How To Use Ancestry DNA Matches – a Comprehensive Guide

Your Ancestry DNA matches are other people who have tested with Ancestry and share some DNA with you. Ancestry sets a minimum threshold at which it is confident that you share enough DNA to be genetically related.

This is a guide on how to read, interpret, and use your Ancestry DNA matches to maximum effect for your family tree research.

The Ancestry DNA Match List

This is my cousin Charles, displayed to me as an Ancestry DNA match:

That “2nd-3rd Cousin” label is Ancestry hedging its bets. It knows the amount of DNA we share, but the nature of genetic inheritance means that many relationships can share a similar amount. Charles could be my 2nd cousin, or…my half 2nd great-uncle. My what? We’ll come to those complications later.

Charles is in fact my 2nd Cousin – we share great-grandparents. If he had provided a little bit more information in his family tree, Ancestry could have worked out our relationship for me. Which is what they do for my next example.

For crontrast: here is Joseph, my “5th-8th Cousin“:

From fifth all the way down to eighth cousin? Yes, that is some serious hand-waving by Ancestry. This is because Joseph and I are just above the threshold at which the testing company is confident to say we are related. The low amount of DNA we share could represent a large number of distant relationships.

But Joseph has done two things that Charles couldn’t. Joseph has built a sizeable family tree on Ancestry, with over 1500 people. And Ancestry has compared our trees and spotted that we have very similar details for our 3rd great-grandparents.

See the “Common ancestor” tag beside the little green leaf? Ancestry is offering a suggestion as to who our common ancestor might be. It’s important to remember that this is just a suggestion. We need to verify with our own research.

In this case, I rolled up my sleeves and evaluated the many excellent records in Joseph’s tree. This was a great find for me. It wasn’t just that I was satisfied the research was correct. Joseph had sourced maiden names for some women in my tree that I hadn’t been able to track down. I sent him a message to say: thank you!

Centimorgans: How Your Ancestry DNA Matches Measure Up

Ancestry shows more details about the amount of shared DNA under the predicted relationship. Charles and I share 235 cM, while Joseph is at a low 8 cM.

This “cM” is a genetic unit and is short for “centimorgans”. It measures the length of a piece of DNA. If you’ve never heard of this term, it will be tripping off your tongue in no time. You’ll learn to get a feel for how the numbers correlate with the possible relationships.

Your own chromosome total up to about 7,400 cM. You will share about half that with a parent. You might expect to see 3,700 cM under a parent – but again, the random nature of inheritance comes into play. In this example, Robert shares 3,459 cM with his child.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I’ve avoided mentioning “segments”, which is also in the Ancestry display. That’s getting into the more technical side of genetic genealogy. And frankly, you don’t need to pay much attention to the number of segments as you start your Ancestry journey. Focus instead on how many centimorgans you share with your matches.

However, if you’d like a detailed explanation then check out our full article on ancestry centimorgans and segments.

Your Ancestry DNA Matches and their Family Trees

When my second cousin Charles appeared on my DNA match list, he didn’t have a family tree on Ancestry. It took him a week to create his tree. Bear that in mind before you go sending excited messages to your new DNA matches. Give them a little while to get up to speed with how Ancestry works. We’ll point you towards detailed advice and guidelines in our section on contacting your matches.

No Trees” Icon

So, the display for Charles looked like Nicole’s below:

The rather disappointing “No Trees” icon is on the right of the display.

Nicole was on my original list of DNA matches when I first tested with Ancestry some years ago. To this day, I have no idea how we are connected. It is very difficult to glean info for your family tree from 4th Cousin matches with no tree. It’s not impossible, but you’re better off focusing on matches with trees. I’ll be showing you in a later section how to filter these “No Trees” matches out of your match list.

“Private Tree” Icon

This is my highest match on Ancestry:

Margaret is actually my 1st cousin once removed. So, halfway between the 1st-2nd cousin prediction. But focus on the right of the display. The padlock icon is telling me that Margaret’s family tree is private.

What does that mean? Well, it means that I can’t view her family tree unless I send her an Ancestry message asking for access. I would certainly reach out to a closer match with a reasonably-sized tree. But what about those 5th-8th cousins who have private trees with a handful of people? I tend to pass them by.

“Unlinked Tree” Icon

Let’s take another look at 2nd cousin Charles.

This time I’m showing his tree icon, the “Unlinked Tree”. I mentioned that Ancestry couldn’t figure out how we were related by looking at our trees. This is partly because Charles has set up his tree in a way that is blocking Ancestry (and us) from using his family tree to make the connection.

