Start Your DNA Search Today!

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Updated: July 10, 2017

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Getting Started with your DNA Search

In this section, I am going to help get you started on your DNA search journey! One of the first things you will notice is that DNA testing can be expensive especially when you test at more than one database. I am going to show the most economical and cost efficient path of DNA testing. There are flowcharts and all sorts of instructions suggesting various testing routes floating around various groups and forums that can make one think at first glance that all searchers need bags of money to spend on several DNA tests which puts a lot of searchers off from trying the DNA route of searching. I am here to tell you that spending all that money on various tests is NOT always necessary and also, some information you may have found might be outdated as things change. So, I have tried to be as detailed below about the options outlined below. If you have already tested and want instructions on how to use your results there is plenty info below and some more intermediate instructions on my page, “Tricks of the Trade“. I encourage everyone thinking about DNA testing to also read a blog post about DNA companies privacy policies and how they use your DNA data written by genetic genealogist, Roberta Estes.

1. Test with Ancestry.com. If you already know one side of your family and are looking for just one unknown parent please read (Step 5) about also testing a close family member so you can phase your matches. This is an autosomal DNA test and at the time of writing costs $99 however, they do have occasional sales on these tests you could watch out for. (TIP: quite often the discount code “FREESHIPDNA” at checkout works to get free shipping.) Ancestry is probably my favorite testing company, perhaps because my own closest matches are there but, they sold 1 million DNA kits alone just in 2015 bringing their database to 1.5 million testers 3 million testers 4 million testers; making it the fastest growing database. Besides having a few bugs from time to time on their website it is a good all round, easy to navigate site as well. That being said, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Ancestry. They simply do not offer enough tools to use to make meaningful comparisons of matches. But, I will give them their due, in the past couple of years they have gotten a lot better by adding the “shared matches” feature even if it only works for 4th cousin category matches or closer and also they finally now show you how many centimorgans (cM) you share with each match. Their database is also the fastest growing database of the “big 3” available.

This is my own Ancestry match list and as you can see, besides my daughter, my top match is still only in the 3rd Cousin range.
Once your results are in you will be provided a list of your DNA matches. Be aware that while access to your match list is free once you have tested, you will have to subscribe to Ancestry in order to view the family trees of your matches. Being able to view your DNA matches trees is essential to your search. You have the option of buying one month, 6 month or annual subscriptions. You’ll have to decide what is best for you. Ancestry is a wonderful resource when you have full access to it. I personally find their subscriptions rather expensive but, certainly a well worthy investment when doing your birthparent search. Keep in mind that it is at Ancestry where you will be building your “master trees” and “mirror trees” and your master tree is just as important as your DNA results.

Rob Warthen, the founder of the website, dnagedcom.com has created a utility called GWorks that can do a bit more with your Ancestry matches including run comparisons of all the gedcoms of your Ancestry matches looking for common occurrences of surnames and shared ancestors between matches. Visit his website for more info and also more tools available there that can help you on your search.

TIP: While you are waiting for your Ancestry test results, this is a good time to go onto Ancestry and build a good tree of any known side of your family you may already know. It will also familarize you with Ancestry’s tree building and search functions. It is also a good time to request a copy of your non-identifying information from the agency you were adopted though if that applies to you and you have not done so already. You could also sign up for reunion registries if you have not done so already. These are searchable on internet search engines and you may also sign up at the International Soundex Reunion Registry. 

2. Once you receive your Ancestry results you can then download your “raw data” file. You then should upload your raw data file to GedMatch at www.gedmatch.com which is a donation based DNA database. (VIDEO instructions of this process.) Although the site is completely free to use, I encourage you to donate $10 if you can afford it to the wonderful people who run this website and make it available for use for free. With a donation of $10 you will be able to use a few extra tools called the “Tier 1 tools” for a month which are great features. Testers from all three DNA databases may upload here and you may find that once your results are batch processed here you may have some further good matches here from other databases. A word of warning: GedMatch can look scary to first time users because of the lack of a GUI (graphical user interface). Don’t let that put you off, GedMatch is a brilliant site and what it lacks in GUI it makes up for in versatility with its great number of tools to make deeper comparisons of your DNA than you can at any other database.

example of what your GedMatch home screen will look like
Click to enlarge. This is my GedMatch home screen.
The screenshot here shows what your GedMatch home page will look like. I will give a brief intro to GedMatch here to acquaint you with how it works and how you can check for matches here. What is important to know about GedMatch matches in particular is that testers who upload their raw data to and use GedMatch are the matches most likely to respond to emails and requests for information and collaboration. GedMatch only attracts genealogists who are serious about genetic genealogy and these types of matches are adopton DNA searchers best friends. A really good GedMatch users guide can be found at the website of Australian Genetic Genealogist, Louise Coakley, in her article, “Tips for using GedMatch“.

