Genealogy giants: Lessons from the quiet digital disruptors

Key takeaways

  • The genealogy industry has grown from an elite paper-based profession into a data-driven technologically advanced group of businesses.
  • By digitising documents, and embracing digital concepts such as cloud, AI and crowdsourcing, they’ve kept abreast of customer need while also driving innovation.
  • The history of these companies show how embracing digital disruption intelligently can lead straight to the benefits of transformation.

On April the 24th, 2018, police caught the man alleged to be the infamous serial killer, rapist and burglar, the Golden State Killer. And they did it with a tree.

Californian authorities uploaded the suspect’s DNA, captured decades ago at a crime scene, to a genealogy site. Finding the family tree it linked to allowed them to narrow their search and make an arrest, and in the weeks since, multiple cold cases have been solved by digging into suspects’ familial roots.1

It’s an unlikely twist in the story of the genealogy industry, and perhaps, an even stranger one to be talking about here, in a publication dedicated to digital disruption. But as pundits are quick to point out, recent history is littered with companies that have failed at digital transformation. And while they deconstruct the whys and wherefores of industry extinction with great gusto, less attention is paid to the success stories.

Genealogy companies are quiet achievers when it comes to adapting to digital. The industry has embraced disruption in an astonishing way, growing from a niche elite profession of academics and family hobbyists into a multi-billion dollar outfit.2 From dusty tomes to digitisation, crowdsourcing and DNA, its acceptance of the need to change, and embrace of changing business models for growth is a case study that all businesses should learn from.

Days of digitisation past

Many geneology businesses were started by, or affiliated with, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, harking back as far as the 1800s, when Mormons collected began collecting genealogy records to offer posthumous baptism to deceased ancestors, needing them to reach eternal salvation.3 In the 1930s, the Church began sending missionaries out with microfilm cameras to record historical documents, and by the 60s had amassed so many records that it needed a mountain vault to store them.

Currently, the Church has over 2.4 billion rolls of microfilm, containing 2 billion traced names4 – 33 times more than the information contained in the US Library of Congress.5 Digitising microfilm wasn’t easy, requiring new technological partnerships with scanning manufacturers. The process, which was estimated to take over 120 years to complete, has since improved and is expected to be finished by 2020. Microfilm cameras in the field have been replaced with digital ones,6 and  they now have 5.5 billion historic records in their collection.7

The power of the crowd

As many companies find, the problem with amassing ‘big’ data is that unless insights can be easily gleaned, it is essentially just taking up space. Companies needed to make the digitised information searchable. While Optical Character Recognition (OCR) automation software could help with typed records, many historical documents are handwritten – and often in ornate or obsolete script.

Family tree services such as, FamilySearch (operated by the LDS) and Israeli-based MyHeritage have all turned to their users to index and correct transcribed data. FamilySearch’s indexing program began with an event that saw 115,000 people worldwide index 10 million records in just 3 days.8 Ancestry launched their crowdsourced World Archives Project in 2008, offering discounts on subscriptions for active indexers.9 As of 2017, WAP indexers have made 149 million records searchable.10

And members of the communities that have sprung up around these companies crowdsource additional data voluntarily, in a bid to share their family information – such as stories, documents, photographs – with others in their tree.  Such efforts are producing phenomenal amounts of data. FamilySearch’s Family Tree users add 360,000 sources every day, alongside 37,000 names,11 MyHeritage has 78 million photos and scanned documents uploaded by users,12 and Ancestry users have uploaded 330 million.13

Embracing data and technology

By necessity, genealogy companies have had to embrace the technology of digital disruption far earlier than many other organisations. Ancestry has more than 30 technology patents/patents pending,14 and it recently moved its infrastructure and 10 petabytes worth of data to the cloud.15 It was one of the earliest adopters of kubernetes for its service deployment.16

But with such massive amounts of data involved,* even the best storage and indexing doesn’t change the fact that finding relevant data is only as good as its search function. Ancestry alone processes 75 million searches a day – the ability for users to be able to get useful information from such a huge repository is critical.

Enter the Shaky Leaf. Most family history sites use algorithms (initially designated on Ancestry by an animated leaf) to find data matches. Machine learning and artificial intelligence weigh historical documents against complex family connections to ensure the relation is relevant. It may be a small example of cutting edge tech, but it’s one that the industry uses to keep customers coming back.

Creating new value with DNA

To this point, the genealogy industry has successfully navigated the opportunities brought about by digital.  Yet to continue to grow and transform, companies must continue to create new value. For genealogy, one such development, direct to consumer DNA testing, is starting to bear fruit.

As of 2017, over 12 million DNA samples have been tested in the name of family history with 7 million of those via**, and a further 3 million from DNA testing company 23andMe.17 MyHeritage, which made US$133 million dollars in revenue last year made US$58m of that from DNA.18

With its foray into DNA, the industry stands to benefit from granting third-party access to its data, a new and potentially lucrative revenue stream.19 As a business avenue, DNA data could be the golden goose for genealogy companies, depending on where they hedge their bets.

From pharmaceutical companies developing individually personalised preventative medicine, lifestyle products such as DNA-specific skincare regimens, wine recommendations for your specific palate, or even finding a roommate you’ll be able to stand, DNA is the new frontier of new marketing ideas (if not quality products).20

The opportunity for the industry to appeal to completely new audiences, and access an even larger mainstream consumer base is undoubtedly attractive. Whether connected to genealogy testing or separate, they are building up the expertise to capitalise on such opportunities.

Making lasting connections

In Ireland, Germany and Italy, Ancestry has partnered with tour operators to provide DNA-driven guided ancestry tours allowing vacationers to literally walk in their ancestors’ footsteps.21 Alongside the successful Who do you think you are? TV program, now spun off in at least 17 countries, archival newspaper digitisation, family tree software, mobile apps and other ventures, it is just one more way that genealogy businesses are diversifying their products and services.

What the industry shows us is that emergent tech can be used to further core goals, and that companies should not be afraid to think outside of the box when it comes to where they want to play. That may mean hiring DNA scientists alongside archivists and data analysts, but with the vision of achieving connection between users, such leaps are aligned, not scattergun in approach.

Genealogy companies have made hay (or rather, trees) out of digital disruption. Much of the wisdom of transformation can be seen in their story, and all businesses facing the new digital landscape should take a (shaky) leaf out of their book in order to succeed.

* Ancestry has 20 billion records in its database, and adds 2 million more daily, FamilySearch boasts 5.5 billion and the UK’s FindMyPast 8 billion **At the time of publication, Ancestry says that it has tested over 10 million samples.


Dr Amy Gibbs

Amy is the Editor in Chief for Digital Pulse, PwC Australia