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!