The 23andMe Transition – First Step November 11th

If you tested through 23andMe, certainly by now you know they are undergoing a rather dramatic facelift and change of how their webpage, tools and matching works.

What’s Changing?

After November 11th, many changes will occur and many matches will no longer be available to you, especially if they are anonymous or use a nickname.  Here is a complete list of what will and will not be available.

The genetic genealogy community is struggling to understand exactly what this means to us, in terms of matches and functionality – both lost and gained.  Suffice it to say that a lot of confusion remains, so be on the safe side and download both your individual match list and your COA (Countries of Ancestry) matches if you utilize those.

Countries of Ancestry Matches

I recently discovered that many people don’t know about COA, so here is some brief information so you can utilize this information before it’s too late.

The Countries of Ancestry feature was meant to allow you to see where your matches’ ancestors are from if all 4 of their grandparents were born in the same place.  The idea being that if all 4 grandparents were born in the same place, then the family lines likely run deep there – and perhaps your ancestors were born there too.  For more information, sign on to your 23andMe account, go to Countries of Ancestry, and click on the “see how this works” link.

23andme change 1

To download your individual match ancestry and segment information, go to Ancestry Tools, Countries of Ancestry, and click on the blue button below your chromosome map.

To download the information for your matches, click on the down arrow in the box with your name, and you will see your matches information which is available for download.

23andme change1

The benefit of COA information was that Anonymous individuals’ information was available to you – and it is beneficial to know that you match someone on a particular chromosome whose 4 grandparents were all born in Ireland, for example.

23andme change 2

Additional Information

When I signed on recently, this message, below was waiting for me and provides additional information.  But remember, whatever you are going to do in preparation – do it now, before November 11th.  It’s somewhat uncertain exactly what will and will not be available after that date.  It’s also uncertain what “partially available” means.  Better safe than sorry – so download anything you want now.  You may not able to do so later.

As part of the updates and transition to the new 23andMe, many features will be undergoing significant changes. While we are working to transition customers to the new site, some changes will have an immediate impact on the customer experience in the current 23andMe site, including introductions in DNA Relatives.

To provide some context for the changes to DNA Relatives introductions, it may be helpful to review what purpose introductions served in the current DNA Relatives; namely, introductions brokered communication between anonymous participants and allowed participants to remain anonymous during communication.

In the new 23andMe, anonymous participation in DNA Relatives will no longer be an option. To support this change, several things will happen in the existing DNA Relatives starting November 11, 2015:

* Customers currently using nicknames in DNA Relatives will be converted to anonymous In order to access and participate in the new DNA Relatives, customers will select how to display their profile name or initials; “nicknames” will no longer be an option. If your current settings in DNA Relatives are “Show me as [ Nickname ]” instead of “Show me as [ Profile Name ]” on November 11 this setting will revert to “Keep me anonymous.”

Your profile name may still be an alias or a name of your choosing; for more information about when a legal name is required, see

* Anonymous participants can no longer send or receive introductions The introduction system is what allowed messages to be exchanged anonymously. Copying pending introductions as messages in the new DNA Relatives would expose the names of participants who had been anonymous.

* Pending introductions will be canceled Both incoming and outgoing introductions will be deleted from your inbox.

We realize that canceling pending introductions will have a significant impact for some customers. To date, a pending introduction would keep a match on your list indefinitely so pending introductions allowed members to view and maintain matches beyond the cap of 1 thousand. There are several additional DNA Relatives updates that should help mitigate the cancellation of introductions:

First, the cap on the number of matches that will be available in DNA Relatives is being raised. We expect to be able to provide each customer with their closest 2 thousand matches, which is double the current cap.

Second, we are introducing an Open Sharing option within DNA Relatives. If 2 customers both choose to participate in Open Sharing, they will be able to view one another’s ancestry and segment information without extending and accepting a sharing invitation.

Third, anonymous participation in DNA Relatives will no longer be an option. Currently anonymous customers who wish to continue participating in the feature will need to select new settings (although until they do they will remain as an anonymous match). Participation in DNA Relatives also includes messaging tools, and any participant can send a message to any other participant.

When customers transition to the new 23andMe, the following will apply:

* Any established sharing settings will be maintained.  This will not affect any sharing connections; if you are sharing genomes with another member, that will remain in place.

* Accepted introductions will be saved.  The content of messages for introductions that have been accepted will be copied over to the updated messaging system in the new DNA Relatives.

* Currently anonymous customers who wish to continue participating in the feature will need to select new settings. Until they do they will remain anonymous.

23andMe to Get a Makeover After Agreement with FDA

Today’s e-mail contained a message from 23andMe announcing that they have obtained partial FDA approval.  Not approval to continue what they were doing, apparently, but approval to provide some carrier status (for 36 genetic disorders), wellness and trait reports to participants.  Here’s the e-mail:

FDA 23andMe 1FDA 23andMe 2

You can read their new privacy statement here and new terms of service here.

This new functionality, replacing the old and current functionality requires a web site redesign.  Now, given that the genetic genealogy community has been begging for some functional changes for years now, this could be the silver lining to the cloud.

Sure enough, when I signed in, it says a new experience is coming.  I hope they have taken the many suggestions provided by the genetic genealogy community to heart when doing the redesign.

FDA 23andMe New Experience

Here’s a link to the FAQ.

Not everything currently available will be included in the new version.  For a comprehensive list, check here.

If you tested before the FDA shutdown in December of 2013, which happened just about concurrently with the release of their V4 chip, although the two events were unrelated, you may not qualify for all of the new reports.  It appears that you may need to upgrade to the new V4 chip platform.  23andMe states that US customers won’t have to pay anything extra for the new reports, but they don’t say that upgrading to the V4 chip would be free.  They also don’t address international customers.  I’ll guess we’ll find out.

FDA 23andMe New Reports

Now for the bad news, at least for people who have been using 23andMe for family type autosomal projects.  The price of testing increased, not just a little either – but doubled.  It was $99 and it’s now $199, as of today.  The good news – Family Tree DNA and Ancestry are still $99.  A fine way for 23andMe to thank the genetic genealogy community that kept them afloat in the nearly two years since the FDA shut down their medical and health reporting.

I think, in terms of genealogists and genealogy testing, they just shot themselves in the foot.

A Bloomberg Business article here discusses more about the new offering, including the following statement:

“The revamped test also will feed data into 23andMe’s new drug-discovery unit, led by Genentech Inc. veteran Richard Scheller. Along with gathering genetic information, 23andMe also surveys its customers on their physical traits and symptoms. By developing this unique database, the company hopes to gain a better understanding of how genes drive disease, leading to new drug targets. Out of 1 million customers, more than 80 percent have consented to participate in research, 23andMe has said.”

Clearly, the real 23andMe interest is not and has never been in genetic genealogy, but in gathering the DNA of participants to sell and utilize to design and discover drugs that are assuredly, not going to be available for free or discounted prices to those genetic genealogists who agreed to provide their DNA and other information “for research purposes.”  I have to wonder how many people realize that’s what they have done and that’s what they are doing every time they answer one of the front and center surveys on the 23andMe site.

For a long time, I think people who tested at 23andMe thought of “medical research” as the type of research involved with the Michael J. Fox Foundation which is nonprofit.  In fact, 23andMe is affiliated with this organization and has published articles including Michael in 2012.  Given that, I was uncomfortable when 23andMe patented a gene having to do with Parkinson’s Disease.

However, subsequent articles that announced that 23andMe had patented the technology for designer babies made it abundantly clear, at least to me, that the 23andMe medical interest was not altruistic as I had once believed.

You can opt out of their research, at least partially.  Your genetic information is still used in an anonymized aggregated fashion.  There is no complete opt-out, as best I could tell in either the old or new terms of service and privacy policy.

In any event, change is afoot and we’ll see the new version of the 23andMe website by the end of the year, according to Anne Wojcicki’s e-mail announcement.  Let’s hope that there is an improved genealogy matching experience.  Let’s also hope they make it unmistakably clear to customers, both old and new, that they are going to use their genetic information for high-stakes profit-making ventures and give us a way to opt out of the research aspect entirely without being penalized.

Ethnicity Testing and Results

I have written repeatedly about ethnicity results as part of the autosomal test offerings of the major DNA testing companies, but I still receive lots of questions about which ethnicity test is best, which is the most accurate, etc.  Take a look at “Ethnicity Percentages – Second Generation Report Card” for a detailed analysis and comparison.

First, let’s clarify which testing companies we are talking about.  They are:

Let’s make this answer unmistakable.

  1. Some of the companies are somewhat better than others relative to ethnicity – but not a lot.
  2. These tests are reasonably reliable when it comes to a continent level test – meaning African, European, Asian and sometimes, Native American.
  3. These tests are great at detecting ancestry over 25% – but if you know who your grandparents are – you already have that information.
  4. The usefulness of these tests for accurately providing ethnicity information diminishes as the percentage of that minority admixture declines.  Said another way – as your percentage of a particular ethnicity decreases, so does the testing companies’ ability to find it.
  5. Intra-continental results, meaning within Europe, for example, are speculative, at best.  Do not expect them to align with your known genealogy.  They likely won’t – and if they do at one vendor – they won’t at others.  Which one is “right”?  Who knows – maybe all of them when you consider population movement, migration and assimilation.
  6. As the vendors add to and improve their data bases, reference populations and analysis tools, your results change. I discussed how vendors determine your ethnicity percentages in the article, “Determining Ethnicity Percentages.”
  7. Sometimes unexpected results, especially continent level results, are a factor of ancient population mixing and migrations, not recent admixture – and it’s impossible to tell the difference. For example, the Celts, from the Germanic area of Europe also settled in the British Isles. Attila the Hun and his army, from Asia, invaded and settled in what is today, Germany, as well as other parts of Eastern Europe.
  8. Ethnicity tests are unreliable in consistently detecting minority admixture. Minority in this context means a small amount, generally less than 5%.  It does not refer to any specific ethnicity. Having said that, there are very few reference data base entries for Native American populations.  Most are from from Canada and South America.

In the context of ethnicity, what does unreliable mean?

Unreliable means that the results are not consistent and often not reproducible across platforms, especially in terms of minority admixture.  For example, a German/Hungarian family member shows Native American admixture at low percentages, around 3%, at some, but not all, vendors.  His European family history does not reflect Native heritage and in fact, precludes it.  However, his results likely reflect Native American from a common underlying ancestral population, the Yamnaya, between the Asian people who settled Hungary and parts of Germany and also contributed to the Native American population.

Unreliable can also mean that different vendors, measuring different parts of your DNA, can assign results to different regions.  For example, if you carry Celtic ancestry, would you be surprised to see Germanic results and think they are “wrong?”  Speaking of Celts, they didn’t just stay put in one region within Europe either.  And who were the Celts and where did they ‘come from’ before they were Celts.  All of this current and ancient admixture is carried in your DNA.  Teasing it out and the meaning it carries is the challenge.

Unreliable may also mean that the tests often do not reflect what is “known” in terms of family history.  I put the word “known” in quotes here, because oral history does not constitute “known” and it’s certainly not proof.  For the most part, documented genealogy does constitute “known” but you can never “know” about an undocumented adoption, also referred to as a “nonparental event” or NPE.  Yes, that’s when one or both parents are not who you think they are based on traditional information.  With the advent of DNA testing, NPEs can, in some instances, be discovered.

So, the end result is that you receive very interesting information about your genetic history that often does not correlate with what you expected – and you are left scratching your head.

However, in some cases, if you’re looking for something specific – like a small amount of Native American or African ancestry, you, indeed, can confirm it through your DNA – and can confirm your family history.  One thing is for sure, if you don’t test, you will never know.

Minority Admixture

Let’s take a look at how ethnicity estimates work relative to minority admixture.

In terms of minority admixture, I’m referring to admixture that is several generations back in your tree.  It’s often revealed in oral history, but unproven, and people turn to genetic genealogy to prove those stories.

In my case, I have several documented Native American lines and a few that are not documented.  All of these results are too far back in time, the 1600s and 1700s, to realistically be “found” in autosomal admixture tests consistently.  I also have a small amount of African admixture.  I know which line this comes from, but I don’t know which ancestor, exactly.  I have worked through these small percentages systematically and documented the process in the series titled, “The Autosomal Me.”  This is not an easy or quick process – and if quick and easy is the type of answer you’re seeking – then working further, beyond what the testing companies give you, with small amounts of admixture, is probably not for you.

Let’s look at what you can expect in terms of inheritance admixture.  You receive 50% of your DNA from each parent, and so forth, until eventually you receive very little DNA (or none) from your ancestors from many generations back in your tree.

Ethnicity DNA table

Let’s put this in perspective.  The first US census was taken in 1790, so your ancestors born in 1770 should be included in the 1790 census, probably as a child, and in following censuses as an adult.  You carry less than 1% of this ancestor’s DNA.

The first detailed census listing all family members was taken in 1850, so most of your ancestors that contributed more than 1% of your DNA would be found on that or subsequent detailed census forms.

These are often not the “mysterious” ancestors that we seek.  These ancestors, whose DNA we receive in amounts over 1%, are the ones we can more easily track through traditional means.

The reason the column of DNA percentages is labeled “approximate” is because, other than your parents, you don’t receive exactly half of your ancestor’s DNA.  DNA is not divided exactly in half and passed on to subsequence generations, except for what you receive from your parents.  Therefore, you can have more or less of any one ancestor’s individual DNA that would be predicted by the chart, above.  Eventually, as you continue to move further out in your tree, you may carry none of a specific ancestor’s DNA or it is in such small pieces that it is not detected by autosomal DNA testing.

The Vendors

At least two of the three major vendors have made changes of some sort this year in their calculations or underlying data bases.  Generally, they don’t tell us, and we discover the change by noticing a difference when we look at our results.

Historically, Ancestry has been the worst, with widely diverging estimates, especially within continents.  However, their current version is picking up both my Native and African.  However, with their history of inconsistency and wildly inaccurate results, it’s hard to have much confidence, even when the current results seem more reasonable and in line with other vendors.  I’ve adopted a reserved “wait and see” position with Ancestry relative to ethnicity.

Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder product is in the middle with consistent results, but they don’t report less than 1% admixture which is often where those distant ancestors’ minority ethnicity would be found, if at all.  However, Family Tree DNA does provide Y and mitochondrial mapping comparisons, and ethnicity comparisons to your matches that are not provided by other vendors.

Ethnicity DNA matches

In this view, you can see the matching ethnicity percentages for those whom you match autosomally.

23andMe is currently best in terms of minority ethnicity detection, in part, because they report amounts less than 1%, have a speculative view, which is preferred by most genetic genealogists and because they paint your ethnicity on your chromosomes, shown below.  You can see that both chromosome 1 and 2 show Native segments.

Ethnicity 23andMe chromosome

So, looking at minority admixture only – let’s take a look at today’s vendor results as compared to the same vendors in May 2014.

Ethnicity 2014-2015 compare

The Rest of the Story

Keep in mind, we’re only discussing ethnicity here – and there is a lot more to autosomal DNA testing than ethnicity – for example – matching to cousins, tools, such as a chromosome browser (or lack thereof), trees, ease of use and ability to contact your matches.  Please see “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?”  Unless ethnicity is absolutely the ONLY reason you are DNA testing, then you need to consider the rest of the story.

And speaking of the rest of the story, National Geographic has been pretty much omitted from this discussion because they have just announced a new upgrade, “Geno 2.0: Next Generation,” to their offering, which promises to be a better biogeographical tool.  I hope so – as National Geographic is in a unique position to evaluate populations with their focus on sample collection from what is left of unique and sometimes isolated populations.  We don’t have much information on the new product yet, and of course, no results because the new test won’t be released until in September, 2015.  So the jury is out on this one.  Stay tuned.

GedMatch – Not A Vendor, But a Great Toolbox

Finally, most people who are interested in ethnicity test at one (or all) of the companies, utilize the rest of the tools offered by that company, then download their results to, a donation based site, and make use of the numerous contributed admixture tools there.

Ethnicity GedMatch

GedMatch offers lots of options and several tools that provide a wide range of focus.  For example, some tools are specifically written for European, African, Asian or even comparison against ancient DNA results.

Ethnicity ancient admixture


So what is the net-net of this discussion?

  1. There is a lot more to autosomal DNA testing than just ethnicity – so take everything into consideration.
  2. Ethnicity determination is still an infant and emerging field – with all vendors making relatively regular updates and changes. You cannot take minority results to the bank without additional and confirming research, often outside of genetic genealogy. However, mitochondrial or Y DNA testing, available only through Family Tree DNA, can positively confirm Native or minority ancestry in the lines available for testing. You can create a DNA Pedigree Chart to help identify or eliminate Native lines.
  3. If the ancestors you seek are more than a few generations removed, you may not carry enough of their ethnic DNA to be identified.
  4. Your “100% Cherokee” ancestor was likely already admixed – and so their descendants may carry even less Native DNA than anticipated.
  5. You cannot prove a negative using autosomal DNA (but you can with both Y and mitochondrial DNA). In other words, a negative autosomal ethnicity result alone, meaning no Native heritage, does NOT mean your ancestors were not Native. It MIGHT mean they weren’t Native. It also might mean that they were either very admixed or the Native ancestry is too far back in your tree to be found with today’s technology. Again, mitochondrial and Y DNA testing provide confirmed ancestry identification for the lines they represent. Y is the male paternal (surname) line and mitochondrial is the matrilineal line of both males and females – the mother’s, mother’s, mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.
  6. It is very unlikely that you will be able to find your tribe, although it is occasionally possible. If a company says they can do this, take that claim with a very big grain of salt. Your internal neon warning sign should be flashing about now.
  7. If you’re considering purchasing an ethnicity test from a company other than the four I mentioned – well, just don’t.  Many use very obsolete technology and oversell what they can reliably provide.  They don’t have any better reference populations available to them than the major companies and Nat Geo, and let’s just say there are ways to “suggest” people are Native when they aren’t. Here are two examples of accidental ways people think they are Native or related – so just imagine what kind of damage could be done by a company that was intentionally providing “marginal” or misleading information to people who don’t have the experience to know that because they “match” someone who has a Native ancestor doesn’t mean they share that same Native ancestor – or any connection to that tribe. So, stay with the known companies if you’re going to engage in ethnicity testing. We may not like everything about the products offered by these companies, but we know and understand them.

My Recommendation

By all means, test.

Test with all three companies, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry – then download your results from either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry (who test more markers than 23andMe) to GedMatch and utilize their ethnicity tools.  When I’m looking for minority admixture, I tend to look for consistent trends – not just at results from any one vendor or source.

If you have already tested at Ancestry, or you tested at 23andMe on the V3 chip, prior to December 2013, you can download your raw data file to Family Tree DNA and pay just $39.  Family Tree DNA will process your raw data within a couple days and you will then see your myOrigins ethnicity results as interpreted by their software.  Of course, that’s in addition to having access to Family Tree DNA’s other autosomal features, functions and tools.  The transfer price of $39 is significantly less expensive than retesting.

Just understand that what you receive from these companies in terms of ethnicity is reflective of both contemporary and ancient admixture – from all of your ancestral lines.  This field is in its infancy – your results will change from time to time as we learn – and the only part of ethnicity that is cast in concrete is probably your majority ancestry which you can likely discern by looking in the mirror.  The rest – well – it’s a mystery and an adventure.  Welcome aboard to the miraculous mysterious journey of you, as viewed through the DNA of your ancestors!

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success


In the first part of this two part series, Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?, we talked about the different kinds of things you can do when you receive your autosomal DNA test results from either Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe.  There are, in general, 4 types of goals that people have when they test their autosomal DNA – if they have any specific goals:

  1. I want to meet people I’m related to.
  2. I want to confirm my genealogy is correct.
  3. I want to find new ancestors.
  4. I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors.

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what is possible – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

Because of the different ways the various vendors have implemented their DNA matching software, there are different reasons why you might want to contact your matches.


At 23andMe, you cannot send messages to your matches or share your matching DNA segments unless you obtain permission from each match to first communicate with them and then to share matching DNA segments, which can be one or two separate permissions.  23andMe has an internal messaging system that facilitates you sending a permission request to your matches.  Personalized messages work best.  If permission is granted, you can then begin a dialogue about common ancestors and how you might match that person.

Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, you are provided with the e-mail address of everyone that you match within each person’s privacy selections.  Participants can upload their GEDCOM files, create family trees and enter a list of ancestral surnames.  You can search by current or ancestral surname.  The most common reason to contact someone you match at Family Tree DNA is if you are a match to them and they have not uploaded or created a family tree.


Ancestry also uses an internal messaging system.  The most common reason to contact a DNA match at Ancestry is if you match someone, and especially if you share a shakey leaf hint with them, meaning you have a common ancestor in your trees – but your match’s tree is private and you can’t see who that common ancestor might be.


If you upload your results to, a free (donation based) site, you can then match your results to people who tested at all 3 companies – if they also have uploaded their results.  People provide their e-mails when uploading and configuring their accounts at GedMatch.  People who use GedMatch are often the most excited and “into” autosomal DNA matching and therefore, the most likely to contact matches.

Regardless of where you are matching, it’s important to make that first communication attempt count.  At 23andMe, if your match declines contact, you can’t communicate with them.  If they don’t reply, you can delete that first contact attempt and try again, but your attempts are limited – so you really do have to make them count.

Here are some helpful hints and approaches that do and don’t work well.  Your goal is to obtain a helpful response, so you want to position yourself in the best possible light to get that response.

A faux pas may kill your chances, so let’s start out with what not to do, and why, then we’ll look at how to make your communications a winner!


  • Don’t send group e-mails to everyone you match saying, “Hi, we all match. Can you tell me how?” Guess what? You won’t get many or any replies and you’ll have irritated all of your matches in one fell swoop. This is considered DNA spamming. Think about what you are writing before you press that send button.
  • Don’t say things like this to people: “Hi, I’m guessing (or hoping) that you’ve mapped your (or your cousin’s) chromosomes and you can just tell me how we are related.” When I told this person I have not mapped my cousin’s chromosomes – they had the bad judgment to ask me when I might get around to it.
  • Don’t provide just a few surnames and ask if they are related. Most of your matches will be more than 2 or 3 generations back in the tree, so the answer is likely going to be “no,” or no answer at all.
  • Don’t offer to send them an ancestry invite. That means they have to sort through your entire tree to find a match, AND Ancestry will attach your tree to their list forever. Give the e-mail recipient something to work with in the e-mail itself. Don’t make your problem their problem or they won’t reply. The more work they have to do to reply, the less chance they will.
  • Don’t send multiple e-mails with dribs and drabs of information in each one. If you have something to share, put it together logically and concisely in an e-mail and send one.
  • Don’t assume that someone of a different ethnicity isn’t related to you.
  • Don’t assume a particular surname is indicative of a person’s entire genealogical background.
  • Don’t convey an entitlement attitude. Remember, you are asking them to take a few minutes of their time to help you.
  • Don’t assume that all of your matches are from the US, or that English is their primary language – so use full state names and locations. The good news is that more and more people are testing from around the world.
  • Don’t send messages in all caps.
  • Don’t send messages with misspellings, incorrect grammar or abbreviated texting language. Translated, this means your phone or i-pad with autocorrect is probably not a good idea.
  • Don’t send the entire request in the title of the message. Yes, people do this.
  • Don’t send a message with a title like “hi there.”  It’s likely to go to the spam folder or be over looked or ignored.  Instead, title each message with the name of the test, the testing company and whose DNA you are writing about.  In other words, something like this: “Autosomal DNA Match at Family Tree DNA to John Doe”
  • Don’t just send the “canned” request message at 23andMe. Send a personal note. If you have an online tree, include that link. If you notice you have ancestors from the same part of the world, or country, tell them. If you match their DNA, tell them. Some people send match requests because they notice a common surname. In other words, try to find some common ground to start a conversation.
  • Don’t dash off a hurried, half-baked, partially complete message.  It shows and will be reflected in the responses you do, and don’t, receive.
  • Don’t expect others to do your work for you.  Recently, I received a match contact and when I asked the sender for the name of the person they matched, they told me they couldn’t remember, they had sent out a “mass mailing,” and asked me to check my kits and see if there were matches to them.  Seriously?  They also didn’t tell me the testing company name, nor the test type.  Three e-mails later, I still don’t know the name of the person they matched.  Guess what.  Delete!  Make it easy for your matches to help you and don’t waste their time by only providing partial information.


  • Read your matches profiles if they have provided one. It shows you took the time to read what they provided, and may give you some common ground out the door. “I see we both have ancestors from the Netherlands,” is a good icebreaker, for example.
  • Address the e-mail to the person using their name if it’s available. In other words, begin, “Hi Joe” not just “Hi.” Do not assume a gender. Names can be deceiving. My name is not deceiving, Roberta, but I can’t tell you how many e-mails I receive to Robert or “Mr. Estes.” This tells me they didn’t pay attention.
  • Do use capital letters and punctuation.  Otherwise, you’re telling the person on the receiving end they aren’t important enough to bother with – and they will likely treat your request in kind.
  • Enter information about yourself in your profile at the vendors, including your country of origin.
  • Upload a photo of yourself into your profile at the vendor so that people can see you. This makes you seem more like a real person and they may look at you for family resemblance. Probably shouldn’t upload a photo that might be controversial or off-putting if your goal is to maximize response.
  • Link your tree to your DNA results (Ancestry) or upload a Gedcom file (Family Tree DNA.) 23andMe is more challenging since their collaboration with My Heritage which is a subscription service. Most people simply put a link to their public tree someplace in their profile information at 23andMe.
  • Provide your name and kit number or other identifying information in all correspondence – including the first e-mail.
  • Include kit numbers (GedMatch) and/or names (Family Tree DNA) that you’re matching. Many people manage multiple kits for family members and if they have to go and look for you in their kits’ matches, they won’t.  Don’t make the recipient have to guess at any part of the equation.  Say something like this, “Hi, I match John Smith’s autosomal DNA test at Family Tree DNA and you are his e-mail contact…”
  • Tell them where you tested and where you are matching them. “Hi, I tested at Ancestry and downloaded by kit to GedMatch where I’m kit number A100007. I’m matching kit F9141, Jane Doe, where you are listed as the contact.”  Be sure to get the name of the testing company right.  Today, someone told me the test was through “Family Search,” who, of course, does not do DNA testing.
  • If you are matching on a Y or mitochondrial DNA test, tell them at what level you’re matching.  Otherwise, they have to search through each level to find you.  On mitochondrial DNA, if you and they both tested to the full sequence level, but you’re only matching on the HVR1 level, it’s not nearly as compelling or interesting as if you match at the full sequence level with no mutations difference.  So, tell them, “I’m a match to John Doe at Family Tree DNA at the full mitochondrial level, with no mutations difference.  Maybe we can find our common ancestor.  My direct mitochondrial line is….”
  • If you are matching at GedMatch and you lowered the match threshold from the default, tell them. Better yet, don’t lower the threshold, at least not for initial comparisons.
  • Make replying to your query as easy as possible. You stand a much better chance of getting a reply. The more work you make them do, the less chance you’ll get a reply.
  • Include your full name and e-mail address if you are using Ancestry’s or 23andMe’s message systems.
  • Get your facts straight. I recently received an e-mail from someone who told me that we matched on 21% of our DNA and one segment. I knew that was impossible because 21% is in the half sibling range and if you’re a half sibling – you will match on a whole lot more than one segment. If you don’t pay attention and get your facts straight, it’s less likely that the person you are contacting will take you seriously.
  • Accept contact requests if you tested at 23andMe and receive a contact or sharing request, and be sure to share genomes so that you can see how you match and use their comparison tools like their Family Inheritance: Advanced.
  • Include a very brief, maybe two sentence summary about yourself in contact requests. Something like. “It appears we may match on my father’s side which is primarily from Appalachia, which means they were Scotch-Irish and British before that” or “My maternal heritage is from Scandinavia, so the names may not look familiar to you. My mother’s family is from the area near Stockholm.” Do not tell them your life story or ramble. You’ll lose them.
  • Send a pedigree chart (preferably with an index) in pdf format if you’re using e-mail or a link to a tree. I have a pedigree chart for my mother’s side and my father’s side. I can tell which side they match because my mother has tested as well. One of the best tools I have ever received with a query is shown below. It was sent as a spreadsheet, which made it incredibly easy for me to sort, but wouldn’t work for everyone. It could be sent as a pdf file as well, and is very easy to scan for surnames and locations. I immediately liked this person and absolutely knew they were serious and we stood a chance of making a genealogy connection.  (Click on the image to make larger in a separate window.)

ancestor spreadsheet

  • Take the time to learn about autosomal DNA, matching and what it means. Aside from the many articles on this blog which you can find by using the key search word “autosomal,” here are four additional resources for you:

Genetic Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond by Emily Aulicino
NextGen Genealogy: The DNA Connection by David Dowell
DNA Adoption’s classes
Beginners Guide to Genetic Genealogy by Kelly Wheaton

  • If you’re adopted or searching for an unknown parents or grandparent, visit
  • If you have a blog or genealogy webpage, include that information, maybe below your signature.
  • If you’re serious about maximizing your opportunities for success with genetic genealogy, you’ll want to test at all 3 companies, Family Tree DNA (Y, mtDNA and autosomal), Ancestry and 23andMe. Family Tree DNA facilitates reduced cost file transfers from Ancestry and from 23andMe if you tested before Dec. 2013 (when 23andMe changed their chip.) They all have their strong and weak points – but the bottom line is that you’ll want to fish in all three ponds. You’ll also want to download your results from one of those companies, preferably Family Tree DNA or Ancestry, to, a site that facilitates comparison of data from the various companies and provides some great tools. GedMatch is a contribution site, so don’t forget to donate. Some of their Tier 1 tools require a minimal subscription of $10 a month, which is well worth it if you are serious. Ask your matches if they have downloaded their data to GedMatch and provide your kit number there.
  • Be courteous and gracious. Say please and thank you. You’d be amazed how many people say neither.
  • Share this article with eager newbies who need a little direction. Most newbies aren’t going to find this article before shooting off that e-mail in their initial excitement to an entire group of matches. By helping them to better focus their efforts, you’ll be helping yourself too. Most newbies have no idea what they’ve just gotten themselves into!

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to contributors in the ISOGG Facebook group for helping to flesh out these tips for success.

Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – What Now?

When I first started this blog, my goal was to provide explanations and examples of genetic genealogy topics so that there would be fewer questions and easier answers.

That sounded like a great idea, but the reality of the situation is that the consumer market for autosomal DNA testing has exploded – meaning more and more consumers with more and more questions.  Compounding that situation, the consumers who purchase these tests today, especially on impulse, and mostly I’m referring to here, often have absolutely no idea what to expect or even what they want except that Ancestry will find their ancestors for them.  That’s because that’s what Ancestry tells them in their advertising.

So, in the big picture, the questions and inquiries that experienced people are currently receiving are becoming less specific and more general and often exhibit a lack of understanding of what DNA testing can do.  It’s frustrating to parties on both sides of the fence, but I’m glad people are asking because it means they are interested and willing to learn.

Rather than approach this topic from a technical perspective of how to work with autosomal DNA, I’d like to talk about what can be done with autosomal DNA testing from a newbie perspective.  The person who just got their results back and are saying to themselves, “OK, now what can I do with this?”

However, there is lots “how to” information in this article for everyone if you click on the links.  If nothing else, this gives you a tool to send to those overly excited newbies who are starry eyed but have no clue how to proceed.  Remember, you were once new too!

This is part 1 of a two part series.  The second part will focus on how to make contact with your matches successfully.  But now, let’s pretend it’s day 1 and you just got your autosomal test results back.

Why Did You Test?

The first question to ask yourself is why did you test in the first place?  If your answer is “because Ancestry had a sale,” that’s fine, but then you’ll need to read all four options to know what you can do with autosomal DNA.

1.  I want to meet other people I’m related to.

Ok, but the first thing here you’re going to have to define is the word “related.”  You are likely related to everyone on your match list.  I said likely, because there may be some people there whose DNA simply matches yours by chance.  For the most part, and especially for those people who are your closest matches, you’re related somehow. The challenge, of course, is to figure out how – meaning through which ancestor.  This is the genealogy jigsaw puzzle of you!

All three of the major vendors, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe show you your closest matches first on your match list.

autosomal 101 FTDNA

Do you want to meet your DNA cousins only if you can identify a common ancestor?  Do you want to work with them on genealogy? The answers to these questions will help sort through the rest of what to do and how.

If your goal is to contact your matches, then Family Tree DNA is the easiest, as they provide you with the e-mail addresses of your matches by clicking on the little envelope for each match on your match page, shown above.

Ancestry is second easiest, but forces you to use their internal message system which often doesn’t deliver the messages.  (Do not send more than 30 in one day or Ancestry will blacklist your messages and block your communications, thinking you are a spammer.)

23andMe is the most difficult as you have to request permission to communicate with each match and also to share DNA and if your match authorizes communication, then you can communicate through 23andMe’s message system.  Sound cumbersome?  It is and the response rate is low.

Confirming Genealogy

Let’s look at another reason for testing.

2.  I want to confirm my genealogy is correct – meaning that my great-grandfather really is my great-grandfather and so forth on up the line.

Well, you’re in luck, especially if some of your cousins, known or otherwise, have tested.  Confirming your genealogy is easier done in closer generations than more distant ones and the more cousins from various lines that have tested, the better.  That’s because you will share more of your DNA with relatives when you have a close common ancestor.

Autosomal DNA is divided approximately in half in each generation, when the child receives half of their DNA from each parent – so the closer your cousin, the more likely you are to share more DNA with them.  The more DNA you share, the more likely you are to be able to identify which ancestor it comes from.  And if a match matches you and your proven cousin both on the same segment, that identifies positively which line that match comes from.  That three way matching is called triangulation.

Let’s talk about the word “confirm.”  Herein lies a challenge, because DNA does have the absolute ability to confirm ancestors, as noted above.  DNA also has the ability to give you hints that go towards a “preponderance of evidence.”  DNA, can also lead you astray if you draw erroneous conclusions – and one vendor provides a tool (or tools) that encourages overstepping conclusions.  Let’s look at each circumstance.

Proof Positive through Triangulation

Just what it says – absolutely unquestionable proof that a particular ancestor is your ancestor.  If you match two other people who also descend from your common ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, on the same segment of DNA, that is confirmation that you share that ancestor and that segment of your DNA is considered proven to that ancestral line.  This requires two things.  First, that your DNA matches on the same segment AND that you have identified the same ancestors, Joe and Jane Doe, genealogically in your trees.

Now, you probably can’t tell which side of the couple, Jane or Joe, the DNA is from unless you also match two people on just Jane’s side of the family or just Joe’s on that same segment.

One caveat here – counting you and your parent as two of the three people doesn’t work because you and your parents are too close in the tree.  By three people, that would preferably be three people who descend from that couple through three different children.

Here’s an example.


It would also ideally be more than three people, but three is the minimum to form a triangulation group.  In the real world, these matches might not start and end of the same segments as in the example above, but the overlapping portion should be significant

The example above is proof positive, because the three people descend from the same ancestor, through different children, and match on the same chromosome in the same locations.

This technique is called triangulation.

Now for the bad news – you can’t do this at, because they don’t provide you with any of the segment information in the last 5 columns.  Ancestry has no chromosome browser, which is the tool that shows you where on your DNA you match your cousins.

Family Tree DNA’s chromosome display tool that is part of their chromosome browser is shown below.

Two cousins browser

On the example above, you can see that Barbara Jean Long, the black background person on the chromosome graphic, is being compared to her two first cousins, the blue and orange on the chromosome graphic.

You can download the information from Family Tree DNA or 23andMe in spreadsheet format, or you can display the information graphically, like in the example above.  You can see the “stacked” locations where both the cousins match the black background person they are being compared to.  You can also see that there are some locations where only one of the cousins matches the background person, like on chromosome 20.  And of course, some locations where neither cousin matches the background person, like on chromosome 21.

If you download that data, the information gives you the locations where the people being compared match the person they are being compared against.

Two cousins combined

The chart above is the download of part of chromosome 1 for Barbara, Cheryl and Donald, siblings who are Barbara’s first cousins.

The areas where the 3 people overlap, or triangulate, are colored in green on the spreadsheet, while the rows entirely in pink or blue do not triangulate – meaning Barbara matches either one cousin or the other, but not both.  Keep in mind that this example only proves their common ancestral couple, which in this case are common grandparents – but the technique is the same no matter which common ancestor you are trying to prove.

This bring us to our next topic, that of close relatives.

Close Relative Matches

I previously said that you can’t use you and a close relative to prove a distant ancestor.  But that’s not necessarily true when the relationship you are trying to prove is closer in time.  The chart below shows the relationships of the example above.

Miller Ferverda chart

In the case shown above, two first cousins who are siblings, Cheryl and Don, are being compared to their common first cousin, Barbara.  Their fathers were siblings and their common ancestors were their grandparents.  This is not 6 generations up a tree where matching is iffy.  You can be expected to match closely with your first cousins where you may not match with more distant cousins, because you simply didn’t inherit any of the same DNA from your distant common ancestor.  You should be sharing about 12.5% of your DNA with first cousins, and if you have first cousins that you’re not matching, that might signal that an undocumented adoption has occurred in one line or the other.

In a case like this, if you and a first cousin match, that suffices to prove a close connection.  If you don’t match, it suffices to raise questions.  A lot of questions.  Big ugly questions.  The next thing to do is to see if any other known cousins have tested and who they match – or don’t match.

For example, if Barbara Ferverda was not the child of John Ferverda, she would not match either Cheryl nor Don, and we’d know there was a problem.  If Cheryl and Don match other Ferverda or Miller relatives and Barbara didn’t, then we’d know the genetic break in the line was on Barbara’s side and not on Cheryl/Don’s side.

This same technique is also how we know which “side” matches are on.  If an unknown match matches both Barbara and Cheryl, for example, it’s a good bet that their common ancestor is someplace in the Miller/Ferverda line.  If they also match another Miller on the same segment, then the common ancestor has been narrowed to the Miller side of the Miller/Ferverda couple.

Unfortunately, not all DNA results are as definitive or easy to prove as these.  Let’s look at some of the more “squishy” results.

Preponderance of Evidence through Aggregated Data

In regular genealogy, there are a range of proofs.  There is direct evidence that someone is the child of an ancestor.  That would be a will, for example, that names a daughter and her husband and maybe even tells where they moved to.  This would be your lucky day!

Think of that will as equivalent to triangulated proof of a common ancestor.  There is just no arguing with the evidence.

If you’re not that lucky, you have to piece the shreds of indirect evidence together to make a story.  In the genealogy world, this is called preponderance of evidence, and I am always, always much less comfortable with this type of evidence than I am with solid proof.

There are various flavors of pieces of evidence in the DNA world. Sometimes we have hints of relationships without proof.

The most common is when you have matches with a group of people who share the same surname, but you can’t get back far enough to find a common ancestor.  Is this a probable match?  Yes?  Guaranteed?  No.  Have I seen them fall apart and the actual match be on another entirely unrelated line?  Yes.  See why I call these squishy?

Ancestry takes this one step further with their DNA Circles.  For a DNA Circle to be created, you must match DNA with someone in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must match DNA with someone else in the Circle AND everyone in the Circle must have a common ancestor in their tree.  Circles begin with a minimum of three people.  Generally, the more people who match AND have the same ancestor, the stronger the likelihood that you would be able to confirmation the common ancestor of the group as your ancestor too – if you had a chromosome browser type of tool.  Still, Circles alone are not and never will be, proof.  Circles are great hints and along with other research, can confirm genealogical research.  For example, my paper genealogy says I descend from Henry Bolton, and I find myself in Henry Bolton’s tree, matching several other Bolton descendants through Henry’s other children.  Those multiple connections pretty well confirms the paper trail is accurate and no undocumented adoptions have occurred in my line.

Now, the bad news….Circles is predicated upon matching of trees.  If there is a common misconception out there that is replicated in these trees, then people who match will be shown in a Circle predicated on bad information.  And, there is no way to know.  However, people interpret the existence of a DNA Circle as proof positive and that it confirms the tree.  Membership in a DNA Circle is absolutely NOT proof of any kind, let alone proof positive – except that your DNA matches the people who you are connected to by lines and their DNA matches the people they are connected to by lines.  You can see my connections in orange below, and the background connections in light grey.

circle henry bolton matches2

This is an example of my Henry Bolton Circle.  I match 5 different people’s DNA (the orange lines) who also show Henry Bolton as their ancestor.  This does NOT mean the match is on the same segment, so it is NOT triangulated.  This is a grouping of data where multiple people match each other, not a genetic triangulation group where everyone matches on the same segment.  In fact there are cases that I have found where the person I match in a circle is through a different line entirely, so in that case, the presumption of which common ancestor our common DNA is from is incorrect.

I want to be very clear, there is nothing wrong with DNA Circles, so far as they go.  The consumer needs to understand what Circles are really saying – and what they can’t and don’t say.  DNA Circles are another important tool in our arsenal.  We just have to be careful not to assume, or presume, more than is there.  Presuming that we match someone in the Circle because we share Henry Bolton’s DNA may in fact be inaccurate.  We may match on a completely unrelated line – but because we do match and share a common ancestor in our tree – we both find ourselves in the Henry Bolton Circle.

Are you reading those squishy words?  Presume – it’s related to the word assume…right???  And keep in mind that Circles are created based in part on those wonderfully accurate Ancestry trees.  Are you feeling good about this preponderance of evidence yet?

However, in my case, I’ve done due diligence with the genealogy and I have all of my proof ducks in a row.  The fact that I do match so many Bolton descendants confirms my work, along with the fact that at the other vendors and at GedMatch, I  have triangulated my matches and proven the Bolton DNA.  So, this circle is valid but the only proof I have is not found at Ancestry or because I’m a Circle member, but by triangulation and aggregated data using other vendor’s tools.

This next screen shot is of an exact triangulated match using GedMatch’s triangulation tool.  Each line shows me matching two cousins, along with the start and stop segments.  This just happens to be the Ferverda example.  So, I match six people, all on the same segment, all with a known common ancestor.  This is proof positive.  Not all “matching” is nearly so definitive.

Gedmatch triangulation

Sometimes the matches aren’t so neat and tidy. That’s when we move to using aggregated data.

Aggregated Data – What’s That?

Aggregated data is a term I’ve come up with because there isn’t any term to fit in today’s genetic genealogy vocabulary.  In essence, aggregated data is when a group of people (who may or may not know who their common ancestor is) match on common segments of data, but not necessarily on the same segments, or not all of the same segments.  When you have an entire group of these people, they form a stair step “right shift” kind of graph.

The interesting part of this is that by utilizing aggregated data and looking not only at who we match, but who our matches match that share a common ancestor, we can gain insight and hints.  Finding a common ancestor is of course a huge benefit in this type of situation because then you’ve identified at least a DNA “line” for the entire group.

If we were to utilize the triangulation tools at Gedmatch and look at my closest triangulated matches, they would look something like this, where the segments that I match with each person (or in this case, two people) shift some to the right.  What you are seeing is the start and stop match locations, with graphing.  Therefore, I match all of these people that have a common ancestor.

Each match overlaps the one above and below to come extent – and often by a lot.  These are known as triangulation groups (TG).

However, the top match and the bottom match do not overlap, so they don’t triangulate with each other.  They are still valid triangulated matches to me and you can expect to see this kind of matching when using aggregated data.

Understand that when you see your triangulation groups at GedMatch, your mother’s side and your father’s side will be intermixed. In this case, I know the common ancestor and I know many of these testers, so I’m positive that this is a valid grouping (plus, they all match my Mom too – the best test of all.)

gedmatch triang group

Here’s another example only showing three matches.  All three are triangulated to me through the same ancestor, but the locations of the top and bottom matches don’t overlap with each other.  Both overlap the one in the middle in part.

gedmatch overlap

New Ancestor Discoveries – Not Evidence at All

Let’s look at the third reason for DNA testing.

3.  I want to find new ancestors.

Discovering brand new ancestors is a bit tougher.

There are two ways to discover new ancestors.  The first is through triangulation combined with traditional genealogy.  I have done this, but in these cases, I did have a clue as to what I was looking for.  In other words, the new ancestor I discovered was actually confirming a wife’s surname or identifying the parents of an ancestor from several potential candidate couples.

The second way to potentially discover a new ancestor is Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries, NADs, which is really a somewhat misleading name.  What Ancestry has determined is that you match a group of people who share a common ancestor – and Ancestry’s leap of faith is that you share that ancestor do too.  While that may not be correct, what IS very relevant is that you do match this group of people who DO share a common lineage and there is an important hint there for you someplace!  But don’t just accept Ancestry’s discovery as your new ancestor – because there is a good chance it isn’t.  Let’s take a look.

Ancestral Lines Through Triangulation

Let’s go back to the John Doe example.


Let’s take the worst case scenario.  You’re an adopted and have no information.  But you match an entire group of people in a triangulated group who DO know the identity of their common ancestor.

Does this mean that John Doe is your ancestor?  No.  John Doe could be your ancestor, or he could be the brother of your ancestor, or the uncle of your ancestor.  What this does tell you is that either John Doe is your ancestor, some of John Doe’s ancestors are your ancestors, or you are extremely unlucky and you are matching this entire group by chance.  The larger the segment, the less likely your match will be by chance.  Over 10 cM you’re pretty safe on an individual match and I think you’re safe with triangulated groups well below 10 cM.

Ancestry’s New Ancestor Discoveries

You can make this same type of discovery at Ancestry, but it’s not nearly as easy as Ancestry implies in their ads and you have no segment data to work with, just their match, shown below.

Larimer NAD

“Just take the test and we’ll find your ancestors,” the ad says.  Well, yes and no and “it depends.”

Ancestry went out on a limb a few months ago, right about April Fools Day, and frankly, they fell off the end of the branch by claiming that New Ancestor Discoveries are your missing ancestors found.  While that is clearly an overly optimistic marketing statement, the concept of matching you with people you match who all share a common ancestor is sound – it was the implementation and hyper-marketing that was flawed.

The premise here is that if you match people in a Circle that have a common ancestor, that you too might, please note the word might, share that ancestor – even if that person is not in your tree.  In other words, even if you don’t know who they are.  Just like the John Doe triangulation example above.

Here is my connection to the Larimer DNA Circle, even though I don’t know of a Larimer ancestor.

Larimer NAD circle

Now, the problem is that you might be related to an ancestor on one side upstream several generations, but it’s manifesting itself as a match to that particular couple because several people of that couple’s descendants have tested.  I’ve shown an example of how this might work below.

common unknown ancestor

In this example, you can see that your true common ancestor is unknown to both groups of people, but it’s not Mary Johnson and John Jones, or in my case, not John and Jane Larimer.

However, three descendants of Mary Johnson and John Jones tested, and you match all three.  If you also showed Mary Johnson and John Jones in your tree, then you’d be in a Circle with them at Ancestry.  However, since Mary Johnson and John Jones are NOT your ancestors, they are not in your tree.  Since you match three of their descendants, Ancestry concludes that indeed, Mary Johnson and John Jones must also be your ancestors.

While NADs are inaccurate about half the time, the fact that you do share DNA with the people in this group is important, because someplace, upstream, it’s likely that you share a common ancestor.  It’s also possible that you match these three people through unconnected ancestors upstream and it’s a fluke that they all three also descend from this couple.  And yes, that does happen, especially when all of the people involved have ancestors from the same region.

The first day that Ancestry rolled the New Ancestor Discoveries, I was assigned a couple that could not possibly be my ancestors.  I called them Bad NADs.

In my experience, there are more erroneous NADs out there than good ones.  I knew my original one was bad, as I had proof positive because I have triangulated my other lines.  Then, one day, my bad NAD was gone and now, a few weeks later, I have another assigned NAD couple that I have not been able to prove or disprove – the Larimers.  Truthfully, after the bad NAD fiasco, I haven’t spent a lot of time or effort because without tools, there is no place to go with this unless the people I match will download their results to GedMatch.  I’m hoping that a new tool to be released soon will help.

Here’s how NADs could be useful.  Let’s say that my Larimer matches download to GedMatch and I discover that they also match a triangulated group from my McDowell line.  Well, guess what – my Michael’s McDowell’s wife is unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  Michael’s mother is also unknown.  Might she be a Larimer?  It gives me a line and a place to begin to work, especially if they share any common geography with my ancestors.

Even if the NADs aren’t my direct ancestors, this is still useful information, because somehow, I probably do connect to these people, even though my hands are somewhat tied.  However, labeling them New Ancestor Discoveries encourages people to jump to highly incorrect conclusions.  This isn’t even in the preponderance of evidence category, let alone proof.  It’s information that you can potentially use with other DNA tools (at GedMatch) and old fashioned genealogy to work on proving a connection to this line.  Nothing more.

So what is the net-net of this? Circles can count in the preponderance of evidence, especially in conjunction with other evidence, but NADs don’t.  Neither are proof.  If we were able to work with the segment data and compare it, we might very well be able to determine more, but Ancestry does not provide a chromosome browser, so we can’t.

Ancestor Chromosome Mapping

4.  I want to map my chromosomes to my ancestors so that I know which of my DNA I inherited from each ancestor.

If this is your DNA testing goal, you certainly did not start by testing with, because they don’t have any tools to help you do this.  This tends to be a goal that people develop after they really understand what autosomal DNA testing can do for them.  In order to map your genome, you have to have access to segment information and you have to triangulate, or prove, the segments to each ancestor.  So count Ancestry out unless you can talk your matches into downloading their raw data files to either GedMatch or Family Tree DNA.  You’ll be testing with both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe and downloading your match information to a spreadsheet and utilizing the tools at and

Just so you get an idea of how much fun this can be, here’s my genome mapped to ancestors a few months ago.  I have more mapped now, but haven’t redone my map utilizing Kitty Cooper’s Tools.

Roberta's ancestor map2

Tips and Tricks for Contact Success

Regardless of which of these goals you had when you tested, or have since developed, now that you know what you can do – most of the options are going to require you to do something – often contacting your matches.

One thing that doesn’t happen is that your new genealogy is not delivered to you gift wrapped and all you have to do is open the box, untie the bow around the scroll, and roll it down the hallway.  That only happens on the genealogy TV shows:)

So join me in a few days for part two of Autosomal DNA Testing 101 – Tips and Tricks for Contact Success.

Autosomal Matchmaking Vendor Comparison

Matchmaker, matchmaker…make me a match.

Indeed, matching is what autosomal DNA for genetic genealogy is all about.  Let’s take a look at the difference between matching at the various vendors and how it affects us as genetic genealogists.

Harold is my third cousin.  We have been genealogy research partners now for about 20 years on our family lines.  Fortunately, both Harold and I have encouraged our cousins and family members to test their DNA – at all 3 testing companies.  We’ve uploaded the results to GedMatch and we’ve matched, compared and triangulated until we’re blue in the face.

Hey, it keeps us off the streets:)

What this does, however, is gives us a very firm foundation to compare results at the different companies and with different tools.

Today, I’m going to take a look at how the matches differ at the different companies and at GedMatch when comparing the same people – and how it affects us as genealogists.

First, the matching thresholds aren’t the same, but we can compensate for that and we can see how the threshold differences affect our actual matches.

The following table shows the vendor autosomal matching thresholds.

Vendor Autosomal Matching Thresholds


At 23and Me, Harold and I share a total of 133.8 cM of DNA and 21,031 SNPs spread across 6 different segments on 5 chromosomes.

Harold Me 23andMe

Family Tree DNA

At Family Tree DNA, Harold and I share 152.44 cM of DNA with 35,774 shared SNPs.

FTDNA Harold Me

Family Tree DNA reports much smaller matching segments than 23andMe and by process of inference, Ancestry.  The chart below shows Harold matching to me at Family Tree DNA.  The green overlay highlights the segments that 23andMe shows for Harold and I as matches.  The non-highlighted rows are shown at Family Tree DNA, but not at 23andMe.

Harold Me FTDNA 23andMe

Family Tree DNA does us the HUGE favor of providing all the actual matching DNA segments over 500 SNPs in length as long as we match first on a larger segment.  The other vendors remove these.


Utilizing a new private tool currently in beta test, Harold and I share 113.92 cM of DNA at Ancestry.  Of course, there is no segment data, so all we have is a total, which is certainly more than we had before.

Ancestry runs their customer’s DNA through a phasing process that eliminates many segments before they do matching.  Therefore, the significantly smaller cM total on Ancestry is a result of their phasing and matching routines.

However, by comparing the Ancestry total to the 23andMe total, which is the next most restrictive result, we can see the difference.

23andMe’s total is 133.8, so the difference between the 23andMe and the Ancestry match is 19.88 cM.  If you look at the 23andMe matches, you’ll notice that the two smallest segment matches are 10.4cM and 12.8cM and together they total 23.2 cM, with is just slightly more than the 19.88 we’re looking for.

Harold Me 23andMe Ancestry

You may have noticed already that begin and end segments and matches between vendors even on the same chromosome do vary some.  These two red segments, above, are the most likely candidates to be the missing Ancestry segments, in part, because they are the smallest and their total is near to the 19.88.


At GedMatch, comparing Harold and I at the default of 700 SNPs and 5cM, which is equivalent to the 23andMe threshold, gives us the following:

Harold Me GedMatch at 23andMe Threshold

Next, I ran GedMatch at 500 SNPs and 1cM which is the equivalent of the FTDNA threshold after you have an initial match.

Harold Me GedMatch at FTDNA threshold

Vendor Summary

I’ve put together a vendor summary of our findings.

vendor match summary2

There’s quite a difference between vendors.  More than I expected.

Comparing the Vendors

Given that the GedMatch comparison using the FTDNA thresholds is the most generous in terms of matching segments, let’s compare the three vendors matching segments against the GedMatch matching segments.  Because start and end segments aren’t exactly the same, if any portion of the vendor’s match falls into the GedMatch match segment, I’ve counted it as a match, so in favor of the vendor.

The chart below utilizes the GedMatch to FTDNA matching segments as the foundation, and I’m comparing other vendors’ matches to the GedMatch results.

All Vendor Match Comparison

For purposes of this comparison, ignore WHICH (start, end, cM) column is colored.  I’ve just selected 3 columns and assigned one to color per vendor.  If that segment row is found in that vendor’s comparison, it’s highlighted in that vendor’s color.  So, for the first row, only FTDNA reported chromosome 1, from 44,938,970 to 47,788,153 as a match.  So, therefore, their cell in that row is the only one colored with their color, green.  Looking down to chromosome 5, you can see that both FTDNA and 23andMe show those segments as matches.  Only four chromosome segments are matches using the inferred Ancestry results based on their total cM information.

How Does This Affect Matching

When Ancestry introduced their phasing, as you might recall, a great many matches disappeared.  In essence, what Ancestry has done is relieved you of the problem of figuring out which matches are “solid” by not giving you any option to work with the raw data.

One of the comments that Ancestry has made is that few people who match in a DNA Circles match on the same segments.  In other words, they don’t triangulate, which means that Ancestry is telling us we don’t need to bother with triangulation because it won’t work anyway.  Their commentary becomes more understandable if you eliminate anything but large segments.  Most people who are distantly related are NOT going to match on large segments, and an entire group is not going to match on the same large segment, which is why we desperately need those smaller segments too – along with the raw data to compare.

Of course, because Ancestry provides us with no tools, we can’t see how we match our matches.

The best we can do is to download Ancestry raw data results to either or both Family Tree DNA and GedMatch – but we’ll never see what matches we are missing at Ancestry, which is really sad.

I ran my matches at both Family Tree DNA and at GedMatch for the two segments that Ancestry has apparently removed.

Yes, I have quite a few matches on those segments.  But not beyond what would be expected in terms of the number of people in the data base that I’m being compared to.  I do have some regions that are clearly from endogamous populations, and those areas have pages and pages of matches.  These two segments aren’t like that.

At GedMatch, I ran a triangulation report of that segment of chromosome 5 where I match others at both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA.  And for the really sad part – look at all those A kits, meaning Ancestry – more than half.  Those aren’t small segment matches either.  One triangulation group that includes an Ancestry kit is 14.7cM.  I’m missing those matches at Ancestry unless I happen to match these people on a larger segment that hasn’t been removed by Ancestry’s phasing.

GedMatch Triangulation Chr 5

I decided to check the second segment that Ancestry has removed that shows as a match through23andMe, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch – on chromosome 18.  There are fewer matches on that segment of chromosome 18, not more – so it’s not a pileup area either.  It does triangulate with other people who descend from a common Vannoy ancestor who are not close relatives.

At Family Tree DNA, here are my matches to 5 known Vannoy cousins on chromosome 5 at the FTDNA default threshold.  As you can see, I match two cousins, so we have a triangulation group of 3.


Look what happens below, in terms of matching, when the match threshold is lowered.  In addition to several other matches on other chromosomes, I’ve picked up another match on that segment of chromosome 5, which serves to increase that triangulation group to four people on that segment.

FTDNA chr 5 at 1cM

I checked, and indeed, the green, blue and orange cousins do match each other on this segment as well.  Chromosome 18 triangulated too, but with different cousins matching the base person.   The orange cousin is in both triangulation groups.

FTDNA chr 18

Ancestry apparently discarded both of those segments on chromosome 5 and on 18.  Ancestry claims that seldom do people in their DNA Circles match each other on the same segments.  That’s probably true if you’re measuring only very large segments, but we can see from these examples that these are neither pileup regions nor nonmatching segments.  They triangulate between cousins, so they are valid identical by descent matches.


I ran this little test as an experiment, but I must admit, I was stunned at the disparity in the matching of the vendors.  There has been a great deal of discussion surrounding the merits of Ancestry’s phasing.  Ancestry claims they are removing non-genealogical matches, as in IBS matches by population in pileup regions.

Based on what we’re seeing above, assuming the inferred discarded segments are accurate (without additional tools, inference is as good as it gets), they’ve pruned the tree too deeply.  That’s really not apparent when you look at your matches at Ancestry for three reasons:

  • Their data base is very large, so you still have a lot of matches
  • You can’t see your segment information
  • The Ancestry matches you do have are only the strongest – so you, proportionally, will have more “solid” matches at Ancestry than at other vendors – which makes people happy who don’t understand the behind the scenes ramifications of what they AREN’T getting and that those matches are not proven to that ancestor – nor is there any way to prove the data without a chromosome browser type of tool.

The smaller the matches reported by the vendors, the further out in time it moves the bar to finding your ancestors – which is why Family Tree DNA has a larger threshold, but still reports the small matching segments.

Let me say that again, in another way.

If you used a hypothetical matching threshold of 50cM for the smallest matching segment, you’re only going to get matches to about second cousins or closer.  Harold and I wouldn’t match with our largest segment being 47cM and we very clearly share a common ancestor. You’d have very few matches (if any) BUT they would all be very solid.  You’d be able to figure out quickly how you are related.  But how would this be useful to genealogy?  You likely already know those people. So this approach is very accurate, but also very restrictive, providing no opportunity to break down those distant brick walls.

If you move the threshold out to Ancestry levels, you’re going to get more matches, but fewer further back in time because the DNA from each contributing ancestor is reduced in each generation.  The majority of your matches will be beyond the 2nd cousin level, because you have a LOT more matches with each generation you go back in time.  Still, your matches will still probably be within a few generations.

At Ancestry, I have only one 3rd cousin DNA tree match, meaning a common ancestor has been identified with that person, about thirty 4th cousins, about a hundred 5th cousins and about thirty distant cousins.  So, you can see that 5th cousins are probably your most likely match and it falls off quickly after that.

If you move the matching threshold out even further, by making it smaller, you’ll have even more matches but many will be distant.  A greater percentage will be identical by chance and identical by population, but you will have some valid matches in those smaller segments.  The caveat is of course that you would have to work to sort the wheat from the chaff, by using triangulation methods.  The common ancestor will likely not be evident and may not be identifiable.  Conversely, the common ancestor may be identifidable…and that may be just what you need to break down that long standing brick wall.  I’ve done that twice now, once on my Younger/Hart line, confirming a wife’s rumored maiden name and one in my Vannoy line, confirming Elijah’s parents through matches to his mother’s Hickerson line.

But, if you don’t have those smaller segments to work with, along with tools, you will NEVER be able to find those elusive distant ancestors using DNA.

The great irony in all of this is that while I was working with the matches to chromosome 5 for this article, I noticed a couple of new matches I hadn’t seen before.  These matches also triangulate, but are from a female line, and now I know that at least part of that segment comes from the Crumley maternal line that married into the Vannoy line.  So, of you think for one minute that these smaller segments aren’t useful or important, think again.

So, the bottom line here is that if you’re interested in the immediate gratification aspect, with no work, but also no ability to utilize DNA segments to find distant ancestors, Ancestry is the one.  Their strong suit is their tree matching and many people are perfectly happy to never go beyond that – replete with incorrect assumptions that this means the ancestral genetic relationship is “proven.”

I currently have about 5400 total matches at Ancestry.  Of those, the day I did this comparison, 152 people matched my DNA and we have a tree match as well, meaning a common ancestor in my tree and their tree has been identified.  Of course, that does not assure that particular ancestor is how our DNA matches, and we can’t confirm that without a chromosome browser.  Still having those matches and matching trees, along with Circles is a wonderful first step.  It’s “feel good” stuff and who doesn’t like feel good.

If you’re interested in the vendor that gives you the most DNA segments to work with along with the tools to do it and therefore the most opportunity, Family Tree DNA, hands down, is the one.  Less feel good but way more potential.

23andMe is someplace in the middle – not easy or intuitive with a difficult communication process resulting in very few people who actually share their matching DNA with you, no feel good stuff, but they have a great matching tool that shows you not only who you match, but who your matches match in common with you as well.

I wish we could combine the best parts of all 3 vendors.  I wrote in detail about the autosomal offerings of all three vendors here.  Today, the best alternative is to test with all three.

Regardless, everyone who tests with any of the 3 vendors (or all of the three vendors) should upload their results to GedMatch where additional tools are provided that aren’t available at any vendor.  Another benefit of GedMatch is that the people there tend to be more serious about genetic genealogy.  The down side is that percentagewise, few people actually do upload their files, so you do still need to test at all of the vendors to achieve maximum matching and benefit from their individual strengths.

Additional tools are also available at where you will find analysis tools that utilize the matches found at the vendors (via downloads) but provide analysis and display in different ways.

Gedmatch, which works with your raw data and provides comparisons to others, and which downloads your actual match information from the vendors are the great equalizers between vendors today, as much as possible given the vendor matching threshold limits in place internally.  No matter what, the third party tools can’t get more than the vendors give you.

What’s the bottom line?  Fish in all of the ponds, but understand the wide variance in the boundaries and the limitations of each pool.  There is more difference between vendors in ways that might not be initially apparent.

The 1 Million Mark and Effective Matches

one million

Last week, announced the millionth customer in their autosomal data base.  On January 18th, 23andMe did the same.  I don’t have exact numbers from Family Tree DNA, but they can’t be terribly far behind.  So, let’s look at the effectiveness of these matches at the roughly 1 million mark between the various vendors.

comparison chart

Black bold highlights the vendor’s positive aspects and red bold notes the drawbacks and places where each vendor could stand improvement.  I’ve underlined the two red issues I feel are the most serious.

*1 – Both 23andMe and Ancestry provide communications with others whom you match through internal message systems.  However, you have to request permission at 23andMe with anyone you match to communicate with them, and then additionally to share their DNA.  The 23andMe the 1404 number is how many people I match and the 162 number is the number of people that have accepted communications from me.  Not all of those 162 are sharing DNA.

*2 – At 23andMe, this would be the number of people sharing DNA results with me.  Ancestry has no tools that allow comparison of DNA segments.  At Family Tree DNA this would be all of my matches.

*3 – 23andMe cuts your matches off at 1000 unless you are communicating with your matches or you have an outstanding “introduction sent” request.  Of the 1404 people I match, 138 are sharing genomes, 24 have accepted communications but have not shared genomes, and 12 have declined.  The balance of my 1404 are either those to whom I’ve requested an introduction and they haven’t replied at all or some that I haven’t gotten around to inviting yet.  Ironically, my last of 1404 matches (in percentage of shared DNA order) is my known cousin who would have been purged had we not been sharing genomes.  You don’t have to send introductory invitations to those you match at either Family Tree DNA nor Ancestry and neither of those companies have an arbitrary cutoff, although did a massive match purge when they implemented phasing.

*4 – At 23andMe, I can request to communicate with all 1404 people I match.  Of those, 162 have agreed to communicate or share genomes.  I can only communicate with those 162 people.  That doesn’t compare very well to either 1040 nor 5481 – and it shows how much genealogical benefit I’ve derived from 23andMe as compared to both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA.

*5 – At Ancestry, a minimum level subscription is required at $49 per year to see matching trees.  Not all participants have trees uploaded, and many trees aren’t public, so are not available for tree matching.  Otherwise, all trees connected to DNA results are included in matching function.

*6 – At Family Tree DNA, testers are encouraged to upload GEDCOM files or create trees in their account, and matching surname hints are given, but no actual ancestor matching in trees is performed.  Each participant must look at the tree of their matches, if provided.

*7 – 23andMe no longer hosts family trees on their site.  They have entered into collaboration with subscription service, MyHeritage.  Family Tree DNA is the only one of the vendors who hosts their own trees and does not require an additional subscription for that service, or for tree matching.

*8 – I have fewer matches at Family Tree DNA now than I did in November of 2014 when I had 1875 matches.  I have submitted a query to Family Tree DNA and they assure me this match number is accurate.


The disparity between the 23andMe and Ancestry match numbers, since both vendors have 1 million autosomal results in their data bases, is suggestive of how many matches may have been pared from my match list at 23andMe.

The number of effective matches that can be usefully utilized, and how they can be utilized, are quite a bit different than the total number of matches implies without further analysis.

Both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry have unique strong points that make them stand out as vendors.

23andMe, since I can only work with or communicate with about 10% of my matches, is the least useful, for me, for genealogy.  I found their health services, which 23andMe is no longer allowed to offer following a dust-up with the FDA, very beneficial.

The tree matches and DNA Circles at Ancestry are very useful, but the fact that Ancestry provides absolutely no tools such as a chromosome browser or the other comparison tools that both 23andMe and Family Tree DNA provide makes Ancestry’s tree matches terribly frustrating eye candy in the candy shop behind a hermetically sealed window we can’t get through.  Tree matches and Circles are suggestive of an ancestral connection, but without comparison and triangulation tools, your match to an individual could be through a different, potentially unknown, line, and you have no tools at Ancestry to confirm or deny.  People are left to assume that the tree matches and Circles are proof, and unfortunately, they do in droves.

Thankfully, Family Tree DNA accepts transfers from Ancestry, V3 chip transfers from 23andMe (not the V4 chip since Dec. 2013) and GedMatch accepts files from all 3 vendors.  Those are the only avenues to actually compare the DNA of those who tested at Ancestry to triangulate and prove ancestral matches.

The great news in all of this is that more than 1 million people have tested, and probably more than two million in total – although there is clearly some overlap between vendors.  With every person that tests and that we match in one place or another, it increases our odds as genealogists to confirm our genealogy or break through those pesky brick walls.

Footnote:  The prices for the tests are the same, at $99, unless a sale is taking place at one of the vendors.  Both 23andMe and Ancestry also sell the aggregated anonymized DNA data for other purposes.  Both 23andMe and Ancestry will request that you sign (digitally authorize by clicking a box) an informed consent agreement for your non-anonymized (or less anonymized) data to be utilized or sold as well.  Family Tree DNA is the only one of these three firms that does not sell your DNA data in any form.