AncestryDNA: interface improvements

Two down, a bunch to go

There’s still an awful lot of room for improvement at AncestryDNA … but things are improving. Progress is s-l-o-w … but at least in two very concrete ways, the interface for autosomal DNA test results is better now than when the product launched last year.

You can now easily find people in your match list who have an ancestor in their family tree who’s also in yours, and you can add a note to any match’s results page. Both features still need some work, but having those two features is certainly a step in the right direction.

First a little background as a reminder: AncestryDNA’s test is an autosomal DNA test. That’s the kind of test that works across genders and helps you find cousins with whom you can exchange genealogical information to try to identify common ancestors and fill in gaps in your family tree.1 Unlike YDNA, you don’t have to locate sons of sons of sons to test and only get results in the male line,2 and unlike mitochondrial DNA, you don’t have to locate daughters of daughters of daughters and only get results in the female line.3 With autosomal DNA, you can test the son of a daughter of a son against the daughter of a son of a daughter and get good results.4

But unlike either of those tests — where you can get matches with people who descend from common ancestors many many generations ago — autosomal DNA pretty much punks out about 250 years in the past. While it’s possible to find matches to eighth or ninth cousins, you can only expect to find matches reliably back to the fourth or fifth cousin level.5

“Add note”

One of my previous complaints about the AncestryDNA interface was that you couldn’t add your own comment or note to a match.6 That’s now been fixed.

The notes feature appears at the top of your match’s results information and has both an icon and a hot-linked description “Add note” as shown above. Clicking on the icon does nothing; clicking on the hot-linked “Add note” opens a box where you can add up to 500 characters to describe the match, or comment on the match’s tree, or remind yourself about any contacts you’ve had with the match.

I use it for any and all of those reasons. Just last week a match appeared in my match list who descends from Anselom Green of Rutherford County, North Carolina, the son of Shadrach Green and Martha Jones of Rutherford County. The results page doesn’t show Jones as one of our surnames in common since Anselom is the match’s seventh generation (4th great grandparent) and the system apparently only displays names that you share with a match back through the seventh generation. (I hadn’t known that before but testing it now does seem to bear that out.)

The match doesn’t list Martha’s parents — but I know who they were. Martha was the sister of my 4th great grandmother Elizabeth (Jones) Buchanan and, so, was the daughter of my 5th great grandparents John and Elizabeth (Pettypool) Jones.

If the match had entered John and Elizabeth in her tree, we’d have the leaf indicator of a tree match (described below). Since she didn’t, I added a note to this match’s results page (“Green-Jones cousin: Anselom Green was son of Shadrach Green and Martha Jones (daughter of John and Elizabeth (Pettypool) Jones)”) reminding me that we’re likely to be cousins in that line.

That’s a step in the right direction. But there’s still work to be done. Because there’s no easy way to find that particular match again after you’ve written that note. There is a visual indicator in the match list itself that you’ve entered a note for this person, but there’s no way to search all of your matches for only those where you’ve entered a note and no way to search for a particular note.

The best workaround for the moment is to make sure you click on the star indicator (“Set as favorite”) whenever you add a note to a match. That way, at least, you can filter your results by those you’ve starred and you’ll be able to see which of those have a note. Mousing over the notes indicator pops up a box where you can read each note.

“Has a hint”

The second big improvement in the interface has been the addition of a filter for those people in your match list who have an ancestor in their family tree who’s also in yours.

The great potential strength of the AncestryDNA approach has been the integration of DNA matching with matching on a family tree. Being shown immediately where your own family tree information intersects with the family tree information of a DNA match is a terrific idea. It’s got some practical limitations, of course (what if your match’s tree is wrong? what if yours is wrong?), but the theory is wonderful.

