Note: This article was originally written in February 2019. For my updated article on AncestryDNA, click here.
Did you buy an AncestryDNA test kit recently? Or have you been looking at your results feeling overwhelmed because you don’t know what to do with them?
Or worse – have you not looked at your results because you looked at them once and got a little unnerved at all these relatives that you had no idea who they all were? Well, fear not, my friend, for I am about to share with you my top tips and tricks for working with your AncestryDNA matches. No matter what stage you are at in your research, how many matches you have, or how much progress you have made with your tree, there is something here for everyone. Read on!
1: Use the shared matches tab
The ‘shared matches’ tab on AncestryDNA is the single most useful tool that Ancestry provides to work with your matches. It doesn’t matter if your match has shared no tree, a private tree or has given you no clues whatsoever, looking at your match’s ‘shared matches’ tab will allow you to start grouping your matches into specific groups, with the aim of then working out how that group is related to you.
Not sure what I’m talking about? It’s pretty easy. Go to your Ancestry DNA Matches page, and click any of your matches; for the purposes of this exercise, I’d select any match that isn’t your close family, but one on the first page of your matches. Scroll down a little on the match page, and you’ll see a section that looks like this (just above the match’s tree, if they have one):
If you click on the Shared Matches tab, you’ll find a list of every one of your DNA matches that also shares DNA with that user, like this:
You can use this information to your advantage. It is likely that everyone showing as sharing DNA with you and the first match shares at least one common ancestor. The best way to work out who that common ancestor is, is to work with that group of matches, build their trees (unless they’ve already done that for you!), and see if you can spot a common surname or area; sometimes you’ll immediately run into a name, or even a couple from your own tree, if you’ve been able to build one out.
It’s worth bearing in mind that if you have any kind of endogamy going on in your tree, this technique will not always work so well. However, just by following this logic, you can see whether you likely have any endogamy going on; if you’re finding that all your first and second page matches appear to be in the same group, that might be the case.
If your matches don’t have many or any shared matches with you, then that could indicate you share ancestors from places that do not DNA test, or where DNA testing is in its infancy. Whatever your circumstance, looking at the shared matches pages will help you.
If you are an adoptee, or you don’t have parents alive to test, you can use the shared matches to try and group your matches into distinct sides; this works particularly well if you find a known close relative on your match list, since you can usually (but not always – see endogamy above!) assume that any shared matches are on that side of your tree.
In the next section you’ll see how you can use a Chrome Extension to help you analyse these shared match groups, but you can also keep a simple notebook, google doc or sheet, or Excel spreadsheet to keep tabs on your shared match groups.
2: Use Chrome – Extensions are your friend!
If you are looking at your AncestryDNA matches on a computer, then I highly, highly recommend you use the Google Chrome browser to do so. This isn’t because I’m a massive Google Chrome fan (in fact I’m not! I only use Chrome for Ancestry), but because there are a few Chrome Extensions that are massively helpful when working with your Ancestry DNA matches. I’ve listed them in order of how useful I find them.
DNA Match Labeling
This is an incredibly simple but powerful extension which allows you to apply a colour dot to each of your matches. You can use this dot to note at a glance your shared match groups.
For example, let’s say I know that my top non-close family match has been identified, and I know that we share great-grandparents. I colour her with a red dot. I then flick to the shared matches tab, and colour every single match in the list with a red dot as well. In the table that appears at the top of my match list, I update the description to ‘great grandparents Joe and Jane Bloggs’:
When I look at my main match page, I now see that some of my matches have the red dot showing, and I go to the first match that doesn’t have a coloured dot, and apply say a yellow dot to this match. If I know how I match with this person I can put a description in the table, if I don’t, I leave it blank, or write ‘unknown’, or to be investigated. I colour all the shared matches with that user as yellow.
The extension provides eight different colours to work with, so depending on how extensive your matches are, or how much endogamy there is, you should be able to at least make good headway into colouring most of the first page of your matches, and so begin to identify your specific match groupings.
The extension can be a little buggy, for instance, sometimes my descriptions don’t save, or sometimes the dots don’t appear, but refreshing the page seems to work most times. For more information about the extension, click here.
AncestryDNAHelper is an extension that allows you to download your match list to a spreadsheet, and also do some analysis on matches that are shared between two different users where you have access to their kits. This can save you time doing the analysis yourself, or copy typing match information into a spreadsheet or document.
