Empirical Evidence of the Popularity of Family History Using Digital Traces

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The following article is a report on one of the sessions of the Innovator Summit. The Innovator Summit was the opening event of RootsTech 2014. At this summit, software developers, entrepreneurs, and technology business leaders discussed technological developments that have the potential of having a significant impact on how people do family history and genealogical research.

The Wednesday afternoon session titled Empirical Evidence of the Popularity of Family History Using Digital Traces sounded interesting. Finally, a chance to see some hard data on the demand for genealogical data.

The marketplace for family history research tools is spectacularly evident in the Salt Palace this week. With the supply side self evident, what are some facts about the demand?

Arnon Hershkovitz, Ph. D., School of Education, Tel Aviv University, Israel, arnonhe@tauex.tau.ac.il, presented the results of research he has assembled.  Dr. Hershkovitz works with an international group on multidisciplinary genealogy and history. His genealogy, technology, and learning graduate school course is the first of its kind. His current goal is making genealogy an academic study course.

The research on the demand for genealogical information on the Internet begins with defining the search terms.  Which is better, “genealogy” or “family history?”

Searches using the word “genealogy” raised many irrelevant returns. Once those were screened out, words such as family, stories, roots, research, DNA and history popped to the front. When “genealogy” is searched, irrelevant returns were risk, cancer and advise. Dr. Hershkovitz said that “family history” tends to weigh search results toward medical where “genealogy” seems to attract spam.

One way to measure the difference in the two terms is their relative monetary value. It turns out the value of “genealogy” is over three times that of “family history.”

Next Dr. Hershkovitz turned to Google analytics programs.  Google Trends tracks the values of words over time and the numbers are relative to the maximum. In other words, we don’t learn how many searches there are for “genealogy,” but what percentage it is of all searches entered.

Trends were studied in over ten years in English speaking countries and by states in the US.  These data indicate a decrease in the trend to search “genealogy.” One theory for the reason is the growth of many other sources to search instead of Google. The disparity among the states in the US in 2004 has virtually disappeared now - probably because of the equalizing of Internet access in all states.

Paying subscribers to Ancestry.com have increased by 195% since 2009. Family Trees experienced a 563% growth. What caused that growth? Who Do You Think You Are created a steep peak of interest when it launched with a decline following until the beginning of the next season. Release of the 1940 census data created another dramatic peak followed by a decline.

To change the scale of measurement, Dr. Hershkovitz looked at data on printed materials. Over 5 million books were printed between 1800 and 2008. These are English language only and data was world wide. Both “genealogy” and “family history” experienced steady growth until the 1960s. Interest began to climb rapidly. The publishing of Alex Haley’s book Roots continued that steep increase. Continuous growth for “genealogy” dropped slightly until 2002. “Family history" started at virtually unknown and rose steadily, eventually passing “genealogy,” and now is in decline.

The session created many more questions than answers. Is the decrease indicated by Google Trends simply a function of an exponential growth in all inquiries. The number of searches for “genealogy” or “family history” may be rising dramatically while appearing to diminish as a percentage of the Tsunami of researched queries. Is the decreasing trend a function of more people going to specific sites? That would seem to be the case given the profits shown by membership sources. Is the tapering off of printed books and indication of a loss of interest, or that printed materials are generally on the decline.

How can reliable data be obtained? It will take a much more comprehensive approach than Google Trends and books printed. The Roots Tech conference indicates that interest in genealogy, family history, ancestors or roots is vigorous and growing. Quantifying that interest needs a multifaceted approach.  Maybe Chris Dancy should take a look.

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