A recent post by Randy Seaver of Genea-Musings, Ancestry.com and the Genealogical Community, quoting Thomas MacEntee of Geneabloggers in a post entitled, "Open Thread Thursday--Ancestry and the Genealogy Community" got me thinking about the future of subscription websites that cater to those interested in genealogy.
The idea of these sites is to sell genealogical information and other services like data hosting to the public. Although the target audience is supposedly genealogists, there is nothing preventing anyone, genealogist or otherwise, from becoming a member of these sites and using the information for another purpose. For example, there are companies that charge a fee for locating missing heirs. I assume these companies use some of the subscription services like Ancestry.com, for their searches. As an attorney, I have also used Ancestry.com to verify heirship information in probate cases.
The question is whether or not the concept of paying for genealogical information or services has a long term future? Can the services survive the competing interests of privacy, copyright, freedom-of-information and profitability? Will the market evolve into a dichotomy of government owned and controlled information in contrast to freely available information, leaving out the private paid services other than those working for or with governments?
Some subscription or pay-by-view genealogy sites are already government owned and operated. Others are private but operate with government licenses or approval. Some governments, see genealogists as a revenue source. For example, both the U.S. and U.K. National Archives charge for copies of their records. The U.S. Social Security Administration charges $27.00 or more for a copy of a person's Social Security Application Form. There are far more governments and government agencies that charge for their record availability than make them freely available. The Denmark and Norways of the world are the exception, rather than the rule.
Considering the present status of the private online subscription providers, Ancestry.com, as one of the largest of the online providers, gets most of the attention because of its high level of advertising. MyHeritage.com may actually be the largest online subscription site internationally, but there is no easy way to make that determination. The various websites that rank sites by traffic do not agree with each other. Just for the record, FamilySearch.org's web traffic is no where near the present size and popularity Ancestry.com. But does the fact that these huge online conglomerates are presently successful necessarily guarantee their continued growth and popularity?
One problem with subscription sites is that people have to maintain an interest in the content of the site over time. The perception of the genealogical community is that subscription websites are expensive. I would guess that the perception is more of a reflection of the demographics of genealogists than any real cost/value analysis. Looking at the demographics of those who visit the Ancestry.com website as reported by Quantcast.com, the user of the site is over 50 (39%), female (61%), no children (over 70% for all ages), making an average income and with an average amount of schooling. About 48% of the Ancestry.com users have no college degree and 21% make less than $30,000 a year. If I were running a business and those were my demographics, unless I was operating a care center, I would be worried.
Another challenge to the subscription sites is the changing background of privacy laws. The U.S. copyright laws are an example of what can happen as a "right" is expanded. U. S. Copyrights used to expire for any number of reasons but never lasted more than 75 years. Today that time period has increase so much, that it is unlikely that anyone living will ever see the end of the contemporary copyright protection on a currently published document. Further, as the so-called "privacy" rights increase, governments become less and less inclined to allow access to their records. Some of the more extreme examples of government limitations on the availability of records are from Canada, where each province has its own act and time limits on protection of the personally identifiable data held. The Canadian federal government has other rules, some of which will result in the fact that some years of census from the twentieth century will never be available to current genealogists except as combined data. As governments continue to capitalize on more and more varied income sources, the sale of access to genealogically significant records will become overpoweringly tempting.
Another question is to what extent free websites will cut into the market addressed by subscription sites? Will free websites cut into the profits of the subscription sites to the extent that they will become unprofitable? This does not appear to presently be the case. For example, FamilySearch is partnering with Ancestry.com and will defer to Ancestry.com to provide some of the records that FamilySearch could otherwise make available. FamilySearch isn't making much of dent in the huge numbers of people signing on to Ancestry.com every day, but there may come a point when the online FamilySearch collections equal or exceed those of Ancestry.com. If FamilySearch and other free online providers make available all of the records not permanently controlled by governments, what will be left for the private subscription sites?
What about those sites that provide online storage of family trees? The present market for online storage is very dependent on a particular type of technology presently existing on the Internet. It is entirely possible that the way people interact with their data online will change so dramatically, the present model of an online family tree program will not exist in its present configuration. If FamilySearch, for example, were to provide a free, viable online family tree storage alternative, with the ability to have accurate sourcing, media and text, wouldn't there be less of an attraction for the commercial sites? It is highly unlikely that any one provider of genealogical services will come to dominate the Internet, Facebook notwithstanding. (If I were to make one sure prediction about the Internet, it would be that Facebook will begin to disintegrate into separate more focused social networking sites). You might want to note that the most downloaded App for the iPhone/iPad world is a game written by an 11 year old from Utah. These events are called "Black Swans" and are predictably unpredictable.
Can Ancestry.com fail? Think about some of the high tech companies that have disappeared or virtually disappeared in just the last few years. Are you in the market for an IBM computer? How about a Compaq?