30 May 2013

AncestryDNA- Should You Test and What Do You Get?

Note the phone number and warning that this is currently
available in the U.S. ONLY.
We've now covered basic genetic knowledge, the kinds of tests available to genealogists, and setting expectations before testing. Today we're going to explore one of the companies that provide genetic testing: Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com has provided Y Chromosome and mtDNA testing in the past, but has jumped into the autosomal testing in the last year. You can order a Y Chromsome, mtDNA or combination of both here.  Currently, their focus is on the autosomal test, so if you select DNA from their dropdown menu, the page to the left is where you'll land. And because of it's popularity and my own genetic genealogy desires, their autosomal test is the one I took and will be reviewing for the most part (as well as providing a fabulous "how-to"!). But I wanted to be clear for those interested that the other options are still there, just tucked away.

Why Choose Ancestry.com?
Of all your options, why should you consider Ancestry.com for your genetic testing? The best argument is the same one I'd give you for regular genealogy: It's the largest online repository for genealogical research. It has over 2.5 million subscribers (last time I checked) and that doesn't include all those folks taking the DNA test without subscribing to the research service. If you choose to include regular research along with genetic testing (which I whole-heartedly recommend), they will give you a jump start like you won't believe! And on top of all that, they have affiliate sites that include specialty records, photo sharing, and community forums at discounted rates (or free) that can help you take your research even further.

It's basically a "one stop shop". You take a DNA test, build a tree, compare matches and reinforce with documents all in one place. The famous hint leaf system will help give you clues along the way. And if you test your Y Chromosome or mtDNA with another company, you can transfer your results to Ancestry.com by following the instructions here. So even when you don't test with Ancestry, you can still use the system of members and hints to build your family history in ways many other genetic genealogy sites can't do simply because they don't provide family tree options!

AncestryDNA Home Page
Getting Started
So on Ancestry.com's home page, there is a row of dropdown menus along the top (grey bar). One is marked "DNA". Click on that one and you'll be taken to the aforementioned autosomal offer page. If you have a test already, or set up a purchase of one, the page to the right is what you'll see. I have one test completed, one test in progress. When the test is activated, you'll see a progress bar that will show you the status of your test from purchase to completion. Like most companies, they batch the tests (I believe updates are Thursdays), so you don't need to check daily. But you will. I did. For a month. Every. Day. Anyway, back to this DNA home page. If you order one test and want another, the right hand side has a box for buying another test. Above that you'll notice a green box with "BETA Send Feedback". A BETA anything is a test. I want to be very clear about this. Ancestry.com's autosomal DNA test is so new that we're getting it while they are still refining how they want it all to go. If you don't like something, don't think it's as accurate as it should be, or want a feature added, click the feedback button and tell them about it. Changes won't happen overnight, but if you don't provide the feedback with that button, they may not happen at all!

So you order your test, get it in the mail and activate it. Your next step is the settings for the test. You'll need to decide if you want email notifications of new matches weekly, monthly or not at all. Why would you choose to not get emails? Many people, including myself, didn't take this test for anything more than learning their ethnicity mix. Now, I'm also a thorough blogger, so I've used the other options of connecting to cousins and such, but it wasn't my focus. And it's not going to be the focus for everyone. After that is your privacy settings. You can show your real name or a user ID or something else. If the test is for someone else with you just administering the test, then their initials will show with a note that you're the administrator and that's it. The other privacy option is to show only matched ethnicities to other people. You'll see all your ethnic percentages, but your matches will only see the ones they have in common with you. Anything else will be marked as "other" to them. I'm not sure how this helps protect your privacy more than just making you feel like it does.

The grey box to the right is very important. When you first activate a test, you see the terms and conditions of a research project using AncestryDNA's results and have to accept or deny them before continuing. If you wish to review them, there is a link here. I like the idea of printing this out to show relatives I want to get samples from. The project is much like National Geographic in that they are trying to map humanity for language, culture, and migratory patterns. They also provide medical information to the study, so for those of you worried about handing that information out willy-nilly, you can opt out of participation when activating the test. If you do participate, your personal information will be stripped away. If at any time you change your mind, just email consent@ancestry.com to remove part or all of your information from the project.

