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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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The Easy Secret for DNA Success

I have what sometimes feels like a magic-wand for genetic genealogy (using DNA for family history). It's easy and makes a huge difference in being able to use DNA results. What is it? It's family trees for my DNA matches, 100s of matches. In this post I'll share a few of my "secrets" that make using DNA results so much easier, simply by building family trees.

I talked about how building trees for your matches is THE thing to do in a previous post. Today's post is about some specific things I recommend you do.

Building Trees is the Easy Solution

I've been building trees consistently for about four years and I'm now making much faster progress because of all those trees I have as a reference. I've found the same thing when I'm working for a client. If I have access to trees for the matches, I can do so much more than if I've just got DNA data and tools.

Going from my own research, with a lot of matches' trees, to a client with little to no trees for matches, really highlights how important this is.

If you don't have this experience, it may seem like a lot of work to build trees.

It's a lot less work than just using tools and/or chromosome data.

How to Organize Quick and Dirty Trees

Here are my tips for making tree building work for you.

  • Keep one online, private tree where you build the trees of matches. You need to be able to connect the trees together when you find a connection (this means a connection between matches, not just a connection to your tree). This needs to be private because you will be adding info about living people. This tree is ONLY for you to work in. If you want to share what you find, copy it to a different tree. 
  • Literally, keep one tree. Not one tree per testing company. It won't help to have AncestryDNA matches in a tree at Ancestry and MyHeritageDNA matches in a tree at MyHeritage. If you can easily sync to a single tree, you can create the trees at different sites/apps but if you don't know you can do this, or how to do it, or you won't routinely do this, only create one tree for the purpose of building DNA trees.
  • You don't have to create this tree with your favorite software or site. Remember, the purpose is to easily create trees for DNA matches. If you mainly work with AncestryDNA results, it's easy to copy a generation or two from the match's tree to an Ancestry tree. If you have a MyHeritage subscription, it might be easier to work with a tree there. There are multiple options and we're not talking about your primary tree. This is for a very specific purpose. Make it easy! 
  • Enter the name of the match, in the format it is shown at the testing company, so you are positive which match's tree you are looking at. Remember, these are for future reference! 
  • Make sure it is clear (with the match's name) which testing company they are from and which test taker they match. Because I have so much overlap with my southern ancestry, I literally have one tree where matches' trees are created, regardless of test taker. It is harder to work with multiple trees so only create a separate tree for very distinct test takers. If you don't do a lot of tree building due to lack of time, having one online tree is easier, even if the test takers are distinct. You'll know where your work is if there's just one tree.
  • Learn the basics of using the online tree.
  • This means knowing how to add a new person who isn't related (at Ancestry, I either add a new person from a record, including the match's tree, or add them as a parent of someone and immediately remove the relationship to make them unrelated to anyone in the tree).
  • Know how to merge the same person. You MUST be able to do this to connect trees of different matches when you (later) discover a relationship.
    Here is the resource page from Ancestry's support site that includes how to merge, plus more "how-to" links for your online tree.
  • Know how to search to find if you've already added someone to the tree (the name and dates may not be identical so learn what your search options are).
  • BONUS: Using an app or software program with more features can be helpful. Because I started with an Ancestry tree that used to only sync to Family Tree Maker (it now has more sync options), I use that. MyHeritage's software has great additional features. You'll also find helpful features in Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic. Remember, this is a bonus, not a requirement.

About "Bonus" features.

If just creating an online tree with correct relationships is a struggle, do NOT consider any of these bonus features. Pick the option that is easy and results in you creating a correct tree (I find so many incorrect trees with something like the wife listed as the man's mother, so confusing to your matches and you!). If on the other hand you're a power user of a particular software or online tree, you might need some of these bonus features to get the most from your quick and dirty trees.

For my Q&D DNA trees, I'm most concerned with the color-coding options (as I said, I use Family Tree Maker for this but there are similar options with other programs, but I haven't used them so I can't recommend them). This allows me to see how many matches share an ancestor or see the ancestors of a match with colored highlights.

Other people rely very heavily on features like automated duplication checks (where the software alerts you if it looks like you're creating a second entry for the same person--- or you can run a check for duplicates).

Similarly, checks for reasonableness are popular (did you just enter someone born before their parents were born? I see that way too much in DNA matches' trees because the person isn't familiar with how to enter info in the tree).

I've found a lot of DNA features sound really great for both tree software and DNA apps but often don't work the way I need with my knotted family tree. That means I use the color-coding a lot but almost nothing else. You may find more features helpful or not.

Remember, the core features of building trees are what will help you find new ancestors. These bonus features are literally a bonus. Don't go after them if the program they come with is too difficult for you to use for building trees.

If you're a power user of a software program, you may be able to follow totally different recommendations.


UPDATE: I've been trying to start using RootsMagic---I'm a former TMG user so I've just not used software for the last several years. I love RootsMagic and it has the color-coding I want BUT, it takes way too long to sync to my Ancestry tree to use it for my Q&D tree (I might need to sync hundreds, yes, 100s) of new people and merge a few dozen.

I'll use it as my primary software but I'll stick with a more basic online tree (with color-coding) for the purpose of DNA tree building. I mention this because you need to recognize there is a specific purpose for building trees for DNA matches. That is different than the purpose of building your primary family tree/using genealogy software. Different purpose means a different tool might be better.


If you struggle with just creating a tree, focus on improving that skill because it will make a huge difference in using DNA. You can add these bonus features later through sync options or uploading a GEDCOM file.

You need to build trees for matches (either from scratch or extend the tree provided). You need to be able to connect trees together when you find the same ancestor, regardless if that is the same ancestor as in your tree or in the trees of multiple matches.

As with all genealogy, you not only have to create and keep this info but FIND it again. The purpose of the trees is as a reference. You wouldn't buy a dictionary to use and then pack it away in a storage unit across town. Your DNA trees are the same. They need to be the digital equivalent of being an arms reach from your work area.

  • Build trees for DNA matches.
  • Know how to merge the same person together (to connect trees).
  • Know how to search for the info you need in the tree.

These simple steps can grow into what seems like a magic-wand for using DNA results.