DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons

If you’re involved in genetic genealogy, you’ve probably noticed the recent announcements by both 23andMe and Ancestry relative to workforce layoffs as a result of declining sales.

Layoffs

In January, 23andMe announced that it was laying off 100 people which equated to 14% of its staff.

Following suit, Ancestry this week announced that they are laying off 100 people, 6% of their work force. They discuss their way forward, here.

One shift of this type can be a blip, but two tends to attract attention because it *could* indicate a trend. Accordingly, several articles have been written about possible reasons why this might be occurring. You can read what TechCrunch says here, Business Insider here, and The Verge, here.

Depending on who you talk to and that person’s perspective, the downturn is being attributed to:

  • Market Saturation
  • No Repeat Sales
  • Privacy Concerns
  • FAD Over

Ok, So What’s Happening?

Between Ancestry and 23andMe alone, more than 26 million DNA tests have been sold, without counting the original DNA testing company, FamilyTreeDNA along with MyHeritage who probably have another 4 or 5 million between them.

Let’s say that’s a total of 30 million people in DNA databases that offer matching. The total population of the US is estimated to be about 329 million, including children, which means that one person in 10 or 11 people in the US has now tested. Of course, DNA testing reaches worldwide, but it’s an interesting comparison indicating how widespread DNA testing has become overall.

This slowing of new sales shouldn’t really surprise anyone. In July 2019, Illumina, the chip maker who supplies equipment and supplies to the majority of the consumer DNA testing industry said that the market was softening after a drop in their 2019 second quarter revenue.

Also last year, Ancestry and MyHeritage both announced health products, a move which would potentially generate a repeat sale from someone who has already tested their DNA for genealogy purposes. I suspected at the time this might be either a pre-emptive strike, or in response to slowed sales.

In November 2019, Family Tree DNA announced an extensive high-end health test through Tovana which tests the entire Exome, the portion of our DNA useful for medical and health analysis.

In a sense, this health focus too is trendy, but moves away from genealogy into an untapped area.

23andMe who, according to their website, has obtained $791 million in venture capital or equity funding has always been focused on medical research. In July of 2018 GlaxoSmithKline infused $300 million into 23andMe in exchange for access to DNA results of their 5 million customers who have opted-in to medical research, according to Genengnews. If you divide the 300 million investment by 5 million opted-in customers, 23andMe received $60 per DNA kit.

That 5 million number is low though, based on other statements by 23andMe which suggests they have 10 million total customers, 80% of which opt-in for medical research. That would be a total of 8 million DNA results available to investors.

Divide $791 million by 8 million kits and 23andMe, over the years, has received roughly $99 for each customer who has opted in to research.

We know who Ancestry has partnered with for research, but not how much Ancestry has received.

There’s very big money, huge money, in collaborating with Big Pharma and others. Given the revenue potential, it’s amazing that the other two vendors, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage, haven’t followed suit, but they haven’t.

Additionally, in January, 23andMe sold the rights to a new drug it developed in-house as a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases for a reported (but unconfirmed by 23andMe) $5 million.

It’s ironic that two companies who just announced layoffs are the two who have partnered to sell access to their opted-in customers’ DNA results.

My Thoughts

I’ve been asked several times about my thoughts on this shift within the industry. I have refrained from saying much, because I think there has been way too much “hair on fire” clickbait reporting that is fanning the flames of fear, not only in the customer base, but in general.

I am sharing my thoughts, and while they are not entirely positive, in that there is clearly room for improvement, I want to emphasize that I am very upbeat about this industry as a whole, and this article ends very positively with suggestions for exactly that – so please read through.

Regardless of why, fewer new people are testing which of course results in fewer sales, and fewer new matches for us.

My suspicion is that each of the 4 reasons given above is accurate to some extent, and the cumulative effect plus a couple of other factors is the reason we’re seeing the downturn.

Let’s take a look at each one.

Market Saturation

Indeed, we’ve come a very long way from the time when DNA was a verboten topic on the old RootsWeb mailing lists and boards.

Early DNA adopters back then were accused of “cheating,” and worse. Our posts were deleted immediately. How times have changed!

As the technology matured, 23andMe began offering autosomal testing accompanied by cousin matching.

Ancestry initially stepped into the market with Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, but ultimately destroyed that database which included Y and mitochondrial DNA results from Relative Genetics, a company they had previously acquired. People in those databases, as well as who had irreplaceable samples in Sorenson, which Ancestry also purchased and subsequently took offline permanently have never forgotten.

Those genealogists have probably since tested at Ancestry, but they may be more inclined to test the rest of their family at places like Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage who have chromosome browsers and tools that support more serious researchers.

I think a contributing factor is that fewer “serious genealogists” are coming up in the ranks. The perception that all you need to do is enter a couple of generations and click on a few leaves, and you’re “done” misleads people as to the complexity and work involved in genealogical research. Not to mention how many of those hints are inaccurate and require analysis.

Having said that, I view each one of these people who are encouraged for the first time by an ad, even if it is misleading in its simplicity, as a potential candidate. We were all baby genealogists once, and some of us stayed for reasons known only to us. Maybe we have the genealogy gene😊

But yes, I would agree that the majority, by far, of serious genealogists have already tested someplace. What they have not done universally is transferred from 23andMe and Ancestry to the other companies that can help them, such as MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch. If they had, the customer numbers at those companies would be higher. We all need to fish in every pond.

Advertising and Ethnicity

The DNA ads over the last few years have focused almost exclusively on ethnicity – the least reliable aspect of genetic genealogy – but also the “easiest” to understand if a customer takes their ethnicity percentages at face value. And of course, every consumer that purchases a test as a result of one of these ads does exactly that – spits or swabs, mails and opens their results to see what they “are” – full of excited anticipation.

