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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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These 2 Ancestry DNA Tools Will 10x Your Results

UPDATE: I no longer recommend testing at AncestryDNA. Currently, there are severe limitations to the tools they offer and your options for third-party tools are now being limited. If you've already tested at AncestryDNA, this post will help you use those results but for faster results, consider a site with more tools and segment data like MyHeritageDNA. Some suggestions in posts may no longer be available for AncestryDNA results. This is too massive and changing too fast for me to update everything at this time.

Are you one of the millions of people who took a DNA test from Ancestry.com?

Are you one of the thousands (possibly millions) who is confused or looking for more help with your AncestryDNA test?

Do you know if there are AncestryDNA tools? Are they free?

Yes, there are tools, some are free.

So which ones should you use?

There are two tools everyone should be using and they're free. This post will explain how to use these two tools and then also give you four more suggestions in case you've already used both the fundamental tools to their maximum potential.

If you're looking for "Ancestry DNA Tools," you need to make sure you've tried these built-in features before you spend time learning a more complicated (and likely unnecessary) tool.
Just 2 powerful AND easy steps can get you results using your AncestryDNA results. Don’t fight with complicated tools until you’ve tried this!

DNA tools can be almost as complicated as DNA. That is, tools like apps and software. You have to figure out how to use them and usually understand enough about DNA to have a specific need for that tool. If you want something to make using DNA easier, the two "tools" I'm describing in this post are fundamental. Starting with them will make using tools in future easier, too!

Third-party DNA tools are best when you have a specific need for that exact tool.

I've been fighting with my own AncestryDNA results for several years (and other DNA results for much longer). During that fight, I developed some of my own "tools" and in 2018 I began sharing them. I've now used my tools on others' results and had others use the tools, too.

I've learned this two step method is a great way for anyone to get going with their AncestryDNA results.

We all want tools to make a task easier. With something online, like DNA results, you are probably thinking of software, or an app, or an extension. I used to use an extension for these steps but Ancestry DNA has now built-in the features you need to get started.

Because these are built-in "features," now, you may not think of this as "tools." They will make using DNA easier, the point of a tool. This post will explain the process that goes with these tools. I find this process critical, as in you need to have already done it, when using any third-party tools.

I do have some tools I use and recommend but I think most people are missing some critical steps BEFORE they need actual stand-alone "tools."

All the tools in the world can't help you without some of these best practices.

So are you with me? Are you ready to learn some EASY steps to help you use your AncestryDNA results?

Just 2 powerful AND easy steps can get you results using your AncestryDNA results. Don’t fight with complicated tools until you’ve tried this!

2 DNA "Tools" for 10x the Results

The two big, huge, major, things I've found people are not doing and are critical for DNA success are:
  1. Making notes
  2. Identifying known cousins

So these do sound like steps, here's how I'd define them as "tools."
  1. Maximize your use of the "Notes" tool (built-in)
  2. Use Trees (built-in tool)
  3. Use a cousin chart (independent tool)

If you think you are taking notes and identifying known cousins, you may not be taking these steps far enough. That's usually the problem.

There are two types of tree tools you should be using. Can you name them?

People think they are taking notes and using trees, but it's like keeping your genealogy notes on the back of an envelope, and you never file anything.

In the traditional envelope example, the problem is, you might do some amazing work, but you lose it.

In the DNA world, the equivalent is...

Oh, wait, it's the same.

Here's the deal:

  • you need to be ORGANIZED and, 
  • wait for it... do RESEARCH.

Yes, get excited, you are going to get to do research, the fun part of genealogy!

But first a word about organizing...

Organizing DNA Results

Don't Panic! You can do this.

So I know organizing isn't the fun part of genealogy. I have specifically said "making notes" because you don't need to develop an amazing organizing system for your DNA.

Yes, it would be awesome and helpful to create an amazing system but I bet you either have a lot going on in life OR a lot of genealogy going on in your life.

You probably won't give enough time to an amazing organizing system just for DNA so I'm giving you a realistic alternative---if you can, go for the amazing organizing system.

If you fail to create a robust and efficient DNA organizing system, you can still find DNA success.

Let's talk about the fun (but actually harder) step which involves research.

Genealogy Research for Genetic Genealogy

"Identifying known cousins" is number two on the list because it can be harder than note-taking---but it's critical.

Don't just look in the tree attached to a match. Make your own tree for that match.

Yup, you need to do research.

These are the two (technically three) tree tools you should be using with AncestryDNA results.
  1. Public trees (attached AND unattached).
  2. ThruLines (which only works with attached trees, public or private-searchable).
  3. Trees you build yourself.

You should use private attached trees by contacting matches but that's not part of this first set of steps.

You will identify very few shared ancestors only using the trees attached to your AncestryDNA matches' results. You have to research to find ancestors.

You will identify very few shared ancestors only using the trees attached to your AncestryDNA matches' results.

