Thursday, October 8, 2015

AncestryDNA: A Year Later

As some of you may recall, I did a post about my initial experience with the AncestryDNA test. That post is more than a year old now, and AncestryDNA has undergone two major changes since then. There are new features to consider, and how they have fundamentally changed my experience with their DNA test.

Like last time, I wanted to give myself ample opportunity to use these new tools before doing a follow-up review. And unlike last time, I have something else to which I can compare my experience. Not only have I been using, I’ve also uploaded and unlocked my free trial matches at Family Tree DNA. While my experience with these sites have informed my perspective, I will try to save my comments on each of these sites for their own respective posts.

I won’t be reviewing the Ethnicity Estimates again, because my opinion of them has not changed.

Cousin Matching: C-

My experience with cousin matching has improved significantly. The first impact my DNA test has had on my tree came from using the tools at AncestryDNA. I began the process using the surname search, which is one of the best tools on AncestryDNA. It allows me to search through my cousin matches’ trees for a surname, a location, or both at the same time.

An example of the surname search, using the surname Halsey

I reached out to one of my cousins, then decided to compensate for her lack of response by researching her family tree for her. Thanks to what little information she provided on her parents, I was able to use obituaries and newspapers to trace her family until I arrived at our common ancestors. I never knew where they went after the 1920 census, and the answer was with her line of the family. They moved to Somerset County, Maryland. Her ancestor was the youngest sibling in a family I’d never realized had more children—the only ones still living with them ten years later at the time the 1930 census was taken.

The names and new census records were added to my tree—and my cousin is none the wiser. Which is probably for the best, because I don’t know how to explain to her what I did without using the words, “Don’t freak out, but I stalked you a little bit.”

A general lack of communication is still one of the predominate issues with DNA testing. This was my chief complaint in my previous review, and over time I've come to understand that this isn't a problem unique to AncestryDNA. With every DNA testing service to which I've been exposed, responses to inquiries are rare and wait times are long. It's the human element of the equation that no DNA testing company can control.

The surname search, plus some extra elbow grease, was enough to find the match between us. AncestryDNA deserves credit for that--and the maps, surname lists, the search functionality, and all of the other tools they've come up with to analyze your cousin match. But the set of tools AncestryDNA provides is still incomplete. The single greatest thing they can do to improve the cousin matching experience would be to have a chromosome browser. I still believe it's unadulterated stubbornness that perpetuates their refusal to build one. A chromosome browser, together with the other tools they provide, would make their DNA test a tour de force of unstoppable discovery.

I understand that people take DNA tests for different reasons. Based on my experience with reaching out, I'd say that more than half of the people with any genetic connection to me have no interest in collaboration. That means that more than half of the messages I send will never amount to anything. This makes me think that some people come into this relationship already knowing they don't wish to contribute. But rather than wasting my time lamenting about it, I'd rather we simply created a way to be upfront with each other.

What reaching out to DNA cousin matches feels like
In my mind, this situation could be handled with a single check box--either as part of the registration process, or a prompt to every person who is part of the AncestryDNA system. “I am currently interested in collaborating with other researchers for the purpose of finding our common ancestors.” Check yes or no. I envision this as a status update type of feature, where we all can act like grown ups and communicate our intentions from the outset. I'm even envisioning that after a person hasn't been active on AncestryDNA for more than 3 months, that status is automatically changed to "No."

Imagine being able to filter your cousin matches by the people who are actively using their DNA tests. No more wasting time sending messages to people who never had any intentions of responding to them. If we can't change other people's behavior, we can at least communicate the behavior we all intend to exhibit.

DNA Circles: C

This was the first of the two newest features to the AncestryDNA test since my last review. A DNA Circle is where AncestryDNA points out the people who share DNA with you, as well as a common person in your trees.

I questioned this feature when it first launched, because all it takes to throw it off is for several cousins to have the same wrong information in their trees. While the DNA Circle links people together with shared DNA, the DNA Circle does no good if the ancestor it claims to represent is wrong.