You can create as many trees as you like on Ancestry. One for yourself, one for your spouse, and one for your best pal. How do we or Ancestry know which tree is related to your own genealogy?

You tell us by linking your DNA test to your Ancestry tree. Any tree that isn’t linked to a DNA test is an “unlinked tree”. So, our problem with Charles is that we could spend an hour reviewing his unlinked tree. And little did we know that he was helping his buddy who is no relation. That’s a wasted hour for us.

You may now be scanning your eye down your DNA match list, and wincing at the number of matches with an unlinked tree. The last time I ran some statistics on my own matches, a slightly dispiriting 25% of my matches had an unlinked tree.

Look, that many people aren’t submitting their DNA tests to Ancestry and then only helping out their neighbor with a tree. There’ll be a subset who do their spouse’s tree. But not their own as well?

The problem is that many Ancestry members don’t seem to be aware of how important it is to link their DNA test to their tree. I’ll just point out that if your DNA match only has one tree, it is probably their own family tree despite being unlinked.

The importance of linking your tree to your DNA

Ancestry drives many of its features off your tree, as long as it meets specific criteria. It must be linked, and available to be indexed by Ancestry’s search engine. One of the features we touch on in this article is called ThruLines. This is what presents you with the suggestions of common ancestors.

Our article on “The Essential Tree” shows you how to set up your tree as linked and searchable.

“Linked Tree” Icon

I’ve saved the best icon for last. This is the icon you want to see:

Carol has linked her tree to her DNA test. You have to squint hard to see the difference between the linked and unlinked icon. The linked icon is on the left in the pic below. There is a line through the squiggle on the right.

Thankfully, it’s easy to spot linked trees in the match list display. Linked trees show the number of people in the tree.

Carol’s tree is a little underwhelming. A total of eight people suggests that it only goes back as far as her grandparents (herself, her parents, four grandparents, and A.N. Other). Reviewing a 4th-6th cousin match with a small tree will be hard. If you’re really interested in establishing the connection, you may have to start building a copy of her tree that goes back further generations through your own research.

Like many others, I’ll do exactly that when it’s important to me. Carol’s direct line could be a vital clue towards identifying my connection with another closer match.

In contrast to Carol, my match Connie has a linked public tree that is tantalizingly large. If it’s well-researched with lots of attached documents, you could learn more details about a distant branch of your family.

When you sit down with a cup of coffee and an evening free for genealogy, you have to make choices of where you direct your research. Both these matches share the same number of centimorgans with you. All things being equal (and there are some factors we haven’t considered yet), I would skip over Carol and start reviewing Connie’s family tree.

Researching your Ancestry DNA Matches – A Strategy

I advise a three-step strategy in your first months of researching your DNA matches. As usual in genealogy, you transition from the known to the unknown.

Step One: Low-Hanging Fruit

In your first days (or weeks) of evaluating your Ancestry DNA matches, my advice is to go after the low-hanging fruit until you’ve plucked them all. By low-hanging fruit, I mean those matches where you recognize the connection through a quick glance at their match profile.

During your research, you’ll be evaluating their trees. The goal is to find new persons (that are not in your tree) and/or entire branches with attached Ancestry records or uploaded third party documents. Once you’re satisfied that the evidence is correct, you can extend your own tree based on this great work of your match.

Even when the research is so good that I don’t have any questions, I’ll send a thank-you message to the DNA match or tree owner.

Step Two: Shared Matches of the Known

In this step, you look at the Shared Matches of the matches that you identified successfully in step one. Here’s a full article on working those shared matches!

You can do the first pass through all your 2nd-3rd cousins, perhaps starring each one that you identify. And then move on to step two where you look at shared matches.

Or you can move on to step two with each newly identified match. When you’ve been researching a particular line for a significant length of time, it makes sense to jump to their shared matches with the knowledge fresh in your head.

Step Three: Filter, Organize, and Target the Unknown!

The challenge of the volume of your DNA matches on Ancestry is that most of them will fall into the category of Unknown. And that is also the fun of it.

You can start at the first unknown DNA match at the top of your Match List and work your way down. But you’re going to strike out a lot. And a series of strike-outs is frustrating.

Instead, I recommend that you use the filtering and organization tools to target those unknown DNA matches that are most likely to be identifiable. Okay, but how do you filter for “identifiable” matches? We’ll come to that in the section on Filtering!

Let’s start with step one, which is based on clicking on a Match and opening their profile page.

The Match Profile Page

The top of the Match Profile page shows you similar information on centimorgan size that available on the Match List page.

