Since I took my first autosomal test in April of 2011 with 23 and me, I’ve been a pretty happy customer. I happily use the service and I appreciate some of the side perks (like getting a Y haplogroup as part of the test) even if some of the information is outdated…or not as in-depth. I also hate the idea of a de facto genetic genealogy company. All the groups and projects for genetic genealogy are dominated by FTDNA. I like that there is diversity and competition provided by YSEQ and 23 and me…but I also have to do what’s best for me now.
Issues with getting information
Those settings have been a relative hassle. You have to beg for information from someone before you have any idea what will be provided. The return rate is pretty low. If I ask 10 people to share I can expect 2 or 3 to take me up on it. Only after they share can I see where they match and which segments they share with other matches. Certainly there are many people I would not have bothered, had I known where they matched.
Short Comparison of Tools
The Family Inheritance Advanced tool is excellent if you manage to find it. I alert all of my matches to it’s presence. You can check a match and also see exactly where they match with you and you can easily swap them into the number one position to check them against your other matches. So once someone shares they can be compared to everyone else you’re sharing with exactly down to the segment. This is an enormous help when you are trying to determine if two matches are on opposite sides of the chromosome.
I checked out some of the tools on a friends kit at FTDNA. I may have missed an option on one of them, so this review of their tools is based on limited experience.
FTDNA provides a chromosome browser with similar functions for checking your matches and seeing exactly where they match you, but to see if they actually match someone else in the same spot is a bit harder. To get that information, I had to go to the matrix tool which is separate from the chromosome browser. That tool will tell you that two or more of your matches match each other which is helpful, but not exactly where.
I think FTDNA’s implementation is clunky there. I’ve had it happen several times that someone matches me on chromosome 7 (for example) where they overlap with another match. So my next step would be to see if they match that other person there. When I check them against that match though I sometimes come to find that they don’t match each other where they overlap on 7..but they do match each other on a chromosome that is not shared with me. So in one instance they represent a paternal vs. maternal match, but they also are related to each other somewhere else that doesn’t concern me.
That kind of data is invaluable when you’re working with someone who matches both your maternal and paternal families…or who just happens to randomly match someone in the group on a different chromosome than the one you’re focused on. Not having it, could lead you to the wrong conclusions.
In this arena Gedmatch is really the king. Their comparison tools so far are the best and it’s a donation run site. Still they’ve managed to womp on the pay sites by having all the information available right up front and showing you where matches match each other and you. Of course you have to choose to upload to Gedmatch.com and they have to be up and running.
The Matching Pool
At 23 and me, I have shared with about 470 of my 1200 plus matches. That represents three years of convincing people to offer up the most basic information you need to work in genetic genealogy…”where do we match”. It’s nothing to sneeze at because at FTDNA, I’m likely to only have 400 matches total.
Unlike 23 and me though, I won’t have to work for three years just to see where I match someone. That information is there on the first day. I can download a csv file of all my matches and which chromosomes and segments they match on right then and there. Then I can make informed decisions about who to bother with family tree requests based on what I’m researching at the time.
I’ve heard rumors that FTDNA customers are more likely to respond to requests for information, but I’ve also heard from people who transfer that the rate for information exchange is about the same as at 23 and me and also that just about as many people have absolutely no family trees at all. So that seems like a coin toss.
For older V3 23 and me kits like mine, FTDNA offers a $69 transfer that puts your results in their database. Gedmatch of course does this for free and requests a donation. Still though there may be people who tested at FTDNA who just aren’t ready to try out Gedmatch, so it would help to be in the FTDNA database for more coverage. Transferring at some point seems like a no brainer. It’s something I should do, just like I did with my Y from ancestry.com.
I have a few more autosomal tests to purchase though and they are the tests I’m thinking about switching over.
23 and Me Concerns..or the things that are pushing me over
In the past, the general advice was to get your test at 23 and me, and then take advantage of FTDNA’s transfer to put yourself in both databases. That is no longer possible.
23 and me has a new chip, that is incompatible with FTDNA’s transfer (although Gedmatch can manage to match them up just fine and I’m sure FTDNA just doesn’t see the profit in spending time on it). So new kits purchased with 23 and me just don’t have the option to transfer into FTDNA’s database. That is one concern I have. One of the testing companies is now not like the others, and it’s the one I use the most. My old kits will transfer just fine, but anything I buy from here on out will have to rely on Gedmatch.com as it’s only cross company solution…and it’s frequently down because it’s a donation run volunteer site.
Although 23 and me has given up on health results (for the time being) and their focus should be on genealogy only, the strict privacy policies are still in place. Getting basic information is still hard and the return rate is still pretty low. Not getting a share at 23 and me is crippling because you won’t ever know where someone, who is anonymous, matches you and if they match any of your other matches.
