More Effective Use of DNA for Genealogy

If you’ve taken a DNA test for the purposes of learning more about your family tree, breaking through brick walls, and finding long lost cousins, you may be able to take steps that will improve your results.


If you are an adoptee, you may not know your last name at birth. Everyone else, make sure that the name your matches see is your last name at birth. I made this mistake at first. When 23andMe asked for my name, I typed in my current last name. Later, I realized what I had done and changed it to my maiden name, or in a couple of cases I used both my maiden name and my married name.

23andMe – Click on your name in the upper right corner. From the dropdown menu, choose “profile.” This shows you what other users see. If you need to make changes, click “edit.” Change your last name and make sure the “DNA Relatives Display Name” shows other users your last name at birth.

Ancestry – Edit your name under “Your Account.” The Username field reflects what your DNA matches will see.

FamilyTreeDNA – Click on your name in the upper right corner and select “Edit Account Settings.”

MyHeritage – Click on your name in the upper right and select “Account Settings.”

The reason for using or including your birth name is that it’s more likely your DNA matches will have your birth name in their family tree than your married name or adopted name or whatever other name you may use.

A lot of people use random made-up user IDs. Please, if you’re uncomfortable using your full name, at least include your birth name, or your mother’s maiden name, or something that might help your matches figure out where you might fit in their family.


Even if you’re just getting started, most people (and again, I’m excusing adoptees here) know a few members of their family. Please build a family tree and make it public. Living people are protected, but having even a few deceased family members visible to your matches will help them narrow down which side of their family you may be on.

In addition, Ancestry and MyHeritage now have automated tools that analyze family trees between you and your DNA matches and look for common ancestors. Those tools can’t work if you don’t have at least a small family tree.


I haven’t fully researched this at each company, but I know 23andMe will let you choose not to participate in DNA Relatives. You can’t see any of your matches; nor will they see you in their match list. If you took a DNA test on a lark to see your ethnicity, if you learned something disturbing and you don’t want to know any more, if you were more interested in health results, then look for a way to go private. You won’t be bothered by anyone trying to make a connection, and in turn, your DNA cousins won’t be frustrated by your lack of response.


DNA research is exciting, especially when you see a new match pop up that could help you solve one of your brick walls. It’s also time consuming, at times difficult and complicated, and you may find yourself wanting to bang your head against your brick walls. By taking these few simple actions, you will improve your interactions with at least some of your matches, and hopefully ease the way for both you and your DNA cousins.

About Taminar

When I grow up, I want to make movies and write books. Now in my 50s, I wonder if I'll ever really accomplish the dreams of my youth. I have made two short films, one for a college film-making class, the other for an MTV-sponsored contest. I have written short plays that have been produced, and a few short stories and reviews that have been published. I also perform and direct for community theatre. My working life has included stints in local TV news, public relations, retail management and cashier, and for a couple of years, I made the rides go at Walt Disney World. I have two cats and a husband.
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