One thing we haven’t shown you is Ancestry’s estimates of how you and your match may be related. The display of centimorgans is actually a link to a page of estimates,. Here’s the display for my “1st-2nd Cousin”.

What’s going on here is that several relationships could result in 433 centimorgans: from 1st cousin once removed to 2nd great-grandchild.

There’s actually more than I’m showing here at that probability of 89%.

Then there is a much smaller possibility that this amount of centimorgans is shared by a 2nd cousin, who would tend to share less.

It’s very difficult to visualize how a half 2nd great-aunt fits into your tree. I would direct you toward the free Shared CM Project tool hosted on the DNA Painter website. Simply enter the cM of your match and you get a visual display of the possibilities.

The Match Trees Tab

The Trees Tab opens when you click on a match in the Match List. The most helpful feature is when your match has a linked public tree. Then you get a pedigree display, in which a familiar surname may jump out at you.

I’ve removed the surnames from the example shown of my match James.

Shared Surnames

However, the number of generations shown is restricted to seven – so you might miss a last name that is also common to your tree. Scroll down a little further down the Match Tree Tab to see the list of common surnames.

The number of people displayed is a little misleading. “5 people” could be four in your tree and one for your match. But each of the names is linked to the tree, and you can jump right into detailed research.

Shared Birth Locations

It’s easy to forget that there’s a map is down at the bottom of the page, where shared birth locations are highlighted. This can be very useful when you and your matches have entered detailed birth locations down to the village or town. A little less useful when you’re told that an entire country is the place in common!

Unlinked Trees

Most of your matches will only have one unlinked tree. I tend to assume that this tree represents their genetic family, and they’ve forgotten to link their DNA.

But what about my match D.B., who has two unlinked trees?

Sometimes both trees are named the same (e.g. “Smith Family Tree”), and one has a higher number of people. This is often an early draft and a later draft, so you can have a look at the bigger tree.

But with D.B., I haven’t clue which tree is relevant. Unless this match was a vital clue, I wouldn’t spend much time rolling the dice as to choice.

The Shared Matches Tab

Shared matches can be the source of some confusion when starting your Ancestry journey. If you’re a recent tester, I suggest you read this section of our full article on shared matches.

The rest of the article gives you a set of illustrated tips on working those shared matches.

The Ethnicity Tab

This is the tab to which I pay the least attention.

I can dream up a fake scenario where it might be useful. Let’s say your Ancestry breakdown is 90% Irish and 10% Scottish. Your unknown DNA match is 51% Italian and 49% Irish. I would guess that you could focus entirely on either the maternal or paternal side of the match.

But honestly, if the match has a tree – then surnames and locations will be a greater indicator.

So many matches, so little time

As you page down your thousands of Ancestry DNA matches, you may be wondering where on earth to start. I’ve touched briefly on filtering out those “No Trees” matches.

So let’s move on to corraling your endless matches into an organized and targeted list.

Filtering your Ancestry DNA Matches

Ancestry has gradually increased the number of filters available for the DNA match list.

You’ll likely use different filters at different phases in your research. Let’s take them from left to right.

Filter by Unviewed

This is a great filter to use periodically for a quick check for any new close matches.

The alternative option is to change the default sort order from Relationship to Date. But if you just use the sort order, you’ll have to wade through your lower matches before you see interesting closer matches.

I use the Unviewed filter to take a quick look for any new matches at fourth cousin and above. Note that the little blue dot beside Phoebe and Christopher also signals that they are unviewed. But I won’t examine them yet, because neither has a tree.

It’s not uncommon for new matches to take a little while to create their trees. So as long as I don’t open these matches, they’ll keep turning up in this filtered view.

Filter by Common Ancestors

This view shows you only matches who have a suggested common ancestor with you. This allows you to focus your research on the feature that Ancestry calls ThruLines. This is where Ancestry combs through the linked trees of your DNA matches and tries to construct your connection.

ThruLines was introduced by Ancestry in 2019. It’s important to remember that it is based on the trees of other Ancestry members, and is only as accurate as those trees. And sometimes, trees aren’t accurate at all. Here are two articles to help you evaluate the Common Ancestry suggestions:

Filter by Messaged

This shows you matches to whom you’ve sent a message. I don’t find it particularly useful.

Filter by Notes

This, on the other hand, is a helpful feature. It helps if you come up with a system for formatting the notes you keep on your matches. It can be very simple, just keep it consistent.

If I’ve figured out how the match connects to a branch in my tree, I like to list the ancestral suranmes – particularly if the match has an unlinked tree.