At first, we just want to see if we have some good matches here. Once your kit is uploaded (Also, upload raw data of any close relatives that you have had tested for phasing purposes. See step #5 below for more about phasing) your kit will be assigned a kit number beginning with a letter. The letter denotes the DNA company of the raw data you uploaded. Ancestry kits start with an “A”, FTDNA kits with an “F” now with a “T” and 23andme kits with an “M”. This is helpful to know if you want to find any matches showing at GedMatch at the relevant DNA testing company. To start, you will find your “match list” by running the “One-to-Many” utility. Click the “One-to-Many” link to go to that utility. Then, select your kit from the dropdown box and leave the other options at their defaults and then submit to run the utility. You will be able to see your list of matches along with the total amount of centimorgans shared with your match as well as the longest, continous segment shared on the autosomal chromosomes. It also has a column showing any shared centimorgans on your X chromosome.

By clicking the “L” link in the row of a match in your One-to-Many match list, you can view the matches match list. You may be able to figure out from here if they have had any close relatives test as well that might just help you narrow down which side of their family you relate to them on. You can utilize the “User Lookup” from your GedMatch home screen to search for trees your matches may have uploaded.

Runs of Homozygosity
Another utility you may want to run straight away at GedMatch is the, “Are my parents related?” utility. This utility checks your DNA raw data for “Runs of Homozygosity” (ROH’s). This will tell you if your parents are related in any way within the past 5-8 generations. It is always good to do this comparison to rule out any chance that your parents were close relations.

Upload your GEDCOM of any known parents side.
If you have a known side of your family and have done their family tree, please take the time to upload this gedcom straightaway to your gedmatch account and point your kit at yourself in the tree once uploaded. It is good practice to make your family tree available if you have one because as you will find out during your search, it is extremely frustrating when you keep running into match after match with no tree. What good is a DNA cousin without a tree to figure out how you connect? It’s no good at all so, please upload a tree if you have a known side. By making your tree available it also encourages others to do the same. You can also look for family trees of GedMatch matches by going to the “User Lookup” from your GedMatch homepage and entering their kit number to see if they have uploaded their gedcom. If you recognize the match from your Ancestry list, try there to see if they have listed a tree.

TIP:   If you come across a good match with no tree and they only use a username on their accounts. First, search the username in Ancestry’s Member Directory. Then, do a boolean search on Google for the username and also their email address if they list one at either Gedmatch or FTDNA. For example, if their user name is “teddybear7654” search the user name at Google in quotation marks just like above. People tend to use the same username several places online from which you may be able to identify the person behind the username. Same with emails. Search the email in “quotation marks”. If the email search turns up nothing then search only the addressee part (the part before the @ sign) of the email as like usernames, some people repeatedly use the same addressee on various email accounts. Also, learn how to use operators in boolean searches. These come in extremely useful for all types of Google searches you may need to do during your search.

3. Next, you should upload your raw data file to FTDNA for absolutely FREE. The free upload of your raw data will allow you to see all of your matches for free and there is an option to pay $19 to unlock features such as the chromosome browser, myOrigins and ancientOrigins however, you can then utilize ADSA over at DNAgedcom.com. At this point, I encourage you to thoroughly analyze your matches from Ancestry along with those you gained at Gedmatch and FTDNA to determine which steps may be beneficial to you at this point. Step #6 gives you some tips on how to go about this. 

Family Tree DNA FTDNA match list
My own FTDNA match list. I have extended the bottom
option bar on the top few matches so you can see some of the tools. My top match
is my daughter, followed by my birthfather, then my
maternal half brother.
Here for example in the screenshot, my maternal half brother tested and I used his kit and the “Not in Common With” feature to easily see my paternal matches. By doing this, I could quickly phase my matches into paternal and maternal groups which you can do too if you had a close relative on a known side test as well.

 

T   R   I   A   N   G   U   L   A   T   I   O   N..
..in a nutshell.

