Are You Doing Everything to Identify Your Matches?

We all know that it can be frustrating trying to identify who a genetic match is and how they are related to us. Today we’ll look at some of the ways we can learn more about matches using the limited information we are given.

But this post has a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is to help people identify their AncestryDNA matches even if the match has no tree, has a private tree, has a meagre tree, and/or is not communicating. Keep in mind, some people have very good reasons for not having a public tree (they don’t have one, there’s a bad history, and so on), so this post is not at all about chastising people who don’t have a tree.

The second purpose, which is perhaps even more important, is to help test-takers who want privacy understand the ways in which people can use information to identify them. EVERY test-taker has a right to make their information as private as possible; but you must also understand that DNA is inherently identifiable. The purpose of genetic genealogy is identification. The only way to maintain 100% DNA privacy is to not take a DNA test. Period. The next best way to maintain some level of DNA privacy is to make your information as private as possible, as we will see below.

Below are some of the ways we can use the information we’re given to identify our AncestryDNA matches.  (All names and identifying information were changed!)

  1. Are you SURE they don’t have a tree?

A big mistake people make is to assume that the words “No family tree” next to a match means that no family tree is available. In fact, it only means that there is no family tree attached to the DNA. Many of these matches have an unattached family tree in their profile.

In a recent study, I found that 22% of my first 500 matches have an unlinked public tree available! (See “Quantifying Tree Availability for My AncestryDNA Matches”). Missing these trees is an enormous missed opportunity.

For example, the following match appears to have no tree attached:

But when you click on the profile, you see the following. The person DOES have a tree that you can review:

Are we 100% sure that this is the correct tree of the person that tested? Nope. But it’s better than no tree at all.

Don’t miss out on these valuable matches!

 

  1. Use KNOWN matches to identify UNKNOWN matches

If you’ve tested other close family members, or if you’ve identified many of your AncestryDNA matches, then you can leverage this information to help identify your unknown genetic matches using the Shared Matches tool.

For example, I’ve tested a close family member we’ll call Hiram and I would like to identify some of Hiram’s matches that don’t have a tree attached or an identifiable profile name. Luckily, I’ve also tested three of his mother’s siblings (an uncle and two aunts). In addition, several of Hiram’s other maternal relatives have tested. Although I wasn’t able to test Hiram’s mother or father, I am very confident that I can label each of his close matches as being maternal or paternal based on these aunt/uncle tests.

NOTE: I’ll only use this method for close matches (at least 15-20 cM shared), since I know that below 10 cM, I fail to share 41% of my matches with my parents. See “The Danger of Distant Matches.”

Of course this is not a foolproof method, and identifying a match as maternal or paternal only eliminates 50% of Hiram’s family tree. But we’re looking for any clue we can find to shed light on a match.

The following individual, Sam, shares 37 cM with Hiram. But with the username “Sam” and no tree, identifying this person is nearly impossible. I might, however, be able to learn something about him by checking out the Shared Matches:

Sure enough, Sam matches Hiram’s sister (which doesn’t help us at all), and three different maternal relatives, including his maternal uncle:

I am VERY confident that this is a maternal match. Indeed, with this match I can estimate even better than maternal vs. paternal. Because this match shares DNA with “Close Maternal Match” and “Maternal Match,” and because I know what line these two maternal matches share on Hiram with, I can estimate that Sam is related through Hiram’s maternal grandfather.

Thus, I’ve gone from no information about Sam to knowing that he is related through Hiram’s maternal grandfather.

Now that I have this information, I’ll be sure to create a note on Sam’s profile page.

 

3. Check the match’s Member Profile!

If you’re not checking the Member Profile of your matches, you’re potentially missing a WEALTH of information. There is so much different information here, potentially, that you can use to help you identify matches and place them within your family tree.

Example 1

The following match has no tree available. The shared matches suggest that the match is on Hiram’s paternal grandfather’s side of the family, but that’s all I know so far.

So I click on the admin’s name (Zoomie – hey, it’s hard to constantly make up fake names!) to get to the admin’s Member Profile Page.

There, I learn that Hiram shares DNA not only with the administrator (Zoomie), but also with TWO other kits that Zoomie admins (H.Z. and L.Z.). Armed with this information, I can view the match page for each of Zoomie, H.Z., and L.Z. in an attempt to learn more about these matches.

