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Genealogy: Expanding the family tree

Published: Monday, Sept. 19 2011 6:40 p.m. MDT

Daniel Froehlich, Corvallis, Ore., does genealogy work at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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 FamilySearch.org 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 Compete.com, 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 Ancestry.com Inc. and Palo Alto, California-based Archives.com. 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 Ancestry.com, 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 Ancestry.com, 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.

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