How Ancestry Built a Business Out of Family Trees — With an Ever-Expanding Product Lineup That Now Includes DNA Genealogy
12.6.16 Online

How Ancestry Built a Business Out of Family Trees — With an Ever-Expanding Product Lineup that Now Includes DNA Genealogy

By: Adam West

The Crunch: Recognizing people’s interest in knowing more about their bloodlines, Ancestry has used technology to gather and digitize historical records, allowing users to make connections for a clearer picture of who they are. Innovation is not a new strategy for Ancestry, which has also developed brand segments to serve international audiences and provided record research geared toward specific groups such as families with military backgrounds. Scientific advancements in DNA research and genetic mapping allowed the company to develop a service known as AncestryDNA in which people can send in saliva samples to discover possible relatives within the Ancestry database and learn more about their ethnic backgrounds.

It’s human nature for people to want to know more about who they are and where they come from.

Until recent technological advancements provided access to a wealth of information, a person’s family tree was limited to gathered knowledge passed down from generation to generation. And as any good storyteller knows, stories change with every retelling.

The deeper someone goes into their family history, the more they have to question the accuracy of what their grandparents told them about their forebearers. After all, their grandparents probably heard versions of those stories from their own grandparents decades before, and that process has repeated itself over and over again.

Driven by consumer interest in genealogy, Ancestry has grown from humble roots as a publishing company founded in 1983 to the world’s biggest for-profit genealogy company in the world, earning $680 million in 2015 — up from $225 million in 2009.

Screenshot of starting a new family tree on Ancestry.com

Starting and growing a family tree on Ancestry is a simple process.

The business model of Ancestry has been successful because it focuses on satisfying human curiosity through developments in technology and the distribution of records. Billions of historical documents from 80 different countries have been added to the site in the past 30-plus years, and the company has evolved along with recent advancements such as offering a service that analyzes DNA samples so people can discover more about their ethnic backgrounds.

A willingness to innovate and branch out to reach wider segments of the population has also encouraged growth. With its origins in the U.S., Ancestry has developed nation-specific sites to expand its global footprint, and it’s also created branded offshoot sites for family researchers with more specific goals such as accessing military records.

Making Records More Accessible for Consumers to Research Their Family History

Ancestry simplifies the discovery of relatives and the organization of family trees with helpful tools and software that connect the dots through historical records.

More than 19 billion documents dating back to the 13th century have been digitized by Ancestry employees and users with an average of 2 million records added each day. Members of the site have created more than 80 million family trees, uploading more than 300 million photos, documents, and written stories to their trees.

The records do the heavy lifting, and Ancestry has developed software that automates the research and helps people get a clearer picture of their past without spending hours digging through books at libraries and government offices.

Screenshot of Ancestry Hint

Ancestry uses a shaky green leaf icon to indicate a hint that can lead to a new family discovery.

Answering a few simple questions about where and when parents and grandparents were born or died can connect consumers to records about their family members. Anytime Ancestry discovers a relevant document, a shaky green leaf known as an “Ancestry Hint” appears next to a family member. Users are then prompted to review the record, which can sometimes reveal new branches to add to a family tree.

Ancestry has more than 2.4 million paying subscribers, and with so many users creating their own family trees, there is bound to be some family overlap. Since Ancestry developed a feature in 2008 to connect users’ family trees, more than eight billion connections have been made among trees, helping members discover living relatives they might not have known about.

Knowing there would be a market for people who might need guidance on a particularly tricky tree, Ancestry created a site called AncestryAcademy that provides educational resources and video instructions to help every level of family historian — from experts to novices — better understand how to build a family tree and research their family’s past. Some examples of tutorial videos available on the site include “Why Can’t I Find the 1950 Census?” and “How to Find a Lineage Society?”

Screenshot of AncestryAcademy

AncestryAcademy provides helpful videos and information for people who are looking to research family history.

Ancestry also has a team of expert researchers and professional genealogists on its ProGenealogists site, and clients can hire them to dig deep and uncover more information about their ancestors.

Since Ancestry started in Utah, it makes sense that 15 billion of its 19 billion uploaded documents would be from the United States. However, it’s been so successful stateside that Ancestry has branched out with nation-specific sites that cater to international markets. So far, Ancestry has sites for the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, and China, which has allowed them to reach a wider customer base.

With headquarters in Lehi, Utah, the company itself has also branched out with an office in San Francisco, and international offices in Dublin, London, Sydney, and Munich.

AncestryDNA Created to Fulfill the Demand for Deeper Insights into Ethnic Backgrounds

A key aspect in helping a user discover their origins in the world is knowing more about his or her ethnic background. As the world has become more connected, races have become less defined. The United States especially is a melting pot of cultures, and nearly every American will have some unexpected variation hidden within their bloodlines.

Knowing consumer curiosity would support another opportunity to branch out, AncestryDNA was developed with the goal of helping people learn more about their ethnic backgrounds. So far, more than 2 million people in 30 international markets have taken Ancestry’s microarray-based autosomal DNA test, which surveys a person’s entire genome at more than 700,000 locations.

Screenshot from AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA is a simple genetic test that can reveal a person’s ethnic background through a saliva sample.

Users can request a simple kit, send a saliva sample off for DNA analysis, and within two months discover potential relatives and their background across 26 ethnic regions.

AncestryDNA values privacy and safeguards personal data through measures such as storing results without names or any identifying information. Data is never shared with third parties, and users can choose to have their test results and DNA destroyed if they choose.

Sister Sites Host Extra Databases that Support the Ancestry Brand

Knowing that many family historians still enjoy doing the legwork themselves, Ancestry added several other self-research websites that help support its business model of making it easy to discover origin stories.

Named after the traditional third fold in flag-folding ceremonies honoring veterans’ sacrifices in defending their countries, Fold3 is a military records site that Ancestry provides to serve consumers with an interest in the conflicts that shaped the world. Users can browse the stories, photographs, and documents of veterans, many of which might be direct relatives.

Screenshot from Fold3

Fold3 provides access to military records, and users can browse by specific documented conflicts.

Find A Grave was bought by Ancestry in 2013, and was a natural acquisition because site founder Jim Tipton said Ancestry was driving traffic to Find A Grave for years before the purchase. The free site contains 100 million photographs of gravesites in all 50 states and helps consumers find the final resting places of family, friends, and celebrities.

Also owned by Ancestry, RootsWeb is the world’s largest free online genealogy community made up of millions of members communicating across thousands of message boards in an effort to learn and collaborate on family tree research.

Other Ancestry offerings include Newspapers.com, which hosts more than 100 million U.S. historical newspaper pages that can be searched online, and Archives.com, which allows consumers to search through 4.8 billion photographs, newspapers, and vital records. These rich sources of research can go a long way in helping people build their family trees, satisfying another area of consumer need.

Blending Science and Technology, Ancestry Helps People Discover Their Past

Genealogy has become extremely popular. In fact, a USA Today article reports that it’s Americans’ second most popular hobby, behind only gardening.

Ancestry’s growth can be directly traced to satisfying that consumer interest. Thanks to its family tree of sister sites and the willingness to branch out internationally, the Ancestry brand has taken root and appears to be firmly planted at the forefront of the consumer genomics industry.

Human interest in ancestry isn’t going anywhere. Consumers will always want to know more about their backgrounds. With historical records added to Ancestry every day and constant innovation in DNA science and technology, Ancestry is poised to continue its upward movement.