Online Family History Trends

by Julie Hill

Posted on February 2, 2011

At we're deeply engaged with genealogy market trends, but we've never found a central place that synthesized the data we were curious about. We created this report to investigate the genealogy trends that impact our business and the space as a whole. The results are interesting and worthy of sharing.  Please note, our intention is to provide a snapshot of a handful of ideas we find meaningful - this report does not assume the inclusion of all trends or data points. For simplicity, the terms "family history" and "genealogy" are used more-or-less interchangeably throughout. We'd love to hear your thoughts or feedback - please email us at [email protected]

The genealogy industry is changing as a result of a number of interconnected influences. These include fundamental shifts in the U.S. population, dramatic increases in internet penetration, and industry innovation. These trends have made online genealogy not just feasible, but an invaluable complement to offline methods.

The industry itself is also making strides by bringing more historical content online, stepping into the social networking arena, and bringing genealogy to primetime with television shows like "Who Do You Think You Are," an NBC show timed to take advantage of the seasonal interest-spike in genealogy seen January through March.

These trends mean opportunity and growth for online genealogy.

Introduction: Industry Background
The pursuit of genealogy is centuries old [1], but methods have changed dramatically in the past several decades. The invention and adoption of the personal computer, internet, GEDCOM file format, and software tools that allow users to easily collect and share information paved the way for early genealogy websites, like the hugely popular community site (Rootsweb was launched in 1993 and was acquired by the company now known as in 2000. Rootsweb continues to contribute over 2 million unique monthly visitors to the domain[2]).

Advancements in scanning technology and indexing operations catalyzed an explosion in online-record accessibility and searchable indexes available through free and commercial channels. Donations and sizeable volunteer forces harnessed by sites like and have also helped to bring a massive amount of content online, at little or no cost to the user.

The increased value delivered to the casual or expert genealogist is clear. Much more information can be obtained, validated, and shared at a fraction of the time and cost, yet a central repository for online records, tools, and guidance is still unavailable. This is where industry innovation and collaboration could prove most valuable to users.

U.S. Population Trends
Recent population trends in the United States have influenced the genealogy market positively, and help us to predict future growth. Metrics on internet penetration, demographics, and genealogy interest all indicate favorable conditions for the industry.

Internet Penetration
Overall U.S. internet penetration is rising, meaning more people are joining the online community and have the opportunity to access genealogy websites. Unique North American internet users rose from 108 million in December 2000 to 266 million in December 2010[3]. U.S. internet penetration has risen from 50% in 2000, to 65% in 2004, and up to 80% today[4].

Correspondingly, the number of genealogy blogs has skyrocketed. Thomas MacEntee of GeneaBloggers reports that its network of bloggers consisted of 400 members after its 2009 launch. By the end of 2010, the number was 1,535.  Says MacEntee, "Growth has doubled each year and I am projecting more than double growth by end of 2011 with 3,200 blogs listed."

Not only are more individuals connected, but more searches are being run. Monthly worldwide Google searches rose from 37 million in August 2007 to 88 million by December 2009[5].

The 45 plus age-group is growing rapidly, and the expansion of this key demographic means continued growth potential for the genealogy industry. data and broader industry analyses indicate that users of genealogy websites tend to be female aged 45 or older. This age group constitutes 62% of members[6], but only 41% of U.S. internet users at large[7].  A Bank of America analysis reported "Nine million internet users describe genealogy as a 'core passion/hobby,'" and the majority of these (7.5 million) are 45 years and older[8]. Similarly 65% of members are female, only 35% male[9]

In the United States today, about 120 million people are 45 years or older, representing over 30% of the total population[10].  This century elderly individuals' growth rate (65 and up) has exceeded the national growth rate [11].  Predictions in the U.S. estimate that the elderly population will increase over 36% from 40 million in 2010 to 55 million in 2020--three times bigger than the growth of any other age group. Predicted growth is also high in the 45 years or older population, expected to increase 15% from 2010 to 2020, compared to the 18-44 population that is expected to increase a mere 6%[12].

As the country ages and moves online (currently only 42% of Americans aged 65 or older use the internet[13]) the target audience interested in genealogy tools and services will continue to increase substantially.

There is a high inherent interest in genealogy among the U.S. public. A Harris Interactive survey estimated that 87% of American adults are interested in learning about their family histories[14].

In part, this interest can be gauged by online traffic to genealogy related websites. In December 2010, traffic to 10 of the most popular genealogy websites exceeded 17.5 million unique visitors[15]. There is also a vast network of sites beyond this used for genealogy research, like traffic-giant, drawing many millions of additional monthly unique visitors.  Paid subscription sites,, and saw the highest year-over-year growth.

While seeking an answer to the question "Where do I come from?" is core to human nature, there are numerous other factors which influence interest.
For example, Google search volume shows a 10-20% uptick in genealogy interest in winter versus the fall[16]. Among the contributing factors are the increased time spent with family over the holidays, the death of a family member (the death rate increases dramatically in December and January[17]), and poor weather that obligates people to spend more time indoors and online.

The increase in search volume for genealogy terms was particularly pronounced last year, sparked at least in part by the March series premiere of the popular NBC show "Who Do You Think You Are" (WDYTYA). WDYTYA brought the subject matter of genealogy to the homes of millions, highlighting the value and importance of tracing your family heritage.  Our assessment of internal data and public search trends indicate that this show was a substantial catalyst for interest in online genealogy in 2010.

Industry Innovation
Within the genealogy industry, significant contributions have been made from every corner opening the category up to new opportunity and potential growth.

