Organize and Label Your DNA Matches

Diahan Southard

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Organizing your DNA matches helps you make sense of them. From someone who organizes DNA results for a living, here’s the fastest, easiest way to organize them, whether you’ve tested at AncestryDNA, 23andMe or another company.

AncestryDNA label matches dot system IO.pngWhen I was a kid I collected books. I spent hours categorizing and alphabetizing them. My favorite was The Berenstein Bears and the Messy Room. The final page, showing Brother and Sister Bear’s closet full of neatly labeled and stacked boxes, was literally a dream for me. I love organization. So naturally, I want a way to organize my vast new collection of DNA cousins.

Quick tip for organizing your DNA matches

The very best and very easiest thing you can do that will lead to fewer repeated searches and thus a more productive session with your genetic genealogy test results, is to simply use the notes field provided by each testing company. The notes field at Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage are accessible right from the main match page, while at AncestryDNA and 23andMe you have to first click on your match to edit your notes. Here’s where to find the note field from within a match page at AncestryDNA:

Organize DNA matches label AncestryDNA add note.png

At AncestryDNA, once you’ve created a note within a match, you can view it from the main match page.

What should you write in these notes? Your known or suspected connecting ancestor. At the very least, say which side of the family they are on, if known. Record the date you contacted them, and if they responded. (23andMe makes this easy by showing you all of your correspondence with that person right there on the page. At Ancestry you can click on the link in the upper right corner of the match page to see your previous messages.)

The AncestryDNA dot system

In the image above showing where to add a note, did you notice that “Add to group” option? This is a more advanced way of labeling your DNA matches in groups of people who are all related to each other, or genetic networks. Here’s how to do that:

Chatting with your DNA matches

There is no question that corresponding with your matches is a huge part of this genetic genealogy process. While many may not respond for a variety of reasons, many do, and you need to keep track of that correspondence. One idea is to move your correspondence as soon as possible away from the constraints of the testing company’s email service. Create a separate email address just for your DNA correspondence and direct all of your matches to talk to you there. Use the folders and tags within your email program to help you quickly find a desired correspondence.

I would also encourage you to copy the key points of correspondence into a Word document. I know oftentimes I get an email with a lot of information, but there are only a few points I want to focus on. Instead of needing to read through a long email each time I am looking for information about a particular ancestor, I can just turn to my Word document and find just the information I need, often saving time and frustration.

Whatever your system, just stick to it and you will feel less overwhelmed at the prospect of keeping track of your thousands of cousins.

We’re here to help!

Like many things, getting started with organizing and contacting your DNA matches is easier said than done. That’s why we’re here, we have the resources and support you need for every step of your DNA discovery journey. We’ve put together all of our best tips for contacting matches into one free guide. Grab your copy and start connecting with your DNA matches!

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<a href="https://www.yourdnaguide.com/author/guideyourdnaguide-com" target="_self">Diahan Southard</a>

Diahan Southard

As founder and CEO of Your DNA Guide, Diahan Southard has been teaching people how to find family history answers in their DNA for several years, and she's been in the genetic genealogy field since its infancy. Diahan teaches internationally, writes for popular magazines, consults with leading testing companies, is author of Your DNA Guide–The Book, and producer of Your DNA Guide–the Academy, an online learning experience.

20 Comments

  1. Gayle Brooks

    The "add a note" feature seems to have disappeared. How do I get to it?

    Reply
    • Diahan Southard

      I can still see that feature. Are you first clicking on the name of your match in the main DNA match page?

      Reply
  2. Sandy Wallace

    One set of great great grandparents are cousins. They were born on Nantucket Island and I’m sure there is a load of endogamy going on. How would you label them? Do I just proceed as I would with my other gggrandparents?

    Reply
    • Diahan

      Sandy, dealing with endogamy is tricky. You will just end up having one label for that entire line.

      Reply
  3. Arlene Waters

    Great video. A couple of questions. Is there a reason you picked 3x GG? Was it because it was the level that was complete or for another reason? If you use 3xGG couples to form major groupings, how do you group predecessor couples, like 4xGG or 5xGG? Are they colored or do you feel those connections are too tenuous? Also, as far as I can see, Ancestry has set colors, not the gradients you used? How do you put in custom colors and where do you get gradients? Thanks so much.

    Reply
    • Diahan

      Arelene thanks for reading. I draw the line at 3X greats because I feel that is about the limit where autosomal DNA testing can reach. It just gets really really complicated if we try to go back further. The colors I used are the same colors available at Ancestry. No custom colors are available.

      Reply
  4. Nick Taylor

    When you say "all related to each other" do you mean all have a common ancestor? I agree shared matches on 23andme and MyHeretage share the same piece of DNA in my experience but on a Ancestry a shared match just means they are on both peoples list of matches so don’t all necessarily all have a common ancestor or are all related to the same family. Which means you cant use the dot system to add all shared matches to one set of 3GGG – have I got this right?

