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Have You Found the Hidden Features at AncestryDNA?

I really hope this post teaches you nothing. I know, strange to say. But I'd be thrilled if you are already using these in-house autosomal DNA tools from AncestryDNA.

As I'm preparing my new course, Overcoming AncestryDNA Overwhelm, there are some basics I want to make sure are covered. I don't want to keep the information just for those taking the course.
Discover AncestryDNA's Hidden Featuers

In this post, I'll show you three features people treat like they're hidden, point out four "hidden in plain sight" features, make sure you're aware of the basic tools, and give you some hints for using the newly revealed information.

Don't worry, it's not an overwhelming amount of information. When we're done, you'll know where the hidden features are to make every visit to AncestryDNA more productive.

NOTE: AncestryDNA recently rolled out some visual updates which make some of this information less hidden. There have been so many updates lately, I'm not updating the images, yet. You'll see comments listing these changes, though.

I'm covering these features in the order you'd encounter them if you go to the homepage, first. Once you've taken a test, this should be what comes up if you go to There's not really a natural order. Which tools help you most depend on what you're trying to do!

Autosomal DNA Tools at AncestryDNA

The DNA homepage is what Ancestry calls "Your DNA Results Summary." If you are skipping this page you might be missing out on some of the tools. I don't consider these hidden but people get different views based on their results so I'm going to go ahead and quickly look at this page as it is your starting place for lots of information.

Learn tips for using AncestryDNA in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
There is really a lot of information on this page although there are only four tools featured. The tools are the DNA Story, which gives you your ethnicity information; your DNA Matches, which should be the core of using DNA for genealogy; DNA Circles, which are a great tool, but you have to understand how to use it or it'll lead you astray; and New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs), these are a good idea but don't work great so once again, you need to understand what it's telling you.

Honestly, you need to understand the finer points of all parts of genetic genealogy. You can be misled by any of this information if you don't understand what it's telling you.

Understanding your DNA matches can be a general skill, not specific just to AncestryDNA as can using your DNA Story. The DNA Story is a presentation unique to AncestryDNA, though. The concepts behind DNA Circles and NADs are general to genetic genealogy but are only provided in this format at AncestryDNA.

How to Use Your DNA Results with AncestryDNA's Tools

That brings me to the first feature, which may be hiding in plain sight for you.
Learn to use the in-house tools for AncestryDNA, by using the help icon. Learn more tips in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
Do you see the little gray circles with a question mark? Those will give you help on the specific tool or feature they appear by. Use them.

This is how you will learn what each tool is meant to tell you. If you are still struggling, look for other online information (not provided by to tell you more about the tool.

A different viewpoint or way of explaining may be what you need. Also, genetic genealogists will share the quirks they've noticed from using a tool which can help you better understand it's purpose and limitations.

If you don't learn about an AncestryDNA tool from a lecture, webinar, course, or class, start with the question mark icon. This is the best way to learn how to use your DNA results with the in-house tools provided by AncestryDNA.

How to Change Your AncestryDNA Settings

Similarly, don't overlook the settings in the upper right corner of your summary page.
This is where you change the settings specific to your DNA results as opposed to the settings related to your account (which are accessed from your username just above this "Settings" button, a bit confusing). #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna  How do you change your AncestryDNA Settings? Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna

This is where you change the settings specific to your DNA results as opposed to the settings related to your account (which are accessed from your username just above this "Settings" button, a bit confusing).

That's all I'm going to say about the summary page in this post as well as the tools: DNA Story, DNA Circles, and New Ancestor Discoveries.

DNA Matches : What do relationship estimates mean?

Very quickly, before I get to the meat of this section, I want to point out another help icon. We are now in the DNA matches page.
Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
I just wanted to point out this icon (top right corner below the navigation bar) because you might spend a lot of time on this page and this is where you get general help information. This is the same help information that comes up on the Summary page, so no need to go back if you want to see it.

