Why you should care
Google could be the best thing that happened to genealogy since Mormons decided to baptize the dead.
In our occasional ¿por qué no? series, OZY looks ahead and asks, “Why couldn’t this be in our future?”
Did you know that genealogy is the most searched-for topic on the Internet next to porn? Perhaps you didn’t, but you would think the folks at Google would. Every year, around 84 million people spend from $1,000 to $18,000 researching their ancestors. Yet when the most prominent genealogical online business, Ancestry.com — with its 2 million paid subscribers, $400 million in annual revenue, 29,000 databases and 10 billion and counting records — went on sale last year, Google didn’t bite. Why on Google Earth not?
With today’s searching and sharing technologies, genealogy should be so much more.
When most people hear the word “genealogy,” they think of combing through public records to assemble a family tree. And that’s still mostly what it entails, even with the searchable databases and online tools provided by sites like Ancestry.com. But with today’s searching and sharing technologies, genealogy should be so much more. It should be a portal into the past, a gateway to another world. And the gatekeeper to this world ought to be the company that wrote the book (or at least scanned the book) on information gathering in the Digital Age.
Consider what Google has already done to document the past. In addition to its unmatched search capabilities, Google has captured at least 30 million books and 10 billion images (as of 2010), and has archived news articles dating back more than 200 years. Its Google Groups, Picasa and Google Maps Web tools allow users to collaborate online, share photos and files and tie information to precise geographical locations. Google’s Ngram Viewer even allows users to track the use of particular words through history.
While there are several guides on how to use Google for genealogy, and countless genealogists routinely use its existing tools, the company has never designed a toolset specifically for genealogists. And though Ancestry.com and other sites have taken great strides to improve their technology and tools, online genealogists still confront a landscape in which sources of necessary information are often siloed in different locations and behind various subscription walls.
The world of genealogy is begging for a digital heavyweight to wade in and shake things up.
In short, the world of genealogy is begging for a digital heavyweight to wade in and shake things up. And done correctly, it could turn many more of us into amateur genealogists overnight.
Once data sets get linked and users begin uploading their own materials, the possibilities are endless. Ancestry.com occasionally promotes it services by showing how famous people like President Obama and Brad Pitt are related (they’re ninth cousins), but just think if you could Google yourself and any other individual — a living celebrity, historical figure or your neighbor — and get an immediate search result showing your closest common ancestor (most people of European descent, for example, share at least one common ancestor from the past 550 years).What might a Google Genie tool look like? For starters it would provide access to all the birth, marriage, death, census, immigration and other records currently available from other sources. But it would do so in a way that would allow users to search these databases alongside Google’s own records so that they could stitch together their family’s images, maps, stories and genealogical records in a single place, accessible to others. The ultimate goal, however, would be to create not just a family tree but also a fully realized glimpse into the past. Imagine being able to look up a place on Google Maps and a date and time as well. A new website called What Was There has already made inroads here by inviting users to upload old photos, which are then superimposed onto Google Street View images.
Forget six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this would be six degrees of Francis Bacon! And when the worlds of genealogy and DNA sequencing merge further, the prospects for exploring how you relate to other members of the human species will multiply. They could even help locate tissue and organ donors from around the world.
What do you say, Google, are you ready to take on the challenge of building the family tree for all humankind?