orig_Vaultentrance_27Apr10Two of the world’s biggest players in family history are separated by 45 miles of highway in Utah. Both groups put technology and Internet search at the core of their offerings to the public, and both are attempting to build the most comprehensive genealogical database in the history of the world. But they have different motivations, and they don’t consider themselves competitors.

Ancestry.com, a Provo-based company that last year took itself off the public market by selling to private equity group Permira for $1.6 billion, is driven by commercial intent. It has more than 2 million subscribers and last year brought in about $480 million in revenue. Its offerings includes census and voter lists, records of births, deaths, and marriages, and a range of other historical services, including DNA tests.

The other group, which has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, offers a Web product that allows people to search historical records, find and share photos of their ancestors, and gives them customer support 24/7. All of this is entirely free. This group, which launched its search engine in 1999, has a database of more than 3.5 billion names, publishes more than 1 million historic records online a day, and registers more than 10 million pageviews a day. It claims more than 1 million registered users and even offers developers an API so they can build applications that leverage the company’s database. It doesn’t have commercial offices, but its family history centers can be found in more than 4,500 locations in 126 countries, and it counts on more than 150,000 volunteers. Its records stockpile is so vast that it is stored in cavernous mountain vaults near Salt Lake City.

This group is called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, the Mormons.

Thanks to the work of the LDS Church, Utah is the planet’s ground zero is for genealogy. It also means that tech companies dealing with genealogy have either had to base themselves in the state, or visit there frequently and cooperate with the Church.

While it’s not impossible to build a genealogical tech company from outside the state without a Church partnership, such an arrangement certainly helps. Ancestry, which was founded by Mormons and started off selling LDS publications, is the obvious example, because its headquarters are in Provo, and it has worked closely with the Church for years. (The Church has about 700 partnerships with companies and developers worldwide.) But Ancestry’s biggest competitor, the Israel-based MyHeritage, also has a large Utah office, situated halfway between Provo and Salt Lake City. Both companies bought non-Utah-based genealogy companies last year. In April, Ancestry acquired San Francisco-based Archives.com for $100 million, and in November, MyHeritage acquired David Sacks’ Los Angeles-based Geni.

The advantages for genealogical companies in building strong connections in Utah are clear, but what of the Church? Why is it so intent on documenting and making publicly available every record of human life known to man?

The answer to that, according to the Church, is pretty simple. Its focus on the family is at the top of its list of cultural priorities. “We believe that our family relationships that exist here on the earth continue into the next life,” says Ben Bennet, vice-prident of commerical partner services in the Church’s family history department. We’re all God’s children, Mormons believe, and so we should all be mapped onto a giant family tree that unites the world’s population — a kind of massive visualization of God’s handiwork.

Tied to that idea, however, is a controversial Mormon belief that people can be converted to Mormonism after death, a practice that generated outrage when it was revealed that some Mormons had been attempting to baptize Holocaust victims, including Anne Frank. (Mitt Romney’s atheist father-in-law, incidentally, got the same treatment.) The Church quickly apologized and issued a letter stressing that its members must not try to baptize anyone from “unauthorized groups,” such as celebrities and Holocaust victims. Still, Mormons believe that the dead have the ability to accept or reject the baptisms in the heavenly realm, even if they did not choose to embrace the Church while they were alive. Hence, the stupendous archives, and an ongoing investment that makes the Church hands-down the largest genealogical association in the world.

Despite that heft and an significant overlap in services, Ancestry isn’t worried about losing customers to the Church’s FamilySearch.org. Even though it spends $100 million a year on marketing, which has included sponsorship of TV shows, views the Church as more partner than foe. “We don’t really think of them as a competitor,” says Ancestry CEO Tim Sullivan.

In fact, says Sullivan, the Church’s efforts drive interest in the space, which benefits everyone in it. You know the cliche about the rising tide and all the boats. “We’ve literally never seen any cannibalization of the commercial market, because there is a free site,” says Sullivan.

For its part, the Church is delighted to have the likes of Ancestry and MyHeritage effectively helping to do what it views as God’s work. “We look at companies like Ancestry, and my view is we want as many people involved in family history as possible,” says Bennet. He says it’s difficult to assess the economic impact — to Utah and the world — of the Church’s genealogical work, but it has lowered the barrier to entry for companies wanting to get into the business. And, given the strong strain of business and self-sufficiency built into Mormon culture, the Church has no qualm with such family history work being tied to the pursuit of profits.

In that sense, too, the Church shares Ancestry’s view that there remains a large market opportunity in family history. At the time of its acquisition at the hands of Permira, Ancestry CEO Sullivan said the private equity firm “shares our vision that family history remains a large and still untapped market” and enthused about the chance to expand into more countries. The Church is equally bullish. So far, it has managed to document only about 10 percent of the 100 billion or so people that have ever lived on Earth, according to the Church’s estimates. Now that new technologies are improving digitization methods and global access to historical records, the world’s population, living and deceased, is set to become only more connected.

“We believe that the family history industry is really on the verge of significant expansion,” says Bennet.

Genealogy, one might conclude, is a market opportunity that seems not only lucrative, but also righteous. The family tree has been planted in Utah.

[Lead image is a photo of the Granite Mountain Vaults, provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.]