Genealogy: Expanding the family tree

Published: Monday, Sept. 19 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

"Now what I'm seeing is so many young people are able to do genealogy because they can do it in the evening when their kids are sleeping or whenever they have extra time," Hinckley said.

Companies are working towards increasing content and refining how users interact with information.

This is something that will help unlock a latent interest in family history, which makes up about 50 percent of the market, said Jay Verkler, chief executive officer of FamilySearch. In the market, about 20 percent of people have no interest in family history.

"They need an experience that is accessible enough to them, both in terms of simplicity and cost," said Jay Verkler, chief executive officer of FamilySearch.

FamilySearch's total searchable names have risen 15 percent to 2.3 billion this year, after a 54 percent jump in 2010.

"We're a memory institution as a church," Verkler, who has researched his personal family tree back to the 1600s, said in an interview in his downtown Salt Lake City office. "By memory institution, I mean we're an institution that preserves memory and records."

FamilySearch will be open its third data center in Kansas City. The 63,000-square-foot building will house computer servers that contain digitized documents.

The site also allows users to share findings, adding a social aspect that enhances the searching experience and ensure the names in their family tree are accurate.

"How that data becomes accurate is very important to us, probably more important than any other large entity in the space because we actually care that it's accurate," said Verkler, who has served as CEO since 2002. Only 10 percent of the site's visitors are members of the LDS church, Verkler said.

Ancestry has a similar system, with a total of 26 million family trees being stitched together. Though FamilySearch, which takes up four floors in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, offers a free service stacked against Ancestry's paid subscription model, the two companies say they are not competing. Instead they are cooperating to fulfill their individual objectives.

Because FamilySearch's primary focus is growing the market rather than owning it, they tend to help other companies advance their models.

"If the church wanted to compete with companies in terms of eliminating their business proposals, we'd go target their core assets and we'd duplicate them and produce them for free," Verkler said. "I think that would be a really bad idea because the way financial investment works. We wanted Ancestry.com to go public because that's proof to the investment community that a genealogy company is a viable company."

Sullivan and Verkler, who meet informally once a month, have similar views of the relationship between the two companies.

"We're the two largest entities with similar objectives with very different business models," Sullivan said. "There's far more opportunities to work together to achieve our distinct objectives." That includes the granite vault partnership. Ancestry also partners with governments to digitize historical records.

"We try and be good partners," Sullivan said. "The nature of the relationship is we are bringing value to the table in terms of substantial capital to digitize content and provide back to that institution a digital record that they do not have the budget to do themselves."

Though the company has about 7 billion records in its database, content and technology improvements are necessary to keep up with the market.

"Five years ago, we were a product and technology platform that was really effective for 700,000 or 800,000 people," said Sullivan. "Today, we have found 1.7 million people who find ancestry useful enough to be a paying subscriber, but I would not suggest that the product platform we have today is good enough to be three times or four times the number of subscribers."

Ancestry tends to keep their acquisitions modest. Sullivan says they haven't made a deal "north of $25 million in a long time."

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