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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 about getting the most from your AncestryDNA results, there are some basics I want to make sure everyone is aware of. I don't want to keep the information just for those taking the course.

Discover AncestryDNA's Hidden Featuers

Ancestry DNA Tools : Are They Hidden? Can You Find Them?


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: Since I wrote this post, AncestryDNA has made two sets of changes. I have updated all images as much as I'm going to for now. I've left some of the old images because there was little change. 

If you have a question, you can leave a comment or use the "Contact Me" form in the right sidebar (make sure I know which post you are asking about if you use the contact form, unlike comments, it isn't tied to a post).

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 AncestryDNA.com. 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 three tools featured. The tools are:

ThruLines essentially rolls the two old tools, DNA Circles and New Ancestor Discoveries (NADs), together. I'm mentioning them because they had a bit of a learning curve. ThruLines is easier to use but many of the same warnings apply as the technology behind all three tools is essentially the same.

You may come across older posts talking about DNA Circles and NADs and the information may still be relevant but applies to ThruLines. This is just a heads-up as you continue on your genetic genealogy learning journey.

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 ThruLines is very popular. MyHeritageDNA offers the similar "Theory of Family Relativity." (I prefer this because it is clear it is a "theory," not a conclusion, and they will show you multiple options).

Let's look a little closer.

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 Ancestry.com) 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 Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com 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 DNA Story and ThruLines.

Ancestry DNA Changes 2019

So there seems to be one change for the worse (if you're a new user of AncestryDNA). It seems the help icon on the list of matches has been removed. Below are comparison shots. I hadn't even noticed this when using the new view.

(Note that at the time I'm updating this post, this new view is still considered "Beta" but is supposed to roll out to everyone in a week. Next week is a holiday week AND my husband has scheduled a surgery so if the non-Beta version is different, it might be a while before I get back to update the images.)

On the main page listing all your matches.
Learn more in this post from The Occasional Genealogist. #genealogy #dna #geneticgenealogy #familyhistory #ancestrydna
old view
new July 2019 view in Beta
The icon in the upper right is now "Map."

How to Use DNA for Genealogy, Faster

If you are new to using AncestryDNA, use those help icons. You now may need to go to the splash page (as pictured in the section above called "Autosomal DNA Tools at AncestryDNA") to access the basic help information. It is still available and you should be familiar with it.

MOST complaints I see newer DNA users make are actually explained by one of the help icon pop-ups I point out in this post.

Not concerned, don't like using "help" information, in a rush?

Think of it this way. You only have a limited amount of time to spend on genealogy and DNA. The time it takes you to email someone for help, or to post your complaint on social media or a message board could have been spent clicking a help icon, reading what it said, and then continuing with your genetic genealogy.

Yes, I believe you can do all three of those things in the time it takes you to ask for help or to complain about an issue. If you ask for help, you probably end up waiting for an answer so you could do a LOT more if your question is answered by a help icon.

There WILL be valid complaints and information not answered with a help icon. Make the best use of your genealogy time by using those help icons until you know everything they have to tell you or you know a better place to get the same kind of information. There will be plenty of things you will have to stop and look-up, thus stalling your DNA use.

Don't get stalled by something unnecessary.

DNA Matches : What do relationship estimates mean?

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!

The above image is still valid although the formatting looks different in the July 2019 update but I'm saving time and leaving it for now (Hey, I'm an Occasional Genealogist, too. I'd like to finish this edit and either do some work where I'll get paid or do my own genealogy).

To help you better in future, I'm going to show you the old "relationship estimate help pop-up" and the new and ask for your opinion.

You used to 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
I think this is the better display and more likely to give a newer DNA user an idea of the range or relationships. This tree display is no longer used.

Perhaps this had more to do with screen real estate (a mobile device might display the new version better).

I'd love to hear your preferences on the above view vs. the new view (below) so leave a comment.