What I really want to point out, is the "hidden" information about what the "possible range" means. This is the estimated relationship and it's more involved than just what you see.
See more suggested relationships for an AncestryDNA match. Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
Once again, use the question mark icon!
You'll get this...
AncestryDNA gives you quick reference information about your likely relationship to a match, if you know where to look. Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
Obviously, it will differ depending on the relationship range. And that's what's so great!

In a moment I'm going to show you another hidden feature which can help you seek out this same kind of information. But then you'll have to determine the most likely relationships from all the choices possibly, not just the choices relevant to you and that one match.

Using this particular help icon gives you the most likely options between you and this match.

In the example I'm showing above, I'm actually in my great-aunt's test looking at myself as a match (there was less privatizing of the screenshots that way). For the amount of DNA we share, there were only three suggested relationships.

The one that my match is grouped under is "1st cousin." The other likely options are great niece/nephew (the actual relationship in this case), and great-great-grandparent (not shown). The option of great-great-grandchild is not included but you should always consider relationships going both ways (you are older or the match is older).

How to use alternative relationship suggestions, right now.

When you are getting started or when you are reviewing a lot of matches but not going too in-depth, this hidden information is really useful. The big reason is it's quick to access. As I said, in a moment I'll show you another way to estimate relationships using hidden information but this is MUCH faster.

Here are a few tips to help you out when you're trying to figure out (or guesstimate) how you are related to a match.

  • Use your tree and the match's tree to consider how many generations separated you could be. This involves knowing or closely guessing how old the match is.
  • Save (on paper or digitally) a copy of both trees with the target shared generations circled for quick reference when you have more time. Use the relationship estimates to determine this.
  • Use the relationship estimates to prioritize who to contact when you need more information than is provided.
Here are a few more details for each of these.

Using relationship suggestions plus age to consider generations separated.

The point of this suggestion is excluding some of the suggested relationships based on age.  How helpful this will be depends on the exact situation you're in.

Keep in mind, the list of suggested relationships can get very long the more distant the relationship.
How do you know what the actual relationship is between you and an AncestryDNA match? Get more tips for finding and using AncestryDNA's hidden features in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
That means you may get more suggestions but there may also be more suggestions that are not listed.

This technique is more (immediately) useful on close matches.

In the example I showed you, between my great-aunt and myself, it would work like this.

I know my age. I know my great-aunt's age. She is 38 years older than me. She cannot be my great-great-grandmother/daughter.

That means, of the three suggestions, I've excluded one of them only based on our ages.

I bet you're wondering how to determine a match's age? It isn't always possible without asking the match (and you might need to build trust before someone is going to tell you).

However, you may be able to exclude some options based on the ages of the public people in the tree. Remember, their exact age isn't important in this case. It's their age in relation to you.

You may be able to tell someone is younger than you based on the number of private generations between the last public person and the test taker. You may be able to guesstimate an age range based on the lack of generations between the (private) test taker and the first public person in their tree.

If the match is the account owner, you can also see if they listed their age range in their profile (click on the match name from your list of matches and then click it again on their individual match page).

The one thing I don't know about this is if these ages are ever automatically updated. So I've been a member since 2002. I didn't enter my age range but if I did, I would have moved one age range by now, and in two years I would need to move another (so in less than 20 years of membership I would move two, ten-year age groups).

Lots of matches joined recently so you won't have to worry about this but I wanted to mention it since you could be 10 or 20 years off based on when the information was entered, plus the 10-year span (so easily 20-30 years off, a generation+).

This is just a way to reduce the possible relationships to consider, it is far from foolproof. Half-sibling situations make this even more complicated. My point is, this can help you in some situations so don't overlook it. This isn't an "answer" without concrete information and more work.

Marking possible relationship ranges on a tree.

This is a good way to consider how difficult a relationship will be to identify, based on researching your match's tree (and possibly doing more research on your own). Once again, not a result in itself, a clue.

The point of doing this is to visualize where in your tree and the match's tree the shared ancestor is likely to be, based on the likely relationships. This is kinda pointless if there are too many relationships but you can mark the most likely range, knowing there are more options.

