Saturday, September 9, 2017

Seven Secrets of AncestryDNA

AncestryDNA is a great tool for genealogy and offers a lot of great features right out of the box.  Its Ethnicity Estimates are industry leaders in terms of accuracy and detail. Their database of DNA profiles is by far the largest, meaning you get far more living matches to connect with than on other sites.  Plus you have access to member trees and Ancestry's extensive search tools (well, with a subscription, that is).

But there are also a lot of features, tips and tricks that AncestryDNA doesn't actively promote that can provide even more value from your DNA test.  These include ways to better analyze and compare your matches, better ways to search for common ancestors, and features available from other providers for free or little cost.  Ancestry has a number of reasons for not publicizing these features.  For one, they try to keep their product simple and easy to use, and a lot of these features provide a level of detailed data that Ancestry doesn't think is appropriate for a beginning user. Ancestry probably also prefers not to let people know their data is freely available for download and transfer to other websites, as this would help competing services.  For example, it is clear from a recent update Ancestry made to their test processing machines that it plans to provide health reports in the future.  So it is probably not in Ancestry's interest to let you know that you can use your AncestryDNA data to get a detailed health report from for only $5.00.  And that's just one of the many, many uses for AncestryDNA results beyond what Ancestry promotes.

 Secret #1

        You own your data!

AncestryDNA provides tools to analyze your DNA but the actual data, the actual letters of your DNA is yours and fully owned by you.  You can, for example, delete all your data from Ancestry's servers and have your test sample destroyed at any time by clicking one button.  

More useful is the ability to download your raw DNA data.  This, like the option to delete, is hidden under the settings tab, which can be found in the upper right of the DNA home page:

My Account Options

Next, click the button on the right to "Download Raw DNA":


You'll then be prompted to enter your password.  An email will then be sent to you with a link to download your results.  Please note it can take up to 48 hours for this link to arrive.  

Once you receive the email, click the link and it will take you back to Ancestry to a download page where you can download your raw DNA.

Secret #2 

     You can share your results with others, and they can share with you.

Like the download, this is an option buried on the settings page that is not actively publicized by Ancestry.  DNA results can be shared with any other Ancestry user just like sharing a tree.  If you share your results, users see exactly what you see when they log in and view your results.  

Why is this helpful?  Because in conjunction with the next hidden feature it allows you to perform a something similar to the advanced triangulation features found on GEDMatch, even if your matches won't upload their results to that site.  For example, say you have a known 2nd cousin match, and an unknown match in the 3rd cousin category, and both match each other.  If you can get the known 2nd cousin match to share, you can view their results and see if they match the 3rd cousin more or less than you.  If the 2nd cousin was closer, it might indicate the 3rd cousin's connection is somewhere in the 2nd cousin's family line.  Although this is not as robust as triangulation tools available on other websites, this does provide a valuable way to clarify relationships between matches.

For more information on Sharing, see this Ancestry Help Article.

Secret #3

  You can see the exact amount of DNA shared with your matches.

Ancestry's relationship categories are helpful, but vague.  Wouldn't it be more helpful to know exactly how much DNA you share with a given match? Well, here's how to find that.

1. From the DNA homepage ( click “View All DNA Matches”
2. Click on the “View Match” button to the right of any match.
3. Look for the little “i” in a circle next to the Confidence level.  Click it. A popup with the amount shared will appear below it.

Tip: Copy this info into the “Add note” field just below it.  Notes can be viewed from the match list screen by clicking the note icon next to usernames.

You can then use this amount to get a better idea of the possible relationships by comparing it to the amounts in this table of autosomal results.  If the amount of shared DNA falls between two categories, consider relationships in either category.  The relative ages of you and your shared match (if known) can be helpful in figuring out which relationships are most likely.  Also, the table linked above is only really helpful for third cousin matches and above.  For shared DNA below ~50-70cM, the table becomes less reliable because of the way DNA is inherited in chunks.  So this will not help with figuring out your exact relationship to a distant cousin, but will help with unidentified close matches in the first, second, and third cousin categories on AncestryDNA.