Here's the new view (still a pop-up but I'm only showing you the pop-up):

Because this is a close relationship, there aren't a lot of choices.

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 possible, 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 old example (first image above), I'm actually in my great-aunt's test looking at myself as a match. For the amount of DNA we share, there were only three suggested relationships.

The new display actually shows 99% for only four relationships but they have listed both "directions" of the relationship so it looks like a lot more options. They have added the percentages (which is nice) but essentially the information is the same, it just looks very different.

The reason the list seems so much longer is all about the display. The website does not know if I am the niece or aunt so both options are listed. With the tree view, you could be the person on the right side or the person on the left side so one tree could help you understand both "directions" of any relationship.

Even if you have done genealogy research before, you may not be used to determining relationships in these ways (using a graphical representation of the options, a table with percentages, or the other option, using a cousin chart). Learn to use all these options, or at least try all of them. Some people are better with the visual tree chart, some with a table layout with percentages, and some with the cousin chart (which is also a type of table layout).

The percentage chart is right there at AncestryDNA waiting for you to click it so use it.

The major complaint I see that this help icon resolves is the "wrong" relationship being listed.

This is me and my great-aunt. It is grouped under "1st cousin." This is a grouping. We are correctly grouped under 1st cousin.

The grouping is determined solely on the amount of DNA (the cMs) you share. The grouping is never wrong because of this. However, there are many possible relationships for any match in a group and you may share very little or a whole lot of DNA compared to the estimate for the actual relationship. The computer can not figure this out. It is up to you.

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 a MUCH faster option.

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. (There is an example in the following section)
  • Use the relationship estimates to prioritize who to contact when you need more information than is provided.
Here are 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 types of suggestions, I've excluded one of them only based on our ages.

With the new table view of possible relationships, you may need to find a source, or create yourself, a tree view of the possible relationships. How many children a couple has, or how far apart in age they are, dramatically affects estimating possible relationships based on ages. Still, with closer relationships, it's often possible to at least decide some relationships are unlikely.

[HINT: if a match is of high interest and you have a tree for them, you can do some research to try and see if a couple has children with a wide range of ages and/or if there are multiple marriages. This can help you narrow possible ranges, too. You can see why I recommend this for your closest matches as this can get time-consuming, fast.]

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 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.

First, for those of you who might be feeling a bit disoriented with the change...

What information you are given has not changed but it's been condensed, moved, and some (obvious) additions have been made.

The image below if a gif of the dropdown list for "Groups." If it's not working, you can simply click the "Groups" dropdown for your test to see the options. I'm not going to talk about every option so this isn't vital.

Which options you have depends on if your parents were tested and if you have regions listed in your DNA Story.

Note that the "regions" are now under that "Map" icon that replaced the help icon in the upper right corner. I'm not going to talk about them because I have very little experience with them (that happens when all your ancestors are from one state).

For those of you with "normal" family trees, the regions may be very helpful in separating out your options. Don't consider it a slam dunk, though. My father-in-law has a far more diverse family tree than me or his wife but I've found most of his matches have a very similar diverse family tree, so the regions still don't tell me which branch a match likely belongs to!

You'll find regions helpful when comparing someone who doesn't share parts of your geographical ancestry (so if my husband and I showed up as matches, which thankfully we don't, I would know I don't match any of his paternal regions or, in reverse, he'd know I must be a maternal match because I don't have any shared regions with his father---but an ethnicity comparison would not reveal this. The lesson, don't just rely on one tool!).

So what are these dropdowns?

"Groups" Drop-down

The "Groups" filter (yes, it's a filter even though the other option is called "Filters")  allows you to look at select groups of matches.

It has added a custom grouping (this is one of the options you previously needed an extension for) as well as the starred matches. Previously the starred matches was the only "group" filter available, then the extensions allowed you more options. This update makes the grouping features of the extensions unnecessary.

I'll mention the custom groups in a moment.