And when there is a tree match, the AncestryDNA presentation is really quite nice. Here’s an example of a match that showed up recently in my results — and this is a sure winner. The lines of descent on both sides for me and this newly-discovered Baker fourth cousin are well-documented:7

But what we didn’t have until very recently was an easy way to find matches whose trees intersected our own. You literally had to click on each individual match to open his or her results page to see if this wonderful chart would appear. That, I’m delighted to report, has also been fixed, and in a very good way.

First, on your match list, there’s an obvious visual cue — the ubiquitous Ancestry shaky leaf — to tell you that a particular match in your list has a tree match to yours:

Even better, there’s a new filter now, so you can search for and display only those that “Have a hint”:

Nicely done, AncestryDNA. Nicely done.

Still needed: raw data, segment info

These are good interface improvements and we can certainly hope for more: I’d still like to see a way to search for matches where we have particular surnames in common, a way to compare two matches to each other, rather than just to me, and a way for the system to report that a match whose results I’ve already reviewed has changed something in his or her online family tree. That change could highlight an ancestor in common or correct an error — and right now, I wouldn’t see it at all.

But these are all interface improvements only. And where AncestryDNA needs the most work is where it still falls far short of both Family Tree DNA with its Family Finder test and 23andMe with its Relative Finder: we need the underlying data that makes autosomal testing so valuable.

The great downside of the AncestryDNA approach — for the moment at least — is that — without tree information — the whole AncestryDNA test is essentially useless. Although we’ve been promised that we will have access to the underlying raw data “in early 2013,”8 we don’t have that information yet. Without it, if your match doesn’t have a tree online, then all you have is a name — and often just a screen name.

You don’t yet get the raw data that can be used with third party utilities for a deep analysis of how you and another person match, and that can be used to compare results across testing companies. And you don’t get information on exactly how and where and on what segments of your DNA you and a cousin match. That’s standard stuff in genetic genealogy and not getting it is frustrating. Without it, and with notoriously inaccurate family tree information used for reporting matches, there’s no way to check whether a match that looks like it’s in one line is really in another different line altogether.

So here’s hoping for a very early “early 2013” present from AncestryDNA: let’s get that raw data available… and start working on a way to display segment data!



  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43.
  2. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Y chromosome DNA test,” rev. 26 Jun 2012.
  3. See ISOGG Wiki (, “Mitochondrial DNA test,” rev. 23 Jul 2011.
  4. See generally Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing.”
  5. See ibid.
  6. See Judy G. Russell, “First looks at AncestryDNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 Aug 2012 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2013). Also ibid., “AncestryDNA now open to all,” posted 4 Nov 2012.
  7. Note that I’ve blacked out the name of my living cousin, since I don’t have permission to share that information. It’s critically important for all of us who do DNA testing to keep the privacy interests of our living cousins in mind at all times. See Judy G. Russell, “The ethics of DNA testing,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 18 Nov 2012 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2013).
  8. Judy G. Russell, “DNA doings,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 14 Nov 2012 ( : accessed 5 Jan 2013).
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16 Responses to AncestryDNA: interface improvements

  1. Dave Lucey says:

    Great post Judy.
    I’m happy with those improvements, but I have noticed in my results that one match where a common ancestor is identified doesn’t have a shaky leaf and doesn’t come up when “has a hint” is selected. This is a fourth cousin match that shows as a 5th-8th cousin, I blogged about it a while back I wonder if it’s because the match was identified before this feature was rolled out?
    I also was fortunate enough to have my grandfathers sister take a test and while she shows up on my 1st-2nd cousin list, the common ancestor is not shown at all. But that might just be because we are both pointing to the same tree.
    Seeing the raw data will be great, but also just being able to download your matches would be helpful. I’d like to triangulate the matches that I share with my great aunt and add notes to them that indicate which side of the tree the match might be from.
    Still, I’d agree that progress is being made, slowly but surely. Looking forward to what 2013 holds!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      >> I wonder if it’s because the match was identified before this feature was rolled out?

