These days, it seems like everybody’s talking about genealogy. Whether it’s detectives cracking cold cases with decades old DNA or your next door neighbor sifting through the secrets of her ancestors, family history is big business. It’s incredible to think that, by 2017, over 12 million people had tested their own DNA with consumer genealogy kits. Today, 1 in 25 adults in the United States have access to their personal genetic data. And it isn’t difficult to see why they’d want it. When combined with ancestry research tools, our passion for genealogy is allowing us to know not just who we are but why we are. It’s not all plain sailing, though. It’s important to understand the risks before you give up personal data.
It’s also useful to know what you’re looking for. Ancestry and DNA genealogy tools are closely related, but they may use different techniques. In many ways, Ancestry.com – one of the longest running genetic genealogy websites in the world – is the grandfather of today’s personal DNA craze. Ancestry.com is where it all started, where ordinary people were first promised a glimpse of extraordinary lives. Let’s take a closer look at Ancestry.com and its long and interesting history.
Here are some fascinating facts about the world’s largest genealogy website.
1. Ancestry (the business) Is Older Than You Think
The dot com precursor to Ancestry was founded in 1983. Rather fortuitously, it appeared at around the same time as the birth of the internet, though its creators weren’t to know how closely their fates would align. Ancestry began life as a print based service that sold genealogical research books to professionals and academics. It wasn’t until 1990 - when founder John Sittner teamed up with information provider Prodigy - that the company went digital.
2. It Was the First Digital Genealogy Service
As the rest of the world was getting to grips with the internet, Ancestry was using its early experience to break new ground. By 1995, it had spent six years shaping its products and services for digital distribution. It had the knowledge and skills to become the world’s first digitally based genealogical business. In May of 1995, it became the first to register a domain name. That domain name was, of course, Ancestry.com. And the rest, as they say, is history.
3. The Social Security Death Index Was Ground Breaking
When Ancestry.com went live in 1996, it gave users access to five searchable databases: the Social Security Death Index, the Geographic Reference Library, the American Bibliographical Library, American Marriage Records and the Early Immigration Library. The Social Security Death Index was the most popular of the databases. Although it wasn’t strictly new information - other companies provided records for a fee – Ancestry was the only one to give access to a regularly updated system. The others sent out copies on CDs.
4. AncestryDNA Is the World’s Largest DNA Network
In 2012, Ancestry.com expanded its collection of products and services to include the AncestryDNA database. Today, it is the largest of its kinds anywhere in the world, with over ten million people (and personal DNA records). AncestryDNA was one of the first to offer commercially available DNA testing kits. In the years since, it has been joined by a number of high profile companies, including 23andMe. With many providers now offering DNA testing at home, challenging questions are being raised about data privacy, application and responsibility.
5. It Adds 2 Million Records Every Day
It’s difficult to grasp the staggering volumes of information that Ancestry.com handles on a daily basis. The company claims to add around two million new records to its data every single day. Over the last twenty years, a total of 20 billion records have been uploaded to the Ancestry.com website. Figures show the company has broken growth records for the last five years. And this incredible run is expected to continue throughout 2019 and beyond. Today, it is not a lack of public interest that Ancestry.com has to worry about. It is the astronomical rise of rival genealogy companies and the saturation of its market.
6. Users Can Search More Than 11 Billion Profiles
Ancestry.com claims to have a vast genealogical database containing more than 100 million family trees and over 11 billion ancestral profiles. It also gives users access to more than 300 million photographs, scanned documents and written stories. With over 2 billion searchable records from the United Kingdom and in excess of 6 billion historic records from the United States, users from western nations are almost guaranteed a result. Ancestry.com hosts records from a total of eighty countries, so there’s a good chance that, wherever you are from, you’ll make a valuable discovery.
7. It Has More Than 50 Pending Patents
The unique world of DNA is constantly in flux, always changing and developing. It means genealogical providers need to be at the top of their game when it comes to research and development. Ancestry.com usually has around fifty patents pending at any one time. Today, the majority of these patents relate to the nature of access, storage and collection, rather than new DNA applications. As genealogy providers clamor to be top of the tree (pun definitely intended), they’re also fighting to have the most secure, most efficient historical networks and databases.
8. There IS a Free Version of Ancestry.com
The vast majority of Ancestry.com is, unsurprisingly, kept behind a paywall. However, the company does offer a surprising number of databases and collections for free. So, people interested in tracing their family history don’t need to pay upfront to launch an ancestral journey. In fact, a free browse is highly recommended for new users. It’s a good way to get a feel for the website and its basic research tools. There are over 800 ‘free’ databases to explore. Keep a level head though, because some are only partially accessible to non-members. Don’t forget, Ancestry.com is a business. It’s very good at hooking new users with just the right amount of free information.
9. AncestryDNA Does NOT Own Users’ DNA
In recent years, there has been widespread concern about the growing popularity of commercial DNA testing, particularly via home kits. It has prompted several companies – including AncestryDNA – to revise and reinforce their data privacy policies. For instance, AncestryDNA has removed some ambiguous language from its policy and written articles on DNA licensing. It says AncestryDNA does not own users DNA samples. Users license the samples (lend) the samples only until a time they decide to revoke the license or change their privacy preferences.
