AncestryDNA: an explanation and a promise

More info from AncestryDNA

Last Sunday’s post on interface improvements at AncestryDNA led to a couple of complaining comments about the new “has hints” feature for autosomal DNA matches in the Ancestry system.

That’s the new alert system that AncestryDNA has to let you know which people in your match list have an ancestor in their family tree who’s also in yours. There’s both a visual cue (the typical Ancestry shaky leaf) and a filter you can use to find any match that has a hint.

Reader Dave Lucey noted that he had “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.” Reader Elizabeth noted that matches she had had from the early stages of testing didn’t not show up, but new ones did.

And lots of folks — here and elsewhere — are generally a bit confused about what constitutes a match for “has a hint” purposes, anyway.

In response, Kenneth Freestone, Product Manager for AncestryDNA, offers both an explanation… and a promise.

Before we go on, here’s a reminder: an autosomal DNA test is the kind of test that works across genders and helps you find cousins in recent generations.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

It’s the same kind of DNA test that Family Tree DNA offers as its Family Finder test and that 23andMe offers with results called Relative Finder.

The explanation

AncestryDNA’s Freestone offers this explanation of the “has a hint” feature that may shed light on why some matches aren’t showing up with a shaky leaf or when the “has a hint” filter is used:

Our process to discover a pedigree confirmation for each DNA match includes ALL matches… even ones that have a tree marked “private.” There are a few possible reasons why any given match does not show up with a hint leaf:

•  The mostly likely reason is that we are still working to process all of the hints for all of the DNA tests, so we may not have come to the particular match yet. (This comparison is very processor intensive. We launched this new feature around mid-to-late December and are now mostly finished—only 2.5 million comparisons remain.) While that process continues, we’ve left active the tool to “re-evaluate” for a match each time the match detail page is loaded.

•  If the shared ancestor is further back than 10 generations we won’t find it. (10 generations is our current max, which is a tradeoff of speed vs. thoroughness. We expect to extend this at some point.)

•  If the shared ancestor does not pass our threshold for match quality, we won’t include it. That quality assessment includes name, vitals, and more. (For DNA we have a higher standard than what we use for regular tree hinting.)

And Freestone adds one bit of information that’s critical in my thinking: the matching system is dynamic; that is, it changes and updates as people change and update their family trees. He explains: “The process that looks for shared ancestors between matches has a very nice feature built into it, which for lack of a better name I’d call ‘tree edit awareness’. This means that any future tree changes (additions, deletions, edits, etc.) will automatically trigger the system to re-evaluate all matches.”

For the future, he said, “We expect customers to discover shared ancestors that are not revealed by our hinting tools. We’d like to create a way for people to identify these, and for these customer-flagged matches to be included in the filtering.”

The promise

Freestone shared some other thoughts about the future, and they can all be fairly summed up as a promise to listen to customer concerns … and then to deliver better, more meaningful results:

     • “You suggest that a filter for “has a note” would be welcomed. This is on our list.”

     • “Raw data is still on track for early 2013. We’re actively working on it and are excited to add this.”

And a big new one:

     • “You mention several other features you’d love to see (search matches for surnames and segment comparison). We absolutely recognize the value in these and they are high on our to-do list for 2013.

And that is very good news indeed.


  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.”
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12 Responses to AncestryDNA: an explanation and a promise

  1. Ann Turner says:

    Another big improvement: an alert poster on the AncestryDNA message board noticed that mail you send to your matches now embeds a hyperlink, so they can view the match without searching for your ID in their long list of matches. I had posted a work-around with instructions on how to construct the URL, but this is much better.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s good to know! They really are trying to improve the interface, Ann. And if they get the raw data out AND segment matching (and being able to compare match 1 to match 2, which Ken didn’t mention)? Nice.

  2. Judy (& Ann)

    Great news. For the life of me I do not understand why companies fail to keep their customers well informed. Thank you for passing on the info.

  3. Lou says:

    I hope it’s okay that I posted much of the following on an board as well:
    I realized the other day that if I open a page of matches (let’s say, the first page of “starred” ones) then “select all”, “copy”, and “paste special” as “unformatted text” into a Word document, all the notes (and much more) on that page appear in the document. After posting this on an Ancestry message board, another poster responded (in effect) that if you don’t “paste special” and instead just “paste”, you get the hyperlink to the match. I tried it and it works! If we do it the first way, we get all the notes (and more) for 50 matches into a document in a few seconds. If we do it the other way, we get all the hyperlinks to the 50 matches into a document in a few seconds!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I have seen the “dynamic tree hints” in action. A DNA match had a tree hint and when I looked at the tree I realized that my match had misidentified my ancestor as hers. (We did have 2 other matches, a few generation farther back so the DNA match was valid). My match corrected her tree when I gave her the new information, and she dropped from my tree hints. (I guess because the actual match was too far back?)

    I await further updates eagerly. It is getting hard to manage all the matches. Especially since the results for a 2nd test (my mother) came in.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s very interesting, Elizabeth! Thanks for posting that. I know it must be a little frustrating to have someone drop off the list, but better a good genealogy than a bad match!

  5. Susan Russell says:

    I’ve been enjoying your blog for several months after I signed up for AncestryDNA. I’m glad you’re keeping after them to improve the product. I hope this current crop of promises will materialize soon!

  6. Dave Lucey says:

    Thanks for following up with them on this Judy.
    I still only have the one hint, the old one has not shown up. I don’t think any of the 3 reasons provided by Ken apply to my situation. The system has already found the match and identified it correctly (although it only picked up on the wife, not the husband although they are the same in the two trees) and it’s only 4 generations back.
    Maybe it’s just a bug?

  7. Alice Eichholz says:

    Where is tha drop down filter menu you have pictured? I don’t see to have it – just icons for hints, new, and starred.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It isn’t there any more, Alice. The same options are there — if you choose no filters, you get all; and the others are now clickable icons.

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