Update: Please note that a 4th company has now been added to this list, MyHeritage.
As with any industry that has become popular, especially quickly, there are the front runner companies, and then there is an entire cadre of what I am going to call “third tier” companies that spring up and are trying to play off of the success of the front runners and the naivety of the consuming public. I’m going to avoid the use of the words snake oil here, because some of them aren’t quite that bad, but others clearly are. You get the drift, I’m sure. There is a very big gulf, as in a chasm, between the three front-runners, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and 23andMe, whose recognizable logos you see above and the rest of the pack.
Recently, we’ve seen a huge raft of people finding these “third tier” companies, purchasing their products thinking they’re getting something they aren’t, often due to what I would call corporate weasel-wording and snazzy ads, and then being unhappy with their purchase. Unfortunately, often the purchasers don’t understand that they’ve in essence “been had.” This type of behavior tarnishes the entire genetic genealogy industry.
So, if you find a test on LivingSocial or a Groupon coupon that “looks familiar” it may by the AncestrybyDNA test that people mistakenly purchase instead of the AncestryDNA kit sold by Ancestry.com. They think they are getting a great deal on the AncestryDNA test. They aren’t. It’s not the same thing at all. AncestrybyDNA is an old, inaccurate, ineffective test called DNAPrint that has been rebranded to be sold to the unsuspecting. Don’t buy this Groupon item.
There are other useless tests too, probably too many to mention by name, plus I really don’t want to give them any publicity, even inadvertently.
I also want to be clear that I’m only talking about genetic genealogy and ethnicity testing, not about medical DNA testing or traditional paternity testing, although some of the labs that offer paternity testing services also offer the less than forthright tests, in fact, those very two mentioned above. I’m also not talking about add-on services like GedMatch and DNAGedcom which don’t provide DNA testing and do provide much valued services within the genetic genealogy community. I’m also not talking about the Genographic project testing which does provide great information but is not in essence a genetic genealogy test in the sense that you can’t compare your results with others. You can, however, transfer your results from the Genographic project to Family Tree DNA where you can compare with others.
Twisting the Truth
One of the biggest areas ripe for harvesting by sheisters are the thousands of people who descend, or think they descend from, or might descend from Native Americans. It’s a very common question.
If you find a company that says they will tell you what Indian tribe you descend from, and believe me, they’re out there, just know that you really can’t do that today with just a DNA test. If you could identify a tribe that quickly and easily, these three leading companies would be doing just that – it would be a booming consumer product. “Identifying my tribe” is probably my most frequently asked question and a highly sought after piece of information, so I’m not surprised that companies have picked up on that aspect of genetic genealogy to exploit. I wrote about proving Native heritage and what it takes to identify your tribe here and here. If that’s how they’re trying to hook you, you’re either going to be massively disappointed in your results, or the results are going to be less than forthright and truthful.
Yes, the DNA truth can be twisted and I see these “twisted results” routinely that people have paid a lot of money to receive and desperately want to believe.
Let me just give you one very brief example of DNA “fact” twisting. Person one claims (“self-identifies” in the vernacular), with no research or proof, that their maternal grandma is Cherokee, a very common family story. Their mitochondrial haplogroup is H3, clearly, unquestionably European and not Native. You test and share haplogroup H3 with person one. I’ve seen companies that then claim you descend from the same “Cherokee line” as person one with haplogroup H3 and therefore you too are magically Cherokee because you match someone in their data base that is “Cherokee.” Congratulations! I guess all Europeans who carry haplogroup H3 are also Cherokee, using that same logic. Won’t they be surprised!
This H3=Cherokee analogy is obviously incorrect and inaccurate in several different ways, but suffice it to say that, as a hopeful consumer, you are now very happy that you are now “proven” to be Cherokee and you have no idea or understanding that it’s all predicated on one person’s “self-identification” that allows the less-than-ethical company to then equate all other H3 people to a “Cherokee lineage.” The problem is that you aren’t either proven Native nor Cherokee on your direct matrilineal line. And you’ve been snookered. But you’re obliviously happy.
What a shameful way to exploit Native people and their descendants, not to mention the consuming public.
Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to twist the truth, intentionally or inadvertently. If you’re looking for direction on this topic, there is a FaceBook group called Native American Ancestry Explorer: DNA, Genetics, Genealogy and Anthropology that I would recommend.
In genetic genealogy, meaning for both genealogy and ethnicity, there are three companies that are the frontrunners, by any measure, and then there are the rest, many of whom misrepresent their wares and what they can legitimately tell you. Or they tell you, and you have no idea if what they say is accurate or their own version of “truth” from their own “private research” and data bases, i.e., H3=Cherokee.
The Big 3
So, here are the Big 3 testing companies, in my preference order.
- Family Tree DNA
Not only are these the Big 3, they are the only three that give you the value for your money as represented, plus the ability to compare your results to others.
Family Tree DNA is the only company to provide mitochondrial and Y DNA testing and matching.
All three of these companies provide autosomal tests and provide you:
- Ethnicity estimates
- Autosomal DNA Results (downloadable)
- Autosomal DNA Matching to others in their data base
- Different tools at each company that vary in quality and completeness
If it’s not one of these three companies, don’t buy, JUST DON’T.
You can debate all day about which of these three companies is the best for you (or maybe all three), but that is what the debate SHOULD be about, not whether to use one of these companies versus some third tier company.
I’m am not going to do a review of these companies in this article. Suffice it to say that my 2015 review holds relatively well EXCEPT that 23andMe is still going through something of a corporate meltdown with their genetic genealogy product which has caused me to take them off of my recommended list other than for adoptees who should test with all three vendors due to their data base matching. Also, if you’re trying to make a decision in relation to the Big 3 companies and testing, you might want to read these two articles, here and here, as well.
I will do a 2016 review after 23andMe finishes their transition so we know how the genealogy aspect of their new services will work.
Personally, I think that everyone interested in genetic genealogy should test their mitochondrial DNA (males and females both,) and Y DNA (males only) at Family Tree DNA and their autosomal DNA (males and females both) at both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA. Family Tree DNA offers a $39 transfer from Ancestry, so you can put together a nice testing package and reap all of the benefits. Here’s a basic article about the different kinds of DNA testing, what they cover and how, based on your family tree.
So, here’s the bottom line – as heated as the debate gets sometimes within the genetic genealogy community about which of the three vendors, Family Tree DNA, Ancestry or 23andMe, is best, that really IS the question to debate. The question should NEVER be whether to use a third tier company for genetic genealogy or ethnicity instead of one of these three.
So spread the word and hopefully none of our genealogy friends or well-meaning spouses or family members purchasing gifts with the very best of intentions will get sucked in. Stick with the Big 3.
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Thank you so much.
DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research