Now you can also focus on the actual groupings (close-4th cousin or distant cousins) without actually having to flip pages.  You also have some enhanced option for new matches and hidden matches.

The parental filtering is now under "Groups" (only available if a parent was tested).

"Filters" Drop-down

OK, the "Filters" have some new features.  You may not think these are exciting but this is where I have a LOT to write about (as in updating other posts and writing new posts because it's too much to cover here).



I just have a few quick notes for these filters since they could result in entire posts.

  1. "Common ancestors" uses ThruLines. This works better than the old ancestor hints but is also more dangerous. Make sure you understand how ThruLines works as it can show you the wrong ancestor and you'll be off chasing the wrong family (or spinning in circles---which happens if you have lots of interrelated lines OR your matches have lots of interrelated lines. This second scenario is the dangerous one because you might not be aware of it. As a southern specialist, let me pass on a warning. If you have southern ancestors, assume you or your matches have interrelated lines). You can see my initial suggestions about safely using ThruLine in this post.
  2. The new "Messaged" filter can help you focus. See this post for more tips on messaging AncestryDNA matches
  3. That "Notes" filter is just a filter. You still can't search your notes, disappointing, I know. Use the custom groups to help with this.

Searching Ancestry DNA Matches

So there is a new feature with "Search!"

It probably still has all kinds of issues (if something has been changed, I can't be sure something else hasn't also so I'll leave this warning here). It doesn't always work and there's no way to tell other than if it worked previously for that exact search.

It now does search user names which is a HUGE benefit.

It still does not search notes.

When it searches a tree, it has to recognize the information as what it's searching for (so location search is for birth location only, which is not ideal, plus the tree has to have the birth location entered so it's recognizable as what locationyou searched for and the birth location, i.e. the tree owner didn't make a mistake).

You can only search for one surname so good luck when you have a combination of something like Smith and something everyone spells differently! Your search won't be efficient for either of those.

Search does NOT search...
  • matches without trees---UPDATE, the username will be searched, now,
  • locations other than birth location, 
  • locations not recognized as what you entered, 
  • or surnames not in the surname field. 
That's lots of NOTs.

Although I'm thrilled the username can be searched, this will cause issues if you search for a common name as you'll get username and tree results.

The search feature is STILL a really weak area of Ancestry DNA.

What about that "Categorizing" item I promised?

Use the "Custom groups" to create categories or groups. There are lots of ways to do this (which will be separate posts, isn't your head already spinning?). I am using my custom groups to match my "buckets," right down to the colors, to make my life easier. That's just one way to use them.

Learn a little about how I like to use DNA clustering ("bucketing" with my technique) in this post.

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 small text and note icon.

This is a private note field just for you. Your match can't see it. It's not searchable and now a preview of your note 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

This is a list of Shared Matches and you can see in the far right column the "custom groups" I've created and the start of each note under them.

I use my notes along with my 4 Buckets Technique so I keep them pretty short. The first match here shows my preferred format (the hashtags are from the MedBetterDNA extension which may or may not work since the recent update but no need to change them).

You can create your own "Faux Buckets Technique" using the custom groups. (This is something I am updating in my "Road to DNA Success Program" now that this update is available.

Being able to see these notes on the match list of shared match list is really helpful. If I suspect a match belongs to a shared ancestral line based on the shared matches, the note (and custom groups) can make this clearer.

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.

How Much Shared DNA

This section just keeps getting smaller. Originally, Ancestry DNA did not provide the amount of shared DNA. Then they did but you had to know where to find it. Now it's just hanging out for everyone to see.

The image below isn't huge but you hopefully noticed the shared DNA (shared centiMorgans or cMs) on other images. There isn't an "icon" for more help, now. Instead, you just click the shared cMs and the pop-up with estimated likely relationships will appear.

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 can get help with this from my free "Road to DNA Success" program. I'm in the process of updating it to fully utilize the new Ancestry DNA updates but you can still request it and updated material will be provided when it's available.

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.

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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