Filter by Trees

This is by far the filter I use most often. I start with a filter on Public linked trees. Later, I may do a second pass with a filter on public unlinked trees.

My main gripe is that it’s not possible to choose both linked and unlinked trees simultaneously.

My top wish is a filter that sets a minimum threshold on the number of persons in the tree. This would let us skip the minimal trees with three persons.

Filter by Shared DNA

This is another important filter. It also hides the answer to a question many testers have: how many DNA matches do we have? I’m not sure why Ancestry doesn’t make the total count of our matches more visible. But it’s right there at the top of the list when you open this filter – shown with a red arrow in the picture below.

This filter gives you the option of restricting your matches to above or below 20 cM.

You may find the custom centimorgan range to be very useful if you start using some sophisticated techniques for evaluating your matches. For example, if you’re following the Leeds Method of clustering your matches, you’ll probably be setting a custom filter of something like 90 to 400 cM.

Filter by Groups

You get three groups “out of the box”. You can restrict to “new matches”, which means those matches who have appeared within the last seven days.

“Starred matches” are under your control. The star was the original label that Ancestry gave us to mark a match as one of particular interest. You can see that I’ve got 12 starred matches. I star matches whom I’m actively investigating, and remove the star when I’m finished with them. That means I can sit down for an evening’s research and quickly show which matches I’m working with.

“Hidden matches” are also under your control. I’ve never hidden a match, but it does what it says: hidden matches don’t show up on your Match List. But that’s all it does – you don’t see them in your list, but it does not affect how your matches see you. This filter lets you see who you’ve hidden, which is useful if you happen to hide a match by mistake.

The last two options are only available to you if one or both of your parents has DNA tested with Ancestry. The groups will contain matches whom you share with a specific parent.

You also have the option to create a custom group here. The section on groups covers this in more detail.

Searching Your Ancestry DNA Matches

The filters allow a generalized approach to working with your matches. You apply broad restrictions, and slowly narrow down the field. In contrast, the search boxes give you a targeted investigation.

Surname Search

The easier one to start with is probably the surname search. I advise that you don’t take a scatter-gun approach of throwing in any family surname that comes to mind. Write down a target hit list for your research.

It would be a mistake to confine your list to the surnames in your direct line e.g. your grandparents and great-grandparents. We’ve already shown that Ancestry highlights common surnames in the direct lines of you and your matches – as long as you both have public linked trees. You should be a little smarter than this.

The strategy is to widen out your surname list to the married names of the sisters of your direct line going back as far as you can get. Then add the married names of their daughters and their daughters’ daughters…and so on back down. Remember, your fourth cousin matches are the descendants of the wider branches of your tree. Your hit list will reflect a tree that is tall, wide, and deep.

But wait a minute, you say. You haven’t got a tree that is tall, wide, and deep. Ancestry is supposed to help you get there. Absolutely. Read this article on using Ancestry to build out your tree.

The Surname Hit List

You can start small with the surname hit list, and keep adding to it. Now and then, your research will extend a branch in your tree and new names will come in. Go add the names to your hit list!

You can then prioritize the names in terms of the most reasonable to research. This will reflect how prevalent the surname is in a particular culture. My grandmother was a Smith, which is not on my hit list.

The reason to keep a record of a slowly growing list is that your new matches are also trickling in. Periodically, perhaps once a month, you can start at the top of the list and work through your surnames again. Enter them one by one into the search box, and review the filtered list for unviewed matches (with a little blue dot).

Déjà Vu?

It’s easy to find yourself researching a surname found in a particular tree, only to realize that you’re going over old ground. This is where the Notes feature is very handy. Add a note to the match to warn yourself that the tantalizing clue was false. Something like: “marriage record shows this is a different Humperdinck line”.

Birth Location Search

I use the birth location search box when I’ve established a branch in my tree with several generations residing in the same area. Unfortunately, Ancestry doesn’t provide an easy way of grouping the locations you’ve entered in your tree. What you do get is a way to list all persons in your family tree.

Open your Ancestry tree and expand the “Tree Search” drop-down menu at the top right of the page.

Choose “List of all people“.

You need to scan your eye down the “List of all people” – which is ordered by name. But the repetition of a last name and place should jump out at you.

I’ve got a branch with generations in Westfield, Union, New Jersey. I periodically search for Westfield to see if any matches pop up that I haven’t already reviewed.