However, this is not entirely AncestryDNA’s fault. Relying on member trees as part of this process is necessary. Research will always be a part of genealogy, including genetic genealogy. It’s on us to do a better job with our research, so the matching algorithms can do a better job of connecting us together. Being more exact is a necessary part of that process.

Moving forward after my DNA test, I made a lot of changes to the way I used my Ancestry member tree. I created a second tree in which I placed biological relationships only. I removed all extraneous information, including photos, to streamline my work with this DNAonly tree. I expanded the scope of my research for this tree to include all descendants, all siblings and half siblings, second marriages--anyone with a biological link to my direct line ancestors. At the same time, I cleaned up the dates and places in the Facts section, since these drastically improve the Map tool for the cousin match tree comparison. If we want better quality DNA Circles, we each need to participate in some aggressive housecleaning.

What I dislike is how the DNA Circles come with a page for the common ancestor, and that page is a random assortment of stuff from the trees of everyone in the Circle. Photos, Stories, Facts, dates, and names become an unattractive, oftentimes inaccurate jumble of ugliness.

There are no source citations, no criteria for anything that is placed automatically on that page. Being able to clean up and correct these DNA Circle pages is a much needed feature. Unless we're trying to create the world's largest (and worst) Ancestry member tree.

Rather than seeing an assemblage of what everyone has collected on the DNA Circle, I’d rather start with a blank slate, to which my cousins and I may add information. Provide us with the ability to collaborate, allowing us to choose what to add to this ancestor's page. Make valid source citations a requirement for submitting anything to an Ancestor's DNA Circle page. Otherwise, it becomes a compounded source of ignorance instead of providing genuine insight.

In fact, increasing the quality of the DNA Circle ancestor pages and Ancestry member trees could go hand-in-hand. currently provides shaky leaf hints to member trees, which have a certain reputation for being garbage. These hints and copying data from other member trees is how errors spread and become entrenched in the family consciousness. Instead, why not hint everyone to the DNA Circle page? Let it become the single, authoritative source for researchers as they assemble their trees together--whether they've taken a DNA test or not. I'd much rather be introduced to cousins who haven't tested yet this way. If/when they do take an AncestryDNA test, I'll already know who they are!

I'd also like to see some better communication tools for the purposes of DNA collaboration. With each DNA Circle page, I envision a Google Hangouts-style interface which would foster online meet-ups/family reunions, group research discussions, and individual conversations between descendants. These meetings could be private, or publicly stored as part of the DNA Circle page.

A DNA Circle as it stands now seeks to reconstruct the identity of the dead. In order to do the greatest good, it should foster communication and a sense of kinship among the living.

Ancestor Discoveries: C+

Of all the new features on AncestryDNA, this one has me the most excited. This feature has done great things for me already, despite the accuracy shortcomings of the DNA Circles. Over time, I imagine this being one of AncestryDNA’s biggest assets—the thing that sets them apart from other testing services and websites.

So imagine a DNA Circle has been formed for an ancestor. It’s well established, and there are plenty of cousins all matched together. The only thing missing is you, because you share the same DNA as everyone else in the Circle. But the matching algorithm hasn’t matched you to the Circle, because you don’t have the ancestor in your tree yet.

Bummer, right?

Not anymore!

Ancestor Discoveries is intended to do exactly that. It has already done this for me. My Greene family is a hot mess. That’s what happens when the courthouse that services your ancestors burns down… Twice. I was stuck on Henry Greene for ages, until the Ancestor Discovery for his grandparents came along. I did the research to back up the information, because I know better than to believe people on the Internet. I had to go into some unusual places to find the evidence I needed, but finding it was a direct consequence of my Ancestor Discoveries. In terms of results, it really has delivered.

