3 Steps for Prioritizing Which DNA Matches to Research First

By Diahan Southard

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Which of your AncestryDNA or 23andMe matches are most important to your research? The answer is simple, but maybe not straightforward: the DNA matches that are going to answer your research question. You can follow these concrete steps to determine which DNA matches are the most important for your research.

Step 1: Consider Your Research Question

What question are you trying to solve? Which ancestor are you looking for? After all, if you don’t know what you want, you won’t know who can help you find them. Naming what you’re hoping to accomplish will help you determine a direction for your research.

You may have chosen this goal when you put together your DNA testing strategy. It’s also possible you didn’t know the full scope of your goal (such as discovering birth family members) when you began. Now that you have your results and can see matches, consider what you’ve already found and how that information relates to your research question.

Step 2: Search Known Matches

Identify matches who seem to be related to the person you want to research. Researching these matches, who have your target individual as their most recent common ancestor (MRCA), will get you closer to your goal.

For example, if you want to learn more about your great-grandmother Hilda, you might flag second-cousin matches who share similar ancestral surnames, since the testing company estimates that you and those matches have a great-grandparent as an MRCA.

This analysis forms the early stages of DNA triangulation, which is an advanced technique that uses known information about two individuals to infer facts about a third, unknown person. Learn more with our DNA triangulation guide.

Step 3: Use Shared Matches

Most testing companies provide you with a tool that highlights matches you and a DNA match share with each other. Studying these shared matches will help you identify even more people who might get you closer to your target individual.

To return to our earlier example, let’s say you have a second-cousin match named Hank. You study his profile, and (based on your research and your estimated relationship) determine he might share your great-grandmother Hilda as an ancestor. Use the Shared Matches tool to identify other test takers that both you and Hank have as matches. You should start by investigating Hank and the matches that the tool says you share.

This is where you can really dig in. Use traditional genealogy research methods to take these shared DNA matches back to the ancestral couple you’re researching.

Of course, these shared matches actually represent two lines of ancestors: both Hilda and your great-grandfather (who we’ll call Harold). You’ll ultimately want to sort your shared matches beyond the second-cousin level into two groups: those related to Hilda and her ancestors, and those related to Harold and his ancestors. You can do this in a couple ways, but the simplest is to look through the pedigrees of your matches to determine how they’re related to Hilda or Harold. (Learn what to do if an AncestryDNA or MyHeritage DNA match doesn’t have a family tree linked to their results.)

Last updated: June 2020