Example 2

The following match has a tree, but it is private. The shared matches suggest that the match is on Hiram’s paternal side of the family, but that’s all the information I have.

So I click on the match name (AnonymousX) to see his Member Profile page:

Although I don’t know if or how AnonymousX fits in the “Bellinger Family Tree,” it is a clue that I can now pursue.

Example 3

The following match has a tree, but it is private. The shared matches suggest that the match is on Hiram’s maternal side of the family, but that’s all the information I have.

So I click on the administrator’s name (SarahT123) to see the admin’s Member Profile page:

There, I see that the admin does not share DNA with Hiram. However, the admin has a family tree attached to his/her account, the “Thomas Family Tree.” This is now a resource that I can mine for clues!

Example 4

The following match has a tree, but it is private. The shared matches suggest that the match is on Hiram’s paternal side of the family, but that’s all the information I have.

So I click on the match name (KingHenry) to see his Member Profile page:

Although KingHenry doesn’t have a tree linked, s/he has posted in message boards! I can click that link and see the messages. Sure enough, KingHenry posts in a forum asking about a census record for a family on Hiram’s paternal side of the family. It’s a clue.

And these aren’t even all the possible ways to use the Member Profile page!

 

4. Search the internet using the match’s name

Sometimes people use their real name (as I do, for example), and other times people use an identifiable nickname or other user ID.

The following match has a username that looks like it might be a real name. Although she has a tree attached, it only has two people and both are anonymous. Checking her profile page reveals nothing helpful.

But when I search the internet using the phrase “JillyYurick,” I discover that the first few entries are a Facebook page and a Twitter page for a Jilly Yurick. It isn’t guaranteed that this is the test-taker, and this method won’t work for more common names, but it is a clue!

When I search, I try several different variations of the search phrase, including “JillyYurick,” “Jilly Yurick,” and “Jilly Yurick genealogy.”

Although this was a match that had a username that looked like a real name, other matches will have usernames that are clearly not real names, like “UB45th” or “TigerValleyJohn35.” Don’t hesitate to search for these usernames as well, as people will commonly use these types of usernames over and over for different websites or for email addresses. I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, to see TigerValleyJohn35@gmail.com in an internet search. Not guaranteed to be the test-taker, but it is a clue.

 

5. Do a surname search

Another trick to help you identify your matches, or at least provide clues, is to use the surname search function. You’ll discover that this works even if your match has a locked private tree!

Here, I’m entering the “surname” Davidson into the surname search box. Davidson is a surname in Hiram’s family tree, and I’m curious to see which matches have that surname in their tree.

The results of the search show that several matches have that surname in their tree, including a match (S.D.) with a private tree:

S.D. is an intriguing match, having a shared hint with Hiram that I can’t see. But now I have a clue that she has the Davidson surname in her private tree. This is not a guarantee that this is the line we share, but it is a clue.

Now that I have this information, I’ll enter it into the note section:

I can potentially use this method to triangulate on S.D.!

For example, I can use the surname search function to search for surnames within Hiram’s tree that are closely related to the “Davidson” surname. Oliver Davidson had a daughter Samantha that married a Ralph Richland. Oliver Davidson’s wife was named Olive Greener. (yes, these are all fake names, but it illustrates the scenario). I can search for “Richland” and “Greener” to see if S.D. has either of these surnames in her tree.

Searching for “Richland,” I find that S.D. does NOT have that surname in her tree (because she doesn’t appear in the results when I use the surname search function to search for “Richland”).

However, when I use the surname search function to search for “Greener,” S.D. shows up in the results! This suggests that perhaps S.D. has Oliver Davidson and Olive Greener in her family tree, but that she is descended from a different child.

This is NOT a guarantee that S.D. matches Hiram through the Davidson-Greener couple. Indeed, I’d feel a lot better about this if it were a closer match, but it is a very good clue!

 

6. Build the match’s tree!

Some matches have meager trees that you can build out to learn more about how they might be related to you. Here is one of Hiram’s matches in the fourth cousin range:

Checking J.R.’s match page, I see that he has an unlinked tree attached:

When I click on the tree, I see that it has only three people, and only one of them is identified, a Mary L. Jacobsen:

When I click on Mary L. Jacobsen, however, I get some valuable information about where and when she was born and died:

Armed with this information, I can now build out a tree for J.T. and learn, perhaps, how he is related to Hiram.

