Open Thread Thursday: What a Potential Sale of Ancestry.com Means for Genealogy

genealogy.google.com?

This week’s topic for Open Thread Thursday is:

As first reported late Tuesday by Bloomberg in an article entitled “Ancestry.com Said to Be Working With Qatalyst To Find Buyers,” it is a good possibility that a sale of Ancestry.com could take place by the end of 2012.

What is your reaction as a genealogist and family historian? What do you think it means for genealogy as a community and as an industry?

Also, care to look into your crystal ball and predict who will buy Ancestry.com and what they’ll do with the company?

Post your responses in the comments or at a post on your own genealogy blog and place the link here in the comments.

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While I was surprised when Dick Eastman first broke the story in the genealogy community about the possibility of an Ancestry.com sale, I was more surprised by the timing, not the topic. Rumors of online giants like Google or Facebook purchasing Ancestry have popped up periodically ever since the company went public in late 2009.

Who Are The Prospective Buyers for Ancestry.com?

Here are my thoughts as to which companies or groups of investors might make a bid for Ancestry.com:

  • Google: one of the more serious contenders due to Google’s penchant for buying up key Internet service companies like Ancestry.com. However, I’m not so sure that the Ancestry.com assets – albeit rich in content – would work in a Google environment. Yes Google is an “information broker,” but it often works off of data freely available that it indexes (websites, images, etc.).  How would it display genealogy records and data? Would it be freely accessible? If so, what would this do to the genealogy vendors in general and a vendor like FamilySearch specifically (who also provides freely accessible content)?
  • Facebook: again, a serious contender based on it size, abilities and purchasing history. However, I believe (and hope and pray) that genealogy records are too “serious” for the fluff atmosphere that is Facebook.  I could just see the comments including “LOLs” and “LMAOs” on my great-grandparents marriage certificate. Facebook tends to be after companies that make it easier for users to upload and provide content, not after companies that actually own or license the content like genealogy records.
  • Thomson/BrightSolid: this is the one vendor that makes sense to me. BrightSolid has a proven track record in the UK, they are private family company with lots of purchasing power (and not beholden to stockholders) and they seem to “get” genealogy. They also seem invested in the genealogy community although the umbrella company is an “information broker” as seen by their other holdings.
  • MyHeritage: the Israeli-based genealogy vendor MyHeritage is a serious contender but I don’t know that it could take on Ancestry.com unless it were to get a strong investor group to lead the way.
  • Various investment groups: there are many such groups (in fact I believe one, Spectrum Equity Investors, is currently the biggest stockholder for Ancestry.com) who would want to get their hands on a property with potential like Ancestry.com.

What Would They Do With Ancestry.com?

Once they own Ancestry.com, the more difficult question to be confronted is “Now what do we do with it?” I know, there should already be answers to that before making the purchase, but how many sales of companies have we seen where the buyer had grand plans only to offload the assets on to another buyer?

  • Google: I imagine genealogy records would be free; the search capabilities would most definitely rock; the technical aspects of being able to stitch together images, stories, audio, video and genealogy records would be amazing. Would it be free? Who knows. What I do know is that free records on such a scale would bring with it a whole set of issues to be tackled and greatly impact the genealogy industry.
  • Facebook: This would be the worst-case scenario for me. It would be like opening up your family’s records to graffiti artists. More of a concern to me:  the privacy issues involved with genealogy records and user-contributed content since Facebook has a dismal track record in this area.
  • Thomson/BrightSolid: The best steward of the Ancestry.com assets in my opinion. One concern is that they may try to impose the current “credits” system used for many of its .uk sites (where you purchase x amount of credits to be used on downloading images versus the American model of an unlimited download subscription).
  • MyHeritage: While MyHeritage is genealogy and family history-focused and has a fantastic reach and foothold in the international community (with their site in many different languages), in my opinion they are  relatively new to the genealogy records field. Until their acquisition of World Vital Records last year, they were focused more on family tree building and connecting researchers. Acquisition of the Ancestry.com assets by MyHeritage might see a bigger focus on growing user contributed content at the expense of bringing new genealogy data sets online.
  • Various investment groups: While not a bad scenario, investment groups tend to be unpredictable.  A group could very well bring in its own management team, and one that is more focused on genealogy data as commodity versus genealogy data as research resource combined with education and connecting with other researchers. Also, it is likely that such a group would sell off certain assets such as Ancestry’s My Canvas division, ProGenealogists, Ancestry DNA or even Archives.com.

What Does All This Mean To Me As A Genealogist?

What matters to me as a professional genealogist is probably different than the hobbyist or even the newcomer to the genealogy and family history field.