 The next portion of the box is where you get your raw results. What are "raw results"? Simply put, it's your DNA codes. It's the information that Ancestry has found and uses in their program. Why would you want to download your raw results? There are many other websites that will accept the results to connect to their pool of participants. Also, you can use the results to try other ethnicity calculators and compare that to what you found on Ancestry.com. There are other third-party tools that will tell you about medical issues you have inherited. I'll cover third-party websites in their own posts. Many people clamored for raw results, because this is our information and we deserve to know what it says. Plus, there are tools that Ancestry hasn't implemented yet that are useful and other sites provide us access until Ancestry catches up.
Below the raw results download is a delete button. DO NOT DELETE YOUR TEST . If you want to lose the ability to connect to other people, access your ethnicity or your raw results, go ahead and delete. It removes your test from Ancestry's system. They don't store your sample, so this is all they know about you. You delete it, and that's it. Game over, man. I think the only reason I would use this is if a relative wanted the test, but didn't want it attached to my tree. I'd still download the results before deleting, but I would respect my family's wishes too.
Attaching Your DNA to Your Tree
In the settings, you can option to add your results (or the results of a relative) to your Ancestry.com tree. You don't have to have a tree on Ancestry.com. You don't even have to be a member of Ancestry.com to get a DNA test. Like I said, some folks are just curious about their ethnicity and have no desire to compare their results with others. But for the rest of the community, a tree is helpful. More valuable still is a well-sourced public tree. I'm not here to chastise private tree owners. You have your reasons and I respect that. I simply think a public tree will do you good. A public tree means you don't have to be the only one finding the connection. Your cousins can help! So you don't want to open your whole tree up to scrutiny (or you don't have any interest in research and currently don't have a tree on Ancestry), make a direct line family tree public to attach your DNA to so others can see it. It may be all they need to find how you are related. And I mean more than four people here! Your matches are confidently placed within 10 generations (but can be farther back), so put as many ancestors as you know for sure to give them a hand.
Another reason you'll want a tree is that you'll get hints on the DNA page for any common surnames or ancestors. So if you make a tree or already have one, while you wait for your DNA to process, go ahead and check your tree for errors. The test can take 6-8 weeks to process AFTER they receive your kit back at the lab, so you have time to do some house cleaning. Make sure surnames are spelled correctly. Remove any special characters (* _ # $ % &) that can screw up a search. Remove married names from a woman's profile. Either have her maiden name, or leave it blank. UNK or Unknown show up as their own surnames and will not lead to a hint unless I also claim her surname is UNK. Add locations if you have them! The system will show if you have surnames in common, but we all know that not everyone with the same last name is related. If I click on "Brown" in your surnames and you have Michigan listed as a location, I've got a head start on finding our connection. (And if the location says California, I can safely assume that's probably not our connection).
If you find a person who doesn't have a tree or has a private tree (and trust me, you will), give them a message to say hi and ask to connect. If they don't respond, what have you lost but a few seconds of time? If they do, imagine all that you'll gain! So what if you're like some of my friends and don't know what to say? Well here's the form letter I use, you are welcome to fit it to your purposes. (A note, I am now on a third-party site called Gedmatch.com which I will cover in a later post and have added that info to my message)


My name is (name here ). AncestryDNA has matched me to you as a genetic cousin. I have a public tree (link here) on Ancestry.com that you can peruse to see if you notice any common names or locations. If you prefer, I would be happy to do the legwork for you if you invite me to your tree. I have recently added my results to Gedmatch.com (Kit #) if you have uploaded there as well and would care to compare. In any case, I appreciate the time you took to read this message and hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you,

