23andMe started rolling out a reduction of your list of DNA relatives in the second half of 2020. You weren’t aware of this purge? Nor was I, until other customers posted their reactions on genealogy forums. So, what’s happened?
23andMe Reduce Your List of DNA Relatives
The 2020 purge by 23andMe reduces your list of DNA matches from two thousand to fifteen hundred.
You can check if you’ve already been impacted by looking at the top of your DNA Relatives page. This is mine:
The change has been rolling out gradually across the customer base. The timing depends on the version of DNA chip that 23andMe used to process your DNA kit. If you tested in or after late 2017, you’ll be on the V5 chip – which is the first to get this reduction. At the time of writing, some customers on the older V3 chip hadn’t been affected.
What’s your 23andMe chip?
Not sure whether you’re on the V3, V4, or V5 chip? Take a look at your Settings page, under Personal Information. The chip is listed down toward the end- the title is “Genotyping Chip Versions”.
If you prefer video, this is a rundown on what’s happened. Or read on for all the details.
How Does This Impact 23andMe Customers?
The scale of the impact depends on how many DNA matches you have in the 23andMe DNA database. I took a trawl through some genealogy forums, and testers are expressing their pain in two ways. Some know exactly how many matches they have lost. And others see it through the prism of a new threshold to the distance of your relationships.
Loss of Total Number of 23andMe Relatives
The highest loss I could find was the customer with nearly 4,000 matches! That’s way more than I ever had! But wait, didn’t the old limit have a cap of 2,000 matches? Yes, but you could retain matches from falling out of the list with actions such as invites. This customer has put a huge amount of effort into building up their list.
Far more people were commenting on a loss of 400-600 matches. Some posters were already a little shy of the 2,000 matches. They were not impressed at losing 450 matches from what was already a lower total than others had.
Higher Minimum 23andMe Threshold of Centimorgans (or Percentage)
This is another way of looking at the same thing. Let’s say your lowest DNA relative in the old 2,000 list was 0.29% or about 20 centimorgans (cM). This is the match appearing in the last line of the last page. Well, that relative (and many more) has shuffled off its 23andMe coil. You will now have a new minimum threshold, due to the reduced cap in numbers.
One forum poster reports that her threshold is now 0.37%, which is about 28 cM. Another beats this low point with a new cutoff of 0.4%. I quote: “30 cm!!! This is crazy“. (The exclamations are hers).
To put this in context, Ancestry recently raised their threshold of DNA matches from 6 cM to 8 cM. I’ll come back to this later. For now, I’ll point out that Ancestry’s argument was that those low matches were not useful to genealogical research. It’s a reasonable point, which can be counter-argued. But you can’t argue that matches above 20 cM aren’t reliable.
To be fair, 23andMe aren’t trying to make any such argument. As far as I can find, they haven’t tried to justify this reduction in any way.
Will Any 23andMe Customers Benefit?
You will have a lower number of DNA matches if your heritage includes areas or populations less likely to get involved with consumer DNA testing. One forum poster already had under 1500 relatives, and asked if 23andMe would fill in the gap with new matches.
23andMe apply a minimum threshold of 7 cM to your possible list, before their arbitrary numbers cut-off. Three years ago, I had about 1100 DNA matches on 23andMe, and the number has slowly crept upwards. So the question becomes: will 23andMe drop the minimum threshold below 7 cM to allow everybody to have 1500 matches?
I doubt it. I think they have to keep true to their definition of confidence that a match is likely to represent a genetic relative. But drop me a comment if you’ve actually found your list has ratcheted upwards!
Some Customers Can Pay To Beat The Purge
Would you like to pay extra to get your relatives back? And not just the “lost” five hundred, but to raise your list to a whopping five thousand DNA matches? Great news! 23andMe listened to the pleas of their customers, and realized that you’re just longing to pay extra for stuff that they took away!Me pretending to be a 23andMe sales exec
Okay, that’s not likely to be the marketing blurb on the 23andMe blog. Instead they’re going to tease the arrival of a “premium” service through the summer of 2020 . Which they decide, seemingly at the last minute, to rebrand from “premium” to “plus”.
Read their Octoober 2020 announcement for yourself. Actually, you don’t have to because it’s nearly all about new health reports. The genealogy aspect gets a one-liner, which I’ll quote for you:
Enhanced Ancestry features — advanced filtering of DNA relatives and access to up to 3,500 more DNA relatives.23andMe Blog Announcement – 1st October 2020
I had to chuckle at “3,500 more DNA relatives”. That’s after the purge! If they hadn’t ran the reduction, they could only have touted a figure of 3K. So, what’s the deal?
How to Unlock More DNA Matches on 23andMe
The offer is to pay $29 per year to get access to additional health reports, plus up to five thousand DNA relatives.
In summary, if you don’t pay the subscription fee you get your top 1,500 DNA matches. The additional payment gives you up to 5,000 relatives as part of plus package.
Who Can Subscribe to 23andMe+ (Plus)?
At the time of writing in 2020, the offer was only available to customers meet these criteria:
- You are resident in the U.S.
- Tested on the V5 chip
- Purchased the Health package
If you are on an older chip, you will likely have to upgrade before you can avail of the offer. Does that mean they won’t purge your 500 relatives? Probably not. I’m not eligible for this offer as I’m not resident in the U.S. But my lower relatives have been purged.