Why would you want to download this information? I can think of a few different reasons. Firstly, if your match decides to pull their information for whatever reason, you have the username and details offline. Secondly, it means you can do offline analysis and keep offline notes on your matches. If you make one master spreadsheet and add matches from other places like Gedmatch or 23&Me, it also means you can keep notes in one place.
Unfortunately it isn’t working correctly with Macs at the moment, so its usefulness for mac users is limited, but if you are a PC, go right ahead. For further information about the extension and how to use it, visit: http://www.ancestrydnahelper.com/.
MedBetterDNA is a useful little extension which provides enhanced filtering options, such as only looking at matches with an ‘extremely high’ confidence level, and also pulls out any notes you add to a match so that they are visible from the main page, as you can see below. This can be useful to both filter out close, known matches so that you can go straight to the matches you want to try and work with, but also means you don’t have to click in a match to see the note. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve added a note to a match, gone back to view it months later, and forgotten why I added it. Having it visible right on the main page acts as a memory aid, and means you see it more often, which means less reinventing of the wheel because you’ve forgotten what the note said or didn’t even notice there was a note on the match.
3: Use the notes field
In keeping with the tip above, the notes field provided by Ancestry DNA is simple, but used right, can be really helpful.
When you are initially starting out on your journey, you might add a to-do note, such as ‘this match is shared with Aunty Doris, therefore should be a match on my mother’s side. Check the SharedCMCalculator for the likely range of relationships with me‘. Or, if you know where a match ‘should’ fit based on your shared matches and the centimorgan count, but the tree they have shared doesn’t seem to make sense with your tree, you might write ‘Should descend from my great-grandparents Joe Bloggs and Jane Smith, but their tree doesn’t show any Bloggs or Smiths and is the wrong area of the country. May be an NPE, or an error in their tree; need to research further.’
You can also use it to show the shared common ancestors where you’ve been able to find this out. I even add this information to matches that have trees, or Ancestry has given me a correct ‘common ancestor’ hint. Why? You never know when someone will make their tree private, or unlink their DNA test results. If you have the information in a note, with a brief version of how that match descends, it doesn’t matter if the tree is made private. I do it like this: ‘Common Ancestors with me Joe Bloggs and Jane Smith: match – father Fred Bloggs – grandfather Fred Bloggs Snr – great grandparents Joe Bloggs & Jane Smith‘.
4: Two heads are better than one – how to share your DNA results
Researching with a family member, or working with someone else to try and find answers to your own family history mystery? Sharing DNA results can be a great way for two or more people to collaborate in trying to solve genealogical puzzles.
Ancestry makes it pretty easy to share DNA results, but it’s still probably the number one question I get asked. Here’s what you do. On your main DNA profile page, click settings in the top right:
This takes you to the test settings page. Scroll right down to the bottom, and you’ll see a section entitled ‘DNA Ethnicity and Matches Access.
Here, simply add the email (or Ancestry Username) of the person you’d like to share your results with. You have three different options for level of access; viewer, collaborator, and manager. Generally speaking, ‘viewer’ is all that you need to give anyone else, unless you want them to be able to make notes on your matches as a ‘true’ collaborator. If you are comfortable to do so, you could make a family member a ‘manager’ of the DNA kit; this means they can invite other people to see the kit, but be warned, it also means they would have access to download the raw DNA, and also completely delete the results. Note, if you administer a kit for someone else, you should always make them the manager of their DNA kit; it’s important that they have control over their own results, even if they choose never to log in. Ancestry no longer allows one person to manage multiple kits from one log-on, instea,d a new log-on must be created for each user account.
Personally, when I am working with someone on their results, I always request they don’t give me any access higher than viewer level; only in one instance has someone decided they would like me to make notes on their account, and generally I think viewer level access works in most instances.
5: Use your Profile page to its best advantage
If you are looking to try and solve a family history mystery, or knock down the proverbial brick wall, make sure your Ancestry profile page gives clear information about you! If you are concerned about privacy and identifying information that might impinge on that, then obviously be careful not to put too much information, but you should put just enough so that a match can look at your profile and know whether you might be open to contact. Here are some examples of things you might want to include:
- A brief statement about who you are and what your genealogy interests are. You might include surnames, locations, details of a particular problem you are trying to find the answer to.
- You can also use the ‘research interests’ section to include details of specific familial surnames, approximate dates and areas of interest.
- A statement that you are open to contact. If you are reasonably sure of your family direct lines and open to helping others, you could state that. For example, my profile says that I am adoptee and unknown parentage friendly.
- If you have uploaded your DNA to Gedmatch, you could also include a note of your Gedmatch reference number, if you are willing to do so.