And this seriously works. I've messaged 50 private tree owners and been invited to 10 trees, had 4 tell me of my connection rather than invite, 3 tell me that the test was for a relative and they weren't researching that line, and one tell me straight out that they weren't interested in connecting. Others haven't responded, but I don't take that as a bad thing. Maybe they haven't been on the system lately. I can wait. There's so much to do right now!
My Experience
So now I'll wrap up with what I'd consider the review portion. I ordered the test in early April. It arrived at the house in a week and was back in the mail next day (I had the sample given within minutes I was so excited!). About a week later I received confirmation of receipt at the lab. Early May I had my results. Shown here is my ethnicity mixture. I wasn't surprised by the Central European. And the British Isles was to be expected I guess. I do have an Irish Great Great Grandfather on one side and a British Great Grandfather on another. But the Scandinavian was weird. I can assume that it was an invading Viking force.......... or I can assume that Ancestry's test is a bit skewed, which they have admitted. Either way, I didn't know what I was expecting, but wasn't terribly shocked. I will note that the proven line of Native American and the semi-proven line of Lithuanian (Eastern European) didn't show up. When I remind myself that ethnicities can drop off, it's easier to swallow. This is why family trees and documentation are still so very necessary. DNA won't prove or disprove anything on it's own. It's just one piece of our puzzle.
Since ethnicity was my main focus, I was pretty satisfied with the $99 I slapped down for this test. But I decided to check out the results for matches. Now, I will admit I played fast and loose the first couple of days and when I started to seriously want to connect to these folks, I suddenly felt very overwhelmed. So while your test is processing, make a spreadsheet, get a notebook, do whatever to start your research in an organised way. I took some time and made a spreadsheet with my surnames in it (with locations!) in a column. Then I add each person in a new column and list their surnames. I add those surnames to the first column if new, highlight with grey if matched. If I prove the match, I highlight in blue for dad's side, pink for mom's and green for shared by both parents (they are 3rd cousins afterall). I had one good 3rd cousin match, about 80 4th-6th cousins and hundreds of 7th+ cousins. The 3rd cousin is a private tree and hasn't been on since January, so I hold out hope for her. I've connected to 3 of the 4th cousins and proven them to my family lines (including one private tree owner who had the sister of my 6th great grandmother as his 6th great grandmother, but not her family which I had). I also connected 2 8th cousins via tree hints. The rest are spreadsheeted and I'm working on the remaining 4th-6th cousins at the moment. It'll be work, but it's worth it.
There's so much more to cover, more than I could answer in one post without confusing some and boring others. Thankfully, Ancestry.com has a Learning Center and help section. Here is the link to the Frequent Questions. There is a video there and on their YouTube channel. Read all that you can on the website. Know what you are paying for. Join discussions in the forums and on Facebook pages before and after you test. I have many friends who are interested in the test, but haven't taken one yet. They still belong to many groups including my new one Gedmatch Discussion Group where newbies and intermediaries help each other learn about this and other genetic genealogy sites. Even if you don't join my group, join someone's. Ask questions, everyone has them. There's just so much to know.
I will end by saying that my experience was so positive that I've ordered another test for a maternal cousin. I have made a list with the help of my mother for another of our cousins (to confirm maternal connections), her sisters (one half, one full), and herself. My father has some serious concerns about DNA testing, however, and will not participate. I respect that and am withholding from asking cousins on that side for the moment. Still, the results I've gotten from this test have really helped my research and confirmed a bit of my paper trail. It's also given me a rather scary prospect as some cousins have a surname in their lists that is very familiar to me........... as the possible surname for my grandfather's real father. It's not something I'm ready to pursue at this moment, and I have a Y Chromosome test out on my brother with another company, so I'll back burner that development in favor of other connections right now.
Do yourself one favor, don't backburner a DNA test. The price is right at $99. It's cheaper than it's ever been before. More accessible than it's ever been before. If you are ready for the ride, all you need is to buy a ticket.


  1. Thank you for this article. I had one done but haven't utilized all the features; just recently viewed a video.

  2. I have a question about having cousins do the DNA tests. Wouldn't they pretty much give you the same results? I know absolutely nothing about it nor do I understand exactly what you get, obviously so sorry if this is a stupid question.

    1. Skoenlaper, not a stupid question. Cousins can give you very different results. While our parents each give us half of their genetic information, they don't distribute the genetic material of *their* parents evenly. My mother could receive more from her father's mother and her sister could have more of her father's father. So my cousin would have more of our shared grandfather's father, simply because my aunt has less of grandfather's mother to begin with. I could test yet another cousin from my mother's other sister and get different results again! DNA matches are done to segments of DNA. Those segments can become smaller in each generation they are passed down to, so eventually there isn't enough to positively confirm a match. A first cousin shares several large segments with you, a fifth cousin maybe one good small to medium sized segment.

      The more tests I have done at different generations and relationships(grandparent, parent, aunt/uncle, sibling, cousin...), the better the picture becomes. I tested a maternal cousin to help filter out DNA we would have received from our shared grandparents. I could assume that any DNA match I had that did not match him was from my father's side. Because segments can randomly break into smaller pieces, it's possible that a distant maternal cousin would show up for one but not both of us, so I have also had my brother tested. He shares many of the same segments with my maternal cousin that I do, but he has some that I do not. And some shared segments are shorter/longer for one of us over the other. This helps me to filter out additional maternal matches from those "potential paternal" matches I had with just my cousin's test to compare.