Many people have absolutely no idea there’s more, like cousin matching – and many probably wouldn’t care.

The buying public who purchases due to these ads are clearly not early adopters, and most likely are not genealogists. One can hope that at least a few of them get hooked as a result, or at least enter a minimal tree.

Unfortunately, of the two companies experiencing layoffs, only Ancestry supports trees. Genealogy revolves around trees, pure and simple.

23andMe has literally had years to do so and has refused to natively support trees. Their FamilySearch link is not the same as supporting trees and tree matching. Their attempt at creating a genetic tree is laudable and has potential, but it’s not something that can be translated into a genealogical benefit for most people. I’m guessing that there aren’t any genealogists working for 23andMe, or they aren’t “heard” amid the vervre surrounding medical research.

All told, I’m not surprised that the two companies who are experiencing the layoffs are the two companies whose ads we saw most often focused on ethnicity, especially Ancestry. Who can forget the infamous kilt/leiderhosen ad that Ancestry ran? I still cringe.

Many people who test for ethnicity never sign on again – especially if they are unhappy with the results.

Ancestry and 23andMe spent a lot on ad campaigns, ramped up for the resulting sales, but now the ads are less effective, so not being run as much or at all. Sales are down. Who’s to say which came first, the chicken (fewer ads) or the egg (lower sales.)

This leads us to the next topic, add on sales.

No Repeat Sales

DNA testing, unless you have something else to offer customers is being positioned as a “one and done” sale, meaning that it’s a single purchase with no potential for additional revenue. While that’s offered as a reason for the downturn, it’s not exactly true for DNA test sales.

Ancestry clearly encourages customers to subscribe to their records database by withholding access to some DNA features without a subscription. For Ancestry, DNA is the bait for a yearly repeat sale of a subscription. Genealogists subscribe, of course, but people who aren’t genealogists don’t see the benefit.

Ancestry does not allow transfers into their database, which would provide for additional revenue opportunity. I suspect the reason is twofold. First, they want the direct testing revenue, but perhaps more importantly, in order to sell their customer’s DNA who have agreed to participate in research, or partner with research firms, those customers need to have tested on Ancestry’s custom chip. This holds true for 23andMe as well.

Through the 23andMe financial information in the earlier section, it’s clear that while the consumer only pays a one time fee to test, multiple research companies will pay over and over for access to that compiled consumer information.

Ancestry and 23andMe have the product, your opted-in DNA test that you paid for, and they can sell it over and over again. Hopefully, this revenue stream helps to fund development of genetic genealogical tools.

MyHeritage also provides access to advanced DNA tools by selling a subscription to their records database after a free trial. MyHeritage has integrated their DNA testing with genealogical records to provide their advanced Theories of Family Relativity tool, a huge boon to genealogists.

While Family Tree DNA doesn’t have a genealogical records database like Ancestry and MyHeritage, they provide Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing, in addition to the autosomal Family Finder test. If more people tested Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA, more genealogical walls would fall due to the unique inheritance path and the fact that neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA is admixed with DNA from the other parent.

Generally, only genealogists know about and are going to order Y DNA and mtDNA tests, or sponsor others to take them to learn more about their ancestral lines. These tests don’t provide yearly revenue like an ongoing subscription, but at least the fact that Family Tree DNA offers three different tests does provide the potential for at least some additional sales.

Both MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA encourage uploads, and neither sell, lease or share your DNA for medical testing. You can find upload instructions, here.

In summary of this section, all of the DNA testing companies do have some sort of additional (potential) revenue stream from DNA testing, so it’s not exactly “one and done.”

Health Testing Products

As for health testing, 23andMe has always offered some level of health information for their customers. Health and research has always been their primary focus. Health and genealogy was originally bundled into one test. Today, DNA ancestry tests with the health option at 23andMe cost more than a genealogy-only test and are two separate products.

MyHeritage also offers a genealogy only DNA test and a genealogy plus health DNA test.

In 2019, both Ancestry and MyHeritage added health testing to their menu as upgrades for existing customers.

In November 2019, FamilyTreeDNA announced an alliance with Tovana for their customers to order a full exome grade medical test and accompanying report. I recently received mine and am still reviewing the results – they are extensive.

It’s clear that all four companies see at least some level of consumer interest in health and traits as a lucrative next step.

Medical Research and DNA Sales

Both Ancestry and 23andMe are pursuing and have invested in relationships with research institutions or Big Pharma. I have concerns with how this is handled. You may not.

I’m supportive of medical research, but I’m concerned that most people have no idea of the magnitude and scope of the contracts between Ancestry and 23andMe with Big Pharma and others, in part, because the details are not public. Customers may also not be aware of exactly what they are opting in to, what it means or where their DNA/DNA results are going.

As a consumer, I want to know where my DNA is, who is using it, and for what purpose. I don’t want my DNA to wind up being used for a nefarious purpose or something I don’t approve of. Think Uighurs in China by way of example. BGI Genetics, headquartered in China but with an Americas division and facilities in Silicon Valley has been a major research institute for years. I want to know what my DNA is being used for, and by whom. The fact that the companies won’t provide their customers with that information makes me makes me immediately wonder why not.

I would like to be able to opt-in for specific studies, not blindly for every use that is profitable to the company involved, all without my knowledge. No blank checks. For example, I opted out of 23andMe research when they patented the technology for designer babies.

Furthermore, I feel that if someone is going to profit from my DNA, it should be me since I paid for the sequencing. At minimum, a person whose DNA is used in these studies should receive some guarantee that they will be provided with any drug in which their DNA is used for development, in particular if their insurance doesn’t pay and they cannot afford the drug.

Drug prices have risen exponentially in the US recently, with many people no longer able to afford their medications. For example, the price of insulin has tripled over the last decade, causing people to ration or cut back on their insulin, if not go without altogether. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very people whose DNA was sold and used to create a drug had no access to it.

Of course, Ancestry and 23andMe are not required to inform consumers of which studies their DNA or DNA results are used for, so we don’t know. Always read all of the terms and conditions, and all links when authorizing anything.

Both companies indicate that your DNA results are anonymized before being shared, but we now know that’s not really possible anymore, because it’s relatively easy to re-identify someone. This is exactly how adoptees identify their biological parents through genetic matches. Dr. Yaniv Erlich reported in the journal Science November 2018 that more than 60% of Europeans could be reidentified through a genealogy database of only 1.28 million individuals.

I think greater transparency and a change in policy favoring the consumer would go a long way to instilling more confidence in the outside research relationships that both Ancestry and 23andMe pursue and maintain. It would probably increase their participation level as well if people could select the research initiatives to which they want to contribute their DNA.

Privacy Concerns

The news has been full of articles about genetic privacy, especially in the months since the Golden State Killer case was solved. That was only April 2018, but it seems like eons ago.

Unfortunately, much of what has been widely reported is inaccurate. For example, no company has ever thrown the data base open for the FBI or anyone to rummage through like a closet full of clothes. However, headlines and commentary like that attract outrage and hundreds of thousands of clicks. In the news and media industry, “it’s all about eyeballs.”

In one case, an article I interviewed for extensively in an educational capacity was written accurately, but the headline was awful. The journalist in question replied that the editors write the headlines, not the reporters.

One instance of this type of issue would be pretty insignificant, but the news in this vein hasn’t abated, always simmering just below the surface waiting for something to fan the flames. Outrage sells.

For the most part, those within the genealogy community at least attempt to sort out what is accurate reporting and what is not, but those people are the ones who have already tested.

People outside the genealogy community just know that they’ve now seen repeated headlines reporting that their genetic privacy either has been, could be or might be breached, and they are suspicious and leery. I would be too. They have no idea what that actually means, what is actually occurring, where, or that they are probably far more at risk on social media sites.

These people are not genealogists, and now they look at ads and think to themselves, “yes, I’d like to do that, but…”

And they never go any further.

People are frightened and simply disconnect from the topic – without testing.

If, as a consumer, you see several articles or posts saying that <fill in car model> is really bad, when you consider a purchase, even if you initially like that model, you’ll remember all of those negative messages. You may never realize that the source was the competition which would cause you to interpret those negative comments in a completely different light.

I think that some of the well-intentioned statements made by companies to reassure their existing and potential customers have actually done more harm than good by reinforcing that there’s a widespread issue. “You’re safe with us” can easily be interpreted as, “there’s something to be afraid of.”

Added to that is the sensitive topic of adoptee and unknown parent searches.

Reunion stories are wonderfully touching, and we all love them, but you seldom see the other side of the coin. Not every story has a happy ending, and many don’t. Not every parent wants to be found for a variety of reasons. If you’re the child and don’t want to find your parents, don’t test, but it doesn’t work the other way around. A parent can often be identified by their relatives’ DNA matches to their child.

While most news coverage reflects positive adoptee reunion outcomes, that’s not universal, and almost every family has a few lurking skeletons. People know that. Some people are fearful of what they might discover about themselves or family members and are correspondingly resistant to DNA testing. Realizing you might discover that your father isn’t your biological father if you DNA test gives people pause. It’s a devastating discovery and some folks decide they’d rather not take that chance, even though they believe it’s not possible.

The genealogical search techniques for identifying unknown parents or close relatives and the technique used by law enforcement to identify unknown people, either bodies or perpetrators is exactly the same. If you are in one of the databases, who you match can provide a very big hint to someone hunting for the identify of an unknown person.

People who are not genealogists, adoptees or parents seeking to find children placed for adoption may be becoming less comfortable with this idea in general.

Of course, the ability for law enforcement to upload kits to GedMatch/Verogen and Family Tree DNA, under specific controlled conditions, has itself been an explosive and divisive topic within and outside of the genealogy community since April 2018.

These law enforcement kits are either cold case remains of victims, known as “Does,” or body fluids from the scenes of violent crimes, such as rape, murder and potentially child abduction and aggravated assault. To date, since the Golden State Killer identification, numerous cases have produced a “solve.” ISOGG, a volunteer organization, maintains a page of known cases solved, here.

GEDmatch encourages people to opt-in for law-enforcement matching, meaning that their kit can be seen as a match to kits uploaded by law enforcement agencies or companies working on behalf of law enforcement agencies. If a customer doesn’t opt-in, their kit can’t be seen as a match to a law enforcement kit.

Family Tree DNA initially opted-out all EU kits from law enforcement matching, due to GDPR, and provides the option for their customers to opt-out of law-enforcement matching.

Neither MyHeritage, Ancestry nor 23andMe cooperate with law enforcment under any circumstances and have stated that they will actively resist all subpoenaes in court.

ISOGG provides a FAQ on Investigative Genetic Genealogy, here.

The two sides of the argument have rather publicly waged war on each other in an ongoing battle to convince people of the merits of their side of the equation, including working with news organizations.

Unfortunately, this topic is akin to arguing over politics. No one changes their mind, and everyone winds up mad.

Notice I’m not linking any articles here, not even my own. I do not want to fan these flames, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the topic of law enforcement usage itself, the on-going public genetic genealogy community war and resulting media coverage together have very probably contributed to the lagging sales. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that while a great division of opinion exists, and many people are opposed, there are also many people who are extremely supportive.

All of this, combined, intentionally or not, has introduced FUD, fear, uncertainty and doubt – a very old disinformation “sales technique.”

In a sense, for consumers, this has been like watching pigs mud-wrestle.

As my dad used to say, “Never mud-wrestle with a pig. The pig enjoys it, you get muddy and the spectators can’t tell the difference.” The spectators in this case vote with their lack of spending and no one is a winner.

DNA Testing Was A FAD

Another theory is that genealogy DNA testing was just a FAD whose time has come and gone. I think the FAD was ethnicity testing, and that chicken has come home to roost.

Both 23andMe and Ancestry clearly geared up for testers attracted by their very successful ads. I was just recently on a cruise, and multiple times I heard people at another table discussing their ethnicity results from some unnamed company. They introduced the topic by saying, “I did my DNA.”

The discussion was almost always the same. Someone said that they thought their ethnicity was pretty accurate, someone else said theirs was awful, and the discussion went from there. Not one time did anyone ever mention a company name, DNA matching or any other functionality. I’m not even sure they understood there are different DNA testing companies.

If I was a novice listening-in, based on that discussion, I would have learned to doubt the accuracy of “doing my DNA.”

If most of the people who purchased ethnicity tests understood in advance that ethnicity testing truly is “just an estimate,” they probably wouldn’t have purchased in the first place. If they understood the limitations and had properly set expectations, perhaps they would not have been as unhappy and disenchanted with their results. I realize that’s not very good marketing, but I think that chicken coming home to roost is a very big part of what we’re seeing now.

The media has played this up too, with stories about how the ethnicity of identical twins doesn’t match. If people bother to read more than the headline, and IF it’s a reasonably accurate article, they’ll come to understand why and how that might occur. If not, what they’ll take away is that DNA testing is wrong and unreliable. So don’t bother.

Furthermore, most people don’t understand that ethnicity testing and cousin matching are two entirely different aspects of a DNA test. The “accuracy” of ethnicity is not related to the accuracy of cousin matching, but once someone questions the credibility of DNA testing – their lack of confidence is universal.

I would agree, the FAD is over – meaning lots of people testing primarily for ethnicity. I think the marketing challenge going forward is to show people that DNA testing can be useful for other things – and to make that easy.

Ethnicity was the low hanging fruit and it’s been picked.

Slowed Growth – Not Dead in the Water

The rate of growth has slowed. This does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that genetic genealogy or DNA testing is dead in the water. DNA fishes for us 365x24x7.

For example, just today, I received a message from 23andMe that 75 new relatives have joined 23andMe. I also received match notifications from Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage.  Hey – calorie-free treats!!!

These new matches are nothing to sneeze at. I remember when I was thrilled over ONE new match.

I have well over 100,000 matches if you combine my matches at the four vendors.

Without advanced tools like triangulation, Phased Family Matching, Theories of Family Relativity, ThruLines, DNAPainter, DNAgedcom and Genetic Affairs, I’d have absolutely no prayer of grouping and processing this number of matches for genealogy.

Even if I received no new matches for the next year, I’d still not be finished analyzing the autosomal matches I already have.

This Too Shall Pass

At least I hope it will.

I think people will still test, but the market has corrected. This level of testing is probably the “new normal.”

Neither Ancestry or 23andMe are spending the big ad dollars – or at least not as big.

In order for DNA testing companies to entice customers into purchasing subscriptions or add-on products, tools need to be developed or enhanced that encourage customers to return to the site over and over. This could come in the form of additional results or functionality calculated on their behalf.

That “on their behalf” point is important. Vendors need to focus on making DNA fun, and productive, not work. New tools, especially in the last year or two, have taken a big step in that direction. Make the customer wonder every day what gift is waiting for him or her that wasn’t there yesterday. Make DNA useful and fun!

I would call this “DNA crack.” 😊

Cooking Up DNA Crack!

In order to assist the vendors, I’ve compiled one general suggestion plus what I would consider to be the “Big 3 Wish List” for each of their DNA products in term of features or improvements that would encourage customers to either use or return to their sites. (You’re welcome.)

I don’t want this to appear negative, so I’ve also included the things I like most about each vendor.

If you have something to add, please feel free to comment in a positive fashion.

Family Tree DNA

I Love: Y and Mitochondrial DNA, Phased Family Matching, and DNA projects

General Suggestion – Fix chronic site loading issues which discourage customers

  • Tree Matching – fix the current issues with trees and implement tree matching for DNA matches
  • Triangulation – including by match group and segment
  • Clustering – some form of genetic networks

MyHeritage

I Love: Theories of Family Relativity, triangulation, wide variety of filters, SmartMatches and Record Matches

General – Clarify confusing subscription options in comparative grid format

  • Triangulation by group and segment
  • View DNA matches by ancestor
  • Improved Ethnicity

Ancestry

I Love: Database size, ThruLines, record and DNA hints (green leaves)

General – Focus on the customers’ needs and repeated requests

  • Accept uploads
  • Chromosome Browser (yes, I know this is a dead horse, but that doesn’t change the need)
  • Triangulation (dead horse’s brother)

23andMe

I Love: Triangulation, Ethnicity quality, ethnicity segments identified, painted and available for download

General – Focus on genealogy tools if you’re going to sell a genealogy test

  • Implement individual customer trees – not Family Search
  • Remove 2000 match limit (which is functionally less after 23andMe hides the people not opted into matching)
  • DNA + Tree Matching

Summary

In summary, we, as consumers need to maintain our composure, assuring others that no one’s hair is on fire and the sky really is not falling. We need to calmly educate as opposed to frighten.

Just the facts.

Other approaches don’t serve us in the end. Frightening people away may “win” the argumentative battle of the day, but we all lose the war if people are no longer willing to test.

This is much like a lifeboat – we all succeed together, or we all lose.

Everybody row!

As genealogists, we need to:

  • Focus on verifying ancestors and solving genealogy challenges
  • Sharing those victories with others, including family members
  • Encourage our relatives to test, and transfer so that their testing investment provides as much benefit as possible
  • Offer to help relatives with the various options on each vendor’s platform
  • Share the joy

People share exciting good news with others, especially on Facebook and social media platforms, and feel personally invested when you share new results with them. Collaboration bonds people.

A positive attitude, balanced perspective and excitement about common ancestors goes a very, very long was in terms of encouraging others.

We have more matches now than ever before, along with more and better tools. Matches are still rolling in, every single day.

New announcements are expected at Rootstech in a couple short weeks.

There’s so much opportunity and work to do.

The sky is not falling. It rained a bit.

The seas may have been stormy, but as a genealogist, the sun is out and a rising tide lifts us all.

Rising tide

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67 thoughts on “DNA Testing Sales Decline: Reason and Reasons

  1. As a DNA testing enthusiast, I’ve tested at FTDNA, Ancestry and 23andme, and uploaded my results to Gedmatch and My Heritage. The most useful tools for me are the cousin matching. Recently, I joined a private Gedmatch group for deaf users. I was surprised at how many matches I got through this group. At Gedmatch, you can filter at 3cm or less!!!

    On the other hand, many people (such as my husband) are uncomfortable submitting their spit to a DNA company because of privacy concerns. Perhaps if those privacy concerns were addressed, more people will request DNA tests.

    • They have been addresses. Repeatedly. Every blogger has tried to explain exactly what the fine print means at each site. I would take Judy Russell’s blog with a grain of salt. Her sky is always falling.

      • It could be because the UK is at least a couple of years behind the USA in uptake of DNA testing. Loads of family historians that I meet have not considered DNA testing yet.Therefore the advertising is still paying dividends here.

  2. The family tree subscription with Ancestry is quite expensive so I’m using my husband’s account to build my family tree while my DNA results are under my free Ancestry subscription! I think the cost of the Ancestry subscription could be a barrier to some people!

    • I’m not sure as a married couple in the same household that you need two subscriptions. Also, libraries have Ancestry too if you ever need that.

      • You don’t but be sure to connect your test to your tree on his account. ancestry can’t ‘see’ who’s sitting at the keyboard and I personally have 38 trees there. The trees that I have in partnership with other family members are shared and they can edit which means free reign on “my” tree.

        You can still work on your tree for free even if you are not paid up, you just can’t add links from ancestry documents but you CAN upload any documents you have on your own computer. Uploads are free but become ancestry property so expect to see them on other trees.

      • I used the library for sometime before biting the bullet and subscribing. Plus the library in the county seat has over a hundred years worth of county newspapers on microfilm that I can’t find anywhere else. Libraries are a fantastic resource that we need to support.

        • I have trouble finding old records for Eastern European Jews on Ancestry, but I found my great grandfather ‘s birth records throughJewishGen, but I couldn’t find his wife or marriage records. Now I know his Polish name:)

          • Given that two of my lines immigrated in the mid-1800s from Germany and from the Netherlands, I’ve gotten some very good matches at MyHeritage that aren’t elsewhere, and use their filter to look at matches from specific locations.

    • I’m a subscriber, so I can message my matches. I don’t know otherwise. Hopefully they will reconsider. If you are not a subscriber and try to message, do you receive a notice that you need to subscribe?

      • It seems I was wrong. Their instructions say a message can be sent from any page by clicking certain icons. Messages can be sent from the page where it shows when the match last signed in and from no other page.
        It does not give an error but the send icon does not allow it.

  3. How about the fact that Ancestry forces a client to have a highly paid subscription to access any meaningful records? Most people can’t afford it for long and I know about a dozen people who tested and were turned off of the service when they saw the ongoing cost plus the cost of the “extras”, like the premium newspapers. While they have some really great tools, which have helped me immensely, they need a better strategy for keeping customers without breaking the bank.

  4. I’m i agreement with you, Roberta on all those levels. And agree with Karen who mentioned the pricing at Ancestry.

    I filed 3 complaints at Ancestry – to look at when I joined and notice they don’t treat their ongoing customers very nicely. with offers only to mew potential customers. They complied last year and I was able to take advantage of their 3 mo offer..

    Paying hundreds all up front was impossible.

    As for 23andMe, there is no one to contact or a place to email. “Very little if any ‘human contact’. I agree that some of the ‘small’ people one matches with makes it ‘not worth it’ in comparison to the other labs who have thousands of matches. I know my cousin Gail is there but 23andMe won’t let you search for anyone outside the 1180 they give us. Once they deleted our matches who were private, they populated a few more in. Love their theory tree though..

    I wanted to add that when I tell people about FTDA’s tough security, they often will do the DNA tests for me/them/others. Hence both sides of the family have done DNA there. (as long as I admin. their kits.

  5. I’m glad you’re being forthright about this, I saw the Verge story last week, and it bears out what I was afraid of when the use of genetic genealogy to solve cold cases became a big story. Had it simply been practiced quietly, like most police investigative techniques are (CSI shows notwithstanding) we wouldn’t have people afraid of fingering a family member and having to deal with the uncomfortable and awkward family dynamics as a result of it.

    I’ve noticed that people are much more reluctant to share family tree information than they were when I started this nearly five years ago. They have no way of knowing that I’m not a law enforcement officer. While most stories on using DNA to crack cold cases mention only Family Tree DNA and GEDmatch, there is no assurance that zealous investigators won’t try to use tests from Ancestry and 23andMe to submit crime scene DNA under a false name. This is especially possible with kits that are sold through drug stores.

    There’s a lack of transparency about how DNA kits are used at FTDNA and GEDmatch, I’ve noticed that my sufficiently-close matches at both places have plummeted in the last couple of years. It is not surprising to me that mistrust of these companies frequently mentioned in the news has spread to other direct-to-consumer DNA companies.

    Unfortunately, there’s no putting this toothpaste back in the tube. I just hope I can find my biological parents’ names before the whole thing shuts down.

    • “there is no assurance that zealous investigators won’t try to use tests from Ancestry and 23andMe to submit crime scene DNA under a false name”.

      That is next to impossible because those two companies require a quantity of saliva spit into the tube they provide.

      • I’m sure that there is some substance that mimics saliva. FTDNA seems able to do DNA tests with a very tiny amount of DNA. Besides, the techniques that all the companies use to enhance the amount of DNA could be used by a police lab.

        Regardless of the difficulty involved in getting a crime scene DNA sample into the Ancestry or 23andMe database, most people would still be suspicious if the thought ever crossed their minds. DNA firms need to find a way to certify users who would be willing to pay extra for this service, I certainly would.

  6. Well, I like the fact that I can see my ethnicity bits on my chromosomes on 23andme and I can compare this to relatives on there. I just wish there were more relatives on there. It can be easy to see that several of us share a common ancestor who gave us a bit of say, chromosome 1 and that it was from perhaps the Congo or Portugal or North America, etc.

    Now, this would be a lot more useful if we could then attach these folks to a tree so we could try to figure out who this common ancestor actually was!

    Ancestry has the opposite problem. I can tell who also has Native American or African ancestry that I am a DNA match with, and I can see basically if we may have a common ancestor )in general) or if perhaps we at least are on a similar branch (by looking to see who our shared matches are) but we can’t tell if we inherited a particular bit of ancestry from a particular common ancestor or not. We know we are related, and share DNA, but not which bits. One can’t tell if a DNA cousin’s Native American ancestor is the same person as yours or a different one? Who knows?

    3 branches of my family (all but my father’s father’s) can be traced back to the 1600’s in North America so the opportunity for many of my DNA cousins to have integrated with the native population was quite large and then so many came from the same colonial areas including a few free Africans and then families moved westward together so one’s tree starts to looks more like a hairband potholder (remember those) than a tree once you go back far enough. Mary’s brother married her husband’s sister and it was not atypical for 2-3 brothers in one family to marry 2-3 sister’s from another, etc. even if cousin marriages were quite rare.

    Since 23andme and Ancestry seem to have the opposite problems, I’d wish there was a way for them to join forces. I know one can provide a tree link on 23andme to ancestry – but almost no one ever does this and few answer emails on there.

    If ancestry started doing the Y-DNA and mtDNA thing, they would boost sales I think -a lot.

    Yes- the more matches the better!

  7. Really great Blog piece, Roberta. Your knowledge and clear thinking always
    cover the important points, answer all the questions and your writing style is a rare gift. Thank you!

    I agree with your assessment of the 4 contributing factors to the recent decline in DNA orders. May I add another?

    I personally find the science of DNA difficult! My brain works on the other side and
    therefore i was educated differently. I have many friends who have “done their DNA” and they would all love to track their ancestors, and they all, literally all
    have expressed complete frustration trying to figure out how to make sense of
    the available tools, i.e. chromosome browsers, triangulation, etc., not to mention
    learning the genetic language. I realize there are tutorials, but so many of us
    do not have the luxury of extra time to put into this. I would add to your list of
    improvements: A complete ‘user experience’ overhaul, for the very large percentage of users who would like DNA software that ‘does the work’ for them
    and is able to connect them with a cousin on their mother’s side 3 generations
    back, etc. etc. Maybe that’s asking way too much, but I am sure that much of the
    softening of DNA enthusiasm is due to difficulty in navigating the websites to find
    answers. That’s my 2 cents, for what it’s worth!

  8. I don’t know if FTDNA is having the same slow down as Ancestry and 23&me but I think FTDNA is losing money by discontinuing the 12 marker Y-test. I would purchase many 12 marker tests – at a reasonable price – to see if a person who shares my surname also shares my haplogroup. If so, this would lead to further testing. As it is now, I am not going to purchase a 37 marker test just to find out the person’s haplogroup.

  9. Great article. I don’t believe that DNA testing has reached a plateau around the world, perhaps in the US and Canada where it has been around for the longest. There are definitely good opportunities out there for companies to focus on the rest of the world. Let’s hope they do just that.

  10. 23andMe and AncestryDNA are now getting a lot of competition from MyHeritageDNA. This may also contribute to a slow down of their sales, as well as the other factors you mentioned. When friends and family ask me where to test I send them to MyHeritageDNA because they are the best all around when it comes to features and service. My favorite features there include chromosome browser, triangulation links for shared matches, more matches than I can possibly check which increases the quantity of useful matches, viewing trees of matches without a subscription required.
    What I need to have added at MyHeritageDNA is x chromosome matching and x DNA segments shown for matches. Why does their chromosome map only show 22 chromosomes? X matching can do so much to help break through brick walls. I am working with 4 or 5 urgently important x triangulations now, but MyHeritageDNA and AncestryDNA do not help me with this. I also want to see x DNA included in totals and would love to see an x by the user names of matches that share a good sized x segment of at least 15 cM with me. Match lists need to be redesigned to use less space on the page. Use large text but less empty white space.