For me, Ancestry.com is a vital resource in my genealogy research efforts both professionally and personally.  I can’t see being able to work efficiently without it.  I would, of course, prefer to see things remain as they are (with some tweaks and improvements as to indexing and the implementation of a user contribution rating system). But I’m a realist and I know things change.

I would prefer to either see an investor group come in and purchase Ancestry.com and keep the current management structure or to see a genealogy vendor with a proven track record like Thomson/BrightSolid come in and handle the Ancestry.com assets.

I don’t know that  I would want a Google or a Facebook to acquire Ancestry.com and its assets. In my opinion, the goals and missions of each of these companies are not in alignment with those of us in the genealogy field.

We’ll see what the future holds for us and for Ancestry.com.

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This is a great topic for this week’s Open Thread Thursday! And please, if you have a topic you’d like to see discussed among your genealogy blogging colleagues, please contact us and we’ll take it under consideration.

Disclosure:  Please see Disclosure Statements for more information on my material connection with genealogy vendors and organizations.

©2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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Comments

13 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: What a Potential Sale of Ancestry.com Means for Genealogy

  1. Regarding the “credits” system rather than an unlimited subscription model, I have not subscribed to several U.K. genealogy sites due to that model. I love my Ancestry.com subscription not only because of the content itself, but that I can freely access any of it. It seems to me that while there is some precision to the genealogical process, sometimes you have to cast a wide net and examine records that might not be in the “right” locale or time period. When I think of how many records I’ve viewed over the years just on the outside chance that it might be the person I’m looking for vs how many of those I would have looked at if I had to pay for each view? My goodness, I’d probably have several hundred fewer people in my tree and far less documentation. Whatever happens, I really hope that pricing scheme goes away everywhere, it was obviously not designed by a genealogist.

  2. Absolutely agree about FB, worst case scenario. But do not agree about Google and think for most this would be the best case scenario. I doubt content would be free, but Google has been vested in genealogy specific search ( ~genealogy for one) for longer than
    most people realize. And, this might keep the physical Ancestry in Utah, which has a considerable high tech/Internet base..
    Just my opinion but I think sale to either BrightSolid or MyHeritage would lead to price increases that would push many hobbyists out of the market. I see many complaints now about BrightSolid’s ppv/credit fee structure now and don’t know how vested BS would be in maintaining and improving the Ancestry database.
    As for MyHeritage, all we need is a shift from database focus to more emphasis on user submitted content, already Ancestry’s weak point, an error ridden, corrupted mess, and clearly, MyHeritage hasn’t handled World Vital Records well, it remains an unsearchable morass. Sale to private equity, if it didn’t result on piecing out and sale of Ancestry’s physical and intellectual assets, would end up in pricing most if us out of the market; these guys have one passion and it’s money, not family history.
    So for the good of the hobby or light professional
    genealogist in the US I’d hope that if Ancestry must be sold, our best bet is that it goes to Google.
    As for Family Search, this may be the best thing that has ever happened to them and they may end up the only real choice for the US hobby genealogist.
    It’s particularly disconcerting that this crisis is widely considered to be the result of the cancellation of Who Do You Think You Are by NBC. This in itself is difficult to grasp since it gave NBC a considerable viewer market share in a Friday night timeslot widely seen as dead airspace. I see no logic here, only another worthless reality show featuring celebrities with no celebrity.

  3. Having worked in the financial industry for 10+ years, including being a Stock Broker, my first question is, “What is Ancestry.com’s motivation in selling?” It’s a rhetorical question in that we all know & understand that as a publicly traded company the only motivation is ROI for investors.

    Consider that although the Company has been around since 1983, the Management team is brand new, many having been with the company only a few years. There’s no deep roots, which doesn’t bode well for the Genealogical community. While I hope that I’m wrong, very, very wrong, I don’t see them going out of their way to make this a fit for their customers; it’s going to be leveraging the assets of the company to get the best price.

  4. It seems so strange to me that they would be trying to sell after just rolling out a new DNA service and adding the 1940 census among other collections.

    Have to say this could potentially be devastating to libraries. The Ancestry Library Edition is THE MOST USED database in our library system and many others through out the country. Other databases don’t even come close. So many people use the library databases because they cannot afford the personal subscription. Am hopeful that if a sale does go through that the structure will remain the same.

    Another candidate for purchasing could be ProQuest. Like everyone else I am waiting to see what happens.

  5. I don’t see Google as being a bad option. As a company it does seem to care about its products and how people use them, and it makes corrections and adjustments. It has a good track record in handling large amounts of data. I don’t understand the concern if it were to make everything free, which I agree is extremely unlikely anyway. As for how it would display the information, one of the things that generally does work about Ancestry is its display (until it tinkers with it again); why wouldn’t Google want to keep that?

