Organize Your DNA Matches

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Follow these 3 tips for organizing your DNA matches to turn raw data into meaningful family history connections.

At my house, I can tell whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher by the state of the silverware drawer. My boys (ages 13 and 11) tumble the forks haphazardly in a jumble and overflow the spoons into the knife section, and the measuring spoons are nowhere to be found. My daughter (age 8), however, puts everything perfectly in order. Not only are all the spoons where they belong, but the small forks and the large forks have been separated and the measuring spoons are even nestled neatly by size.

The state of a silverware drawer at any given moment may not matter. But organizing your DNA matches does matter, and it entails more than just lining them up into nice categories like mom’s side vs. dad’s side, or known connections vs. unknown connections.

Organizing your DNA results involves making a plan for their use. Good organization for your test results can help you reveal or refine your genealogical goals, and help determine your next steps. 

1. Download your raw DNA data

The very first step is to download your raw data from your testing company. Here’s how to do that at 23andMe, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage. Store your raw data files in dedicated folders on your computer, and rename them with descriptive titles (“Mel Jones autosomal FamilyTreeDNA 2018”) so you can find them again.

2. Identify relationships to DNA matches

Once that is complete, we can get to the match list. One common situation for those of you who have several generations of ancestors in the United States is that you may have some ancestors that seem to have produced a lot of descendants who have caught the DNA testing vision. This can be like your overflowing spoon stack, and it may be obscuring some valuable matches.

Identifying and putting all of those known matches in their proper context can help you discover clues about the descendant lines of your known ancestral couple that you were not aware of. In my Organizing Your DNA Matches quick reference guide, I outline a process for drawing out the genetic and genealogical relationships of these known connections to better understand their relationship to each other and to you. It is then easier to verify that your genetic connection is aligned with your known genealogical paper trail and spot areas that might need more research. 

This same idea of plotting the relationships of your matches to each other can also be employed as you are looking to break down a brick wall in your family tree, or even in cases of adoption. They key to identifying unknowns is determining the relationships of your matches to each other, so you can better see where you might fit in.

3. Map DNA matches for shared locations.

The common ancestor between you and your match has three things that connects you to them: their genetics, surnames, and locations. We know the genetics is working because they are showing up on your match list. But often times you cannot see a shared surname among your matches. However, by plotting their locations using mapping tools for shared locations on Ancestry or MyHeritage, or by using Google Earth (kind of like separating the big forks from the little forks), you might be able to recognize a shared location that would identify which line you should investigate for a shared connection. 

So, what are you waiting for? Line up those spoons and separate the big forks from the little forks, so to speak! Your organizing efforts may just reveal a family of measuring spoons, all lined up and waiting to be added to your family history.

If you’re ready to get serious about finding your DNA matches’ places on your family tree, consider purchasing my ultimate guide to doing just that: Organizing Your DNA Matches, 2nd edition quick reference guide. You’ll learn how to manage your DNA matches and your correspondence with them, even across multiple testing companies, and use spreadsheets, Google Earth and other tools to help you.


Originally published September 2016 on