Indeed, this last match, with just one person in the tree, helped me make one of the biggest genealogical breakthroughs I’ve ever made.

Building trees for your matches is time-consuming, but it can be worth every minute.

When building trees for your matches, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you make the tree you’re building both private AND unsearchable. A match may be upset that you’ve built their tree and made it available, and this could permanently sour your relationship with that match. Be cautious and respect their privacy!

Conclusions

Many of our matches do not have trees available for us to review. When this happens, there are still an incredible number of ways to learn more about that match and potentially discover how they fit into your family tree.

If you have any other tips or tricks, feel free to leave them in the comments!

Good luck!

 

 

47 Responses

  1. Marian Pierre-Louis 11 March 2017 / 3:52 pm

    In section 3 on member profiles I wish you had shown a profile that had been customized with additional information. Many people don’t know that they can customize their own profiles with the website address of their family homepage, their gedmatch number or else thing else they are comfortable sharing.

    Maybe you could do a post showing people how to do that.

    • Etta 11 March 2017 / 4:04 pm

      I’ve done this. A very good suggestion!

      • Lyn Nunn 11 March 2017 / 6:09 pm

        I have a private tree but I have done expanded my member profile including my surnames of interest and time period. It is going to take me quite some time to put everyone on my tree on my ancestry tree. I have the main line up but not all the branches and twigs – work in progress.

  2. Davie Orr 11 March 2017 / 4:09 pm

    I don’t use ancestry tree hints in the hint section as a rule of thumb, as I find many of them very sporadic and inaccurate but recently I just discovered with the tree hints if you click on the user name than the tree itself 1st, potentially it could lead you to the DNA match.
    Thus giving you a bit more confidence in that person tree.
    I’ve managed to stumbled across 3 5th-8th cousins this way.
    I also view it as a way of verifying my work if you have the match, the paper trail and DNA match.

    • Blaine T Bettinger 12 March 2017 / 10:38 am

      We must be very careful with hints, for sure. They’re nothing more than clues, especially without segment data. But as genealogists, we spend hours looking for paper trail clues, after all!

      Thanks for the tips!

  3. Jodie Captein 11 March 2017 / 8:31 pm

    Great post! One other trick I would add to your list is searching Ancestry DNA matches by birth location only, no surname. By searching for a specific county and state (like Avoyelles, Louisiana) or a specific country (like Lithuania), I can often unearth distant cousin matches that don’t have a particular surname in their tree (or it’s spelled differently!) or that don’t show up using the Shared Matches feature because they aren’t at the “4th to 6th” cousin-level with you in terms of shared DNA. The trick with this trick is that you have to select from Ancestry’s drop-down options after you start typing your desired location or they won’t let you “search.”

    • Blaine T Bettinger 12 March 2017 / 10:43 am

      Hey Jodie!

      Great tips, thank you for sharing! I’ve used this myself a few times and really should have included it in this post. I was born in and grew up in a small town, and finding someone who has relatives in their tree from that location is potentially EXTREMELY meaningful.

      Thank you!

    • Sandra Alto 12 March 2017 / 8:22 pm

      Jodie or anyone,
      I use most of these tips too, but I have always wanted to search Ancestry DNA matches by location ( surname lists too) instead of name. Need clarification on how you do that.

      • Sandra Alto 12 March 2017 / 8:39 pm

        Never mind I answered my own question. Thank you!

    • Jim Foley 14 March 2017 / 8:14 pm

      When I try searching only on location, and leave the surname blank, the Search button is disabled. If I type ‘*’ in the surname (in the hope that it may work as a wildcard), and ‘Kilmacthomas’ (small village in Waterford County), it returns 40 matches, far more than I would expect from a small place. And one of them is a private tree with only two people in it. So it’s doing something, but I’m not sure what.

      • Jodie Captein 6 April 2017 / 1:17 pm

        The trick with Ancestry’s location-only search is that after starting to type a location, you must choose one of the options that pop up in the drop down menu. It may be that you’ll only be able to search for “Waterford, Ireland” or possibly a barony or parish but not a specific village or townland.