Part of why I like the direction AncestryDNA is going with Ancestor Discoveries is because the lovely so-and-so's with private trees are included. If they fit into a DNA Circle, they become a part of my potential Ancestor Discoveries. Everyone else with a private tree that isn't connected to a DNA Circle can be triangulated via the Shared Matches tab on their cousin match page. I now expend less effort on figuring out where these people fit into the puzzle, and move on to other research problems. AncestryDNA is figuring out ways to avoid giving me an inferior product because of someone else's privacy settings. As one of my chief complaints from my first review, the privacy settings of other users is one of AncestryDNA's areas of greatest improvement.

My only complaint regarding the Ancestor Discoveries is one specific place I've seen it fall apart. To put it delicately, I come from Southern communities in which endogamy was a common practice. I'm one of the lucky ones whose ancestors moved away before the family tree got too tangled, and our current generation is far removed from it. But some of my cousins who are still living in these communities haven't been so fortunate. I connect to them in a multitude of places. We have multiple sets of common ancestors. How well do the Ancestor Discoveries reflect situations like these? Because I know just enough about the science of how the relationship estimates are calculated to know this effectively hoses the entire thing. And some of the Ancestor Discoveries I'm getting suggest the matching algorithms are struggling.

And don't you all go making fun my endogamy. There are two types of people in this world: people who are inbred, and people who don't know it yet.

In situations like these, having segment data matters. I need to see the exact length of the DNA segment. Comparing it to standard genetic inheritance estimates is crucial to properly calculating my relationships to my cousins. I can't judge how skewed my inheritance is without the numbers--data that AncestryDNA does not display as part of its test. While I'm able to use to get this information, I would love so much more to have it as part of my Ancestor Discoveries. Localizing these connections, as well as analyzing them for accuracy, would be so much simpler with the segment data than it is without it.

Final Grade: C

AncestryDNA has made promising progress. I no longer consider it the worst $99 I ever spent. I still encourage anyone who is planning to take a DNA test to consider all of their options before purchasing one from AncestryDNA. Understand that you are making sacrifices of functionality no matter which testing company you choose, so be sure you choose the one that aligns with your reasons for testing.

Regardless of which testing service you use, your plans should also include uploading your results to As a more open source option, it provides many of the analysis tools and data AncestryDNA is currently lacking. While there's a bit of a learning curve to using GEDmatch, it's time and effort well spent. If you need a beginner's guide, be sure to also check out our Genetic Genealogy for Beginners video series.

Good luck, and happy testing!


  1. I love your suggestions for the Collaborative space for DNA cousins and even those who have not DNA tested yet! What awesomeness could be potentially done there.
    I also agree that if Ancestry wanted to be the Top Dog in Genealogy research - far above all others, they would have a chromosome browser...they should just hire you! (No, really!)

    1. Yes. Each DNA Circle desperately needs a conspicuous shared comments section. But Ancestry seems determined to keep collaboration to a minimum.

    2. She would become a director in some capacity in no time. I really appreciate her passion. She would be a difference maker.

  2. Excellent blog post! I've taken all three of the major US DNA tests on a test drive. 23andMe is overall the best. I like FamilyTree DNA, but not enough people have tested with them. Ancestry is moving slowly towards providing useful tools but has a long way to go.

    1. Those are more or less my feelings. I also like Family Tree DNA, but I find their use of smaller segments really dubious, including how they calculate them together with other segments. 23&Me probably would have been a really safe bet for me, but I'd still be unhappy with continuously asking people to share genes with me. It adds an extra step and a boundary to this process that really doesn't need to be there.

  3. Thank you for this post. Transparency with matching segment information and a chromosome browser are ESSENTIAL resources for genetic genealogists that are desperately needed at AncestryDNA. Shame on any well-informed genetic genealogist who says otherwise.

    1. As always Jason, thanks for chiming in. I'm glad you're still sounding the trump for segment data and the chromosome browser, because I wouldn't know anything about them without those who came before me sticking to their guns. One day maybe we'll reach the promised land :D

  4. Ms. Collins - if you aren't a member of the ISOGG Facebook group, I suggest you join, as your blog post has triggered a lengthy conversation there. Here is the comment I made there:

    "You might remember a similar review by this same group from last year. My concern with this, is that it is more of a 'wish list' than an actual review. Unrealistically, it seems that the only way to score an 'A' is for a company to magically return with the test results a complete family tree and a 'hello' from every genetic cousin."

