How To Search For Someone Through Ancestry DNA (Tips & Tricks)

Can you find someone specific through an Ancestry DNA test? Yes, if the person meets these criteria:

  • Took an Ancestry DNA test (and the test is fully processed)
  • Opted into their DNA being matched with other Ancestry customers
  • You are both related up to a distance of 4th or 5th cousin
  • Use their full name in their Ancestry profile (or at least an initial and last name)

This article gives you tips on how to zero in on specific names.

We’ll also steer you away from some glitches that could negatively impact your search.

Who Are You Looking For On Ancestry DNA?

We are assuming that the person you’re looking for isn’t close family e.g. parent, child, or sibling.

That kind of relationship appears at the top of your list of matches and is difficult to miss!

We also assume that you know the legal name of the person you’re looking for i.e. this is not a case of adoption or unknown parental identity.

Here are the two scenarios that we’ll cover:

[1] Known first and last name

Let’s say that you’re looking for a second or third cousin you remember from childhood.

In this case, you know the person’s first and last name. You probably know their approximate age.

[2] Last name only

We’ll also cover the scenario where the person is a distant cousin of your parent.

You suspect that they may be deceased, but you’d like to find children or grandchildren to connect with.

In this case, you’ll be working with the last name only. We’ll give you tips on narrowing your searches down to that name.

Most People Use Their Full Names On Ancestry

The main reason that you can find someone specific on Ancestry.com is that most customers use their full names in their profile.

The percentage isn’t quite as high as on commercial rival 23andMe.

How do I know? I’ve tested with both sites.

Genealogy Quotes By Writers x
Genealogy Quotes By Writers

Below is a breakdown of the first 100 DNA relatives in my lists on 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage.

The table describes what people put into their display name. The possibilities are:

  • first and last name e.g. Joseph Jones
  • initial and last name e.g. J Jones
  • first name and initial e.g. Joseph J
  • nickname e.g. joeyrocks
  • initials e.g. J J
First & LastInitial & LastFirst & InitialNicknameInitials
Ancestry7212214
23andMe873414
MyHeritage893161

The fact that about 72% of my DNA relatives use their full names makes finding people so possible.

The people who use an initial and their last name are also quite identifiable.

Searching For Someone Within Your Ancestry DNA Matches

The top menu of the DNA match list page has search and filter options.

Click on the Search link to see the search boxes. We’ve marked the link in this picture:

If you’re looking for a living person then your focus will be on the first search box: Match name.

Match name search doesn’t include similar names

The main drawback is that the match name search for your DNA matches isn’t as sophisticated as the record search feature on Ancestry.com.

For example, let’s say you search for Joe Jones.

If you were searching for records on Ancestry, the results would also give you records for “Joseph Jones” and “Joey Jones.” In other words, it accommodates variations of names.

The name search for DNA matches doesn’t do this. I have a DNA match called “Joseph Jones” that doesn’t come back in a search for “Joe Jones.”

Similarly, searching for “Smith” doesn’t pull back DNA matches named “Smyth” or “Smythe”.

However, “Smith” pulls back results for “Joe Smithson” and “joesmith1971”.

This is known as an “exact match” search.

You will have to take care of nicknames (Joseph/Joey) and spelling variations (Smith/Smyth) yourself.

There is an option to “include similar surnames” but it only applies to the second search box i.e. the search for surnames in matches’ trees.

Solution

As long as you’re aware of the limits to this search feature, it shouldn’t present too much of a problem.

If you were tracking a family name from census to census, then you need to take spelling variations of the surname into account.

However, it’s unlikely that a cousin you remember from your childhood has changed how they spell their name.

But you do need to think about variations of the first name. For Joseph, try Joey, Joe, and Jo.

The simplest solution is to search only on surname and scroll down through a page or so of results.

Using Family Trees On Ancestry To Identify Someone

Let’s say that your search pulls back three Joseph Jones.

How do you know which one is the person you’re looking for?

