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How Brad Pitt and Barack Obama are related

May 19, 2009 15:52 IST

Move over, Google. Another Web outfit is digitizing millions of documents and making them available online.

That site is Ancestry.com, and its parent company is racking up nearly $200 million a year charging people to peruse scanned family-history documents--things like birth and marriage records, but also more obscure databases like immigration records and draft-registration cards.

People can create their own, basic online family trees free of charge on the site. But they have to pony up $19.95 a month to access the digitized records and do more in-depth research. (It's cheaper to sign up for a year's subscription, which is $155, or $12.95 a month; a "World Deluxe" membership is $299 a year.)

The site, owned by the Generations Network in Provo, Utah, grew out of a dot-com-era company called MyFamily.com. That firm was an early social network similar to Geocities, a first-generation Internet site that let users create personal home pages. In 2001, MyFamily was retooled to focus on family history; it received a $300 million infusion from investment firm Spectrum Equity in 2007.

A site called MyFamily.com that lets people post family photos and other information online still exists, but "we're still trying to figure out if it's relevant in the age of Facebook," says Generations Network Chief Executive Tim Sullivan.

The company doesn't have formal ties to the Mormon church, which maintains extensive family-history records used by genealogists of many faiths. But "we work very closely and carefully with the church," Sullivan says. Sullivan, who is not Mormon, joined the company in 2005 after running online dating site Match.com.

The Generations Network does have some other, more tangential links to the church: One investor is Sorenson Media, a company controlled by now-deceased Mormon billionaire James Sorenson. Another Sorenson company, Sorenson Genomics, supplies DNA testing materials to Generations Network. And Generations Network outsources PR work to Coltrin & Associates, a firm founded by Stephen H. Coltrin.

He previously worked in public relations for the Mormon church. Coltrin & Associates says Coltrin's previous church work is not related to its representation of Generations Network.

Ancestry.com is now the cash cow for Generations Network. Its allure, Sullivan says, is its vast database of global records that help the world's millions of genealogy hobbyists connect to their pasts.

Many of the Generations Network's 600 employees are busy trotting the globe in search of new family-related databases to digitize. Often, the company will strike deals with governments to gain access to sought-after records: Ancestry.com will help put their often unorganized paper files in order in exchange for permission to scan the papers and put them online. That happened recently in Italy through partnerships with local courthouses, Sullivan says.

Ancestry.com is also hiring eight or nine new developers in Beijing to help beef up Chinese family records on its site.

There are currently about eight billion names included in the site's records, and 28,000 separate databases. The variety of databases on the site is striking: Recently, Ancestry.com highlighted newly added records, including marriages in Upper Brittany, France from 1536 to 1892 and a collection of US county land ownership atlases covering 1864 to 1918.

The site now has about 3.4 million active users, more than a million of which are paying customers. But it still tries to drum up publicity to attract new users--and revenue. One tactic is using its team of in-house genealogy researchers to find interesting family links between celebrities, royalty and politicians. Some recent discoveries include genealogical links between Barack Obama and Brad Pitt, Sarah Palin and Franklin Roosevelt, and George W Bush and Dick Cheney.

Genealogist Anastasia Tyler, who has done some of the celebrity work for Ancestry.com, says it's easiest to find common ties among people who have deep roots in the United States or in the British royal family.

For celebrities and regular folk, most of the best family records date from 1850 to 1930. Before 1850, records were scarcer. After 1930, detailed records become tougher to find because of privacy concerns, Tyler says.

One particularly rich mine for family-history buffs are World War I and World War II draft registration cards, she adds. In 1917 and 1918 alone, about 24 million U.S. men registered for the draft--meaning researchers are very likely to find a hit scouring World War I records for a male relative who was of draftable age at that time.

Sometimes those records even yield dirt on a celebrity.

According to Tyler, Tom Cruise's great grandfather was described as "short, stout and bald" on his draft card. Guess the apple fell pretty far from that tree.

Rebecca Buckman, Forbes
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