Note that FTDNA gives access to a chromosome browser which is precisely what you need when trying to find common matches who share a common ancestor. At FTDNA, you would look at a match and then look at the matches “In Common With” that match. Then you would look at that group of common matches in the chromosome browser to see if the group have any matching overlapping segments of DNA. Then, to double check, you would run a matrix comparison in FTDNA’s advanced tools to check that all matches who share an overlapping segment of DNA all match each other as well as matching you. If this is true, then you know that the entire group all share a common ancestor. Keep to segment sharing groups that share overlapping segments at least 7 and preferably 10 centimorgans long. The longer the segment the more sure you can be that the segments are IBD (identical by descent) and not just IBS (identical by state). What we can’t do at FTDNA is make a one-to-one comparison between one of our matches to another of the matches in the group though to make sure that each match in that group share that segment with each other eventhough we know they match each other. Whilst the likelihood is extremely high that the above method will produce a sound triangulation it is not conclusive and it is slightly flawed because of this limitation.

ADSA
There is a very clever man named Don Worth who deserves a medal for his work on developing a utility called ADSA or the “Autosomal DNA Segment Analyzer“.  Mr. Worth along with the people at DNAgedcom.com, made short work of a once, long and tedious process at FTDNA sorting and grouping related match groups. This useful tool pulls info on your matches from your FTDNA account (and now also works with GedMatch) and produces an easy to read and utilize chart of all your common matches and the matching overlapping segments they share in about 15 minutes! It can be found at www.dnagedcom.com along with some other useful tools. You can also run triangulations to group your matches with the various utilities at GedMatch.

Remember: it is currently not possible to triangulate your matches at Ancestry as there is a lack of tools. You have to rely solely on looking at shared matches of matches. Ancestry also only lets you see shared matches that are in the 4th cousin category or closer. Ancestry also does not have a chromosome browser. So, for now, we must work with what we got, which is the relatively new shared matches feature.

4. Generally, many groups and search angels will suggest to test immediately at 23andme. However, I do not recommend that you automatically test there for a few reasons. One being, the sheer size of Ancestry’s database. I can tell you that currently, 90 percent plus cases will be solved at Ancestry with delvings into GEDmatch and FTDNA. Secondly, testing at 23andme without the “health option” is another $99. That is a lot of money to spend to simply “fish in the pond” when it may be that you have a sufficient amount of good matches at Ancestry, GedMatch and FTDNA to solve your case with anyways. Recently, I have come across several searchers who have followed the advice to test at 23andme essentially right away then, later found that they had likely more than sufficient matches at Ancestry, FTDNA and GedMatch to solve their cases! I am not very happy with this because many people already struggle to afford testing at Ancestry and FTDNA. Many of these people, in my opinion, have wasted $99 because of careless advice. I know I certainly wasted money testing here. I have had very little out of it. If you have been advised to test here right away and then offered no resources to help you figure out if it is necessary to test at 23andme, seek out more information. It is true that you may have a really close match waiting to be found at 23andme but, bear with me while I explain one caveat.

23andme match list
And there we have it, my 23andme match
list. A maternal 1st cousin I already knew about and not too many names to protect because the vast majority of my matches are Anonymous and also never respond to messages or sharing requests.
23andme originally started out as a health testing based DNA database and they specialize in health reports based on your DNA results. This brings a few problems. A vast percentage of testers at 23andme are only interested in health reports and not genealogy meaning that many matches, no matter how closely related to you they may be, are not interested in responding to messages or genealogy questions. In fact, many matches are listed as “Anonymous” and most do not provide family trees which are absolutely essential to your search. Apparently, these “Anonymous” matches will be disappearring from my match list soon anyways as 23andme rolls out their “new and improved” website. Read here about the 23andme Meltdown. 23andme also only allows you to contact matches via their messaging system and many testers have not logged in to their account for many years! If you are really interested in Health Reports like the ones 23andme offer you can upload your Ancestry raw data to a site called Promethease and for $5 they will generate a health report based on your raw data. As you can gather from above, testing at 23andme is more akin to “playing the lottery” than “fishing in a pond”. I personally find 23andme about as much use as a chocolate tea pot and I find the language of their privacy policies and false “opt outs” of research and data “sharing” (read “selling”) disingenuous at best.

However, you may have found that for some reason or another you haven’t gotten many good matches at Ancestry, Gedmatch, nor FTDNA and in that case, autosomal DNA testing at 23andme may be quite beneficial to you because you just never know what might waiting there for you. It is true that for some adoptees, 23andme is where they find the key match to solve their case.


