Get started organizing your DNA matches with these 3 suggestions for turning your jumbled list into an organized group of genetic networks—and eventually, a better family tree.
At my house, I can tell whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher by the state of the silverware drawer. My boys 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, the youngest, 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 and label your DNA matches
Once that is complete, we can get to the match list. One common situation for those with deep roots in the United States is that you may have a lot of DNA matches! This can be like your overflowing spoon stack, and the sheer quantity may be obscuring the quality of your most valuable matches.
Identifying and labeling your known matches can help you discover clues about where everyone fits on your family tree, including any mystery ancestors. In Your DNA Guide—the Book, I outline a process for drawing out the genetic and genealogical relationships of your known matches to better understand their relationships to each other and to you. It is then easier to verify that your genetic connection aligns with your known genealogical paper trail and to spot areas that might need more research.
It’s a little misleading to make this appear to be a simple step, because this is a lot more involved than a simple step 1 (I mean, I wrote a whole book on this topic). So give yourself some time with this step. And don’t forget to physically label your matches as you go! This is an essential step in organizing your DNA matches: you want to remember what you’ve learned about those matches and not have to repeat your analyses of them.
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.
Learning more from DNA matches
Of course, another great way to work with DNA matches is by contacting them directly and learning what they have to share with you. Not sure how to do that? You’re not alone! That’s why we put together all of our best tips into one free guide on how to contact your DNA matches. Download your copy today!
Get my free guide to contacting DNA matches
This article was revised and updated in March 2020. Originally published September 2016 on genealogygems.com.