    Thank goodness for 23andMe. I am finding some very valuable X DNA matches there.
    Unfortunately, there is no tree to see how my family might connect to theirs to explain tge x match. I love the ease of checking matches at 23andMe, The design of the pages, the ease of finding triangulations and everything about the DNA matching part of 23andMe but would like to see all matches 15cM and above if the largest segment is 10cM or more. i have plenty of weaker matches elsewhere so do not want to see them at 23andMe.I also like having my message history with each match on the same page.Sent

    I would like Family Finder to make it easy to see individual matches with their shared matches listed beneath the way other companies do.And a triangulation link would be wonderful! The current ICW matches are difficult to access, time consuming and often I get a message that says no ICW matches at that level. I want to see shared matches regardless of level.

    AncestryDNA only needs to add a chromosome browser, triangulation links and allow us to download match lists, and files of matches with matching segments and chromosomes.

    A great big Thank You to all the other companies because they do have a chromosome browser, triangulation possibilities, and also allow us to download files of match lists and matching segment data.

  11. Roberta,
    I want to add my thanks for a great article! Especially your comments on privacy concerns and the fact that MyHeritageDNA and FTDNA are not selling our DNA data for research. Great companies!!!

  12. Roberta, thank you for taking the time to put this together.

    It is great that Ancestry allows you to have as many trees as you want in one account and you can work on all of those trees with just one subscription. That is a bonanza.

    I put up a nice tree for my daughter and her paternal line using a 1-month subscription. I cancelled, then I invited myself to her tree. That transferred her tree to my account in edit mode, so now I can continue working on her tree using MY subscription.

    I wondered one day if that would work, tried it, and it did.

  13. I would like to add some chromosome browser improvements to your wishlist thanks.

    1) The MyHeritage chromosome browser would be far more useful if it showed the XDNA chromosome.
    2) The MyHeritage and FTDNA chromosome browsers would be somewhat more useful if they showed fully identical regions.
    3) Now that Ancestry has run out of low-hanging fruit, hopefully they will consider taking genetic genealogy a bit more seriously and catch up with their competitors who have a chromosome browser.

  14. I think the DNA companies are yes, losing the sales from the first fad of DNA, but they need to listen to what people want. As they stand, Ancestry will be the continuous winner, they have more to offer than the single time sale. If the companies would accept other companies, Hint for Ancestry and 23andme. Have also made multiple purchases from multiple companies, so this would not effect me. But it would have saved me some cash. Ancestry has documents to sale along with things such as Thrulines. FamilytreeDNA has Y and X, however, those are one time sales also.

    23andme, let’s look at your business logic. We have a gimmick, Health. The FDA pulls your gimmick and you leave the price the same. You bring back the gimmick and double the price. HMMMMMM Many started losing trust in your company from the beginning. You have a great gimmick now, which I would be glad to pay for, if you ever finish it. Oh, pay for, not give you and arm and a leg for it. You are already supplementing your cost with selling DNA.

    There have been many complaints and I think the biggest I hear is, the companies do not take feedback or constructive criticism. DNA has been a great help, but there is more to DNA than a test, testing is only the first step. If they fail, it is because of their own business practices and not the fault of the genealogical community. The companies have opened a door, genealogist have walked in the door with high expectations. Instead of keeping us in the building and taking advantage of their audience, they left the door open people are walking back out.

    There is not much of an educational factor to any of these companies in general, only for their product.

    • Dennis, health can be looked at as a “gimmick”, but you have to look at shaky leaf hints and ancestor circles, etc. as gimmicks, too. The one thing that 23andMe has going for it is that they have the most flexible chromosome browser, I can enter in any two people from my match list, and see which segments they match on, and compare that with my own matches with a person. You can’t do that anywhere else.

      • I agree! 23andMe is absolutely the best of the testing companies when it comes to doing triangulation. I just wish my matches there would add some surnames and locations for ancestors. Corresponding with matches is also easier at 23andMe. You can actually chat back and forth if you happen to both be online at the same time. And the whole message history is right there on the match page! I love that feature. I love 23andMe dna matching, but would like to see some more of my matches. I do not want the weak matches. I like the fact that all my 23andMe matches are close enough to justify spending valuable time checking them and working with them. I do not have to wade through thousands of matches. And I have to depend on 23andMe for the x matching that is so essential for finding maternal ancestors and their husbands, fathers, mothers and siblings.

        • I was corresponding with a 23andme match at the 3rd cousin level. His paternal grandparents came from the same town as my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather, but we couldn’t figure out our connection. Hopefully we can some day.

  15. Yes, some of us do have a faddish mentality. Vince Gill best describes it in his country song, “Next Big Thing.” in which the lyrics say “Everybody’s ready for the next Big thing” which can be seen on UTube.

    One in ten who have tested really surprised me.

  16. A great blog — you certainly covered all bases.

    Unfortunately, as with many Americans you seem to think that what happens in the US also happens in other countries. It has been my experience here in Canada that only big libraries in major cities have access to Ancestry and Historical newspapers. Sure wish it were true but my local library has neither.

    One thing which annoyed me with the announcements of layoffs is that I feel at least Ancestry could have utilized those employees in other areas. You don’t have to be a genius to double check transcriptions and the number of corrections I have had to make at Ancestry are astronomical. Why not retrain these employees to do something else?