    I also don’t think it would be bad news if some of the pieces of Ancestry were sold off. My concern over the past few years has been that Ancestry was becoming somewhat of a monopoly in the U.S. subscription field because of all the companies it was purchasing. I think having its own in-house professional researchers it referred people to was questionable ethically.

    I personally don’t like the PPV model that BrightSolid uses, but the company also used to offer regular subscriptions. Perhaps in the American market it would consider having both?

    I agree MyHeritage does not look like a good choice. I have not liked its come-on model (free! oh, unless you actually want to do something useful) or some of their questionable marketing from the beginning. And its acquisition of WVR has not given me a better opinion.

    I also agree Facebook is a horrible choice. Other than milking it for revenue, I don’t see how Ancestry would fit into Facebook’s plans.

  6. Perhaps the group running the company was there only to turnaround the company — their backgrounds suggests this. I think they’ve done a good job, overall, so it is worrisome to think about which company might buy it. Google and Facebook are young, Silicon Valley companies with a sour taste for employees over 30 y.o. (!) Wouldn’t they hate the Ancestry customers?! What about an Amazon buying the company? They could allow subscribers or non-subscribers a way to buy some of the data or genealogy books as an additional resource. I’d like to see more genealogy books easier to buy, esp some of the foreign books that are available only through library loan.

  7. Since I never subscribed to Ancestry, being well past the basics by the time they launched, I have no strong feelings about whom, among most of the possible buyers listed, might buy it. But I do think Facebook would be a disaster. Having the UK vendor, with whom I am not familiar, make the purchase would possibly keep Ancestry’s data very “Yankee” focused as it seems to be now. For those of us with German/Eastern European roots, my first thought is that there might be a much greater focus on what I need.

  8. A purchase by BrightSolid could be very good for Ancestry. In my opinion, the subscription model, with its very high fees, is what is holding Ancestry back. Note the comment above about people not being able to afford it and using the library edition where they don’t have to pay. Lots of people do this.

    Instead of asking what is best for you, ask what is best for the company? A pay-per-record model has the potential to significantly expand Ancestry’s revenue and user base. Who doesn’t want a copy of that important record for an ancestor if it costs only a buck? Sure, they can perfect the model a bit, by giving you more information up front so you don’t pay for records that end up not being the right ancestor. But this could do wonders for revitalizing the Ancestry brand. And in the end, that’s what genealogists should want — a strong brand that will last, rather than having the company continue to stagnate.

  9. Agree with Heather K. I definitely see ProQuest as a potential purchaser, given that they are the ones who provide the interface for Ancestry’s Library Edition.

  10. With a ‘world subscription’ on the horizon, BrightSolid’s FindMyPast will soon be even better value. I am not familiar with their US or Ireland sites, but I am a big fan of the *subscriptions* available for http://www.findmypast.com.au and http://www.findmypast.co.uk. FindMyPast’s customer service and the accuracy of their indexes far exceeds that at Ancestry.

  11. Thanks for writing about this!

    From your list, Google sounds like a viable, not perfect option. I’m afraid a Facebook acquisition would mean having to look at ads attached to each relative on a tree, and privacy is a huge issue.

    What I am continually amazed by is being left with the feeling Latinos (+ Native/African/etc ancestry, ie people of color, LGBT) are not constituencies that are actively engaged, despite the current demographic shifts here in the US. So, I don’t understand how findmypast.co.uk or BrightSolid with a UK focus will deal with this US aspect.

    Ancestry’s continued aggregation of information enables their search interface to provide even more surprisingly unrelated hits, so you can’t find what you’re looking for, and for example, many Federal census transcriptions for Puerto Rico are simply mangled. States are a bit better. I want the ability to bridge different migrations and countries, with a search interface that works with various documents. Many hurdles remain.

    There isn’t anything wrong with asking what a company plans to do regarding services for a growing and diverse demographic (add non traditional families, the growing recognition of mixed heritage to that) for those who seek to pursue family history. One cannot be everything to everybody, but I am concerned about different constituencies (not just Latino) being left out of the genealogical picture. I see family history as a giant educational program with a lot of applied potential, not just a source of corporate income.

    What kind of archive is there for trees & related accumulated data that have been eliminated by corporate change? Do they scrub the content, sell it off or what? Just wondering.

  12. I hope for BrightSolid. I like what they do. They don’t “impose” a credit system on their subscribers. Its an alternative option to annual subscriptions. The only site they look after that “imposes” a credit system is ScotlandsPeople, and that is the decision of the Scottish Government.

    Another alternative maybe, is the company behind the search engine Mocavo maybe? Don’t know much about them, but is this a possibility?

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