5. Phasing matches. Phasing is all about determining which side of your tree, maternal or paternal side your DNA matches fall into. If you are only looking for one unknown parent and already know the other parent it is highly advantageous to get another close relative to also test at the same time as yourself. The best person to have also test to phase your matches is your known parent. If that parent is not able to test, the next best people to have test are a half sibling, or next in usefulness might be an aunt or uncle or in a pinch a 1st cousin. However, keep in mind that phasing with anyone else besides a parent is less than perfect but, if that is your only option when the known parent cannot test, another close relative can be very useful. To be further prepared to phase your matches if you already have one known parent is to build an extensive family tree for that side of your family. This is also a very important part of this phasing process that will make your work much easier in the long run.

Note that at GedMatch, if you and a known parent have both tested and uploaded your raw data there you will be able to create a phased kit. This tool will use your known parent and your data to create a kit to represent your unknown parent. This kit can then be run in the One-to-Many utility to phase your matches at GedMatch.

6. How do I know what qualifies as “good” matches when I get my results? If you have 3rd cousin range matches at Ancestry or closer… these are GREAT matches. If you have 3rd cousin range matches or 4th cousin matches 60cM or closer at Ancestry delay any testing with 23andme until you have investigated your matches thoroughly. This can save you money! If you have 3rd cousins or closer at Ancestry with good family trees posted… these are EXCELLENT matches. Remember that you need family trees of your matches to figure out how you might relate to these matches and also how your other matches relate to these matches! This is part of the processing of your matches! A really close DNA match without a family tree is not very helpful to you at all but, there are many ways you can find their trees online using a few tricks and sometimes you must resort to building a tree for them if you cannot find one. So, expect to have to do a lot of sleuthing in this process to get successful results!

7. Time to analyze your matches! Before we can analyze our matches I am going to give you your first goal you should be trying to achieve… finding that first “common ancestor” between matches on your unknown side. To start, let’s look at your Ancestry matches. First, roughly sort your matches by phasing them into groups. Now is the time to attach any tree you built for your known side if you have one to your DNA at Ancestry at your DNA settings page and start sorting out which matches are from your known side. After linking your DNA to yourself in your tree you will hopefully see some shaky green leaf “shared ancestor hints” displayed on your DNA homepage.

mirror trees and shared ancestor hints at Ancestry.
You can also view your shared ancestor hints by clicking the green leaf hints button filter at the top of your match list. If you have had a close relative on your known side also test, sort matches into groups that match both yourself and your close relative by clicking on your close relative and looking at shared matches by clicking on the “matches” tab. Then group matches that do not your close relative and only match yourself. Do this sorting process for all matches you get “shaky green leaf shared ancestor hints” for and for all matches 1st – 4th cousins (do only down to your closest 4th matches to start).

Ancestry sorts your matches into categories from closest to more distant. If you have a match in the “parent/child” category this is self explanatory. If you have a match at Ancestry in the “close relation” category, this means this match is likely a sibling, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, grandchild, or half sibling! If you have a match in this category immediately screenshot any family tree they may have posted because some people switch their trees from public to private regularly. You are very lucky indeed if you have a close relation and your case is nearly solved!  If you have a match in the 1st cousin category you are also very lucky!! Again, immediately screenshot their tree if they have one. With a 1st cousin, obviously you have it nearly solved and with a bit of work you will find your answers! If you have a match in the 2nd cousin category we need to try to determine a few things.

centimorgans at AncestryDNA
Click the 'i' icon on your AncestryDNA matches profile page to check how many cM you share
Look at how many shared centimorgans you share with this match by clicking the “i” (information) icon next to relationship confidence level on the matches dna profile page. Then, also try to determine what age that match is from their tree to make a relationship estimation if they have one. Normally, living people are “private” in trees so, move up to the closest generation that is not private and add roughly 25 – 35 years per generation from your match in the tree to determine a rough age. Keep in mind that if your match is likely a generation older or younger than you a 1st cousin 1x removed may also show in the 2nd cousin category as well as a few other relationship possibilities that share the same amount of DNA. Also remember that age estimations are just that. Estimations! Bigger or smaller generational gaps in families and double or half relationships can make differences in what the true relationship is. Study the table given below. You will find you will be referring to this table below often! All of the relationship possibilities are also not listed there. Not only will you be referring to that table often, you should keep reminding yourself often when working master trees or mirror trees of matches you are working with of the shared centimorgans and the different possible relationships you might have with that match when looking at your tree you are building. I call this doing the “numbers”.

Keep in mind that the table numbers are the averages. Because autosomal DNA inheritance is random you can share a bit more or a bit less than average with a match. An example is that my maternal half brother and I share 1999 cM. That is quite a bit higher than average given in the table. Did you know that that there is one other relationship possibility between full sibling and half sibling? A 3/4 sibling! 3/4 siblings share a parent and their other two parents are siblings. There is a host of unusual relationships that can occur and while these are not the norm, it is important to keep an open mind to the possibilities when we are doing this type of work with unknown parentage.

