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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Big Four in Genealogy: Acquisitions and Consolidation

In my recent post about new hires at MyHeritage.com, I mentioned some of the acquisitions and consolidations that have been going on in the online genealogical community. Some expansion, including comments on investment and ownership, on that topic is warranted given the changes in the last year or so. But first some observations on the issue of big online genealogical databases. As I see it, there are essentially four entities in the huge, multinational category that participate to any great extent in the genealogical marketplace. Three of those entities are for-profit companies and the fourth is associated with a world-wide Church.

Huge online genealogical databases are transforming the practice of genealogy. The consolidation of sources in searchable online databases will continue to impact the way people practice genealogy and the way they think about it. If you believe that information about your family is available online either free or for a price, you will think about records and other information in a way that is entirely different if records and information about families is something you have to write for or go to a government office to obtain.

Today, after some hours of research helping a patron at the Mesa Family History Center, I found an online copy of the patron's grandfather's death certificate, a digital copy of the original certificate. What was interesting is that the patron wasn't even surprised. It was as if he expected me to find the certificate. It is impossible to tell people who are used to using the Internet, how absolutely amazing it is to find an almost 100 year old death certificate, much less finding a copy for free online with only a couple of hours of research. This is especially true in this case, when the patron did not know his grandfather's name when he first came into the Family History Center.

Despite the reaction of some in the genealogical community about having to pay for online services, the relative cost of these online companies is minor compared to the cost of traveling to the various locations and searching for the same records onsite. The $300 plus cost per year of an Ancestry.com subscription is a very small fraction of the cost of a single trip across the U.S. to look for records.

One effect of having so many records online is that people assume that all of the records are online. Even FamilySearch.org's huge collection of images or Ancestry.com's vast collections cannot begin to even dent the numbers of records left to be digitized. But that is not the impression that people are getting. Having the 1940 U.S. Census come online in one day only adds to the impression that searching online is both the beginning the end of genealogical research, when in reality, it is only the beginning.

We are definitely in a transition period when records are being digitized in huge numbers every day, day in and day out, year in and year out. It is probably impossible to estimate when the number of digitized records will exceed those left to be digitized, but given low governmental budgets and the number of documents to digitize, it will likely take many more years before you can safely assume even most of the records are online.

Now, back to the BIG FOUR. The are, of course, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org and brightsolid.com. Not all four are equally well-known to residents of the U.S. and in your part of the world, there may be a more locally centered entity that has more of your own records than any of these four. For example, it is clear that there are significant online record collections in Australia that are not in any one of the four. These four may be big fish, but they live in a much, much bigger ocean of information.

Now for the acquisition and consolidation part. I include those entities that are major investors or have an ownership interest, as well as so-called "partners."

Ancestry.com either owns or is associated with the following entities:
Ancestry.com is the only one of the four that is publicly owned. As of December 2011, the company provided access to more than 8 billion records, 31 million family trees, and more than 1.7 million paying subscribers and I don't think that number includes all of the above entities. See Wikipedia:Ancestry.com. Ancestry.com also has their individual genealogical database program called Family Tree Maker. Ancestry.com also has numerous partnerships with local genealogical and history societies and entities. Ancestry.com is definitely growing and further acquisitions are likely.

Number two, MyHeritage.com is just getting into the act. MyHeritage.com has, within seven years of its founding, grown to its current size as a community of more than 60 million members with more than 861 million online profiles. See Wikipedia:MyHeritage. Currently, MyHeritage has been branching out into providing online genealogical source documents and indexes by purchasing other entities. Here is a list of the ones I can find that are either owned by MyHeritage or owners, investors or strategic partners:
MyHeritage.com is also apparently in a growth phase. I would not be surprised to see other acquisitions in the not too distant future. 

FamilySearch.org is relatively simple to understand and evaluate compared to the other entities. It is wholly owned by the over 14 million member, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has no investors but does "partner" with many other organizations on the level of sharing records.

brightsolid.com is relatively unknown in the U.S. but it is a huge online publishing and technology company in the United Kingdom and is now venturing into the U.S. market. Here is what I have found so far:
brightsolid is also an extensive Internet service provider.

I do not claim that these links are comprehensive. Some of the relationships of these companies are not very transparent. One thing I can say, I have no indication that as between these companies that there is any common ownership. For example, FamilySearch.org has no ownership interests at all and does not secretly own or control Ancestry.com. I say this because of comments I have had in the past.




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