- You could also include a personal email address; Ancestry’s messaging system can be very buggy, and this way you are providing an alternative means of contact. To safeguard your privacy this should be a non-identifiable address, with a service like gmail.
6: Build your tree and make it public
This tip won’t be for everyone, and indeed for those with unknown parentage, it won’t be possible. But the number one best way you can help your matches out, and also work out how you connect with a match, is to build the fullest tree that you can, and to make it public, so that your matches can see it, and so that Ancestry can generate DNA match hints. This means not limiting your tree to direct lines only, but to building out the siblings of your direct ancestors, and trying to build their lines forward a little as well. I wouldn’t suggest adding living relatives (you can really scare DNA matches off when they find what appears to be themselves in your tree!), but just far enough forward so you can recognise surnames in your DNA matches’ trees is useful.
Even if you decide to keep your tree private, building a full tree can still be helpful. Ancestry will still generate hints, but won’t show the exact match with private trees; less helpful for your matches, but still means you can do your research.
7: Who is that match? Tips for ID’ing your match – and building out their tree
Okay, due warning, this section could be alternatively entitled ‘stalking your matches‘. Use this advice responsibly!
I’m sure you’ve noticed that many of your matches don’t have trees at all. Maybe you’ve tried messaging them, and you don’t receive any response, and you can tell from their profile that they haven’t logged into Ancestry in the past eight months.
What do? First of all, follow tip one and look at your common shared matches. Do you see any profiles that look possibly closely related to this person? Giveaways include the same surname, or an alias that includes part of a surname (maybe it’s just me, but I have several matches who seem to do that). Sometimes it’s just plain easier and more efficient to work with the trees for people you can identify before you attempt the more difficult ones, especially if the amount of DNA you share with the ‘easier’ people is similar.
Next, click through to their Ancestry profile page and see if there are any other details they’ve shared. Sometimes this will include a nice profile, like I suggested in tip five, but more usually not. Often though, you’ll see a location, surnames of interest, and sometimes there is a righthand sidebar which gives you an age range for the match.
If your match has given their ‘real’ name, and appears to be resident in the US, you can use search databases like whitepages or familytreenow.com to try and identify them. Obviously if they are identified as John Smith in New York you might have a harder time trying to find the right John Smith, as opposed to searching for Esmerelda Quignicup. However, using databases like these can point you in the direction of possible family members, which might aid in ID’ing them, or if a possible relative is shown who was born prior to 1940, you can try searching for that relative in the 1940 census.
If your match has given an obvious alias, do try googling that username. It’s possible that they use that username in several places on the internet, and that can help you identify them. Some people use pipl.com for this, I like to use namechk.com. This is actually a site designed to help people find available user names, but you can use it the opposite way to see where a particular username is used on the internet. Bear in mind though, just because a username is used somewhere, doesn’t mean it’s the same person using it.
Hopefully one of these methods has given you enough information to get a possible name, age and location. If so, head on over to Facebook and see if you can find a Facebook profile for your match. If you can, it’s a great idea to check their user information to see if they have any family members listed, and every so often I’ll get lucky and find family history type photos which they’ve made public, with a wealth of information as to who the particular ancestor is. If you do find pictures like this, be sure to see who has commented, or check the ‘love’ clicks; it’s amazing how quickly you can build a picture of who is in a family this way!
From here, you can hopefully find enough information to start building a private (and non-searchable!) tree for your DNA match, and so begin to work out how you are related to them.
8: Make that message count
What if all your attempts to identify your match have been unsuccessful? You have no idea who your match is, let alone the ability to research their tree for them. That’s when your only option is to send them a message. Before you do:
- Check their profile page. Have they given any information about themselves / their research interests? Sometimes users will post that they are an adoptee or have an unknown parent situation. They might even post information about their specific circumstance.
- Check your shared matches information. From the shared matches, do you have any inkling as to how they might fit into your tree, or perhaps branches of their tree that you can definitely rule out? For example, if a match matches multiple of my ‘American’ matches, I know they are likely to be on my American side. If they have very few shared matches, or there’s information to suggest the user is British, Irish, Australian, or Canadian, then it’s probably related to one of the other branches of my tree. I have both my parents’ test results, so I can also determine whether it’s a paternal match or maternal.
- Craft your message – make your subject line count! I always use ‘DNA Match to [test username]. You could add surname or location info as well if you want to. You basically want to put enough info but in as few words as possible so the user instantly knows what you are messaging about.