If it is determined it is a straight 2nd cousin going by the centimorgans and generation estimation you have made from the matches age, that means you likely share a 1x great grandparent.

See the chart below to help you learn about relationships.

Family-Tree-Relationship-Chart-page-001-1024x636

You then check for “shared matches” by clicking the “matches” tab between the “surnames” and “locations” tab on their DNA match profile page. If there is shared matches, your next goal is to find a common ancestor between your match and any shared matches. You can compare surnames using the search facilities in the Ancestry match list and also the search function in the shared matches tab on match profile pages.

Warning: It is good practice to screenshot the first few generations of every tree of any 3rd cousin category or closer matches as soon as you get your results. The last thing you want to happen is your match all of a sudden makes their tree private or removes it and you can no longer see the information. Screenshot them to be safe!

Shared Autosomal DNA & Relationship Chart
Shared Autosomal DNA & Relationship Chart

Shared autosomal dna relationship chart
credit:DiMario (Wikimedia Commons)

DOWNLOAD both tables above as a PDF to print for easy reference.

This is your first goal… to find a common ancestor between your two matches. When you do find one, you know that this common ancestor is also your ancestor. EXCEPT, if two of your matches share an ancestor that cannot possibly be your ancestor! What I mean by that is, your match and the shared match might be closer related to each other than they are to you. So, you must do the “numbers” (shared centimorgans and relationship possibilities) to check. If you estimate from the shared centimorgans with these matches that they are likely 3rd cousins to you and the common ancestor between those two matches is their grandparents meaning the matches are 1st cousins to each other, you know that those grandparents cannot be YOUR common ancestor if you are their 3rd cousin but, you will know that you share a common ancestor further up the tree from that set of grandparents.

You can repeat these steps for doing a quick scan at Ancestry of your match list and the shared matches looking for a common ancestor in amongst your closest matches. This is your first hurdle. Find that first common ancestor! You can also try cross checking surnames from your Ancestry match lists’ trees to ancestral surnames of your FTDNA matches by using the ancestral surname search at FTDNA.

8. If you have gotten this far and found some good matches and maybe even a common ancestor between two matches you have a very good start indeed in analyzing your matches! From here you will find that you will be spending a lot of time building a family tree. I call it a “master tree”. It is in this tree you will be trying to connect all of your DNA cousins’ families together… and therefore.. YOUR extended family tree! To give you an idea of how big this tree may get before you solve your search I can tell you that I had nearly 6000 people in my master tree before I finally solved the identity of my own unknown father! It is important for searchers to realize that there is much work to be done in this department to reach your goal and more often than not you will have 2nd cousins or more distant that you will be working with and the more distant the cousins are the larger the puzzle becomes! I often recommend to searchers who have become frustrated with their searches and the hours upon hours of building trees who feel like they are getting nowhere to just…. keep building! No matter how painful that may sound at the time, many times this is all that is required! Keep building those trees and stretching those lines. You will find that when it comes to stretching descendent lines down to the recently deceased and living it becomes much tougher to find information and documentation for which many research and web sleuthing tactics will need to be utilized to find your information. Please see my section called, “Tricks of the Trade” to find out about how to build and utilize master trees.

9. If you are a male looking for your father and after analyzing your matches you do not have some decent autosomal matches, do consider taking at the very least, the YDNA-37 marker or higher test at FTDNA. This test looks at your patrilineal line only.

10. If your best matches are 3rd cousins and more distant you have a lot of studying and work ahead of you but, do not fear! There is much more help in my section, “Tricks of Trade“, where you will find an indepth guide on building Master Trees and Mirror Trees, X chromosome inheritance and many other tricks and tips!

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2 thoughts on “Start Your DNA Search Today!

  1. Thank you so very much for these immensely informative articles! I have posted a link on my facebook page for several other people so they will have an opportunity to learn this information. I’d like to reblog this on my wordpress blog, but I hate to admit, I cannot find your name and I don’t know how to credit it to you. It is such excellent work, I wish I had written it! LOL I have had the opportunity to help some others find their birth parents, and we have been successful at least five times, I still have two I am trying to help. WE have used some of these techniques, but now we are armed with many more! Thank you so very much! Helen

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    1. Hi Helen,

      Thanks for your kind words! Glad to hear you have found some tips and tricks to try with your searches! Thanks for passing on the info to others!
      Cheers!
      Szandra

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