  4. Genealogy Jen 12 March 2017 / 12:44 am

    Thanks for another fantastic post. I use most of these methods already. If the kit is administered by someone I also look for clues in the person’s initials. I figured out that one person probably was the spouse of the administrator by googling, then searching for them on Facebook.

    • Blaine T Bettinger 12 March 2017 / 11:19 am

      Great tip, thank you! I too find that the admin is often a spouse or a very close relative.

  5. Cheryl Welch 12 March 2017 / 1:34 am

    none of my matches designate maternal or paternal. Did you do a special test for that?

    • Blaine T Bettinger 12 March 2017 / 10:48 am

      They can’t designate as maternal or paternal without some other information. I’ve tested my parents, so I can filter my matches by Mother or Father.

      For Hiram, I’ve tested three of his maternal aunts/uncles as I mentioned in the post, and based on that I can tell with an extremely high level of confidence which of his CLOSEST matches are maternal because they will also match one of those aunts/uncles. If they don’t match the aunt/uncles and they are a close match, I estimate that they are paternal.

      Testing close relatives – when you can, of course – is one of the KEYS to unlock
      genetic genealogy!

      • caith 14 March 2017 / 7:03 am

        And, I have a 1C,1removed; and I use him to “phase” between Maternal and Paternal.
        If my match also matches him, more than likely the match is on my Paternal side.

        Glad you wrote this article. Very helpful.

  6. Helen 12 March 2017 / 7:43 am

    As far as I can tell the surname search only applies to the match and their direct line ancestors, which is helpful.

  7. caith 12 March 2017 / 9:33 am

    The shared match feature only works for 4th cousin or CLOSER.

    When looking at a tree of our dna match and we cannot find a Shared Surname as listed by Ancestry, it is because the owner has tied the wrong tree to the dna. Just click on the other spouse, and the correct tree will come up with the mentioned surname/s. This happens more than frequently for me.

    My tree is Private because I have several “exploratory” lines; and I would be mortified if others copied those lines and then others ran with it. It has to do with my personal integrity.

      • Bill Feller 12 March 2017 / 9:13 pm

        I’m sorry, but I have to disagree that the Shared Matches feature only works for 4-6th cousin or closer. So I don’t think that Caith is “absolutely right”. True, if you check 4-6th cousins or closer, you will only get Shared Matches who are 4-6th cousins or closer. However, if you search 5-8th cosuins for Shared Matches, they will reach up above that threshold into closer cousins. I have found lots of 5-8th cousins who can be added to family groups of closer cousins. And those more distant cousins can give much more important clues to distant ancestors than, say, 2nd-6th cousins. The more in a group, the more clues we can work with.

        • Blaine T. Bettinger 12 March 2017 / 9:26 pm

          A little too snarky for my liking, but you’re right.

          All that is in the linked post. You will never see a distant cousin in your shared cousin match list. You can do shared matches with a distant cousin, but only fourth cousins or closer will appear in the results.

  8. Philip Noël 12 March 2017 / 10:45 am

    Thank you for the education.

  9. Marilyn Kenyon 12 March 2017 / 12:06 pm

    Great post! I picked up a few new ideas I hadn’t considered.

  10. Terri Stern 12 March 2017 / 1:32 pm

    I’ve been using all these methods – so nice to see them compiled together for all to see.

    • Blaine Bettinger 12 March 2017 / 2:55 pm

      Nice! Hopefully now this can be a resource you direct others to instead of explaining anew to others.

  11. AD 12 March 2017 / 2:10 pm

    Great post! One other avenue that I have been investigating recently is whether AncestryDNA matches in the 7-10cM range “mean more” than 23andme. I was drawn to this based on a match on both sites ( so a sample size of 1 ) where the same match was sharing a larger segment on 23andme. It got me to thinking that perhaps AncestryDNA may be more conservative in assigning matches and so these smaller matches are associated with a higher confidence. Have you come across any data to either corroborate or refute this hypothesis? If so would love to take a look.

  12. Joe 12 March 2017 / 4:54 pm

    Wanted to mention that a match with a photo can be a great clue, because that photo could be Googled. This is something I’m having to do with 23andMe matches, who don’t have a tree attached and hasn’t listed any surnames and don’t respond to messages.

