Imagine being able to locate one's ancestors' ages, dates and places of birth along with their hair and eye colors, heights and weights at the click of a mouse, instead of traveling across the country and spending hours buried in microfilm at the National Archive and Records Administration offices and various libraries.
Researching family history and preserving fragile historical documents has never been easier, thanks to a $50 million investment by a small Provo company to compile what it describes as the most comprehensive genealogical database to date.
In what company officials called a tremendous achievement of human labor, Ancestry.com, a subscription service of MyFamily.com Inc., earlier this week announced it completed a six-year effort to index more than 540 million names in U.S. Census records from 1790 through 1930, boosting its online archive to more than 5 billion searchable names.
"We've brought family research into the 21st century," said company CEO Tim Sullivan. "Prior to Ancestry.com, people had to go to the library to scan through thousands of microfilm rolls that they can now do in just three seconds."
At the touch of a button, a subscriber can access an individual's records on his or her occupation, age, race, marital status, relationship to head of household, place of birth, parents' place of birth, assets, native language, neighbors and street address. Through a vast range of archives, including photographs, birth, marriage and death records, military and immigration records, newspapers, periodicals, personal narratives and anecdotes, family history researchers can get a richer and more colorful snapshot of the lives and lifestyles of their ancestors.
While its parent MyFamily.com has been touted as an IPO candidate by Fortune magazine, Sullivan declined to comment on whether it intends to launch an initial public offering. "We're not in need of financing. We're profitable. And we have no direct competitors, at least not close to our size in terms of content and subscribers." he said.
The titanic task of digitizing the historic Census records took a team of 1,500 handwriting specialists more than 6.6 million hours of labor deciphering handwriting from 13 million original Census documents or 15,000 rolls of microfilm and 21.9 billion keystrokes to manually enter the information into the database. Ancestry.com's massive collection of census records is stored at a 3,400-square-foot data center in Utah that contains more than 3,000 servers. Such an investment was possible only because digital storage costs have continued to fall, enabling companies to put more records online, Sullivan said.
"Back in the 1700s, the way people wrote was very different. Training paleographers or handwriting specialists to read those handwritten historical documents was a challenge. We had to develop technology and dictionaries to help people with understanding the various styles of handwriting and name spelling," said Daren Thayne, Ancestry.com's chief technology officer. "We also had to develop technology that can efficiently scan 13 million documents on microfilm, some of which were of very poor quality. Our technology does image enhancement and also minimizes the number of keystrokes it takes to key in the information. The biggest challenge for us was minimizing the amount of human effort taken to enter the information, audit it and keep it organized."
But the digitization of the U.S. Census is just a step towards Ancestry.com's long-term goal to broaden its reach worldwide by including more international records. Ancestry.co.uk, in the last six months, has already helped triple the number of international subscribers to its U.S. site since its recent launch in the U.K. --the company's largest overseas market. Research firm Hitwise found Ancestry.co.uk was one of two highest-ranked sites in terms of attracting the largest percentage of visits from silver surfers, or Internet users aged 55 years and over, as of May.
Small wonder the company plans to spend more than $10 million a year in research and development, as well as acquiring and digitizing non-U.S. family records in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France and also China, which Sullivan describes as having a rich heritage of family history records. "But it's a challenge and we have to understand the privacy laws in countries where we're acquiring new content," he said. "But it helps that some European countries are pushing libraries and government agencies to get everything online by a certain deadline."
Sullivan, former CEO of online dating service Match.com, joined Ancestry.com eight months ago and says his first order of business is to improve user experience in order to attract more subscribers. "I was attracted to the services provided by MyFamily.com. The family history research market is significantly larger than that of online dating, and Ancestry.com addresses a universal interest. Since this market hasn't been fully tapped, there's significant opportunity to grow markets here and overseas."
Some research firms, however, believe the online genealogy market is starting to mature, as evidenced by a drop in online genealogy Web site visits to 9 million last month, from 10.5 million a year ago, according to research firm Score Networks Inc.
But Sullivan hopes Ancestry.com's new tools and content through massive undertakings such as the digitization of the U.S. Census will help generate more interest and make online family research more accessible to the younger demographic. "Our average user is in his or her 40s or 50s, 60 percent of whom are female. They are still our core demographic."
Ancestry.com, which is part of a family of Web sites owned by MyFamily.com, has 725,000 subscribers and receives 300 million page views per month and attracts 7 million unique site visitors each month by offering free trials and making effective use of banner advertising. MyFamily.com and its other sites, Ancestry.co.uk, Rootsweb.com and Genealogy.com, receive a total of more than 13 million unique site visitors monthly. In fiscal 2005, the company generated more than $140 million in revenue, nearly three times what it generated in 2002.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page C12.