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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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