Researching is an easy step in the sense if you're a genealogist, you already know how to do genealogy. It's harder than taking notes because not all research is easy and eventually, you want to start creating trees almost from scratch (yes, I've created a tree for a DNA match with no attached tree at all, you can, too).

There are a number of tricks you can learn to maximize your success at creating or furthering trees for DNA matches. They can be pretty involved so I'm not covering them in this post (each trick might deserve its own post!). I do teach them in my "Your Roadmap to DNA Success" courses.

The number one tool you need to use your AncestryDNA results is basic genealogy research.

The #1 tool for Ancestry DNA results is building trees for your matches.

Let's take a quick overview of how my suggested steps look now that I've told you this.

You have accessed your results (and you've probably looked at them a few times before you're ready to build trees for your matches).

You need some type of objective, whether it's working on one branch/ancestor or just reviewing your results to see what they can tell you (the latter is a good starting place but you will not find real success if you never get more specific, just FYI).

  • Review the closest matches related to your objective.
  • Make notes about what you find (I'll give you details in a moment).
  • For matches you are interested in but can't find a shared ancestor, build a tree for them and do your own research.
  • Keep taking notes and building trees working from closer matches to more distant matches.
  • Review, review, review, what you've already done.

You have probably done this but have you done a good job taking and KEEPING your notes so you can find them? Have you tried to do your own research to identify shared ancestors?

If you have been really diligent about both of these, you probably are ready for some actual "tools."

Most DNA tools help you narrow down to specific matches likely to share a common ancestor with each other (and you). But guess what, you still have to take and keep notes and do research, usually on that narrowed group of matches, to identify who that shared ancestor is.

(And it is usually a series of shared ancestors where some matches share a closer ancestor and others a more distant one, not just one shared ancestor---but naturally it will not be so simple that you'll find one ancestor, and then the parent, and the parent, and the parent, like dominos falling.

The confusion is some matches may share a closer ancestor with each other but you share a more distant ancestor of that person. This is helpful but you have to do research to figure out the true situation.)

My point is, keeping good notes and doing your own research (not relying on attached public trees) is on-going and the next step after using most tools. It is easier to start there and keep coming back to your well-organized notes.

The magic tool for genetic genealogy is traditional genealogy research.

Without traditional research, you just have a list of names, shared cMs, and suggested ;relationships. All the statistical analysis in the world will not turn this into your family tree. Traditional research is necessary.

Let's shift gears and talk about note-taking. It's probably easier than you think to turn a simple notes field into a helpful tool.

Organizing Notes for Ancestry DNA

You should absolutely use the provided notes field at AncestryDNA. (If you don't know where it is, I've pointed it out, along with other important features in this post which is also about Ancestry DNA tools.)

I mentioned the tool I developed for myself. It's a type of clustering tool and I call it the "4 Buckets Technique." I use the DNA Gedcom Client (which can download your AncestryDNA results for further types of analysis). The DNA Gedcom Client is an example of another tool you can use (the client is a paid tool but DNAGedcom.com offers free tools, just FYI).

I recommend putting notes into the note field on Ancestry.com because some tools (like the DNA Gedcom Client) can download these notes and that keeps everything together for your use.

There are two additional parts related to using the built-in notes field at AncestryDNA.
  • Back-up all notes in some way.
  • Enter your notes in a way that makes them user-friendly.

Backing Up Ancestry DNA Notes

I recommend keeping your notes some other way so they aren't at the mercy of Ancestry.com (at any time they could decide to remove the note field and you'd be out of luck. I don't know why they would but something could happen to wipe out your notes but your results could be restored. I don't rely on storing my notes someplace I can't backup).

It is possible to "back-up" your Ancestry DNA notes by downloading your results with a tool that includes the notes (like the DNAGedcom Client but there are other ways---that's not the point of this post so I'm not listing all your options. You're a genealogist, research it!).

Finding a good secondary way to store notes is not as simple as entering them at Ancestry. Many people just don't have the time to use their DNA results and maintain a good system. Realize, the notes field at AncestryDNA has limitations (in size and in features, like being backed-up). Since I write for Occasional Genealogists, I'm not going to tell you you can't keep your notes in the AncestryDNA notes field solely. I know life happens and you're busy.

But you've been warned.

When you start honing in on a single project, you will be better able to create an organized place for notes. This becomes more like working on traditional research which has the structure of your family tree, if nothing else.

If you're still an armchair genealogist (as in literally, you're not working at a desk or with files), use that notes field at-the-least. If you've progressed to a more organized stage, I still suggest using the Ancestry provided note field but you no longer rely on this as your only note-keeping method. At this point, use the note field for quick-reference information you want to see while using your AncestryDNA matches.

Turn the AncestryDNA Notes Field Into a DNA Tool

So what about entering the notes? Why does it really matter?

It does. I have seen such a mess in people's notes fields.

Ideally, you only keep select information in the built-in notes field. It is not ideal for keeping ALL your notes for multiple reasons (lack of space, lack of organizational options, lack of ease of backing-up, and probably more I haven't thought of).