In this case, the age of the match doesn't really matter, just having their tree (i.e. they need to appear so the correct number of generations is viewed---you don't need details about them).

Remember I suggested these three items as quick ways to use suggested relationships. When you quickly look at someone's tree, it's sometimes helpful to circle the generations where you are most likely to find the shared ancestor.
This can help you see if those generations have people identified or not.

As much as I love a paperless office, I usually print trees and do this. That is easier to cross out generations that are unlikely (say people from a country I know can't be the connection at that generation level). I can also make notes if the full tree won't easily print on one page. This is just a quick reminder for later, not a full review of their tree.

If I want a digital copy, I can scan it or snap a picture with the Evernote camera.

Prioritizing who to contact

Finally, the relationship information can help you prioritize who to contact. You can combine the above techniques to do this or use the information when you don't have a tree to review (remember, you might have an age range for a match from their profile even if they don't have a tree so the first suggestion could be used with or without a tree).

If you don't have a tree to review, seeing the possible relationships could easily span two to five generations might make you consider a match a lower priority than one where there are fewer generations possible. Once again, the more distant the match, the less likely you'll be able to narrow things down just from what is provided online.

You might be contacting a match to ask them to upload to GEDmatch, not just to get a family tree or ask if they see a connection. How you prioritize and why is up to you and based on your interests.

Filter, search, and categorize AncestryDNA Matches

Before I move on to the individual match view, I want to point out the other features that aren't hidden (but may be overlooked) on your match list.
Don't overlook the filters (seen across the top of the above image). Which filters you have depends on if your parents were tested and if you have regions listed in your DNA Story.

Additionally, you can filter by matches with hints, new matches, and those you've starred.

You can click the grayed out star in this view or the individual match view. Sadly, stars are the only way to categorize matches from within AncestryDNA. That means you get one group, "starred."

I star my great-aunt's matches for a particular shared ancestor I'm working on. I have lots of other projects I'm interested in but I had to pick one. Use this however you like to quickly pull up a list of matches you are interested in.

UPDATE: Blaine Bettinger released a Chrome extension "DNA Match Labeling" which addresses the lack of more than one star. Also check out the extension mentioned in the update in the next section.

As a note about the "search matches" feature. This thing has all kinds of issues. It doesn't always work and there's no way to tell other than if it worked previously for that exact search. It doesn't search usernames or notes. It can only search surnames or birth locations that appear in trees and that it recognizes as such.

That means it doesn't search matches without trees, locations other than birth location, locations not recognized as what you entered, or surnames not in the surname field. Lots of NOTs.

The search feature is a really weak area of AncestryDNA but you should still use the filter and starred option to work more efficiently.

UPDATE: Since writing this post there's a new Chrome extension that can help you do some of the things you'd think you should be able to do. Learn about it below in the "Note Taking" section.

Note Taking in AncestryDNA

When you open up the individual match view (when you click on a match's name from the list of matches), don't miss out on another feature hiding in plain sight.
You can add a note to your AncestryDNA matches from their match page. Learn more features of AncestryDNA in this post from The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory

The notes field may not jump out at you with the gray text and small note icon.

This is a private note field just for you. Your match can't see it. It's not searchable but the note icon will appear on the list of matches or list of shared matches.
Entering a note for an AncestryDNA match creates a pop-up you can easily review from your list of shared matches. Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist #geneticgenealogy #dna #genealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna

When you're reviewing a list (including a list of "shared matches"), you can click on the icon and see the note. I find this really helpful if I suspect a match belongs to a shared ancestral line based on the shred matches.

Quickly reviewing my notes for the shared matches can help me decide what I want to do with a match: contact them, star them, leave it alone and work on other matches, or something else.

My new course Overcoming AncestryDNA Overwhelm teaches you how I group AncestryDNA matches so I can essentially manage them, rather than them overwhelming me. Using this simple notes tool can make it faster to group them.