10. DNA Data CAN Be Given to Third Parties
DNA Licensing places strict rules on the application and use of personal DNA samples. However, they can be used in third party research and even passed on to third party companies. It is legal unless the user in question has opted out of data sharing. If you are worried about data privacy, the best course of action is, simply, to avoid DNA databases. Even if you opt out, there are no guarantees breaches won’t occur. Then again, the same can be said for all forms of data sharing, particularly social networks. The truth is, there are safeguards. When it comes to genealogical services, your DNA samples are protected.
11. You CAN Ask Ancestry.com to Delete Your DNA
This is a really important fact and one that a lot of people seem to get wrong. Users – of Ancestry.com and other DNA based websites – retain the right to withdraw personal DNA samples. If you or somebody you know has submitted a sample to AncestryDNA, they can contact the company and ask for it to be destroyed. Confusion around this issue seems to stem from the fact that, while DNA samples can be deleted, users cannot reverse the decision to share it with others. For example, say you discovered a new relative on the database. You have the option to share your DNA data with them to provide your connection. But you cannot un-share it.
12. Ancestry.com Is a Good Place to Work
According to a number of publications, Ancestry.com is known as a fair, pleasant and satisfying place to work. It has been named ‘best to work for’ on a number of occasions and has a celebrated company culture. Currently, the business employs around 1,600 workers globally. It has 1,000 workers in Utah, 400 in San Francisco and a further 100 in Dublin. It is enhanced and developed by the finest corporate talent, with employees poached from businesses as varied as eBay, Martha Stewart Living, Johnson and Johnson and Amazon.
13. Users Can Check for New Records
With six billion searchable records in the United States alone, it’s handy to know where to look for updates and new records. On Ancestry.com, there is a webpage dedicated to recently updated collections and records. It changes all the time, so it’s worth checking back regularly if there’s a specific time period or institution you wish to research. The recently updated section is especially handy if there’s a piece of information that is not on Ancestry.com but might be soon.
14. There’s an Ancestry Mobile App
Since 2011, Ancestry.com members have been able to browse records, view photographs, make connections and get notifications via the branded mobile app. Since its inception, it has been downloaded more than seventeen million times. Users the app does enhance the experience of being an Ancestry.com member. Though it is a little clunky in places – and does not offer the same depth as a desktop tool – it is a handy way to edit family trees and keep new discoveries close.
15. Ancestry Searches Prioritize Domestic Data
Almost all of us have some kind of history overseas, in a country we know little or nothing about. It can make searching for our ancestors rather tricky. When creating searches on Ancestry.com, don’t forget that domestic results come first. The Ancestry search tools always bring up information from your home country first. If you’re specifically looking for overseas matches or results, try browsing the Card Catalogue. Use it to search for the name of the country. It could save you hours of sifting through historical records.
16. Sometimes You Can Be TOO Specific
One common mistake when using Ancestry.com is to forget how often historic data was changed, mistaken or manipulated. For instance, members researching world wars are advised to input several birthdates. As many young men lied about their age to be eligible for military service, it’s common for an incorrect date to be listed. Being creative with spellings and dates can yield unexpected results, particularly for people who are having trouble finding records. It may be that an immigrant’s surname was misspelled, a birth was recorded sloppily or a relative just decided to change their data. These things were much more common in days gone by.
17. Ethnicity Results Aren’t Always Permanent
You may be surprised to know that your ethnicity results on Ancestry.com are subject to change. Even though we think of ‘race’ as a fixed construct, most genealogy websites are keen to stress that results are estimated. Ethnicity is determined via the use of a sample of people whose ancestors originate from the same region. As DNA science develops and the sample size expands, genealogy tools are able to better tweak your results. The story of your ethnicity is more fluid than you think.
18. You Don’t Inherit the Same DNA As Your Siblings
Another common misconception is that siblings always share the same DNA makeup. After all, you’re getting half from your father and half from your mother. Well, it doesn’t need to be the same halves. It’s entirely possible for full siblings to have slightly different ethnicity estimates, for example. This occurs because DNA from your parents also contains DNA from both grandparents. In essence, children get a mixture of genes from their parents AND grandparents. So, the half you got from your father isn’t exactly the same as the half your brother inherited.
19. Rival Companies Are Gunning for Ancestry.com
Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger genealogy companies are starting to challenge Ancestry.com for market dominance. 23andMe – the second most popular DNA testing service – took Ancestry to court in early 2018. It alleges Ancestry used misleading advertising and stole some of its relative matching techniques and technologies. It also wants the courts to nullify the trademark Ancestory.com currently has on the word ‘ancestry.’ While this may sound a little petty, Ancestry.com started the row after it attempted to sue 23andme for its use of the word in branding and advertising.
20. Informed Use Is Safe Use – Stay Protected
There are so many scare stories about DNA testing and genealogical databases that it’s no surprise people are worried about data security. The reality is, companies are doing things with personal DNA data that they’ve never done before. They’re breaking new ground, so there are bound to be new challenges. The important thing is to be clear on the difference between companies who exploit data and ones who are working at the cutting edge of research, where regulations may not as well established. Know your rights. Know your products.
Before you sign up, have a full understanding of what it means to upload personal data to these websites. But don’t automatically assume they’re the villain simply because they’re doing things differently. Society is built on innovation.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker