In my recent article “Autosomal DNA 2015 – Which Test is the Best?,” one of the comparison items between vendors I mentioned is response rate. Specifically, I said, in reference to 23andMe, “Very low match response rate to inquiries. Positive response is required to see matching DNA segments.”
This has generated some commentary, but based on the nature of the comments, both in terms of blog comments and private e-mails, I can tell that many people don’t understand why response rate matters at 23andMe. On the other hand, some regular users of all 3 vendors felt I didn’t go far enough in explaining the difference and why response rate at 23andMe matters so much.
I’m going to see if I can make this issue a bit more clear. Response rate really does matter and it’s not just whining!
At 23andMe YOU CAN’T SEE MATCH INFORMATION OR DO ANY DNA COMPARISON WITHOUT A POSITIVE RESPONSE FROM THOSE YOU MATCH. In other words, they must reply in the affirmative – that they want to communicate with you AND that they want to share DNA results. Otherwise, you can do nothing.
This is a process not required by either Family Tree DNA or Ancestry. So, out the door, there is a very big difference.
At Family Tree DNA, you can see everything available WITHOUT additional correspondence, so while a response from a match would be nice, it’s not essential to being able to compare their DNA, see who you match in common, see their tree, if posted, find your common surnames, or perform any other function provided by the vendor.
At Ancestry.com, WITH a subscription, you can see your matches, their trees (if not private) and DNA Circles with no additional correspondence. The only time you need to correspond with someone is if their tree is private or they don’t post a tree.
The operative words here are want and need. At 23andMe, you absolutely positively NEED a positive response from each and every match (both authorization to communicate AND authorization to share DNA results) BEFORE you can DO anything.
So, comparatively speaking, a low response rate at 23andMe means that you’re only going to see a small fraction of your matches that are showing, while a low response rate at the other vendors is an irritant and comes after you’ve utilized the vendor’s tools and then asked your match for additional information. In other words, no response at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry is not a barrier to playing. At 23andMe, you’re dead in the water if your matches don’t respond.
In essence, 23andMe requires three authorizations to be able to see your matches DNA information: the original authorization to test, authorization to communicate and authorization to “share” DNA results.
With both Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, one authorization, when you initially test, is all you need – although the tools and approach of these two vendors are very different as pointed out in the original article.
So, as you can see, the response rate at Family Tree DNA and Ancestry really isn’t essential to utilizing the tools, but it’s another matter entirely at 23andMe – so we’re not comparing apples to apples.
So, let’s look at the real effects of 23andMe’s authorization policy.
At 23andMe, this is what you get, out of the box. The person’s account I’m using for this first graphic tested for two purposes and is not interested in genealogical contact, so this is an “untouched” account, except that I’ve redacted the names, if showing, in blue to the left. Looks good – all those matches, until you realize you can’t DO anything without contacting each and every single match.
What isn’t obvious is that you can’t COMPARE your DNA or information with any of these people WITHOUT sending an introduction request. In addition, they ALSO must authorizing DNA sharing. And by the way, an introduction request and DNA sharing are NOT one and the same thing. You can see the names of public matches, who have pre-authorized communications, but you cannot compare DNA with them. You can’t even see the names of other (nonpublic) matches until you send an introduction request to them and they reply in the affirmative. Those are the accounts above that just say “male” with no blue partially redacted name above them.
If you click on “Send an introduction,” here are your options.
You can request an intro and genome sharing in one message, but that doesn’t mean they’ll accept both nor does it mean that someone will send you a request for both.
This is what an introduction request looks like to the receiver.
Now, an introduction request only allows you to talk to your match. If they do not ask for, or authorize genome sharing, next, you have to request to share your DNA results – and they also have to reply in the affirmative to that request too.
Not intuitively obvious you say? Right!
Here’s the process to request to share genomes.
And here’s the reply step to authorize genome sharing.
Is it any wonder the response rate is low?
So, as you can see, just being able to see that you have a match is not the same thing as being able to utilize the information. With Family Tree DNA and Ancestry, you can immediately utilize the information from all of your matches to the full extent of that vendor’s offerings.
At Family Tree DNA
At Family Tree DNA, here is what you see out the gate (full names redacted.)
No contact request needed, no separate authorization to share DNA and no subscription required to see your matches, to compare DNA, to see who you match in common, to see their trees (if provided) or to see your matching surnames. The little dropdown box under each person provides additional options.
You don’t NEED to contact your matches for anything. You may WANT to contact them for genealogy information, especially if they have not uploaded or created trees.
At Ancestry – WITH Subscription
At Ancestry.com, to see all three available DNA related features, your matches, their trees (if provided and if public) and DNA Circles, you must have a subscription. Ancestry offers a minimal subscription for $49, per year, for this purpose or a standard subscription covers DNA functionality as well. You must have a subscription to see your matches trees and your DNA Circles.
Here is what your Ancestry match page looks like.
You don’t NEED to contact your matches to view results. You may WANT to contact those you match and if their tree is private, you will have to contact them to request to see the tree or for the identity of your common ancestor if you have a shakey leaf.
So, let’s look at this comparatively, for my accounts at the three vendors.
|23andMe||Family Tree DNA||Ancestry (with subscription)|
|Total Number of Matches||1373||2100||3950|
|Number of Matches I can see without special approvals (meaning a match response required)||0 (0%)||2100 (100%)||3950 (100%)|
|At 10% response rate, number of effective matches||137 (10%)||2100 (100%)||3950 (100%)|
|At 10% response rate, DNA accounts available to compare DNA||10% or 137 accounts||100% or 2100 accounts||0% (no chromosome browser)|
This shows, in black and white, why a low response rate at 23andMe is so devastating. The percent of people whose DNA you can see equals the response rate at 23andMe. So if you have 1000 matches at 23andMe, but you only have a 10% response rate, it’s the same as having only 100 functional matches – because the rest are entirely unavailable to you – well except for the fact that they sit there and stare at you mockingly.
If one has a 10% response rate at 23andMe, and all of those responses are positive, and all authorize BOTH communication and DNA sharing, you are still only seeing 10% of the matches listed. So, 1000 matches at 23andMe is not at all the same as 1000 matches at Family Tree DNA or Ancestry.
At Family Tree DNA, all of your match accounts are immediately available to you for viewing, communicating and comparison.
At Ancestry, you can see all of your matches (with a subscription), but you can’t compare the matching DNA because Ancestry offers no chromosome browser.
The meat of genetic genealogy is comparing your actual segments to your matches. So, let’s look at some real numbers.
I send a custom request to each of my matches at 23andMe and have been doing so since the product was introduced.
Looking at my top 100 matches, let’s see how many authorized sharing.
In a way, this is skewing the results, just so you know, because many of these matches are relatives who I recruited to test initially. Plus I’ve worked on my closest matches at 23andMe much harder than my more distant matches, so this is an absolute BEST CASE scenario for the 23andMe numbers. My actual response rate is about 10% for all matches.
At 23andMe, of my closest 100 matches, several of which are close family, 22 of my matches are sharing, one has declined and the rest are in limbo where I’ve sent an invitation and they have not responded. It’s interesting to note that of those 100, 23 are “public” which means that the intro step can be skipped, but they still have to be invited to share genomes.
Number of my 100 closest matches I can see:
|23andMe||Family Tree DNA||Ancestry|
|Number of 100 closest matches I can see||22 (22%)||100 (100%)||100 (100%)|
|Extrapolated by % to entire match total||302 of 1373||2100 of 2100||3950 of 3950|
23andMe said that existing trees would be available until May 1, 2015, but I can find no trees attached to any of my matching 23andMe accounts now, although there never were many.
Number of trees I can see:
|23andMe||Family Tree DNA||Ancestry|
|Number of trees I can see||0 (0%)||33 (33%)||66 (66%)*|
|Extrapolated by % to match total||0 of 1373||693 of 2100||2607 of 3950|
*The balance of Ancestry trees are 20 matches that have no trees and 14 that have private trees. Twenty of the 66 have common ancestors, but of those, 6 are private trees.
Number of people with whom I can compare DNA segments in chromosome browser:
|23andMe||Family Tree DNA||Ancestry|
|Number of people I can compare DNA||22 (22%)||100 (100%)||0 (0%) (no chromosome browser tool)|
|Extrapolated by % to match total||302 of 1373||2100 of 2100||0 of 3950|
I hope these examples help make it clear why response rate really is an important factor – unfortunately – and why a response rate discussion about Family Tree DNA and Ancestry does not have the same meaning as a response rate discussion about 23andMe.
One of the best things 23andMe could do would be to get rid of the convoluted DNA authorization courtship Macarena dance. There is no dance instructor, people don’t discover that they need to do it until after they test, and many people simply don’t understand, don’t bother or give up. If 23andMe isn’t going to get rid of it, the LEAST they could do is to make it easy and step you through the process. I don’t know who benefits from this, but I guarantee you, it’s not the genealogy consumer.