In my first installment of this updated series, I wrote a bit about FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. Actually, their business names are "FamilySearch, International, a Utah corporation" and "Ancestry.com LLC." Many business entities have what is called a "tradename" that is somewhat different than the name they use for their corporations or other business organizations. The type of business organization adopted by a company is very important to the owners and shareholders, but from the standpoint of the customers, it is largely irrelevant. Likewise, although of interest to the customers or users or whatever, the ownership of a large company is also largely irrelevant to its operation. The main point for genealogy companies is to understand who you are dealing with when you use their products and online services.
It is also relatively common for a small segment of the genealogical community to view the operation of the larger genealogy companies in light of supposed conspiracies. Nothing in this regard could be further from the actual circumstances. Each of the companies has unique data collections and offers substantially different services. Of course, they all are involved in the overall topic of genealogical data and in some ways could be considered to be competitors, but they are only competitors in the sense that there is only so much money running around out there that people are willing to allocate to the genealogical marketplace. In fact, that marketplace is growing. These companies compete in the same way that different libraries in the same community compete. They do not compete is the same way as do similar food stores or department stores or other commercial businesses. The genealogy companies are not selling a product, per se, they are primarily selling a service.
When I was practicing law in Arizona at a medium-sized law firm, we had other firms in the area, many smaller and a few quite a bit larger. Since I was providing a service, I never thought of my work as competing with someone else. Mind you, there was plenty of competition, especially in court, but our product, the services we provided, were personal and somewhat unique. We certainly advertised, just like everyone else, but I would guess that almost all my "customers" or clients came from word-of-mouth referrals rather than any advertisements we did or from my personal contacts.
Let me ask a question. Have you ever seen an advertisement for FamilySearch on TV or elsewhere? I fully realize that Ancestry.com has almost saturation advertising, but what about MyHeritage.com or findmypast.com? When was the last time you saw an ad, other than an email from the company directly to you, from any of the other companies? Back to the library analogy. I get emails and promotional material from my local library (which I mostly ignore) but I do not put those "ads" in the same category as I do with other commercial advertisements I get in print, on billboards etc.
Even though the online, commercial, subscription, genealogical services are "big business," they are really in a different category from the day-to-day retail business of the world selling everything from electronics to socks and shoes.
The key difference is the fact that nearly everything the genealogy companies are "selling" is really in the category of information and service of that information. Don't forget, one of the largest of these companies, FamilySearch, makes all their information available for free to the ultimate user. Ask yourself this question; Why would anyone buy a subscription to Ancestry.com if they could get information for free from FamilySearch? The answer to that question is not as simple as it may first seem. Now, I go back to my earlier statement, each of these companies has unique data collections (with some overlap) and each offers substantially different services (also with some overlap).
Even though I had a "free" subscription to FamilySearch, I was motivated to pay for a subscription to Ancestry.com. Now, of course, because of some agreements between these various companies, I have a "free" subscription to Ancestry.com and other websites courtesy of FamilySearch. Does the fact that some users of one of the programs get access to the other programs for "free" change the way these programs work? No, but it is a basic indication that they do no compete in the same way that other commercial enterprises compete.
For years, I belonged to two botanical gardens in the Phoenix area. My wife and family visited both regularly throughout the year. When I moved to Utah, we soon became members of another commercially operated garden in Utah Valley. We are willing to pay a significant annual fee, just so that we can visit the garden when we want to and as many times as we want to. Were the two gardens in the Phoenix area in competition? Even the question does not make sense. They were different. Both had cactus and other plants, but if I wanted to see and enjoy both, I had to be a member of both. This is not a matter of competition or even of an either-or situation. I liked both and chose to pay a subscription to both.
This is more like the situation with the various genealogy companies. If I see a value in subscribing to the companies, then I will do so. If not, I don't. But I am not making that choice based on competing claims or products. My choice is based almost completely on my own needs and preferences. Membership in the local botanical gardens also gave me "free" access to a whole lot other gardens around the country. Did I visit these gardens and take advantage of my "free" membership? Actually, not at all and the reasons, again, are complex.
So why the interest in who owns the genealogy companies? One of the basic motivations, years ago, when I wrote about this subject was the common question I got as to whether or not Ancestry.com owned FamilySearch or FamilySearch owned Ancestry.com. Guess what? I still get the same questions. I am also continually amazed at the lack of understanding as to what all of these companies are and what they do. There are a substantial number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the owner and operator of FamilySearch, International, that have no idea what FamilySearch is or what it does. When I am asked a question, I usually start to think and write about the answer.
Yes, this series will go on and talk about the other companies. By the way, the BYU Family History Library just uploaded a video of my presentation about a comparison of the five big companies. The first part of the video addresses the free access issue only of interest to LDS members, but the rest is interesting about the content of the online databases.
You might want to read the previous part of this series.