  17. I am a family researcher. 73 years old.
    We are in the midst of losing much of our connection like roots web sites due to new focus points like DNA testing.
    I have 18 to 20 test kits out, 80 % or more were done by FTDNA, or done by ancestry and then redone by FTDNA.
    I use ancestry for checking record databases and trees. I do have a subscription for their record bases. The growing subscription cost, the wasted time in trying to talk to a person there is making me question if there is not a better source for those records.
    For DNA testing, I use FTDNA. They seem more scientifical focused and not as yet making a huge profit by selling use of other peoples family search.
    I have found DNA PAINTER, to be very helpfull for a visual and for bookkeeping that I can make changes too.
    Have never used 23 and me because of their work and sales direction. I am against dream babies and such.
    Used My Heritage for two years but dropped it because of too much wrong information in their posted trees, and that steady subscription bill.
    The genetic study groups are expanding and sharing knowledge of methods and constantly expanding our work.
    We have found an unknown child, by DNA testing, now 50 yrs old and more, from my husbands youth. That made an emotional impact. And a sad empact of time lost. But perhaps earlier knowledge would have also had sad results. Who knows.
    I joined gedmatch in 2013. I used it some but have had so little response that I have virtually dropped it.
    Keep up the good work. I learn from and enjoy your work

    I love seeing the growth of the genetic genealogy community.
    Joyce Wilson

    • Thank you for sharing Joyce — I have had a similar experience with My Heritage–wrong information. It won’t let me change the information. I think I know my birth mother’s name but it tells me I am wrong. Then it mixes up my half-sister’s husband (Bill Nelsen) with my husband’s cousin (Bill Nielsen)–it is a convoluted mess. Shucks–and I didn’t gain any significant new matches–none.

      I am a (LDA) Late Discovery Adoption–finding out about the adoption that occurred nearly 70 years ago. I am having some frustration–trying to get information back from Ancestry. We used that database because we have a lot of matches there–the question is whether my brother is a full brother or a half brother. The paperwork indicates we are full; however, my half sister has a different father than what is listed. So, DNA is vital. After waiting for six weeks, my brother received notice that he would have to redo the DNA. Both sisters have had to redo their DNA–one of them twice already. And my niece had to redo her kit four times. So, we wait. My brother’s health is very precarious–he is post lung cancer and on oxygen–not young. I am concerned that we get this done, but now we have to start the process again.I am not wealthy or I would buy several kits from various companies so we could try to find out more information soon. Meanwhile I wait and I am concerned that the first sample was botched. There was no explanation. I am frustrated.

  18. I wish that I could filter the MyHeritage record match alerts to exclude the family trees (Geni, WikiTree, FamilySearch.) These are not “record matches” in my view, but only someone’s often unsourced family tree and rarely tell me anything I don’t already know.

    • You can go to settings and turn off Smart Matches. I think you can still allow Smart Matches from MH trees and exclude trees from other sites.

      I would like to turn off theory of relativity because so far every one they show is someone I have been corresponding with for nearly 20 years. Most are people who uoliaded to MH because I emailed them to let them know about the free upload offer.

  19. I have a viewpoint that when anything good goes mainstream it gets ruined. Basically people who don’t know what they’re doing get their expectations dashed, or worse, get hurt, then the media whips up a frenzy, the regulators and corporations move in, and then decades of hard work become just a few memes

    • “The health stuff” literally saved my friends life. She found out in her 30s through a DNA test that she has both BRCA 1 and 2. Her doctor said she was too young for a mammogram. She insisted and already had breast cancer. That’s the purpose. If you aren’t interested in the health aspect, don’t buy that test.

  20. Hello–I wrote above this explanation, but just in case someone sees this and can help me, I wonder if anyone else is having issues with Ancestry DNA testing?

    I am a (LDA) Late Discovery Adoption–finding out about the adoption that occurred nearly 70 years ago. I am having some frustration–trying to get information back from Ancestry. We used that database because we have a lot of matches there–the question is whether my brother is a full brother or a half brother. The paperwork indicates we are full; however, my half sister has a different father than what is listed. So, DNA is vital. After waiting for six weeks, my brother received notice that he would have to redo the DNA. Both sisters have had to redo their DNA–one of them twice already. And my niece had to redo her kit four times. So, we wait. My brother’s health is very precarious–he is post lung cancer and on oxygen–not young. I am concerned that we get this done, but now we have to start the process again.I am not wealthy or I would buy several kits from various companies so we could try to find out more information soon. Meanwhile I wait and I am concerned that the first sample was botched. There was no explanation. I am frustrated.

    • Order a kit from Family Tree DNA. It’s a swab kit, not a spit kit which is generally why they fail. You can transfer the rest if the kits to FTDNA it GedMatch from Ancestry.

  21. Loved the post and your DNA Crack suggestions to the vendors!

    I was lead to it from a FB group, and I just wanted to comment on the ethnicity subject, which I’m sure you’ve blogged about before, and that’s in relation to NPE’s. Maybe my wife and I are anomalies (I doubt it), but I wonder what the percentage of ethnicity deniers simply don’t know or understand that even if the science was fairly accurate, another reason ethnicity isn’t as expected is because of at least one NPE in their lineage, of which I’m sure there are many if we could triangulate the dalliances of our pedigree.
    Through DNA testing I found out my paternal grandfather was someone else, and my wife painfully at 52 discovered her biological father was someone else, and that someone else was also the father of her siblings. Her known father was 100% Itallian/Sicilan, but my wife is 0%. In these instances luck of the draw might mean these someone else’s could also descend from your expected lineage, but I’m thinking more often than not, when people trade in their lederhosen in for a kilt, it’s because of the skeleton that just fell out of the closet.

    • That’s certainly a possibility. But it’s equally as possible that it’s a factor of the tests. Many people heave doubted their ethnicity, especially within continents only to discover their family is fine and the technology isn’t as granular as they want or expect.

    • Not gonna happen. First, the swabs have to be stuck WAY up the nose, most people at home would not be willing to do this. It takes a professional who is willing to inflict the pain necessary to get a good sample. Swabbing a cheek or spitting into a tube is much, much simpler. Second, I don’t think that DNA companies are considered especially trustworthy anymore. There have been too many negative articles in the media about them, including their use in law enforcement.

  22. in my opinion the companies and consumers would benefit greatly if all would accept uploads and also reduce prices at least for seniors many o f us have limited income

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