Secret #4

  Private Trees are Searchable

Private trees can be a very frustrating thing to see on AncestryDNA, especially when attached to top matches.  However, just because a person has set to their tree to private doesn't mean you can't learn a thing or two about how you are related.  Try doing a search in your shared matches for a common surname.  Look at the results and you'll notice something odd: private trees are in the results. This means that even if you can't see the tree, you can still search for surnames and get a list of users with private trees that have that surname.  This also works for location searches, though these need to be exact in order to match.

I've used this technique to fully deduce the trees of shared matches.  I start by searching for a known surname from my tree. Say for example I try my maternal grandfather's surname Sullivan. When a private tree match comes back in the results, I look at my tree and try the surnames spouses of every Sullivan in my tree.  If I get a hit, that's a likely indication of our common ancestor.  I check the amount of DNA shared with that match to see if it aligns with that common ancestor.  I have also built out all the cousins I could find in my personal tree, so I will search for spouses of Sullivan cousins and keep following the branches that provide hits for the private match until I have identified exactly which branch of the Sullivan family they are a part of.  

Obviously, not all trees are created equal, so some private matches who do not have decent trees will not show up in searches no matter what.  But it can provide some crucial information that you might not otherwise be able to find.

Secret #5

  You can download all the trees of your matches

One of the major drawbacks to AncestryDNA is that you need a subscription to Ancestry's search product to view trees. This can be expensive to maintain long term.  So it is very useful to have a tool that lets you download all the trees of your matches and compare them offline at your leisure after you have cancelled your subscription.

There are actually two tools that perform this service.  One is the AncestryDNA Helper, a free extension for the Chrome browser.   This program adds additional buttons to your DNA homepage on Ancestry DNA.  One of them is a button to "Scan" your matches.  When you click that, the AncestryDNA Helper will begin to open all your DNA Matches in a background window on your browser.  It does this in order to save a copy of each match to your browser's local cache.  This process can easily take multiple hours for most people's ancestry results, even a full day to complete.  So be patient, and if you are unable to complete it in one sitting, use the "Resume Scan" button.  

Once the Scan is complete, click "Download Matches" and "Download Ancestors of Matches".  This will download two spreadsheets.  One will have information on your matches such as their relationship estimate.  The other will be quite sizable and have all the ancestors of your matches.  You can sort this spreadsheet by surname, date of birth, and many other useful ways in order to discover matches that have common ancestors.  Its a very helpful tool for finding needles in the massive haystack that is Ancestry's DNA Match database.

The second tool is the DNAGEDCom client, available from  This is a downloadable program that costs $5.00 to run.  To use it, you enter your Ancestry login and password, and the software connects to your account and scans through your matches, similar to AncestryDNAHelper.  It then creates a spreadsheet of your matches that you can use offline, or can use in conjunction with other tools on the DNAGEDCom website that help to spot common links between your AncestryDNA Matches.

Secret #6

  There are tons of other websites where you can use your DNA data to do amazing things.

Once you've explored the features and hidden features of AncestryDNA, its time to see what else you can do with your DNA data after you download it off Ancestry.  Here's just a few of the truly amazing things you can do for little or no extra cost.  You can...

  • Upload your results to and to gain access to their ethnicity reports and match database for free.
  • Upload to, a website that allows people from ALL the testing companies to compare results.
  • Turn your autosomal DNA results into a complete genome sequence using the tools at DNA.Land.
  • Get a detailed health report covering everything from cancer risks to alzheimers to potential drug allergies, all for only $5.00 at
  • Compare your results to ancient homonid samples and famous mummies like the Otzi man at
  • And perhaps my favorite...

Secret #7

  AncestryDNA contains Y-DNA data (for men).

AncestryDNA is an autosomal test, which as we know, does not provide Y-DNA information.  But their testing chip does actually sample some locations on the Y chromosome for men. Its not as much as an actual Y-DNA test, but it does contain enough information for some people to obtain their Y-DNA Haplogroup.  It's a great way to get information that otherwise would require a separate test, such as 23andMe's $100 test or FTDNA's $159 Y-DNA test.

For more information on how to obtain Y-DNA haplogroups from AncestryDNA results, see my article Updated Method to get Y-DNA Haplogroup from AncestryDNA Results.


  1. Very useful information, and #7 worked well for me, great tool!

  2. A DNA test is done to get essential realities or data about a wrongdoing, to demonstrate the purity and blame of somebody or follow family heritage. 2018 DNA testing for kids