… and why Ancestry.com may
win the DNA Testing Wars
To many people in the genetic genealogy community Ancestry.com seems to be the “DNA-Testing company that genetic genealogists love to hate™”. After all Ancestry is guilty of many crimes, including not providing a chromosome browser, destroying DNA records and inventing ancestors.
Early this year (2015) ancestry.com made their DNA testing available in the UK and Ireland. So, despite all their weaknesses and being naturally curious about these things, I was keen to test with them. I have after all a subscription with them, they publish my family tree online and provide most of the genealogical research material I use. The only problem was that living in Germany I couldn’t order from them. Thankfully they were selling there test kits “Over the Counter” at WhoDoYouThinkYouAre?Live so I was able to buy on “Under the Counter” so-to-say.
The good news is that my test results are back and I’ve had a few months to digest the information, so I though it was worth writing a few lines on my results.
Context is King
To put my results in context, and just in case you are new to the blog, I think it’s worth explaining a little of my family background. My ancestral root are all British, so I don’t really need another Ethnicity test. Both of my parents are dead and they were both “only-childs”. As a result I’ve no Aunts/Uncles/First Cousins to genetically test. This means that I’m unlikely to ever be able to phase my data, or reconstruct my parents DNA from the Gedmatch.com Lazarus Tool. I doubt I’ll even get to a point where I maintain a spreadsheet of my DNA linking it to particular ancestor. Heck even my yDNA and mtDNA are relatively rare, but that’s another story.
Like my British genealogists what I am interested in is researching my family beyond the time of Civil Registration (1837). If you’ve ever done any research on British ancestors you will know there is a wealth of material from the 19th Century onwards. Typically researchers can rely on Birth, Marriage and Death certificates (searchable here) to give details of your ancestors and the UK Censuses (1841-1911), held every 10 years, to flesh-out family groups.
Before this time research gets harder and you are relying on the Parish Registers. Most of my ancestors seem to have done the most annoying thing possible and married someone from a nearby village. This means that my ancestors exist in clumps, generously scattered over a few adjoining parishes. To add to their sins they seem to have been happy to regularly recycle first names among the whole tribe. In the end only careful research (normally reading through the original Parish Registers) can identify the correct parents for each my ancestors. Hopefully finding genetic connections will help with this work
Finally I’m hoping to find connections to the descendants of my ancestors i.e. all those pesky Americans that I’m related to on 23andMe (905 relatives) and FamilyTreeDNA (671 relatives). So far, despite fairly extensive work, I’ve yet to identify a single new relative through either of those two sites. As George Bernard Shaw might have said “Two people divided by a common ancestor”.
So the ancestry.com test results can be broken down into two main parts
I’ve already published something about their ethnicity estimates, but to recap, shown below are my results broken down by region. These actually aren’t as interesting as either a.) the spread of results for each region (e.g. my “British” range is between 26% and 89%) or b.) the write-up that they provide on each region which gives a more in-depth view of the whole ethnicity testing process.
From what I’ve seen these are fairly common results for a British tester. Given that my ancestors seem to have been settled on the Eastern seaboard of the UK for many centuries it seems not unreasonable to expect to find some Scandinavian and West European ethnicity among my results. In this context it’s worth understanding the genetic mix of the British Isles. The best and most recent study is from the People of the British Isles project. Ancestry’s own comments on the project can also be read here.
The other point to mention is the small Caucasian reading. My brother also has a small percentage Caucasian according the FamilyTreeDNA, perhaps they are both background noise or part of a shared ancient connection with the Caucuses that many Brits may share ?
This is the more interesting part. Here you are shown your DNA matches and this is where ancestry is really giving better results. My overview is shown below:
Despite the lack of a chromosome browser to dive in to the data I have 4 matches that have family trees that correlate with mine. One is a relative I’m already in contact with, Two others are a mother and daughter (fourth cousin and fourth cousin, once-removed) and the final one is also a fourth cousin. All four have family trees that make sense, so hopefully these all help validate both their and my research. Of the four realtives, two are UK testers and the other two are US-based testers.
Naturally when we get the “shaky-leaf hints” there is the danger that we assume too much and may be missing the correct shared ancestor. Ancestry’s rather useful “Maps and Locations” page shows how much I overlap with some of my matches!
Just like at 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA, I have plenty of relatives on ancestry where I have no idea yet how we match (2614 relatives). It would really be appreciated if some of those actually put a public family tree up on ancestry.
Ancestry do also have another facility “DNA Circles” but as you may already have guessed I’m not included in any circles.
Why Ancestry may win the “DNA Testing Wars”
Stepping back from my own results I just wanted to add a few thoughts on my reaction to the ancestry test results. I suspect what I’m about to say next may mark me down as a heretic, however as a relatively normal user I find the current offering from ancestry better than both FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe. Why ?
1. Lab Processing times
Ancestry.com took around 3 weeks to process my results. Whilst FTDNA have some very helpful and supportive customer care staff I’m afraid that long processing times seem to be a recurring problem with FTDNA.
2. DNA Web Tools
The reality is that Ancestry has a better website than either 23andMe or FTDNA, that is to say it’s easier to understand and use than either of the other two companies. The Shared Ancestors function may not work correctly in every case, but it is exactly what you would do first with a match on either of the other two sites, namely: search their tree until you found a common ancestor.
If that doesn’t work then there are additional tools. Ancestry smartly provides a “Shared Surnames” function, which does exactly what it says on the tin. If that doesn’t help then there is the “Maps and Locations” function shown above. As I’ve written about before, I work visually and like maps. Seeing if/where you have common locations for ancestors is an entirely reasonable research path.
Comparing how Ancestry manage and display your family tree with the rather clunky family tree function that FTDNA has built, or the fact that 23andMe have now outsourced their family trees to myheritage.com.
Did I mention Ancestry have an offline client (Family Tree Maker) as well as dedicated apps for Android and iOS devices.
Finally as Bill Clinton might have said
3. “It’s the Genealogy Stupid”
Genealogy is more than just the Genetics. Genealogy is built around data and collaboration. Ancestry has the data in buckets and therefore it has the community of researchers. Like Google or eBay it’s a natural monopoly situation. Ancestry is, for better or for worse, the “go-to” genealogical website. Ancestry has added a relatively simple DNA testing solution to the mix which it can easily explain to it’s customer base.
Contrast this with the other 2 testing companies.
I’ve always been suspicious of the long-term plans for 23andMe. Given the Google-based background of 23andMe I assume that their business plan involves attracting enough testers to build a gene-pool big enough to sell on to the Pharmaceutical industry., whilst Genealogy will remain as side-show for them.
On the other hand FamilyTreeDNA does everything a genetic genealogist could dream of, autosomal testing, yDNA testing, mtDNA testing, SNP panels, DNA project groups and more. These are all great products (I use them), however you need a reason to go there, so FamilyTreeDNA have to work much, much harder to build their client base. Once you are interested in testing you still need the understanding to know which test to take and how to interpret the results. Once you get the results of your autosomal tests you are then back on your own researching how you are related to someone.
I’m a little nervous publishing this blog. Ancestry is a commercial organisation that have proved in the past to be untrustworthy in the eyes of the Genetic Genealogy community. That remains a problem for them. However looking as a British tester I’m at least pleased to have finally found my first “genetic cousins” thanks to them. I suspect over the coming years Ancestry.com’s greater UK presence will result in more cousin-connections. Both FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe need better strategies to build their base internationally.
I’m curious what other people think. Please feel free to use the comments section to give your thoughts.