    Reply
    • Diahan

      Hi Nick. Actually, shared matches at 23andMe, MyHeritage, and Ancestry all work the same way. It is just three people who all appear on each other’s match lists. They don’t all three have to share the same segment of DNA. In fact, we wouldn’t expect all groups of three to share the exact same piece of DNA. So while it isn’t always true that those three people share the same 3X great grandparent, that is the hypothesis we are going to start our analysis with. Then adjust later as we do genealogy.

      Reply
  5. David Smith

    I agree the dot system is a really useful tool and have started using it. You also recommend assigning dots to ancestors using AncestryDNA’s Thru-lines. However in my limited experience I find thru-lines can be misleading since it is not based solely on DNA. Any comment?

    Reply
    • Lesley Plant

      I agree. Thru lines uses an algorithm based on trees, not DNA at all. If a lot of people have copied the wrong ancestors into their trees – which Thru lines encourages! – then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that their DNA matches appear to support that incorrect ancestral line. This gets worse and worse as more people copy the wrong ancestors. I think Thru lines can give a very nice picture AFTER the diligent work to get correct genealogy from original sources has been done – no copying allowed!

      Reply
    • Diahan

      David and Lesley. Yes, ThruLines can be misleading. It is only as good as the trees it is using. But you can verify your genetic vs genealogy relationship with these ThruLines matches to give yourself confidence in the connection. Essentially, you are asking yourself, "How much DNA should I share with this person if this is our relationship?" If that works out, you should be able to use that match to help you find other matches who are related to you in a similar way. So even if the ancestor’s name is incorrect, the DNA will still help you gather matches related to that line, and then you can DO GENEALOGY to help you figure out the correct name.

      Reply
  6. Robin Wicks

    I thought the dots at Ancestry should be an easy thing to use, until I tried actually doing it myself. Should I dot all this person’s matches and then theirs inside that or what? I was just dotting and not examining who I was using to do it with or why. Now, finally, I am understanding, and am able to sort my matches into their true groups and not some mish-mash pile. It does make a difference who you use when you want to do certain things. So thankful for her book!

    Reply
    • Diahan

      Robin! Thanks for sharing your experience! Most people end up redoing their dots after they realize there is a best way to do them. I am glad you are making progress!

      Reply
  7. Herb Swain

    Diahan, I’m sure I’m missing something simple here. In your presentation you show starting assigning groups with your grandparents. Later you show that you have assigned groups to your 3X Grandparents. That would be 16 + 8 + 4 + 2 = 30 groups. But Ancestry only supports 24 groups. What am I missing?

    Reply
    • Diahan

      Excellent math skills! You are correct. It won’t work if you do that. I usually skip the grandparents generation for most people, since they do want to get back to their 3X greats. But for others who are not looking that far back, labeling grandparents might be helpful. I think it is important to view the dots as flexible, to be used to help you with a particular research goal, instead of a way of categorizing everyone on your DNA match list.

      Reply
  8. TimT

    Hi Diahan! Love your style! However, I’m stuck on making sense of the ThruLines rationale presented in your DOT system video. You and "MJ" appear to have a MRCA of "Nathan F. Ashcroft", the son of Elizabeth Hazelwood (who is the daughter of the person that ThruLines has identified as your "common ancestor" (Thomas Hazelwood). It appears that Nathan, and his wife, should be your ThruLines "Common Ancestors".

    I’m guessing that Thrulines has not identified "Nathan" as the MRCA because at this stage he is only a hint (green instead of blue or pink).

    If/when you add "Nathan" to the tree so he is no longer just a hint, wouldn’t the ThruLine change and make Nathan your common ancestor with MJ?

    Reply
    • Diahan

      It is tricky to see in the way the image is cut off. Elizabeth is not my ancestor, she is my ancestor’s sister. So my MRCA with MJ is Thomas Haselwood+Francis Dance, not with Nathan or Elizabeth.
      But if it WAS, you would be right.

      Reply
      • TimT

        Got it. It’s the horizontal line between Thomas & Elizabeth that connects your branch to Thomas, not Nathan. Many Thanks!

        Reply
  9. Linda Willuweit-Joy

    Thanks for your blog and videos! I’ve already used the Ancestry color dots in a different way. However I am the administrator for my cousin’s DNA kit, so I thought I’d try your system on his matches. Since I’m not interested in his father’s relatives, there is no reason to color code them, is there? I’m really most interested in our 3rd and 4th great grandparents.

    Reply
    • Diahan Southard

      Right, you can focus your coloring on the maternal line. Though if you have a first cousin on the paternal side, it doesn’t hurt to dot them. That way you can just be sure your family does not have endogamy that might throw you off.

      Reply

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