If you purchased the Ancestry+Traits package, then you also are not eligible. That may mean you are blocked indefinitely. One forum member gently chides others who are complaining about the extra fees:
Guys, at least you have the luck to be able to pay the pizzo. I cannot do that because being in Italy I only have the Ancestry+Traits service and I cannot upgrade to Health.23andMe Forum
What is this “pizzo”, you wonder? Here’s the definition: protection money paid to the Mafia often in the form of a forced transfer of money, resulting in extortion. Ouch!
When I was purchasing my kit I didn’t want to pay for the higher-priced Health package. I would have taken the lower Traits package, but it wasn’t available in my country. In contrast, some countries can’t avail of the Health option.
Our Italian friend is outside the United States so is excluded anyway. But if he wasn’t – there’s no technical reason for more DNA relatives to be unavailable to those who don’t have the Health package. It’s hard to see any rhyme or reason for what’s going on. Unless 23andMe views every benefit as a funnel toward acquiring more Health customers.
How To Know If You’re Eligible
You’ll know that you’re eligible if you see the option to upgrade at the top of your DNA Relatives list. It looks like this:
Several methods have been used successfully by customers to “get at” the relatives that you no longer see in your DNA Relative List. These methods may no longer be effective.
Download Your Relatives File
23andMe give you the ability to download your DNA relatives list to a local file. Some people reported that although their website list maxed out at 1500 matches, there were more matches in the downloaded file. This did not work for me in October 2020.
To download your list, open your DNA Relatives list. Scroll to the bottom of the page, where you’ll see a link to “Download aggregate data”.
Update Oct 2020: This download did not include all my 1500 matches, let alone any extra. It only had 1418, with a minimum percentage of 0.20%. I don’t know why.
Trawl the Bottom of your Relatives In Common
This is almost as painful as it sounds, but perhaps not in the way that you’re thinking. The “lost” relatives are still showing up in the “Relatives In Common” list. As they are lower in percentage, they’ll be towards the bottom.
Will this be the case for long? Who can say?
Advanced DNA Comparison
One forum poster reported that he was able to work with a match below the threshold but who appeared in his download file. “I can still compare to him in Advanced DNA Comparison,” he noted.
The Comparison page requires searching for a DNA relative by name. I tried with relatives at the bottom of my download list, but they would not appear. So I think this method no longer works.
Haplogroup Search Is Also Removed
The total number of DNA relatives isn’t the only feature that has been affected by the arrival of the Plus package. 23andMe have removed the ability to filter by haplogoups from the standard DNA Kit purchase.
However, the Maternal and Paternal Haplogoups are still in the download file. So a little bit of spreadsheet knowledge will let you search and filter offline.
Why? Just Why?
The headline says it all. What are the reasons behind the reduction in genetic relatives for existing customers?
Let’s hear from 23andMe…
We’ve heard firsthand that customers want more ways to engage in their personal genetics journey.23andMe Announcement, October 2020
By giving us less ways, in the form of less genetic relatives to work with?
Well, I can’t find a public statement as to why the existing features have been reduced for existing customers. I did stumble across a somewhat bizarre answer from a customer care rep. To understand this quote, you need to know that the 23andMe mobile app started restricting to 1,500 matches way earlier.
To provide more context, we are updating the web version of DNA Relatives to match the mobile app experience.Customer Care Rep on 23andMe forum
Yes, this is suggesting that the motivation was to make the website features match the reduced features of the mobile app. One reply quotes Emerson: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds“.
I don’t think anyone takes this as a credible excluse. 23andMe customers are leaning towards two different reasons. One is due to some adverse experience with the 23andMe website.
In the past year, customers have noticed sporadic delays when trying to access features on the website. Opening the DNA relatives list can lead to long waits for the matches to display. Some users speculate that 23andMe are reducing the DNA relatives across its entire customer base to lighten the load on the servers.
Another possible reason is purely commercial. Some customers note that 23andMe reduced the features available to existing customers, and then introduced a new subscription model containing these features (and more). Or as one user says on the forum:
“How else am I supposed to perceive this other than 23andme looking to get more customers to purchase their subscription plan in order to get more dna relatives?“23andMe customer on forum
What Have 23andMe’s Competitors Done?
23andMe isn’t the only DNA testing company to switch access to features from free to premium, or to reduce the number of available matches to its customers.
MyHeritage and Premium Features
When I first uploaded my DNA to MyHeritage some years ago, I had free access to features like its chromosome browser. Later, MyHeritage started charging about $30 for what it deemed to be premium DNA tools. But all its existing customers were “grandfathered” in. That means that I got a free upgrade to what new customers had to pay for.
This is a decision that many tech start-ups have to make. Grandfathering is very common as a gesture of loyalty to long-time customers. 23andMe have gone their own way.
Ancestry and Purging DNA Matches
This is the second time this year I’ve written about a purge of DNA matches. The first time was about Ancestry’s purge. They removed matches below 8 centimorgans from their customers’ relatives lists.
I personally wasn’t pleased about the reduction, but I’ll give Ancestry credit for this:
- Ancestry customers were given three weeks notice, with an extra week after complaints
- Three methods were provided to allow customers to mark existing matches for retention
- The display was changed temporarily (decimal places) to help customers pick matches for retention
That doesn’t change the fact that Ancestry customers no longer get new matches below the increased cut-off point. But in my opinion, Ancestry’s communication and implementation was more helpful.
More 23andMe Articles?
Check out our article on 23andMe’s genetic family tree.
And if you’re interested in the future direction, we’ve got an article on the ownership of 23andMe and how the company has gone public.