      If I went on to test a paternal cousin, I could confirm which matches I have in common with them and *know* I'm looking at my father's side of the tree for our common ancestor (a big deal considering my brick walls there!). I could also have my maternal grandmother tested and see what matches she shares with my cousin, my brother, and myself. I would then be able to take the segments I share with my cousin, but not with my grandmother, and know that the matches to one or both of us there are from my grandfather's family.

      Do you see how clearer the picture can become? With only my test, I have to rely much more on guesswork and the strength of my research (and my matches' research). Since the DNA test can take you back 10 generations, I'd be hunting for any one of 1022 names (parents, grandparents, great grands, and back for 10 generations). I have found maybe 100 of those names thanks to brickwall ancestors at the 2nd and 4th great grandparents. The possibility that my AncestryDNA matches have the same 100 names is small. Very small. So there's a lot of work involved in connecting us. BUT, if I have my cousin's test and mine and we both match the same person, then that person is from one of 511 names. Most of AncestryDNA's matches are going to be in the 4th cousin range (meaning they will share your third great grandparent). How many of your 32 third great grandparents have you confirmed? And even if you've got the world's best researched tree for 10 generations, your matches may not!

  3. Wow! Rhi, great answer to my question. Thank you very much. It really explained a lot. I am thinking about doing the ancestryDNA test soon. Not sure how many of my relatives I can convince to do it also but at least it is good to know that it will help and HOW it will help. Since you seem to be very knowledgeable in this, I have another question. If you don't mind. I was noticing that most of the samples I've seen do not show Native American. Do they ever? I apparently have several lines with Native Americans in them, some close and some far back. I would like to verify some of these, if possible. Some family members do not believe this although it is apparent in many of our family's features :) anyway, it would be nice to have some proof.

    1. Native American shows up in the AncestryDNA test as North or South American. I would recommend reading my post "Racing to the Wrong Conclusion" (http://everymangenealogy.blogspot.com/2013/02/racing-to-wrong-conclusion.html) which explains ethnicity and the "looks like" trap. Now, I have paper confirmed lines of Native ancestry, but my test doesn't show it. My cousin also doesn't show it. My brother doesn't show it. Do these three tests prove my paperwork wrong? Not really. The shared ancestor that is Native is our great grandmother. Mathematically, I'm looking at sharing only 12.5% of my DNA with that great grandmother, making the probability that I don't have her ethnicity markers very possible. Now, she has one living son (my grandfather's brother), and I could attempt to test him. If *he* came back as 0% Native, then I would question my family history and the records.

      And the 0% for my family tests is with the admix used by Ancestry in this post. Ancestry is actually refining their admix tools and I've been lucky enough to be introduced to it early. My test shows a small (<1%) Native North American. That could be noise (not really NA DNA), or it could be all that I got from great grandma. Paperwork is always going to trump DNA when it comes to ethnicity, because of the way ethnicity is determined by these companies (more guess than science).

  4. Anonymous22/1/14 17:34

    Reading this, I could swear that you either work for Ancestry.com or are being paid to endorse them.

    1. Fortunately, neither are true. I am an independent genealogist and I've tested with three separate companies.

  5. Say I have a cousin who also did an Ancestry DNA test, but we have two, separate trees. There's nothing right now "linking" our DNA results. How would we do that if we have two separate trees, and what might we learn by doing so?

    1. I assume you mean that you and your cousin each have your own tests and neither can see the other's results. I would recommend if that is the case to just communicate with your cousin and compare the user names in your match lists. If you and your cousin upload to Gedmatch.com you can use the comparison lists there to see who you have in common across the three major companies.

      If this didn't answer the question, please email me.

  6. My mother and I recently did the Natl Geo DNA testing, Please tell me how my mom can be more Neoanderthal and than me! I really have my doubts about the accuracy of these test.

    1. Neanderthal DNA is a bit of a niche thing. Your mother can have more Neanderthal (or any ethnicity or segments) simply due to DNA recombination. When she makes the egg that makes you, the DNA doesn't break evenly in meiosis. So you can get more of one thing and less of another than you'd expect just because of the genetic dice roll.

      As far as the accuracy of ethnicities or Neanderthal or whatever other caveman they choose next, those are based on reference DNA that is always evolving as they find more information, so they really are and always will be estimates.

  7. Anonymous10/4/14 00:24

    Rhi -

    Would you recommend the autosomal test for an adoptee that knows nothing of their heritage?