Fueling genealogy interest has been a wealth of ever-growing online resources.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent digitizing and publishing historical records, and now more records are available online for free, or low cost, than ever before. Consider just a few of the ongoing and upcoming digitization projects that will offer historical records, many at no cost to the user:

Google has already scanned over 15 million books, with millions more to come[18]. In 2008, the company also began a newspaper scanning program[19]. scans over 1,000 books per day, and provides free access to genealogy-specific records like census images and city directories[20]. is investing heavily in the preservation and digitization of millions of genealogical records from all over the world.  In 2010 alone their volunteers indexed over 160 million records[21], bringing their total collection to over 1 billion names[22].

The National Archives will release the complete set of digital images for the 1940 census in April 2012. This collection of approximately 3 million images will contain over 130 million names. Daniel M. Lynch, author of Google Your Family Tree notes "The release of the 1940 census is certainly going to be one of the most significant genealogy events in the U.S. in many years, especially given the economic changes which impacted families in this country during the 1930's." Companies and volunteers are expected to quickly index the data, and it will likely be available on multiple websites at a much lower cost than previous census collections.
Access to historical content is getting cheaper, and we predict this trend will continue. As technology gets faster and more powerful, the cost of digitizing records continues to drop. These savings are passed on to users. Organizations like the Mormon Church,, and have harnessed the power of volunteers to collect, digitize, and organize billions of records, and then make these records available for free. USGenWeb alone has approximately 1,950 volunteer site coordinators, not to mention countless other volunteer contributors, reports National Coordinator Sherri Bradley.

Social Networking
The recent proliferation of online social media has created tremendous opportunities for sharing and collaboration - things of particular interest to any genealogist. Social networks allow users to leverage their existing family connections to build and grow a tree quickly. This research is then easily shared with friends and family, and can act as an incentive for others to do the same.  The more information contributed to family trees, the more potential to compile a united world tree through a viral social experience.

FamilyBuilder's "FamilyTree" app has well over 4 million active monthly users, the highest of any genealogy application[23]. Other popular applications include "We're Related," "My Family," and "Geni." "We're Related" has been a number one app on Facebook, and remained in the top 10 for over a year[24]. FamilyLink (creator of the "We're Related") reported that the popularity of the app spiked as Facebook users over the age of 35 grew significantly[25].  As more adults join social networks, opportunities for the genealogy industry to connect with its core demographic through this medium increase.   

We predict greater attention and innovation will happen in this realm in 2011.

"Who Do You Think You Are"
Television shows bring exposure to the family history space, and can spur and deepen interest about the subject, as evidenced by shows like NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are" and PBS's "Faces Of America."  The first season of "Who Do You Think You Are" aired in March 2010 with a second season slated to begin February 4, 2011. Season one had seven episodes, with an average viewership of 6.4 million, and the highest viewership coming in the second week for an episode featuring NFL star Emmitt Smith[26].

An extremely popular UK version of the show began in 2004, and just completed eight seasons on the BBC. Jeffries Research noted it has "helped increase awareness for the category [in the UK] to twice its level in the U.S." UK online genealogy spend and overall penetration is roughly two times that in the US on a per-capita basis[27].

In 2010 the impact of WDYTYA was seen in Google search trends, bolstering the seasonal increase seen in the winter, as described above.  We are optimistic that a similar bump will be seen this year, as high-profile attention on the category continues.

Many converging trends have positively impacted the genealogy industry and we are bullish about the category's outlook. As internet penetration and demographics continue to create favorable conditions, industry innovation will help to harness further the American public's intrinsic interest in their family history.

This year, we anticipate that "Who Do You Think You Are" will make another pop-cultural splash with a new cast of celebrities. Based on its reception, we will see if this translates into increased genealogy spend and overall penetration akin to UK levels.

Industry innovation is booming, ushering in massive amounts of free historical content, opportunities in social networking, and mainstream exposure. This means the quantity and quality of online resources for genealogy users should continue to improve through the foreseeable future.


[1] Potter-Phillips, Donna, "History of Genealogy," Family Chronicle, July/August 1999.
[3] Internet World Stats, compiled from US Census, Nielson Online, and other sources.
[4] Pew Internet.
[5] ComScore.
[6] member demographics collected at sign-up, 2009.
[8] Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst report, December 2009. Data from @Plan study conducted May 2009. 
[9] member demographics collected at sign-up, 2009.
[10] U.S. Census Bureau, "U.S. Population Projections," Released 2008 (Based on Census 2000),
[11] U.S. Census Bureau, "Population Profile of the United States: The Elderly Population," Author Frank B. Hobbs,
[12] U.S. Census Bureau, "U.S. Population Projections," Released 2008 (Based on Census 2000),
[13] Pew Internet.
[14] Harris Interactive, July 2009.
[16] Google Trends, representing search volume. Search terms: obituaries, vital records, ancestry, immigration records, death records, family heritage, family history, genealogy, birth records, census records. August 2007 through December 2009.
[17] ABC News, from the National Center for Health Statistics.
[18] Crawford, James. "On the Future of Books," Inside Google Books, October 14, 2010.
[19] Google. "Bringing history online, one newspaper at a time," September 8, 2008.
[20] Wikipedia.
[21] "FamilySearch Indexers Pass the 160 Million Record Mark for 2010," November 22, 2010.
[22] "Company Overview," Retrieved 1/2011.
[23], "Facebook Application Leaderboard," Retrieved 1/2011.
[24] Holliday, Matt, "We're Related Continues to Grow as More Facebook Users Connect Across Generations," July 23, 2009,,
[25], "Surpassing 50 Million Users "We're Related" Proves Families are Popular on Facebook," July 20, 2009.
[26] Wikipedia.
[27] Jeffries & Company, Inc analyst report, February 2010.

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