- Make the body of your message short, but make it count. Make it clear you are contacting them about a specific test kit (many people administer a lot of tests, so be sure to be clear about which test you have matched), and if you have any idea of shared surnames or locations, you could include that info. For example, I might draft a message such as this:
- ‘Hi there, I am contacting you in relation to a DNA test kit you administer with the initials ‘J.S’ which matches my test kit for Joe Bloggs, who is my paternal uncle. Based on the shared matches, and the level of our match, I believe we may share common ancestors, possibly with the surnames Bloggs, Smith, Jones or Marple, and likely located in or around Liverpool, UK. Do any of these surnames or the location seem familiar to you? If yes, I’d be really grateful if you could let me know further details. If you’re not sure, I wondered if you have a family tree online that you’d be willing to give me access to, or if you would be happy to provide the names of your grandparents or great-grandparents, if you know them?‘ Be sure to thank them for their time!
- You might suspect a family group from your matches, or can see that one person administers several tests which you match to. If so, you can mention that you match all those tests, that will help the person narrow down which branch of their tree you might relate to, even if they don’t know further details.
- One person I was working with, who was looking for his birth father had great success getting responses by simply being honest about his search, and his circumstances. This approach did not work for me (probably because it was too far back in time, and I included WAY too much information). But you could try it. Just include brief details of as much information as you are willing to share. For example: ‘I was born in Gotham City on 1 January 1969′, and my mother’s name was Jane Smith. She doesn’t recall any details about my father, other than he had dark hair, was caucasian, and she thinks he had an American accent. Based on the amount of DNA we share, I believe we share a set of great-grandparents, so I do not believe my father would necessarily be known to you, but any information you can share about your great grandparents would be very helpful. We share a few common DNA matches with each other including Batman, Robin, and TonyTheTiger; if you already know how you match with any of those users, that might help me narrow things down further. Thank you so much in advance.‘
- Some people advocate suggesting your match uploads to Gedmatch, My Heritage or FamilyTreeDNA. My advice is to save this for a future message if your match responds; this is because it’s important you make people aware with the possible implications of uploading their data to Gedmatch or FamilyTreeDNA, and you really don’t want to put your match off responding to you before you’ve even started.
9: Download your raw DNA!
First of all, why might you want to download your raw DNA? We’ll cover that in the next section, but the simple answer is that downloading your raw DNA means you can upload it to other services, so you can either do further analysis, get health information, or upload it to another service including Gedmatch.
Ancestry makes downloading your raw DNA pretty easy. All you need to do, is go to the settings page, by following the same link as outlined above for sharing your DNA test.
On the right hand side of that page, near the top, you should have a sidebar, which has an area that looks like this:
Click the button to download your raw data. A confirmation pop up will appear, which asks you to enter your Ancestry password, and will prompt you to confirm you understand that you will be responsible for what happens to that raw DNA file. There’s also a link to the terms and conditions and privacy information, so you should familiarise yourself with those, as well.
Once you’ve confirmed this, there is still a further step (they want you to be really sure about this!). Ancestry will send you an email with a link to download your raw DNA data. In that email, there will be a big green button for you to press to get to the raw data download page (finally!):
Press the download button, and you’re finally on your way; your DNA file should now be in your downloads folder.
10: What to do with your raw DNA when you’ve downloaded it
So you’ve downloaded it, now what? This could probably be a blog post all by itself, but I’ll try and keep it short and sweet; here’s a list of things you might want to do with your raw DNA:
- Upload it to My Heritage so you can take advantage of their match database
- Upload it to FamilyTreeDNA so you can take advantage of their match database as well (be sure you are comfortable with the fact that FamilyTreeDNA now allows Law Enforcement to use its database to help identify perpetrators of serious crime, and unidentified bodies, who may or may not be victims of serious crime).
- Upload it to Gedmatch (again, be aware that Law Enforcement and agencies working with Law Enforcement, such as Parabon and the DNA Doe Project have permission to use the database to help identify perpetrators of serious crime, and unidentified bodies, who may or may not be victims of serious crime).
- If you have British roots, upload your raw DNA to LivingDNA as well. The Matching database is in its infancy, but will eventually populate, and in time, you’ll also be able to upgrade your results to get an ethnicity profile.
- Interested in health information? Try uploading to Promethease.
- There are a number of different providers offering nutrition and health type information based on your DNA. I can’t recommend any of them as I haven’t used them personally (this is not an area of interest or knowledge for me!), but if you want an overview of a few, do check the ISOGG page at https://isogg.org/wiki/Raw_DNA_data_tools.