    While I agree with MANY of your points here, especially that we all want segment data, I don't think it would be possible for any testing company to achieve a score above a C due to the current limitations of the science. And that's fine, but I think it potentially misleads readers.

    I won't respond to comments here (except for yours), but I hope you join us in the Facebook group.

    - Blaine

    1. "Wish list" or "actual review"? Who cares? Blaine, your passive aggressive critique is devoid of substance and doesn't seem to reflect an actual reading of the post.

    2. Blaine,

      I have a personal philosophy that one should never offer criticism without offering solutions to a problem. What you view as a "wish list" mentality, I view as being constructive. I can't be sure what your philosophy is on that point, but I wanted to make mine clear before we proceed.

      You seem to be under the impression that I penalized DNA testing/AncestryDNA more heavily for things beyond their control than I did. My dominant reasons for penalizing AncestryDNA were the lack of tools and interface to foster real communication among test takers, and the lack of a chromosome browser and segment data as it relates to several of their core offerings. The severity to which these issues affected my experience is how I penalized them. I hope that clarifies some of the issues behind your comments.

      You also seem to think that I'm under the impression that precise relationship calculations are instantly possible for endogamy. I know they aren't with what we know now, which is why I said endogamy hoses our ability to use standard genetic inheritance estimates for ourselves. However, the comparison of the edogamous segment data, such as it is, to these standards is a place for me to start out of necessity. Because frankly, what else am I supposed to do? Throwing away standard genetic inheritance estimates because of endogamy is throwing out the baby with the bath water, especially for me. I'd be left with very little to work with, and I know I'm not the only one.

      For that reason, I penalized AncestryDNA for withholding segment data, as it relates to the challenge posed to both endogamy and Ancestor Discoveries. Not because they couldn't calculate these relationships with more precision, but because they've just taken an already difficult situation and made it harder by concealing the data. As nuanced of a point as that is, I felt it was worthy of mentioning because of the unique challenge this situation poses to my experience with Ancestor Discoveries. It would be disingenuous not to include it, even at the risk of someone with less knowledge and experience walking away with false conclusions based on what I've said. I trust the ability of most people to understand what they read, and to Google anything that they don't understand. Because to be frank again, that's how I learned--by Google searching things you other genetic genealogists have talked about.

      Thank you for taking the time to stop by and consider my work. I'm also grateful for the invitation you've extended to check out the ISOGG Facebook page. I'm familiar with the organization, and have found their WIKI helpful in the creation of many of my Beginners series materials. I may take you up on your offer, and wish you all the best.

    3. Heather - thank you for your thoughtful response. I do hope you have time to review your results at 23andMe and FTDNA, as I think that will help provide or further explain the scale for your review.

      Although segment data sheds an entirely new and important light on matching (and I've long advocated for segment data from AncestryDNA, including in face-to-face meetings with the science team), I think you'll find that the current state of genetic genealogy is still wanting even when we have all the segment data.


    4. Blaine, you've oft mentioned your "face-to-face meetings" with AncestryDNA, but you don't as often note the fact that they paid you.

    5. I've had several meetings with AncestryDNA employees and scientists, including at conferences like Jamboree, RootsTech, and others. As I wrote about on my blog, in 2014 AncestryDNA asked a group of bloggers to come out to their offices in San Francisco to provide feedback on some new tools (including Timber and Underdog). AncestryDNA paid for travel and board for that event so that we could all do it in person.

      You're free to consider that "being paid," but due to time off from work and projects, child care, and other expenses, I almost always lose money on trips like that even when the flight and hotel are paid.

    6. Even relatively small gifts -- such as free DNA test kits -- can have an effect on a critic's opinions, and I think that many people would say that airfare, hotel accomodations and money for "other expenses" amount to quite a bit more than a small gift. Like every other smart company, Ancesty knows it doesn't have to put bloggers on the payroll in order to sway or soften opinion. (They don't even have to spend money. Sometimes a friendly note via email or a Facebook PM is sufficient.)