UPDATE: There's now a Chrome extension to help you really use the "Note" feature. The extension is MedBetterDNA. You can read about how one genealogist is using it in her post, "Organizing My AncestryDNA Matches." I do something similar (but I only just got the extension) so I'm looking forward to better utilizing the Notes feature in future.

How Much Shared DNA

UPDATE: This information isn't hidden anymore. The same information is now given on the list of matches (so my notes about using the information are still relevant although it's not a "hidden feature").

Finally is the most recent "hidden" feature. It took a while but AncestryDNA finally provided the amount of shared DNA. You find it by clicking on the question mark icon by the estimated relationship on the individual match view.
Finding the amount of shared dna between yourself and an AncestryDNA match is easy. Learn more, including how to use this information in this post from The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydan

This is particularly confusing since you might assume this icon would give you the same information as the icon on the match list view. They are related since the amount of shared DNA is related to your relationship but the actual information provided is totally different.
You can make a better prediction of your relationship to an AncestryDNA match by using the shared DNA hidden feature. Learn more, including how to make your improved estimate in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydan

On its own, the amount of shared DNA (given as centiMorgans [cMs] and segments) doesn't tell you anything. You can take this information and use it with information provided from other sources to identify better or additional estimated relationships.

If you track this information, you may be able to better estimate relationships by learning how much DNA you share when the relationship is known.

You Need More Than AncestryDNA

With this and all of these suggestions, you can't confirm how you match via DNA without transferring your results somewhere where segment information is provided. If you see a shared ancestor in someone's tree, that doesn't guarantee the DNA you share actually came from that ancestor. 

Only using the information provided at AncestryDNA is only using clues. If you want to confirm the genetic relationship, you need more than those clues.

Estimating Relationships Without Segment Data

If you want to use your shared DNA to best estimate your relationship to a match (particularly when you can't get a match to respond or transfer to GEDmatch or another site with segment data), I recommend using Blaine Bettinger's The Shared cM Project.

This is an amazing project where Blaine has requested people submit their DNA amounts for known relationships. He's had the statistical work done on these real-life examples as opposed to estimates that rely on statistical models/hypothetical amounts of shared DNA.

Full details are on his blog and in the PDF download. Make sure you get the PDF download to learn how to use your shared DNA with the data from The Shared cM Project.

To learn more about autosomal DNA statistics in general, check out the ISOGG Wiki page on autosomal DNA statistics.

Another AncestryDNA Quirk

One final note about shared DNA reported at AncestryDNA.

AncestryDNA uses a different algorithm that results in more shared segments being reported than at other companies. Be aware of this if you are comparing shared DNA from AncestryDNA against information from another source. It is normal to see slight variations in the amount of shared DNA as reported by different companies (including the same results uploaded/transferred elsewhere).

The number of segments reported at AncestryDNA should be higher for your close matches. For more distant matches where you have only a few shared segments, it can be confusing (are those two segments really one larger segment or two distinct segments?).

This is just one more reason you want to try and obtain segment data from a site like GEDmatch. Compare apples to apples instead of grapefruit and tangelos.

Getting More from AncestryDNA

Hopefully, now you know there is more information available at AncestryDNA than meets the eye. Finding the "hidden" information and knowing what to do with it can really improve your genetic genealogy results.

However, if you really want to confirm a shared relationship from DNA (not just a shared relationship based on a family tree), you are going to have to use other tools such as GEDmatch, or upload your results to another company such as FamilyTreeDNA or MyHeritageDNA. You could also pay for another test at a company that provides segment information.

Learn more about GEDmatch in my post The Free DNA Tool You Need to Know. Find more posts about DNA and genetic genealogy here.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the number of matches you have at AncestryDNA, I encourage you to take my course Overcoming AncestryDNA Overwhelm.

Do you have questions or suggestions for using these "hidden" features? Leave a comment!

These AncestryDNA features will improve your DNA analysis. Get tips  for using AncestryDNA in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
Discover Ancestry DNA's autosomal DNA tools. Get tips  for using AncestryDNA in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna

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