But this is "The Occasional Genealogist." I know you are likely strapped for time. Don't make it worse by just slapping notes into the notes field in any ol' order.

Have a plan. Stick to it.

I teach a very specific way to enter notes in my free program, "The Road to DNA Success." This works for anyone and I find it a HUGE timesaver.

This time-savings is such a big deal, the exact way of entering notes is required for students who have continued to the done-with-you version of "Your Roadmap to DNA Success." I need to quickly review the notes as part of the "bucketing" process. I need the time saving and so do the students. This is about keeping the cost of the "done-with-you" service affordable. The students are using the format I specify so I can do as much as possible, in as little time as possible (meaning I can charge them less money than if they had notes in multiple places and in any order they wanted).

Why do you care?

Isn't your time worth something to you?

In the course, having organized notes has a monetary value. You should really think of your time that way even if you aren't paying someone.

You should really think of your time as having a monetary value even if you aren't paying someone.

You can learn my exact suggested system in "The Road to DNA Success."

To describe the system generally, you want identified relationships and which branch of the tree at the beginning of your note. This makes it fast to scan down the notes (in your match list or shared matches list) to check for "themes." The theme may be the same branch of a tree or it might be a lack of identified shared ancestors.

Using a standardized format that is brief helps make this easier and makes a better use of your time.

With the new "tools" released by AncestryDNA in July 2019, you can create a manual clustering of your results by using the colored dots. All the new sorting/filtering options allow you to focus on a cluster and you really want known relationships and branch of the tree to appear (as much as possible) in the snippet of the note that appears in lists of matches. (This manual clustering is the topic of the DIY version of "Your Roadmap to DNA Success.")

The MedBetter DNA extension has been updated to work with the July 2019 update and that allows you to see more of your note but you still want them to be easy to scan (easy to scan means same info at the start and in a brief, standardized format).

The free "The Road to DNA Success" teaches you a brief standardized system anyone can use and teaches you how to use a cousin chart to identify the correct relationships (as well as some beginner information on using this with shared cMs which is how you get on the Road to DNA Success).

You can create your own method, as well. I've just defined a system and made it available so you have fewer decisions to make.

So I've told you a few best practices everyone should start with.

  • Start with your closest matches and move to the more distant matches for your objective.
  • Research the trees for those matches, don't rely on public trees for your success.
  • Take notes and keep them organized.
  • Have a plan for how you enter notes in the AncestryDNA notes field so you can quickly scan and understand them when looking at a list of matches.
At some point, you will need to zone in on subsets of matches. You can manually create clusters using the new sort and filter features at AncestryDNA. You might also want to start using third-party tools.

Beyond First Steps with Ancestry DNA

For most people, using "tools" too early just leads to confusion and frustration. You really need a good handle on the basics of genetic genealogy. You gain that as you review your matches, research their trees, take notes, formulate questions (like "does this identified relationship really agree with the shared cMs?"), research the answers to those questions, and repeat (and repeat, and repeat, and repeat).

Then you will find tools help you because you have a specific reason for using a specific tool.

New tools are becoming available all the time but some of my favorites are:

  • GEDmatch. Probably the most powerful free tools (and there are also really powerful paid tools, too). There is a learning curve but it's not as severe as with some tools.
  • DNAGedcom. These tools usually aren't your first stop but I consistently use them along with GEDmatch. The paid Client is a way to download your matches with the notes (therefore backing up your notes). With any third-party tools, changes at AncestryDNA can cause a tool to stop functioning, though! Always double-check, before adding lots of notes, if this back-up will work (you can always copy and paste new notes into an old spreadsheet if something isn't working).
  • Auto-clustering tools. These are still relatively new at the time I'm writing this so which ones work with AncestryDNA, which are free, which function fast or consistently is still changing somewhat regularly. This post isn't about these so I'm not getting specific. Clustering is a great way to focus on select matches and build trees just for one cluster rather than working on all matches and feeling you're getting nowhere.

One of my favorite easy to use tools doesn't really work with AncestryDNA but you should know about it.

  • DNAPainter. There are actually multiple tools but the chromosome painter requires chromosome data you can't get from AncestryDNA (you can transfer your results to access this but that won't give you the segments you share with your matches at AncestryDNA). You can use some of the other tools with your AncestryDNA results but at this time, those are tools you use for very specific needs. I highly recommend this as one of the first tools to try, you just can't paint your chromosomes with AncestryDNA matches.

So there are my best practices instead of Ancestry DNA tools plus a handful of actual tools. If you need to learn more about the built in features at AncestryDNA, I've written about that here.

Remember, you have to build trees and keep your notes organized no matter what tool you use. Both of those are really easier to do than learning a new tool, anyway. Why not get started right now?

In this free course I've laid out:
  • How to enter notes that are easy to scan (saving you tons of time).
  • How to enter known relationships in an easy to scan format.
  • How to determine the type of cousin a match is when they have a known shared ancestor.
  • How to start analyzing the data provided by AncestryDNA to create hypotheses and get started doing more with your DNA results.

The Occasional Genealogist