The Shifting Landscape of Genetic Genealogy

There was a time when DNA kits flew off of shelves and people lined up by the hundreds to purchase them on sale at genealogy events. Not anymore. Why are sales slowing down? It’s a tale of the shifting landscape of genetic genealogy… and some squandered opportunities.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 43

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 17 minutes.

Slowing DNA Sales and Layoffs

To say that DNA testing is huge in genealogy would be an understatement. It seems like everyone has taken a DNA test, whether it’s through Ancestry, 23andMe, or any number of other companies. You can’t hardly watch tv without seeing an ad for DNA testing.

But things are changing. Sales of DNA kits are slowing down. Yes, they’re still selling, but they aren’t flying off the shelf like they used to.

Things have slowed down so much that both Ancestry and 23andMe have laid off staff. 23andMe laid off approximately 14% of its workforce in late January 2020. Ancestry laid off 6% of its workforce in early February. To be clear, the Ancestry layoffs weren’t just in the DNA division. They were in many areas of the company.

Why Are DNA Kit Sales Slowing Down?

So what happened? Leah Larkin, a genetic genealogist who tracks all sorts of industry stats at her site The DNA Geek, reported in June 2019 that sales were slowing down. She pinpointed the decline at Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and GEDMatch as starting in April 2018.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence (and neither does Leah) that April 2018 is when it was announced that the Golden State Killer case was solved using genetic genealogy (specifically GEDmatch). Suddenly it became clear to more people that these giant databases of genetic information could be used for more than just finding cousins and breaking down genealogical brick walls.

However, I don’t think that the only reason for the slowdown is the dual issue of privacy and the use by law enforcement. I think there are several other factors also at play.

As Ancestry CEO Margo Georgiadis said in the public announcement of the layoffs, “The DNA market is at an inflection point now that most early adopters have entered the category.”

In that regard, DNA is a lot like Tupperware. There are only so many kits that you need to buy. Most people buy one and they’re done. Some will buy kits for a few family members, but tere are only so many family members you can test.

I think another reason for the slowdown in sales is because there is more news of people like my friend Jenny discovering family secrets via DNA. Back in Episode 32, I talked with Jenny about her experience discovering that the man who raised her, the man she called “Dad,” was not her biological father. We’re seeing more and more stories come out with surprises, whether it’s an unexpected parentage or an unknown adoption.

So what does all of this mean?

First, I think that overall, DNA testing has been good for the field of genealogy. It has brought countless people into the space and I think that’s a good thing. The more people who are engaged, the better off we all are.

Yes, there has been a chorus of “Oh, but they just took it for the ethnicity estimate.” I’ll grant you that. There is a probably-not-small percentage of test takers who only want to find out what their estimates are.

But I’ve always looked at people coming to genealogy via DNA as an opportunity. True, there are going to be people who get the pie chart and they’re satisfied. They’re done. But there are also going to be the people who get the pie chart and they’re not satisfied. It whets their appetite to find out more.

And here’s where the opportunity is being squandered.

According to its website, Ancestry has sold 16 million DNA tests and currently has 3 million paying subscribers. (Stats viewed February 2020.)

I realize that isn’t a perfect 1:1 comparison. And I know that of the 3 million paying subscribers, there’s a portion that has purchased multiple tests.

I also realize that not everyone who takes a test is going to become a paying subscriber. Their curiosity is satisfied getting the ethnicity estimate.

But what about the people who aren’t satisfied by that? Here’s where I think Ancestry specifically has dropped the ball.

Unlike 23andMe, Ancestry has 20 billion genealogical records. That’s a goldmine to someone who is curious and who can feel comfortable working with them. It’s a goldmine that Ancestry seems to be ignoring when it comes to their DNA customers.

Ancestry seems to put their customers into two silos: one for DNA and one for more traditional research. Sure, they’re happy to sell DNA kits to the more traditional genealogists and that’s a fairly easy thing to do. After all, people who are already into genealogy see DNA as another tool.

But Ancestry has done a poor job of taking people from the DNA side to the traditional side. They have prompts like “build your tree,” but what does that mean to someone who hasn’t done any genealogy besides spit in a tube?

Ancestry, by and large, leaves them to flounder. They don’t do a good job of showing people not only how to get started with traditional research, but why they should. There is a real disconnect. And as long as those two silos are disconnected, Ancestry won’t be able to tap into turning a one-time customer of a $99 kit into a paying subscriber over a period of months or years.

What Can We Do?

I travel a lot and when I’m talking with people at random airports and I tell them that I’m a genealogy educator, they almost always mention AncestryDNA or 23andMe. “Oh I took that test” or “My sister just did that DNA thing.” We talk about what they found and often they’ll show come curiosity to know more.

My encouragement to everyone who is in a conversation like that is to gently ask if they’ve explored any records. I remember a conversation with woman sitting next to me on a flight and she was sad that she didn’t know the names of all of her mother’s siblings. “Have you looked for her in the 1930 or 1940 census? They’re probably in the household with her.” She didn’t know anything about the census. I had paid for wifi on the flight, so I pulled up FamilySearch and showed her. She was amazed.

