million people."

"This would represent an interest in genealogy that is more than 5 times the size of the current U.S. subscriber base," BMO's Edward Williams and Thomas Andrews said in the report.

Tim Sullivan, chief executive officer of, estimates the market at 20 million families.

"We think there might be as many as 20 million families, and each one of those there ought to be one person who is that family archivist," Sullivan said, who is no relation to Provo-resident Sean Sullivan.

Though Ancestry's total subscribers have risen 20 percent to 1.67 million so far this year, that figure covers only 8.3 percent of Sullivan's estimated market size.

Ancestry, the only publicly traded family history company in the U.S., reported that second quarter revenue rose 36 percent to $101.3 million as profits jumped 94 percent to $16.6 million.

"We're leaning very forward and aggressively into the kinds of investments to build a product and scale to satisfy that size of a market," Sullivan said during an interview in his office with views of the Wasatch Mountains. "It's really simple. All we have to do is build a product that works for every one of those 20 million families."

Meeting the demand

The media attention of family history coupled with an outpouring of newly available records has drawn a younger crowd, expanding the market size, said Kathleen Hinckley, executive director for the non-profit Association of Professional Genealogists, from her office in Westminster, Colorado.

The difficulty to access genealogical records hindered many amateur archivist of the past.

"Now what I'm seeing is so many young people are able to do genealogy because they can do it in the evening when their kids are sleeping or whenever they have extra time," Hinckley said.

Companies are working towards increasing content and refining how users interact with information.

This is something that will help unlock a latent interest in family history, which makes up about 50 percent of the market, said Jay Verkler, chief executive officer of FamilySearch. In the market, about 20 percent of people have no interest in family history.

"They need an experience that is accessible enough to them, both in terms of simplicity and cost," said Jay Verkler, chief executive officer of FamilySearch.

FamilySearch's total searchable names have risen 15 percent to 2.3 billion this year, after a 54 percent jump in 2010.

"We're a memory institution as a church," Verkler, who has researched his personal family tree back to the 1600s, said in an interview in his downtown Salt Lake City office. "By memory institution, I mean we're an institution that preserves memory and records."

FamilySearch will be open its third data center in Kansas City. The 63,000-square-foot building will house computer servers that contain digitized documents.

The site also allows users to share findings, adding a social aspect that enhances the searching experience and ensure the names in their family tree are accurate.

"How that data becomes accurate is very important to us, probably more important than any other large entity in the space because we actually care that it's accurate," said Verkler, who has served as CEO since 2002. Only 10 percent of the site's visitors are members of the LDS church, Verkler said.

Ancestry has a similar system, with a total of 26 million family trees being stitched together. Though FamilySearch, which takes up four floors in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, offers a free service stacked against Ancestry's paid subscription model, the two companies say they are not competing. Instead they are cooperating to fulfill their individual objectives.

Because FamilySearch's primary focus is growing the market rather than owning it, they tend to help other companies advance their models.

"If the church wanted to compete with companies in terms of eliminating their business proposals, we'd go target their core assets and we'd duplicate them and produce them for free," Verkler said. "I think that would be a really bad idea because the way financial investment works. We wanted to go public because that's proof to the investment community that a genealogy company is a viable company."

Sullivan and Verkler, who meet informally once a month, have similar views of the relationship between the two companies.

"We're the two largest entities with similar objectives with very different business models," Sullivan said. "There's far more opportunities to work together to achieve our distinct objectives." That includes the granite vault partnership. Ancestry also partners with governments to digitize historical records.

"We try and be good partners," Sullivan said. "The nature of the relationship is we are bringing value to the table in terms of substantial capital to digitize content and provide back to that institution a digital record that they do not have the budget to do themselves."

Though the company has about 7 billion records in its database, content and technology improvements are necessary to keep up with the market.

"Five years ago, we were a product and technology platform that was really effective for 700,000 or 800,000 people," said Sullivan. "Today, we have found 1.7 million people who find ancestry useful enough to be a paying subscriber, but I would not suggest that the product platform we have today is good enough to be three times or four times the number of subscribers."

Ancestry tends to keep their acquisitions modest. Sullivan says they haven't made a deal "north of $25 million in a long time."

That hasn't stopped Ancestry from acquiring a company that catches their eye.

"We cheer on anyone who is trying to find a unique niche in the family history space," Sullivan said. "Footnote was a great example of a company that was really focused on a particular positioning and niche, and we like that. We've increased the size of the team, digitizing more content, investing in the product and we're growing subscribers because we feel like it's a great complementary offering to the core ancestry experience."

Increased demand has also enticed new companies to enter the space, bringing more competition., a division of Redwood City, California-based Inflection LLC, launched in January 2010. The company recently added more than 500 million names through U.S. Census Record indexes in a partnership with FamilySearch. The site has 1.61 billion records. By comparison, Ancestry has more than 7 billion and FamilySearch has 1.5 billion.

Archives charges $39.95 per year for an account. Ancestry's paid service charges $155.40 for an annual account. FamilySearch doesn't charge.

"Our mission in this space is to make family history simple and affordable," said Matthew Monahan, CEO and co-founder of Inflection, which owns Archives. "Learning about your family history and doing genealogy in the past was very time intensive."

Regardless of how big the market has already grown, analysts believe there is still That leaves room for expansion.

"The vast majority of records are still offline," said Justin Patterson, an analyst for Morgan Keegan. "Until that scenario changes, this is likely still a growth market."

FamilySearch's name indexing taps 125,000 volunteers illustrating increased social enthusiasm in the space. With its volunteer force, records are indexed 40 times faster than before, said Verkler.

Some of this growth also comes from consumer contributions, which is an approach family history companies are taking. Ancestry notifies users when others share or update possible relatives on the site.

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