      Some of the people who have accepted Ancestry's offers have remained fiercely independent, but the people at Ancestry are shrewd and I'm sure they don't ply bloggers with cash and prizes just for the heck of it.

      So you've frequently repeated this claim that you told Ancestry's team that you want matching segment details and I believe you, but there's more to the story and I know this because you've admirably disclosed at least some of it. In your case, I think Ancestry's strategy for blogger outreach has been a resounding success and your reaction to this blog post is just one small example among many others.

      I'm convinced you have noble intentions, but I know of no one who has been more relentless in attacking AncestryDNA's critics and I know of no one who has been more persistent in downplaying the value of segment information and triangulation. This is in unfortunate contrast to your valuable contributions to genetic genealogy.

    7. We both know we're going to disagree on all aspects here, as we have for a long time.

      Just to clarify to others reading this, as I noted above I have not been "plied" with cash and prizes by AncestryDNA.

      You suggest that I've been swayed somehow by my trip (for which, I note, there is no Paul Harvey "rest of the story" reveal), but what about the others that were there? Can you point me to anywhere you've been critical of one of them about their "free" trip to AncestryDNA? It seems that it's perfectly fine that they were there - whether they've disclosed it or not - as long as they are more negative than positive about AncestryDNA.

      Of course I disagree with the statement that no one "has been more persistent in downplaying the value of segment information and triangulation." Ironically, there's a very good chance that I've taught more people about the value of segment information and triangulation than anyone else in the world! I estimate that I've had 1000+ students in my DNA classes at SLIG, GRIP, VIGR, and Family Tree University, and I teach about or use segment data and triangulation in every single one of them. And I've talked about segment data plenty of times on the blog over the past 8+ years. My latest article entitled "Evaluating a Genetic Genealogy Proof Argument" in APGQ emphasizes the need for segment data. I could go on and on and on.

      I try to emphasize that immense value that can be gained from matches at AncestryDNA even without segment information. And as I state in almost every comment to this effect, I still want to see the segment information from AncestryDNA, but in the meantime I plan to use the information we do have to its fullest extent.

      This is END OF THREAD for me.

    8. "...what about the others that were there? Can you point me to anywhere you've been critical of one of them about their 'free' trip to AncestryDNA?"

      I don't have a roll call for that meeting and I don't know what -- if anything -- the other attendees would need to disclose. I'm not going to speculate.

      I do think that last year's blogger meeting in San Francisco with AncestryDNA was intended to soften opinions about controversial upcoming changes at AncestryDNA (and the mistakes that led up to that upheaval) and I think AncestryDNA achieved their goal.

      You deserve kudos for making your own disclosure: "AncestryDNA arranged for travel, hotel, and other expenses for this summit." I know you have a special interest in ethical standards for genetic genealogists so I assume that you've carefully considered the link between blogger objectivity and the gifts and financial compensation that come with ties with, FTDNA, et al. Perhaps you would disagree, but I don't think anyone is completely impervious to the effects of financial relationships, gifts and glad-handing.

      I have no desire to police ethics in genetic genealogy, but I do care about objectivity. Your relentless in attacks on AncestryDNA's critics and your persistence in minimizing the general value of triangulation while downplaying the need for segment details at AncestryDNA are in sharp contrast to your laudable commitment to education, objectivity, and scientific rigor. Your comments in online discussions about Ancestry’s policies consistently cut in Ancestry's favor and I know I'm not the only person who has noticed this.

      I don't expect you to offer any kind of mea culpa on this issue, Blaine. I don't even care to change your mind about anything. I only hope that you will be honest with yourself about being fair and objective in future discussions about AncestryDNA.

  5. I've been thinking of doing DNA testing via Ancestry to fill in some gaping holes on my lineage. I don't have any plans on trying to connect with distant potential family, I just want to know my ancestry. With that in mind, in your opinion, would AnestryDNA be a decent (relatively inexpensive) way to achieve that goal? I may be bitten by the genealogy bug later, but right now...just curious on where my ancestors sprang from.

