When MyHeritage, a genealogy site with approximately 80 million members, sent out a call to its users several months ago for photographs of members who strongly resemble their ancestors, responses poured in from around the globe. Approximately 110 users sent photos as part of a competition to win a family photo shoot. Many of the pictures looked as if they were of the same person.
The easy availability of images and fast scanning tech turns a process that would have taken months previously into mere seconds.
While MyHeritage was leveraging the photos for a user promotion, they’re also the latest example of an ongoing arms race among genealogy services to attract users, build content bases, and–crucially–secure family records, mementos, and historical papers that their competitors don’t have.
Writer and journalist AJ Jacobs, who is currently working on a book about genealogy, told Fast Company that “Websites have turbocharged interest in genealogy. There are plenty of people who got hooked by the websites, and want to go deeper and hire professional genealogists to do more in-depth research. This is because pro genealogists use other resources, including actually going to physical archives that aren’t yet online.” Jacobs recently held the Global Family Reunion in New York, and special guests included David Blaine, George H.W. Bush (via video feed), and Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor and host of the genealogy-hunting PBS series Finding Your Roots. The event, billed as “The Biggest Family Reunion in History,” was done in conjunction with MyHeritage, Ancestry.com, and several other genealogy websites. Another reunion is in the works for 2017.
MyHeritage, an Israeli company that was founded in 2005 to target a global audience, is one of the big players on the genealogy block. The company, which operates MyHeritage as well as a companion site called Geni, competes with American firm Ancestry and a host of smaller contenders.
The two companies operate using different business models. Ancestry works on a subscriber model, with monthly memberships ranging from $19.99 for a bare-bones package to $44.99 for an all-inclusive package 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 extra access to records.
For Ancestry, MyHeritage, and their competitors, genealogy is big business. Enthusiasts tend to spend big bucks–the average cost of finding roots ranges from $1,000 to $18,000, according to consulting firm Global Industry Analysts.
Additionally, exporting data from one of the services to another is a hassle, and sign-ups tend to have a network effect. If one or two relatives with an interest in genealogy sign up for a service, their cousins, aunts, and uncles come along as well. If a service is able to secure hard-to-find resources like old family pictures, church records, or scans of antique documents, that gives them an edge versus their competitors.
A representative for Ancestry told Fast Company that “We’ve created multiple paths for anyone to discover more about their family history, and in turn themselves, whether through collaborating on a family tree with a relative, starting a family tree on our Facebook app or mobile Ancestry app, or taking an Ancestry DNA test. While we don’t track data on multiple family member sign-ups, we do believe our site has network effect characteristics.”
The way families are analyzed also varies site by site. In an email, MyHeritage communications director Aaron Godfrey explained that “Geni is focused on building a global family tree of humanity, and anybody can contribute to it and add profiles. It’s sort of like a Wikipedia of family history. Meanwhile, MyHeritage lets you discover, preserve and share your family history in your own private family website.”
In the case of the antique family pictures shown above, MyHeritage reached out to members who opted in to receiving email blasts, and who read the company’s blog.
Stavit Shalev, the director of the Institute of Genetics at Israel’s Emek Medical Center, told Fast Company via email that it’s relatively common for people to resemble distant ancestors more so than the ancestors’ own children do or did.
“Every person has their own makeup of genetic material,” he told us. “Even brothers do not get exactly the same traits of their parents. There are traits that are dominant where some features are enhanced, while others are less affected. A grandchild can look similar to a great-grandparent because they have a large genetic similarity of 12.5%. On the other hand, the rest of the genetic makeup can include features that will look very different.”
In other words, whether a child grows up to strongly resemble a parent or an ancestor is kind of like rolling the dice. A child can resemble their great-grandparents much more than their parents, or be a spitting image of their parents with relatively little resemblance to their grandparents.
For MyHeritage, getting users to share pictures of their ancestors or of their records is an engaging business strategy. Turning themselves into a clearinghouse for information about ancestry means retaining users. The goal is to have users share pictures and other content related to genealogy via their site, rather than on Facebook and through email–and especially with the competition.
So far, more than 78 million photos and scanned documents have been uploaded to MyHeritage by users.
Part of the challenge for both MyHeritage and Ancestry is making sure amateur genealogists pay them, rather than (or at least in addition to) outfits such as 23andMe and National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Both those companies focus their effort on DNA analysis that tells users about their “deep ancestry”–their ethnic heritage going back thousands of years and the geographic distribution of their blood ancestors. Instead, the records of Ancestry and MyHeritage are mainly focused on ancestors who lived decades or centuries ago. 23andMe’s focus, by contrast, is where your ancestors were at the rise of agriculture.
For all these sites, there’s also an additional challenge: expanding the breadth and width of their user base. Amateur genealogists are overwhelmingly Caucasian (as the above slideshow underscores) and from middle-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds, at least in North America. Despite the existence of groups such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and outreach by other genealogical organizations, this has been a continuing issue for the genealogy community. Asian users are stymied by the destruction of historic records in geopolitical traumas such as World War II, the Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, and the Partition of India, while African-American users are challenged by the relative lack of written records from before the Civil War.
As Gates of Finding Your Roots bluntly puts it, “Finding records from before the Civil War is a roadblock for many when researching their African-American heritage.”
In their search for data, genealogy firms often turn to a an unlikely source: the Mormon Church.
Though now majority owned by private equity firm Permira, Ancestry.com was founded by two Mormon graduates of Brigham Young University, 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 religion beliefs put an emphasis on uncovering and reconstructing family trees (a practice which has occasionally led the Church into controversy due to the practice of baptism for the dead), and both the Mormon Church and private businesses owned by Mormons have been at the forefront of the genealogy industry for decades.
This is why the Israel-based MyHeritage made a deal with the Mormon Church’s own genealogy site, FamilySearch. FamilySearch, which sits on top of a massive cache of historical records and family trees, entered into a resource-sharing partnership with MyHeritage. In exchange for sharing their data, FamilySearch was able to leverage engineering and back-end resources from MyHeritage.
Ancestry.com also entered into a similar deal with FamilySearch as well, putting an emphasis on just how difficult the battle for exclusive data has become to genealogy sites. There was also a bonus for active Mormons as well: As part of both agreements, Church members were given free premium subscriptions to both 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 daily, and more than 1 billion records in their family tree.
MyHeritage’s contest resulted in dozens of users sending pictures of ancestors who looked uncannily like them. Because genealogy websites frequently depend on one or two relatives who upload the bulk of content for their extended family tree, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and their competitors have to do what sites around the world do: Send users email reminders and status updates.
Both Geni and MyHeritage send out email reminders on a frequent basis. Geni’s focuses around the Wikipedia-like open-access family trees mentioned earlier in the article, while MyHeritage centers around matching newly acquired historical records and data with individuals in family trees.
For genealogy sites, the secret to success is much the same as 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’ll announce the winners of their contest shortly. Which of the pictures above do you think have the strongest resemblances?