      Oh, ouch. I sure hope not, Dave. If this doesn’t update existing matches, then it’s really flawed. Lemme see what I can find out on that.

    • I have a few “ancestor hints” that do not show “shaky leaves.” I know that some of my leaves are for matches I had before this was rolled out. Based on conversations on the 23andMe message boards, this appears to be a widespread issue. AncestryDNA is certainly still a beta product.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        It absolutely is still a beta, Valerie, but this is sure a major flaw. BIG time major flaw. There has to be backward compatibility with prior results — they can’t leave it with those not showing in the “Has Hint” filter. Interestingly, I have several with hints from as long as more than three months ago. I wonder if you turned “reviewed” off if that would affect the hint showing.

        • I have a suggested 4th cousin that I’ve had an “ancestor hint” with since day one, which does not have a leaf. I’ve played with it a few times, trying a number of different things, but still no hint. For what it’s worth, I was told that every time you open a match, it re-evaluates. I have another hint, the same situation, that does have a leaf. There does not appear to be rhyme or reason to it.

          Due to this, and a number of other reasons (search!), I have recommended against purchasing the AncestryDNA test. I strongly recommend ftDNA and 23andMe instead.

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            Let’s hope AncestryDNA can provide some insight into what we’re seeing, Valerie.

  2. Karla says:

    I’ll be curious to see how this improves over time, given Ancestry’s large user base. FTDNA is processing my mother’s test and I’m considering doing 23 and Me’s $99 autosomal so that I can port it to FTDNA and get the benefit of both databases; my cautious sibling wants to see some results before doing a YDNA test.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Karla, I certainly hope it improves. But much of the utility of the AncestryDNA test depends on how good people are with their trees. Without the trees, frankly, it’s not worth anything. With the trees, it’s good (though not yet my first choice for DNA testing). With GOOD user trees, this could be a game changer. How you enforce GOOD in this context is beyond me.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I can second the observation that the “Has a hint” is not backwards compatible. Hints I have had from the beginning (I was in the first batch of tests) do not show up, but new ones do.

    Also, the surname matching is only good if the spelling is EXACTLY the same. So those people who like to put an asterisk with a surname (common enough to identify main line descent in some trees) will not match to a non-asterisked but exact in every other version of the name. Frustrating.

    The hints can also be wrong — I have had it match women of the approximate age (but no known surname) when it is known that there is no second marriages for the women. Oh well.

    I started keeping an Excel spreadsheet to manage the matches. Now I have to go look at the note feature to see if it would help. I would love additional sort capabilities for my matches — like by user name, since otherwise it can be pretty hard to find them sometimes.

  4. TC says:

    My sons and I each have 7th & 8th grandparents in common with several other users. It is also interesting that my sons do not always match to the same people, proving that we do not get every gene from our parents and having more from the same family test helps to prove a stronger lineage. I liken it to son A received more of my fathers genes and son B received more of my mothers, as it turns out.

    In another ‘match’ I have, the closest common ancestor we can find is we share the same 10th great grandparents, both descending from the same daughter in fact. Clearly, there is someone closer, and I suspect it may lead me to another brick wall of my mothers maternal side.

  5. Mary Yelton says:

    Wonderful article explaining Ancestry’s new DNA testing. I have been reading reviews since the launch and been waiting to see if it would be worth my time and money to try (not knowing which family lines have already been tested.) It appears that we are distant cousins as well through the Jones Green/Buchanan line…so I at least know now that some of the line is already in their registry.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Mary, and yes indeed if you’re in that Jones-Green-Buchanan line, we’re cousins! Remember that cousins even as close as 3rd cousins may not have enough autosomal DNA in common to show up as matches on the AncestryDNA test though so even if you test (and I do encourage DNA testing!!) you might not find me in your match list.

  6. Lou says:

    I noticed that we were given a new tool about four days ago. If you send a message to a match via the link that appears on the page for that match, a link to the match will be embedded in the message.

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