It has been some time since I posted about the big four genealogy companies. During the interim, they have all gotten bigger and extended their ownership and influence. All of them have increased their online resources, but I thought it might be interesting to compare them entirely from my perspective. I have not done any specific polling or questionnaires. The following opinions are entirely my own and derived from own observations.
Here are my observations, not in any particular order, but I choose to address them in their overall online ranking from their websites as of 18 March 2013. It is difficult to get an absolute ranking, since all of these companies have multiple websites. In each case, I choose the most prominent or largest website, that being the one ranked the highest by Alexa.com. Bear in mind that the Alexa.com ranks change constantly. But they are a fair indication of relative popularity and thereby influence. The competition to rank globally high is intense due to the huge number of websites on the Internet. So an apparent large difference in ranking doesn't necessarily reflect a big difference in the relative size or reach of the companies.
Alexa.com global rank: 634
Ancestry.com is only one of a number of websites, all doing business as Ancestry.com directed at different world markets. It also owns several other websites with other names. It is the acknowledged "largest genealogy company" without much controversy over the title. In genealogy, size equates to the number of resources available and claimed. My impression is that it has more online resources than any other company. I usually find some type of useful resource in its vast collection and a few very nice unsuspected surprises. It has a very good search engine and is usually the go-to place for initial research. It also has a huge number of user submitted family trees. With a membership, you automatically get an automatic record lookup function represented by "green leaves" on your ancestors' pedigree chart. It has a fairly good local computer genealogy database program called "Family Tree Maker." Used in conjunction with an online copy of your family tree, the program automates the function of looking for sources, to some extent.
I think they are extremely valuable to the genealogical community due to their media advertising efforts in increasing public interest in family history and genealogy. They have such a strong name identification with genealogy, most people, if they have heard of any at about genealogy, have heard of Ancestry.com.
Ancestry.com's other websites, such as Archives.com and GenLine.com have remained somewhat autonomous and have not been integrated into Ancestry.com to any great extent. However, in the case of Footnote.com, the website changed dramatically to Fold3.com, with an entirely different emphasis.
Some of the apparent strengths of being a very large database provider are also weaknesses. From my perspective, Ancestry.com is just another large online company. I have never had any direct contact with the company other than through "customer relations." They currently only attend the very largest conferences and in all my years of blogging, I have never elicited even one small comment or response from the company. Not that I expected to, but I am comparing them to the other companies who have been more communicative. I do have to say, however, that their customer support is better than average for web-based businesses.
From a research standpoint, they make it somewhat difficult to determine exactly where they obtained their sources. This is especially true from the standpoint of indexes. Their source citations are sometimes specific, but often general and unspecific.
You might notice that I have yet to mention cost. Whether or not something is viewed as expensive is highly subjective. I use Ancestry.com very frequently and do not view the subscription cost of the service as either a positive or negative issue. I also use the Library Edition from the Mesa FamilySearch Library. But I found the need for my own version of the program.
Alexa.com global rank: 4429
The most prominent strength of FamilySearch.org is its huge online genealogical resource collections. In converting its vast store of microfilmed images to digital images in their Historical Record Collections, FamilySearch.org has easily become one of most valuable genealogical online resources. Of course, FamilySearch has a lot more to offer than just online databases, but focusing on the their online products, they have some extremely valuable resources, such as the FamilySearch Research Wiki and the Family History Library Catalog that put them into the forefront of genealogical service providers. They also have one of the most outstanding help and support organizations in the entire online world. Their website is constantly evolving and coming up with new and surprisingly helpful resources.
The obvious strength of FamilySearch.org is that all of its resources are free to everyone. It is hard to compete with free.
FamilySearch.org's most prominent weakness is a lack of focus. It has fabulous resources, but they are inadequately presented by its website to the extent that few users penetrate the site enough to find those resources. They also suffer from inconsistent and spotty programming errors. It is common to find things on the website that do not work as expected or are outdated and no longer functional such as the FamilySearch Forums. Although their search engines have improved, they are still limited compared to others that are available online. Having all the resources is one thing, getting to those resources is quite another. For example, if you had a resource as valuable as the Research Wiki, why would you bury it two levels down in the website?
Although its traffic statistics would argue otherwise, FamilySearch.org lacks name recognition. In my experience very few people identify FamilySearch as a separate organization and few could tell you what the company does or are even aware that the name "FamilySearch" refers to an organization.
Alexa.com global rank: 4939
MyHeritage.com would certainly rank higher if the traffic from their online document resource, WorldVitalRecords.com was included in its rankings (Alixa global rank: 46,214. Ancestry.com's Family Tree program and its database collections are all on the same website, whereas MyHeritage.com and WorldVitalRecords.com are two separate websites. However, MyHeritage.com and WorldVitalRecords.com are integrated by a valuable Record Search capability that outshines the one offered by Ancestry.com.
From my standpoint, MyHeritage.com is the company to watch. It has an aggressive acquisition mode and is constantly adding resources. Some of my very first contacts with MyHeritage.com, years ago, showed me that they take customer relations seriously and value personal communication. Since acquiring WorldVitalRecords.com, their record search capabilities have improved dramatically. They also have a local computer database program called "Family Tree Builder." This program is offered as a free download.
With the WorldVitalRecords,com database, MyHeritage offers a huge valuable database of genealogical resources, including a huge newspaper collection. Although valuable now, as this database expands, it will likely soon seriously rival Ancestry.com in its usefulness.
MyHeritage.com/WorldVitalRecords.com share a lack of market identity with FamilySearch.org. MyHeritage.com is apparently more widely known outside the U.S. market, but I see their visibility improving. Although the Record Search capability links the WorldVitalRecord.com sources to the Family Tree program, that connection is not yet complete and the connection is not clear from either program's startup page. I am guessing that this will be an area that will see further development.
Alexa.com global rank: 20,095 (for findmypast.co.uk)
findmypast.com, through its owner brightsolid.com, has a huge presence in the United Kingdom. It is definitely the dominant provider of online genealogical data to England, Scotland, Wales. It also has websites for Ireland and Australia. It seems to be a very personable company also with an aggressive acquisition effort going on around the world. My experience with the search engines has been limited but I am aware of the value of the databases, which include documents not easily available to those of us living in the U.S. If you have ancestors in any of the countries covered by the websites, you will find them to be invaluable tools.
From a U.S. perspective, they are dead last in market recognition. Other than dedicated genealogists with years of experience, I find that they are totally unknown. I realize this is not the case in the U.K., especially with their huge conferences. I also see their pay-as-you-go system to be a little counter to the U.S. users' expectations and somewhat awkward.
I can safely predict that all four of these huge organizations will continue to expand and innovate. They will all likely dramatically increase their offerings over the next year or so. I don't think any of them are in an either-or position. If you need and can afford an online database, then all of them are the prime candidates depending on the areas you are researching.
FamilySearch.org is rapidly expanding its collections geographically throughout the world. This will ultimately give them the edge because of the growth of non-English speaking markets. Although this could become one of the areas where MyHeritage.com is also poised to expand.