    1. I'd like to know the answer to this too. Rhi?

    2. I would recommend an ethnicity test for adoptees, but would recommend two things:

      First, focus on locations over surnames when comparing matches in order to cluster groups together until you get some kind of known relationship that can be used to compare the rest.

      Second, be ready for people to not be able to help you due to not knowing any more than you. The average testers are getting 4th cousin hits, with the occasional close match, that's 3rd great grandparents or thereabouts. When wording your requests for information, it's okay to just come out with it that you're adopted, but try to give as much as you know about your situation when you do.

    3. Anonymous6/3/15 10:47

      We adopted a girl from an orphanage in Seoul, South Korea. What will she learn if she does the Ancestry DNA test?

    4. Anonymous6/3/15 19:12

      You will learn nothing of use. AncestryDNA isn't available anywhere but the US and recently the UK, so there will be no cousin matching. Most Asian countries don't have direct-to-consumer DNA testing, and most aren't interested in it. As for ethnicity, she'll come up Asian.......... not a thrilling use of $100.

    5. Anonymous5/7/15 13:02

      I adopted a child from the foster system in the U.S., and we all wondered what nationality he is. We did the test, and are awaiting results. I think its well worth the money.

  8. Anonymous15/4/14 11:18

    Do these test seperate the ethnicities out? Like Irish 50%, Polish 25%...

    1. I believe you're confusing ethnicity and nationality. Irish will be often lumped with Great Britain as a whole. Polish will be Eastern European. National borders change so often that being country specific isn't currently possible, but it will tell you the general regions. Once you know them, I'd recommend taking a look at the history surrounding those areas to see how people came and went and why some are lumped together here, while others are there.

  9. Anonymous13/6/14 12:10

    I desperately want to more deeply research my ancestry and want to purchase a DNA testing kit, but from a MATERNAL side, as I'm FEMALE...would that make a difference in the results? There were no sons in my immediate family; I'm the eldest of two daughters; my mother the eldest of five children (four girls, 1 son), etc. I do have siblings, but only ONE full sibling...two half (love them as full). :-)

  10. Will Ancestry DNA tests tell you if you are full or half siblings with if your siblings takes the test as well?

    1. A chromosome browser would help, which Ancestry doesn't have. I do believe they list half siblings as "close relatives", just like they do Parents and Grandparents and Full Siblings.

      With a chromosome browser, you can see the amount of shared DNA and that is a better indication of full/half siblingship. Now, Ancestry doesn't have it, but you can download for free the raw data and transfer it to Gedmatch.com which would give you the browser and the capability of cross-company test comparisons. If there is any question about siblingship, do keep in mind that this test is completely different than the tests that one would take to prove paternity/maternity definitively and will only point you in a general direction.

  11. Anonymous15/8/14 05:50

    My husband and I would both like to do the DNA testing and was wondering if we got one kit that we would use to swab our son if we would be able to get results for us both that way or if we both had to get kits separately.

  12. Anonymous2/12/14 13:35

    Hi, I had a question. I am more interested in settling the rumors of my maternal Grandfather's and my Dad's side of the family as far as ethnicity goes. However, from what I've read, since I am a female, it can only trace back from my Mom, Grandma, Great-Grandma and so on, right? If I have my brother tested, will that give me more info as far as what I am and have gotten from my Dad's side? This is all so confusing to me. I ask because my maternal Grandpa comes from Swedish-Norwegian-Native American parents and my great-Grandpa on my Dad's side is Swedish-Norwegian. I am very interested in confirming this, but don't know if I will even be able to since I am a female. Is it true it'll only trace my Mom/her Mom's side?

    1. Being a female doesn't matter for an autosomal test. You will get information from both sides of your family, but do note two things:

      1. you will get only a fraction of the materials available from your ancestors. ethnicities can be "missing" or overrepresented based on what you get in your mix. It's not an even split.
      2. ethnicities are estimates based on current populations. They should be used as guesses rather than hard facts as the science is still too new.

      You can learn more in my Facebook group that deals with DNA (much more active there right now as I've gone back to university and can't blog as often). We have lots of links and files as well as a few experts in anthropology, genetics, and the tools available. https://www.facebook.com/groups/540702705987151/

    2. Anonymous6/12/14 12:08

      Thank you so much for taking your time to reply. I am considering testing in the near future, and you made it so simple, haha! I no longer have a Facebook, but if I ever get one again, I will definitely join! Thanks again for clearing it up for me, and have a great weekend! :)

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