Baiting the hook

Should I test with somebody else…

Anyone who even dabbles in genetic genealogy — DNA testing — hears the questions all the time.

“Should I test with somebody else now that 23andMe has had problems with the FDA?”

“Should I test with somebody else since AncestryDNA doesn’t provide better tools to understand my DNA results?”

“Should I test with somebody else since Family Tree DNA has outdated admixture percentages and I’m tired of being told only that I’m 100% European?”

SEO metaphor - part 2. Link baiting, hunting for visitors, fishing.The answer to all of these questions, of course, is no.

And yes.

You see, there are two parts to each of those questions.

One part starts with the word “since,” and it expresses a frustration with some of the limitations of each of the DNA testing companies.

Some of us wish 23andMe and the FDA would play nice together so we could get health data again.1 Some of us wish AncestryDNA would provide detailed analysis tools.2 And some of us wish Family Tree DNA would provide better admixture data3 — those percentage estimates of our ancient ancestry that all the companies have trouble with but where Family Tree DNA lags behind the most.

The other part is the first part: “Should I test with somebody else…” — should I give my DNA testing dollars to another company?

The answer to the “since” question is no.

None of the limitations of any of the testing companies is a good reason for not testing with that company.


Because the answer to the “Should I test with somebody else…” question is yes.

Always and forever yes.

Because only by testing as broadly and as widely as we can do we get the maximum benefit from DNA testing.

Think of it this way:

• DNA testing is like fishing for cousins. Cousins who share our genetic heritage, who share some ancestors with us, and who may be sitting out there with the answers to some of our most vexing genealogical questions.

• Our own DNA tests are the bait that we use to try to catch the cousin who has the family Bible, the cousin who has the photograph of those second or third great grandparents, the cousin who has that fourth great grandmother’s maiden name.

• The databases of the DNA testing companies are the ponds we can fish in.

• And the cousins — well, the cousins may be in any one of the ponds.

Let me offer some very specific examples from my own research. Because I’ve put my money where my mouth is on this — I’ve tested with every company out there. I tested back when the cost of a single autosomal DNA test was more than the cost today of testing with all three major companies. And I’ve gained at least one cousin from every pond I’ve fished in.

At Family Tree DNA, where I have the vast majority of my family test results, I’ve picked up Buchanan cousins who help me nail down the maiden name of my third great grandmother Elizabeth Buchanan Baker. And using targeted testing (asking specific people to test), I’ve also nailed down other ancestral lines.

At AncestryDNA, I picked up a cousin in the line of my archnemesis second great grandfather George Washington Cottrell — a cousin who descends from G.W.’s youngest son George while I descend from the oldest son Martin Gilbert. Having this Cottrell cousin’s DNA as a double-check, we’ve made some progress in fleshing out where our elusive George may have come from (since his own answers to those kinds of questions are … um … less than truthful).

Even at 23andMe, which I personally find to be the most difficult and frustrating of the databases to work with, I picked up a cousin in my maternal grandmother’s Robertson line who’s been able to shed light on some of the questions about that side of the family where we had no answers.

None of the testing companies is perfect. None offers exactly what I might want at any given moment. But each of them offers something priceless: the chance at finding a cousin with just the information I need — a cousin who may only have tested at that one company and not at any of the others.

So from the standpoint of getting the most traction in our genealogical research, the only question that really matters is “Should I test with somebody else…” — and the answer is always yes.

Fish in all the ponds.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “23andMe suspends health tests,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 15 Feb 2013).
  2. See ibid., “What AncestryDNA doesn’t provide,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 May 2013.
  3. See ibid., “Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013.
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8 Responses to Baiting the hook

  1. Don Worth says:

    You make very good points. I have been a little guilty of coming down on 23andMe and Ancestry (mostly because I don’t care about the admixture stuff myself.) You have inspired me to look at this a different way.

    I guess a better question for a lot of people is “Which company should I test with FIRST?”. I think the reason that there are different people in the different ponds is that people get tested, play with it a little, and that’s the end of it. So, if they are just starting out, they want to know which company will provide them with the best initial experience (depending on what they want out of it.)

    I have to admit that I have not tested autosomal with anyone but FTDNA so far. I have 600 matches and it will take me a long time to get through them. I very rarely ever hear from someone else – so it’s usually me having to send out the emails. And it’s a lot of work with only the occasional reward. (Feels a bit more like selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door than fishing – LOL)

    I guess what frustrates me is that I must pay for something I already bought all over again just to get access to another company’s database. And I have to learn a whole new user interface and set of terminology (“Family Finder”, “Ancestry Composition”, etc.) and process (sending invitations, etc.) In an ideal world, I could buy the test and get the raw results and put them in one big database and people could compete to make the best tools to display and analyze that database. I guess that’s a good reason to donate to GEDMATCH, huh?

    • Don Worth says:

      With regards my last paragraph above, I’m now recognizing that I need to adjust my mental model for what I am buying. It’s not the test results (they are actually a by-product of the test in a way). I’m actually paying to become a member in that vendor’s “pond”. Sort of the same business model as or If you want to find a mate or a job, you need to join more than one of each of these. Now it doesn’t bother me so much. :-)

  2. Nancy Schlegel says:

    Anyone know of any ponds to fish in, outside the USA & UK? With half of my tree descending from German immigrants in 1840s & 1890s, whose USA descendants I have fully traced, where I really need to be dangling a hook is wherever those Germans cousins remaining in Europe would go for genealogical DNA testing today!

    • Phil Grass says:


      As a quick answer I would suggest FamilyTreeDNA is the most likely of the three based on my experiences here in Germany. doesn’t ship outside the US and 23andMe was incredibly expensive to ship internationally.


    • Nancy Schlegel says:

      Okay, okay, friends who are also readers here are having a field day with my phrasing “fully traced” :-) what I was trying to reflect was that 1890s immigrants were my grandfather & his sister, so not only do I have records for their descendants, I’ve met those who survived to adulthood, and seen the graves of those who didn’t. The 4 1840s immigrants had only 3 sons & 1 daughter respectively. The daughter married the youngest son; of their 5 children, only 2 survived, of whom only one married, becoming my grandmother. Of the other 2 sons, only one married; he had 2 children, only one of whom married – and I know the descendants from there. So barring any hanky-panky… :-)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      My Heritage has more of an international flavor and has already partnered with Family Tree DNA to try to get more international participation in the database, Nancy. And we really need to get findmypast involved in quality DNA testing, to start getting their overseas folks involved.

  3. Paul Brady says:

    I enjoyed this article. Thanks. Oh, and I fish both in my conventional genealogy (bait is well-documented genealogy WITH images of documents) and in the DNA. I’ve caught found cousins both ways and share in research with a number of close and distant relatives. There are lines that are yet elusive… so, the hooks are baited and I wait patiently :-)

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