    1. Short answer: No. And there isn't really a test that exists that can reliably do what you're looking for. If you want to take a DNA test anyway, I recommend the 23&Me test with health analysis. It's similarly priced, will do genealogy when you're ready for it, and will at least test your genetic health risks in the mean time. I'm not familiar with their health offerings, but I know they're seeking to expand them with the FDA.

      Long answer: The AncestryDNA test, regularly priced, is $99. And depending upon the makeup of the regions where your ancestors come from, the test cannot tell you with any real precision where your people came from. That portion of the test is called "ethnicity estimates." And despite all of their marketing literature, that's all those percentages are ever going to be. Estimates. That's a lot of money to spend on something that, at this stage, is no more than a parlor trick.

      For example, if you want to know if you're Jewish, it can tell you that. If you want to know if you're African, it can tell you that. If you want to know if you're British, it will sort of tell you that. But because the population of that area of Europe is such a mixed bag, what it thinks is British could actually be Italian, German, or just about anything. But if you want to know anything specific about being Native American, or from any country in North America, it cannot tell you that. It lumps the entire western hemisphere into one group, and calls that Native American. I believe it does something similar with Asian populations, but I can't attest to that. I had an incredibly diverse sample, but Asian and Slovak groups were about the only things I didn't get in my results.

      However, that is not the experience most people have. Most people get their results back, and it essentially tells them they're European with brightly colored circles. And when you read the fine print, you realize about half of the circles are a guess. Most people can do that on their own with a map and some crayons :)

      Please understand I'm trying to be honest, not flippant. Your question is a great one that everyone should ask before taking this plunge. And buying any DNA test to answer the question you're posing may seem like an obvious buy. Especially since the marketing for all of these DNA tests sounds like "Spit in a tube, avoid the research, find out where I come from."

      But anyone who tells you that you can know where you come from without doing research is literally trying to sell you something. It sounds too good to be true, because it is. And the more you understand the limitations to these ethnicity estimates, the more you simply ignore that part of the test altogether.

  6. I have tried to advance genealogical research done by Aunt over the last 45 years focusing on the tough road blocks that she encountered. I have found her work to be very accurate and supported by evidence (or where there is doubt that is highlighted).Most of my tree would appear to be Great Britain based (high % Scottish and English with a small Irish component). One of my research roadblock projects relates to our supposed German heritage through my Mothers paternal family. There are definite German links (Hessian soldiers settled in our area and their descendants are a part of my tree although I believe that it would be minor) and my Mother's Long name appears to come from a German connection. However, the records dating back to 1780s-1810 period is poor. To make the roadblock even more of a challenge there is a family story that indicates that the Long that we are related to ( either 5 or 6 generations back) was actually an adopted boy that did not come from a German background.

    Do you think that AncestryDNA would provide any useful information that might help take down this family research roadblock?

    1. The older the segment is you're trying to analyze, the smaller it generally becomes until it is too small to see anymore. It simply becomes indecipherable from all of the other "white noise" genetic material that we share with the rest of all humanity. So depending upon how many generations separate you and these ancestors you're looking for, it could be possible. Sometimes DNA likes to give everyone the middle finger and just stick around, just because it can. Sometimes it disappears way sooner than expected. There's just no way to know until you test. Testing the oldest generation who would carry the segment you're looking for greatly increases your chances of achieving what you're trying to do.

      The other challenge will be that someone else who descends from that line will have to have tested. You both will have to have some mutual idea that you descend from the same person--otherwise, how will you know when you've found each other?

      The short answer to your question is, it may or may not be possible. But definitely don't get the idea that DNA will tell you anything that records can't. Without careful analysis of records together with the DNA test, it's an absolutely useless tool.

    2. Thank you for your response. Due to the shortage of good records I am left with a "needle in the haystack" situation. So I am looking for ways to determine in which haystack I should look.