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Popularity of Online Genealogy

Thought some of you might find this interesting. It is an article which ran in the New York Times concerning online genealogy in general and in particular [LC note: Presume on or before Mon, 23 Sep 2002, but unable to locate in NY Times archive, so reproduced here.] (As seen in Yahoo's GenAffiliates Digest Number 133, dated 24 Sept, 2002).


Here's a little Internet trivia: What category of consumer Web sites started charging for online information and nonpornographic images back in the late 1990's, and has since amassed more than a million paid subscriptions and annual revenue approaching the $100 million level?

It is not dating services or dieting services or consumer ratings.

The answer is genealogy. Once largely the province of Civil War buffs, Mormons and aging aunts, family history is now among the fastest growing and more potentially lucrative niches on the commercial Internet. And along with collectibles trading, it is a consumer category that has truly flourished in the digital era.

"The Internet has really fuelled this activity because it's made it easy to transfer data, collaborate and do research without travelling around," said Curt Witcher, president of the National Genealogical Society. "It's been phenomenal."

Executives of online ancestry services say that about 60 million people in the United States are involved in creating family histories, and that it is one of the most popular hobbies in the country.

While the numbers are difficult to prove, what is certain is that few other categories of service have induced consumers to pay for subscriptions in greater numbers than genealogy has.

The biggest beneficiary of the trend is, the parent company of, which says it currently has about 850,000 paid subscriptions.

The company, which began offering online subscriptions in 1997, will reach about $60 million in revenue this year, according to MyFamily's chief executive, Tom Stockham.

While about half of's information is free, users pay $39 quarterly to $189 annually for the right to search and view materials like census takers' completed forms from 1790 through 1930, and slave journals.

Site executives say that users can find nowhere else in a complete form on the Web. Since these documents have been digitized, users may search for particular names, dates or places to find relevant information and plug it into their family trees. The site has information on 1.8 billion names.

Mr. Stockham, who as the former president of oversaw that company's online dating service, said would become much easier to use in coming months, in part because of a service he helped implement at Match.

Just as people could register with Match and receive e-mail messages when the company found prospective dating partners, will search genealogical records on behalf of its users and notify them when it finds relevant information. That notification system is to begin early next year.

Before the Internet, most genealogical records were kept only in far-flung libraries and other historical repositories, meaning that anyone with a yen for some deep family-history sleuthing would have to log countless miles and hours of travel time, often without knowing whether the journey would yield anything useful.

That began to change in the 1980's, with the advent of the CD-ROM. Libraries started cataloging and compiling historical documents on disks, and consumers began paying increasingly high sums for software and hardware that, along with these digital records, would help them build family trees on their computers. By some estimates, the genealogical software business was worth $30 million annually in the years preceding the rise of the Internet.

In the push to take genealogical information out of dusty tomes and put it into digital form, one of the more active constituencies has been the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. According to Kim Farah, a church spokeswoman, Mormon doctrine dictates that members may baptize deceased relatives in the church, allowing the ancestors to reach heaven.

That belief, along with a general faith in the importance of family, has led to a widespread effort by the church to compile and digitize family records. In fact, the church has a popular — and free — Web site,, which last year released the Freedman's Bank Records, a compendium of slave-related information that took church volunteers 11 years to scan and log into the organization's database.

Some 12,000 Mormon volunteers also helped record the ship manifests of Ellis Island immigrants, giving rise to another popular genealogical site, That site, which is run by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, received a wealth of publicity and visitors when it went online in April 2001, and now attracts roughly 150,000 visitors a week, said Peg Zitko, a foundation spokeswoman.

The site is free, but Ms. Zitko said users who bought copies of ship manifests and photos had spent enough money that the online operation was helping finance the continuing restoration of Ellis Island.

"We're making a significant, but not enormous, amount," Ms. Zitko said. "But at least we haven't lost money on this, which is saying something in the Internet world."

Despite the considerable amount of capital and labor that goes into procuring and recording historical records, the family history category looks like anything but a money loser. has been "net profitable" for the last year, according to Mr. Stockham. The company's closest competitor, the A&E Television Networks', would not discuss specifics of its finances, but it, too, appears to be doing well.

According to Robert Armstrong, a senior vice president at, the number of active subscriptions on the site is in "the hundreds of thousands," and the rate of new subscribers has accelerated the last two years.

The reason, in part, he said, is the promotion the site gets from commercials on its parent company's outlets, like the History Channel. But the fact that the site is adding new historical records on a regular basis also means it can appeal to a broader swath of people.

Meanwhile, the more information the site offers, the closer its operators must monitor their pricing strategy. "If you look at our library compared to a year or two ago, the value has increased substantially," Mr. Armstrong said. "You have to ask yourself, `Does it make sense to charge the same price?' "

For the moment, both Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Stockham, of, are holding the line on subscription prices in the hope of adding customers. But Mr. Armstrong said that he did envision a time when the site could charge more money than the $70 to $150 it now asks for its three membership options.

One nagging doubt about the commercial prospects is whether these sites can expect sustained revenue from their subscribers, once users have built a family tree and shared it with their relatives.

Mr. Stockham, for one, said that people tend not to drop out, and he pointed as proof to his site's 70 percent subscription renewal rate. "The more information we add, the harder it is for people to walk away," he said.

Of course, if growth does stagnate in this country, there is always the global market. Last week began posting the first of what are planned to be the complete British census records from 1841 to 1901. "In the U.S., we're respectful of our ancestors," Mr. Stockham said. "In Europe, they have a much better sense of history and lineage. In Asia, they worship their ancestors. So this is a global phenomenon."

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