Location Hit List – with 3rd Party Software

Wouldn’t it be great if you could run a report which lists the locations in your tree with a summary total of the number of people residing there? All the popular genealogy desktop applications can do this. One free option is MyHeritage Family Tree Builder.

You can export your tree from Ancestry and load it into your software of choice. Then you can run a location report, and put together a location hit list for periodic searching through your matches.

This video walkthrough goes through the process with Family Tree Builder:

Organizing your Ancestry DNA Matches with Custom Groups

The ability to create custom groups was provided in 2019 by Ancestry. You can create up to 24 custom groups, and assign each a different color. The color palette is a little limited, so some of these “different” colors look pretty similar to me!

You can add a group to a DNA match from the Match List page or from a single Match profile page.

Here is my second cousin Margaret, organized with a group scheme that is quite commonly used. It goes like this: pink for a maternal match, then four colors which represent the surnames of my maternal great-grandparents (including maiden names, of course).

So, this technique is based on a visual indication of your lines. Once you’ve tagged as many matches as you can identify, then you can start focusing your research sessions based on matches that fall within certain groups.

In the image below, I’ve used the Group filter to choose the group that I named “Gamble Line” and assigned the blue color.

Leeds Method with Custom Groups

The Leeds Method (by Dana Leeds) is a way to cluster your matches into colored groups divide along the pedigree lines of your four grandparents.

I wouldn’t jump into this on your first day of using Ancestry – unless you are an adoptee with no knowledge of genetic surnames on either side of your heritage. The method was developed for precisely that scenario, but has been found by many to be very useful for breaking down brick walls in the trees.

This article uses a spreadsheet to follow the Leeds Method, but you can use Ancestry’s group colors to work the process on the Ancestry Match List page.

Contacting and Collaborating With Your Ancestry DNA Matches

You contact your DNA matches by sending messages via the Ancestry messaging system.

Unfortunately, you are unlikely to get responses to every one of your messages. Depending on how you go about this, you may get very few replies.

Bear in mind that some proportion of Ancestry DNA testers are solely interested in their ethnicity breakdown. Others may be interested in genealogy, but not interested in engaging with online contact. And some of your messages may be going straight into spam folders.

But there are people who may be more than willing to collaborate, but are disconcerted by excited but confusing messages that ramble on for pages.

So, how about some guidelines for targeting your contacts and sending messages that are more likely to get replies?

Well, here you go: a complete article on sending messages to Ancestry contact that are more likely to get replies.

Tools and Techniques Missing from Ancestry

Ancestry’s great advantage over other DNA matching services is that it has by far the largest database of DNA testers. However, some of the other sites provide additional information and tools for investigating your connections with matches.

There are ways to get access to some of those tools with some of your DNA matches.

Shared cM Between Your Shared Matches

You open the shared match tab for Mary, and you see Bill and Bob on the list. Ancestry tells you how much cM they share with you, but not with each other. You can’t tell from the genetic display where they’re brothers, first cousins, or distant cousins. You do need their trees to make a judgment.

23andMe, MyHeritage, and FamilyTreeDNA all provide their cM measurements between your shared massages. Take a look at my shared match display on MyHeritage, where I share John with my match Lydia.

MyHeritage displays how many cM that John shares with  Sylvia, and provides an estimate that they are first cousins. That is really useful information!

Wouldn’t it be great if you could copy your raw DNA results to MyHeritage, find your Ancestry matches who have done the same, and see this new info that Ancestry doesn’t give us?

Downloading your DNA from Ancestry is pretty straightforward, as is uploading it to other sites. I’ll address this in the section on chromosome browsers.

Where is the Ancestry Chromosome Browser?

A chromosome browser gives you a visual mapping of the segments you share with your matches. Ancestry doesn’t offer a chromosome browser. And they’re reluctant to respond to questions as to when they might provide one. So you can take it that it won’t be any time soon.

But you can copy your raw Ancestry DNA to other sites, and use their chromosome browser. This article gives you four ways to use a chromosome browser with your Ancestry DNA.

Using Your Ancestry DNA to Work With Matches on Other Sites

Before you transfer your DNA to any reputable company, be sure you’re comfortable with the privacy policy and law enforcement engagement with your target site.

Here is a video walkthrough of downloading your raw DNA from Ancestry and uploading it to MyHeritage.

You can also transfer your Ancestry DNA to FamilyTreeDNA and Gedmatch. Again, pay attention to their policies on privacy and law enforcement.

More Articles and Tutorials

Check out our video channel with walkthroughs and how-to tutorials on Ancestry and other DNA sites.

And have a browse through our articles in the Ancestry DNA category on this site.


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