In July, Ancestry.com (ACOM) announced that it had uncovered evidence that links President Barack Obama, through his white Kansan mother, to one of the earliest known slaves in North America. Obama’s also related to Brad Pitt. The genealogical website says they’re ninth cousins. Warren Buffett is family, too. He’s Obama’s seventh cousin, three times removed. In recent years Ancestry.com has also connected Obama to Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, even Rush Limbaugh—and they’ve got the paper trail to prove it.
Discoveries like these are the work of a subsidiary of Ancestry.com called ProGenealogists, a Salt Lake City-based dream team of more than 30 genealogists who fill celebrity research requests from Ancestry.com’s marketing department. Other notable achievements include linking Twilight’s Robert Pattinson to Vlad III Dracula, Bram Stoker’s real-life inspiration, and Harry Potter’s Emma Watson to a 16th century woman accused of witchcraft.
The Obama connections may seem trifling, but they’re just one way Ancestry.com has been promoting its family tree business, which has become a near monopoly over the past couple of decades. What began in 1983 as a small niche publisher of reference books has evolved into an online powerhouse. Both the number of customer subscriptions and the size of its research archives have more than doubled since 2009, and Ancestry.com will net a projected $480 million in 2012, according to Bloomberg News, which means it will be up 189 percent over the last five years. Ancestry.com stock surged recently amid reports that it had become the object of a bidding war among several private equity firms. The company, which refused to comment on the negotiations, is said to have already turned down an offer of $35 a share and encouraged potential buyers to increase their bids.
Although the market leader, Ancestry.com is not the online genealogy industry’s only player. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that its members can save the souls of long dead ancestors by baptizing them posthumously. To that end, the LDS has assembled a trove of genealogical records, copies of which it makes available to the public free, both online and in hard copy, at more than 4,500 reading rooms in 80 countries. Several for-profit outfits such as MyHeritage.com and Brightsolid are busy building out their own collections, but Ancestry.com mostly competes with itself: It owns five of the top 10 genealogy sites on the Net, including RootsWeb.com, Genea-logy.com, and Archives.com, a Silicon Valley startup acquired last April for $100 million.
Two million Ancestry.com subscribers pay from $12.95 to $34.95 per month for access to more than 10 billion birth, death, marriage, census, military, and church records from more than 40 countries dating back to the 13th century. Those who would like individual attention can shell out an additional $120 an hour (with a 20-hour minimum) for one-on-one consultations with an Ancestry.com genealogist. By sending “hints” about possible new family connections to its users, Ancestry.com easily develops into an addiction. “They’re never finished,” says Ancestry.com PR Director Sean Pate. “They’re constantly getting new updates to help stitch together stories of their long lost ancestors.”
Today, genealogy ranks second only to porn as the most searched topic online. According to a January 2012 report by market research firm Global Industry Analysts, an estimated 84 million people around the world spend anywhere from $1,000 to $18,000 a year in search of their ancestors. Visitors to online genealogy sites are mostly white women, 55 and older, who browse the Internet from home—or, says Pate, “your Aunt Betsy, who’s got a real rabid appetite for digging into family roots.” It’s a demographic projected to grow 36 percent by 2020, three times as fast as any other group.
The company’s celebrity research strategy is key to generating buzz. “Ultimately, yeah, it’s a branding play,” admits Pate of the less than high-minded scholarship that goes into unearthing the next distant Obama cousin. “The more relationship stories you hear, the more you might be thinking about researching your own family.” Pate says there was no real way to quantify the return on investment for the dogged researchers at ProGenealogists, but he acknowledges that “there are thousands of hours left on the cutting room floor from these projects.”
Ultimately, drawing connections between Hollywood stars—or anyone, for that matter—is playing with a stacked deck. The reason is the exponential nature of genealogy. Assume that families have an average of two kids. Each parent will have two children, four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, 16 great-great-grandchildren, and so on. After 10 generations, or about 250 years, the average person will have 1,024 descendants. Between 10 and 15 generations is the inflection point, says science journalist Steve Olson, at which “the number of your ancestors explodes to be most of the population living in a specific part of the world.” Practically all people of European descent share at least one common ancestor on their family trees sometime within the last 550 years.
Venturing further back in time to, say, 2000 BC, your ancestors would include everyone in the world who produced offspring—just as 4,000 years from now, assuming you have children, your descendants will populate the entire globe. According to computer models, 2000 BC might also have been the time of our “most recent common ancestor,” a term genealogists use to describe the person from whom we are all most recently descended. The title is constantly shifting to persons unknown as the generations are born and die out—and the slightest disruption to their daily lives can have global consequences thousands of years later.
Just ask Mark Humphrys, a computer science professor at Dublin City University and genealogy enthusiast: “Say you walked into an ancient Egyptian village in 2000 BC and you interrupted a peasant making love to his wife, delaying him for five minutes. Then Hitler, Stalin, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Alan Turing, Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, name whoever you want, would not exist. They could not exist.” He explains that a different sperm would have won the race, perhaps producing a son rather than a daughter, and the future of the world would be forever changed.
“It’s one of the ironies that the deeper you go into the past, genetic relatedness is less and less,” says Eviatar Zerubavel, author of Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community. “Royals used to get genealogists to link them back to the Trojans, to Noah, to Moses … but it’s an infinite decimal, one over infinity. It’s nothing!”