The easiest route for you will be if all three DNA matches have large public family trees.

I won’t dwell to much on this because you probably know how to search and review Ancestry trees.

I’ll mention here that their own details will be private in their trees.

However, you may be able to rule them in or out by examining their grandparents or parents’ details. Look for any obituaries that the tree owner may have added for a grandparent.

No public tree?

What if none of them has a public tree?

Read on for tips and tricks.

Reviewing User Profiles On Ancesry.com

User profiles on Ancestry.com often display where the person is based.

This is optional, so you may not see it on the match you are investigating.

Here’s an example from one of my matches:

Note that the isn’t the birthplace of the match. It’s the location that they may have specified when setting up their profile.

So, it’s usually going to be where they were based when they set up their Ancestry.com.

If you know that the person emigrated as a child, then this location could be a useful clue.

How to find the account profile

When you click on a DNA match on the match list page, you are taking to the match profile page.

Hover over their name at the top of the page to see if it turns into a link. The link opens their user profile page.

Some of your matches don’t have user profiles

You will find that some of your matches don’t have a user profile page.

This occurs when the DNA test is managed by someone else. Unfortunately, you will only be able to see the user profile details of the manager.

Check Which Side Of Your Family The Match Falls Into

Are you looking for Joseph Jones, the grandson of your father’s uncle?

If two of your three matches named Joseph Jones fall on your mother’s side, then you can rule them out.

But how do you know which side of the family that they’re on?

If your mother or father has also tested with Ancestry.com, then the maternal or paternal side will be clearly displayed on your match list.

However, many of us are not in this fortunate position. However, you may have already identified several first or second cousins on your mother or father’s side.

In this case, you can use the Shared Match feature to figure it out for many of your matches.

We have a full tutorial on researching your Ancestry shared matches.

I’ll simply mention here that you should review the top entries on the shared match list of the match you are investigating.

If you see several shared matches that you know are on your mother’s side, you can rule out the Joseph Jones on your father’s side that you’re looking for.

One caveat: this won’t work if your parents are cousins or otherwise related.

Asking A Match To Confirm Their Identity

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

Unfortunately, you won’t get responses to every message.

We have a separate article with tips on sending Ancestry messages that get replies.

If you don’t get a reply via Ancestry, here are my suggestions.

Check their shared matches with you to see if they have a sibling or other close relative on Ancestry.com (who are also related to you).

These are more people to contact via Ancestry.com.

If there’s an adult child on the site, they may have arranged the DNA test for your target person. Ask them to pass on a polite message.

Use Ancestry DNA To Find People Who Tested Elsewhere

You tested with Ancestry but your long-lost relative has tested with 23andMe or MyHeritage?

Here are some tutorials to help you check DNA matches on multiple websites.

Challenges With More Distant Relatives

Ancestry DNA tests are very accurate at the level of close family.

In general, the more DNA you share with people, the higher the accuracy.

Like all the DNA testing companies, the testing becomes less accurate at the lower levels of shared DNA.

Don’t worry about this if you’re looking for a second or third cousin. You share enough DNA for the testing companies to be accurate.

But are you looking for the great-grandchild of the third cousin of your great-grandparent?

Now we’re getting into 5th cousin range where the accuracy of DNA testing is dropping.

Problem with more distant relationships

The problem is that we all share small sections of DNA by chance with unrelated people. This is a consequence of how genetic inheritance works.

So, when you’re looking at “DNA relatives” who share a low level of DNA with you – this may be due to chance instead of common ancestors.

In general, you can be fully confident that the relationship is “real” at levels of about 15 centimorgans and above.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, check out our article on centimorgans and segments on Ancestry.com.

From 10 cM there’s still a high probability that the relationship is due to a common ancestor.

Ancestry.com shows you matches as low as 8 cM (this is their current threshold).

Down in those weeds, the chances are higher that this is not a correct relationship (i.e. it’s through chance).

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