DNA has been a boon to the field of genealogy as a whole, not just a boon to businesses like Ancestry and 23andMe. We all can benefit by having more people in this space. Imagine the discoveries that can be made when more people are sharing research, sharing photos, sharing stories.

Each of those 16 million AncestryDNA tests is a person. Let’s all of us — you and me — be encouraging and be that bridge between the DNA test and the traditional research. We’ll all benefit from it.

 

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  • People don’t understand the limits of DNA, and how people still need to use traditional research – in conjunction with DNA results – to do their genealogical research.

  • I think, if Ancestry would include a one week or one month free membership (without the need to enter a credit card #) with a DNA kit purchase, many more would get into genealogy & sharing their family information.

    • The problem is one week or one month if you don’t know how to research or use the site you will spend much of that time trying to figure it out. Its rather easy to use but if you never built a tree before you end up with mistakes and those mistakes spread to hints to others etc.. its a cancer. I would rather see them give people a free week tutorial on how to research first before they build a tree.

  • If Ancestry had more member friendly prices, more people would get involved. Can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that said they’d love to join but can’t come close to affording a subscription.

    • Tell those people to add up travel expenses, hotel cost, food, air fair , food, gas, and their time going to each place they need to go to research. Their hours they are open and how much it cost to gather information from each place. Then add up how much they spend on a cup of coffee for a month my guess is a subscription is the same price as a cup of coffee a day when you break it down.. you research from your home in your pajamas with your bed head hair and nobody cares 24/7 ancestry does not shut down. Seems simple to me a subscription is well worth what they give you. Any hobby cost money ever try quilting? fabric , sewing machine, quilting machine threads scissors cutting mats etc.. it adds up! if you can’t afford it then find another hobby you can.

  • Excellent synopsis of the situation Amy. I have recently been fortunate to have had 4 friends ask me about taking a DNA test. I always buy extra Ancestry tests when they are on sale. Each of those friends came to my house, purchased the kit and I sat with them as they took the test. In each case I encouraged them to build a tree while we were activating the kit. They agreed. We linked their DNA to their tree. We entered names and accessed records. Three of those four are now further exploring their ancestors and adding to their trees.
    Just think if everyone who took a test did the same?

  • Believe it or not I have a cousin who lost his password and user name to his AncestryDNA account, and says he did not want to go through the hassle of calling Ancestry for it. Another point why fewer people are submitting DNA, is there are still some countries which do not allow citizens to do genetic DNA research – such as France. What other countries don’t allow it?

  • The bigger picture here is sure Ancestry can do more to get those non tree members interested but UNTIL they also do more teaching how to do good solid logical research, those newbies will not know HOW to research. They will think they do they will be beginners but they will make a bundle of mistakes and those mistakes will spread like cancer in bad trees because we all know there is also a community of “researchers” who use trees and simply copy and click on things that “Look” good.

    Part of the bigger problem is that Ancestry and many of the subscribers respond to those asking for help and they don’t teach them how they do it for them. They get some kind of ego boost out of it instead of teaching them how step by step to find the answers.

    Stop doing it for them ! teach them how to do it. Teach them how to think about other resources that Ancestry and Family Search..Back in the day when I started before I belong to Ancestry or FS I built a solid tree by using other resources, resources that now are frown upon when suggested.

    So in short Yes Ancestry can do more as you said…and they can also teach members more on how to research.. SO ask them did you look in the 193 or 1940 census? No well here is how you do that, this is how you read a census because its more than names and dates..Educate yourself on using these resources here is how you do it..

    Use Ancestry youtube channel for help although we have not seen a new video in about a year and some of the old ones are great! but they need to be updated..Its a great resource for using Ancestry and more that is under utilized.

    • Ancestry does have some very good educational resources, but they make them hard to find, even for experienced researchers. It’s a shame.

      I concentrate on showing people the “how” and “why” rather than doing it for them, which is actually why I looked up the census for her (if that’s what you’re referring to). She’d never even heard of using the census. Showing someone a quick record like that gives them a taste of success. She could see exactly what I was doing and could see that, with a little bit of guidance, she could also make discoveries like that for herself.

  • Amy, I shared your post about converting DNA test-takers into record searchers. My society’s co-president, Kathy Wellington-Nassios, had this reply, which I have her permission to share:

    “I have often thought for as much money as genealogists spend on these DNA websites (I’m sure we are the largest group of “multi-testers”), we ought to ask them to give back to the genealogy community – they could ask testers when they get their results “Do you belong to a genealogy Society”, if they say “No” then can say, “A genealogy society can help you with your family history research, put your zip code here and find a society close to you” – really, how hard would that be for them? If people answer “Yes” they could ask them to pick theirs from a dropdown list (societies would need to register with them) and then track which society’s membership purchases the most tests (based on society size) and reward them with free test kits to give as door prizes or something.”

  • What a very interesting podcast this was, Amy! I didn’t know that the sales of DNA test kits were slowing. And how interesting that the Golden State Killer case marked the beginning of the downturn. I am a hybrid: part online researcher, part nosing-around-the-libraries-and-courthouses researcher, and part DNA test kit purchaser. I have been lucky enough to locate some cousins who have far-reaching research!

    • You’d have to ask them. Fortunately, there are numerous tools we can use with our raw DNA data that a built-in chromosome browser is becoming less of an issue.