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

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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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About Thomas MacEntee

What happens when a “tech guy” with a love for history gets laid off during The Great Recession of 2008? You get Thomas MacEntee, a genealogy professional who’s also a blogger, educator, author, social media connector, online community builder and more. Thomas was laid off after a 25-year career in the information technology field, so he started his own genealogy-related business called High Definition Genealogy. He also created an online community of over 3,000 family history bloggers known as GeneaBloggers. His most recent endeavor, Hack Genealogy, is an attempt to “re-purpose today’s technology for tomorrow’s genealogy.” Thomas describes himself as a lifelong learner with a background in a multitude of topics who has finally figured out what he does best: teach, inspire, instigate, and serve as a curator and go-to-guy for concept nurturing and inspiration. Thomas is a big believer in success, and that we all succeed when we help each other find success.

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