    I use Pipl.com very often to find Twitter accounts or Facebook pages of matches. Most everyone I contact on Facebook has been nice and gave me help. Some people don’t like being contacted though. It’s a gamble, but can pay off in a big way.

  13. Alan P S D Mayer 12 March 2017 / 10:33 pm

    Excellent comprehensive blog, AND 800+ facebook shares !!!
    In the last few sentences, you mention that the tree should be –
    both private AND unsearchable…

    OK, so we can make it private, but how do we make it unsearchable ???

    • Heidi 13 March 2017 / 4:17 am

      When on your tree click on “tree settings”. Click on “private” the scroll down threw all the writing and there is a little box you can click “also prevent your tree from being found in searches”. Click this and it will be unsearchable. Be sure to save the settings.

      • caith 14 March 2017 / 6:54 am

        Thanks for the reminder. I looked and the box had somehow become “unchecked” whereas I had checked it to be unsearchable. Guess we should check our settings at times.

  14. Lisa Redden 13 March 2017 / 8:07 am

    Searches by locations are helpful too.

  15. Nancy H. Vest 13 March 2017 / 12:25 pm

    Wow! What a great post! I can’t wait to go back to my DNA page and look through my matches again. Thanks!

  16. Stephen D Echard Musgrave 13 March 2017 / 8:01 pm

    Those are all great ideas and i have used most of them because of things i have read in your earlier posts. There is on other tool I use sometimes although it can mislead you if your not careful and that is the map locations. two grandparents have ancestors from long time(17th to early 18th century) residents of rural communities Ra (St Landry Parish and Rockbridge Va). Both of those areas are what I call endogamous zones. I mean is there a Cajun or a Valley (Shenandoah) Man-Woman I am not related too?
    If a a treeless match pops up and t the shared dna is not clearly related to a known match I will just check to see if a number of the other matches have locations in the “endogamous zones” The best that it can do is give me some idea which side of the family he match comes from.

  17. caith 14 March 2017 / 8:01 am

    Sometimes you can get into a locked tree by clicking on View Match, then click on administered by xxxxx, and their locked tree will pop up. Perhaps this is an invasion of their privacy……………but you can decide.

  18. Paul Baltzer 14 March 2017 / 4:01 pm

    I have been using AncestyDNA matches for a while and YOU still taught me some great idea/tips. Love your blog, THANKS!

  19. TJ 17 March 2017 / 11:21 am

    Googling their email is very helpful. Sometimes just the 1st part is useful because they may change from yahoo to gmail. If the email ending is a company or education institution, it might be helpful to look at any lists of employees available online or Facebook page for their business. People often “like” their employers posts! Also, look for the DNA match on Facebook. In addition search through their friends list to find their common surnames. If their friends list is locked down check to see who liked their public pictures (profile pictures). Follow those “likes” to others that are related to them. In general, women have more friends that are distant relatives then men. Always try to find the oldest relatives as well as they might have other family lines as friends. Whenever you get surname pair from marriage, google the names. Often an obituary will pop up with even more information.

  20. Linda 27 March 2017 / 8:20 pm

    Something else that has helped me is to watch the “Recent Member Connect Activity” on Ancestry. You can see who has saved images that you also have saved to your tree. You can then look at their tree if it is public. I’ve contacted someone who added a picture of my great-grandmother and found out how we were related and found some new information that way.

  21. Jkg7770 21 April 2017 / 12:58 am

    One additional idea – Let’s say I’m looking at a match in the 2-3 cousin range. The match has a username that looks like a real name. When I’ve exhausted other efforts, I start to google “obituary” with some of the surnames in my tree and the match’s last name.

    For instance, the match I’m trying to identify has the username “Ronald Heddinger”. I have these surnames in my tree: “Kandercorn”, “Mulwager”, and “Pugely”. I will then google “Heddinger Kandercorn obituary”, “Heddinger Mulwager obituary” and “Heddinger Pugely obituary”. If I have a clue on where Ronald Heddinger might live, I will also add a state in my search. This method often produces results of obituaries that have a combination of the names. Usually it’s not Ronald himself, mentioned in the obituary, but a parent or grandparent.

    Of course this method works best with surnames that are not too common. It’s definitely worth a try if you’re completely stuck!

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