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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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