Those are pretty big concerns, but the thing that really has me motivated to start purchasing tests elsewhere is how the purchase and execution of a test for my dad’s maternal uncle has spiraled out of my reach.
A Rookie Mistake and a Losing Battle with Privacy
I purchased a test for my dad’s maternal uncle from 23 and me. The focus of my research here has been on my paternal line but I value my dad’s maternal family as well. The Seelyes were pretty well covered, but the Campbells were missing. My dad’s maternal uncle has both and he would be my dad’s largest match. His test would really help to define those families in my dad as well as defining the paternal side of many matches by the absence of a match with him on overlapping segments (Dark Side of the Moon).
It’s actually the first time I’ve purchased a test for someone I have little contact with. The plan was that I would set up an account at 23 and me, purchase the test, send it to him. His part would be to spit in the vile and return the test unregistered. 23 and me would then notify me of the test that was turned in that I had purchased because it was unregistered and I would claim the test. All of that is basically laid out in 23 and me’s policies and procedures. The goal there was simplicity. If I ship the kit to myself first so I can register it, then I have to pay for shipping to my great uncle..basically double paying shipping.
Unfortunately things did not go as planned. The kit shipped and then we lost contact with my great uncle. So I waited, and waited and waited for it to appear in my dad’s list of matches. It never did. Finally I thought that maybe he changed his mind about testing. I’ve heard that 23 and me kits have an expiration at about a year. So now, a year later I worked through family members to get in contact with my dad’s uncle to see if I could recover the kit in time to use it on a different relative.
This was a lot like cold calling someone, because I’ve only met the man a few times in my life. So I cold called an 80 year old man about something that happened a year ago.
I asked him if he wanted the test and he said, at this point, no. I asked if I could take it to use on another person and he said. Other than the one I sent back?
Some more questions and quick searching at 23 and me show that he definitely registered the kit a year ago and it has just sat there ever since. Never showing up in my dad’s list of matches and without any sort of notification. All of that due to the privacy settings on the account.
Another phone call to uncle the next day: Can you remember your password? no. Do you know what email address you used? no. I’m going to call support to see if we can recover the results and get back on track.
Initiate contact with support. I explain the situation they inform me that they only communicate with the email account that registered the kit, not the purchaser of the kit. I tell them he may not have access to the email account and has forgotten his password.
If he has forgotten his password and cannot get into email he can fill out a form for support [address of form not given].
Another phone call to uncle a couple of days later: Do you have an email address? Yes [address here]. Do you check it? I think so.
Me back to support: Look, here is his email, but I’m not sure it’s the one he used to register the kit or if he can receive email there.
Support case closed…fill out a survey to tell us how awesomely we helped you!
Comment from me on the support case: Angry tirade about how I don’t think the issue was resolved and how I have more questions about what to do.
From support: It looks like you want access to your uncle’s results. You will have to work with him directly to get that.
Another phone call to uncle…no answer.
Uncle magically appears in list of relatives…after a year..immediately make sharing requests!
Comment back to support. I don’t think he can get into his email or his account at 23 and me. He’s 80. Is there a phone number he can call? Also why does he appear in my matches now?
Another phone call to uncle…no answer.
Support: we only communicate with the email account that registered the kit. If your uncle cannot log in at 23 and me he will have to initiate a password reset.
Me: The password reset is sent to the email account that he may not access! Is there another form of communication like a phone number. Have you attempted to contact him? What are the steps I should tell him to take when I call. If I’m going to be his long distance support, you need to give me the tools to do that.
Another phone call to uncle…no answer.
Support: we cannot communicate about your uncles test with you. He will need to initiate contact with support. Our primary communication is with email. Perhaps his appearance in your match list indicates that he can log in.
Me: I don’t know why he’s appearing now. I’m not sure he’s getting his email. I’ve not been able to contact him about it. What steps can I take if my uncle cannot get his email?
Support: he can fill out a form [address given] to initiate contact with support. we only communicate with the email account that registered the kit.
A quick look at the form shows the second field is the email address. Clearly, I’m not getting anywhere with this circular logic.
Four more phone calls to uncle…no answer or response to messages. He could be out. He could be on vacation. He could be sick. He could be avoiding these annoying calls from someone he barely knows…I don’t know.
Me: Okay if I can get back in touch with my uncle, and I have him fill out the form and he wants to inform 23 and me that his email account has been compromised, do I need to lead him through creating a new email account?
Support: Yes. Indicate that the email account has been compromised and put the new email account in the comments.
Support case closed.
At this point, I’m sort of worried about my great uncle. I don’t know him very well, but he’s fairly old and he’s sort of disappeared. If my dad hadn’t mentioned him doing something like this in the past, I would be even more concerned. Maybe this is just his pattern.
Because of my experiences using my dad’s account, I know they ask for your answer to your security question for things like downloading your raw results. My guess is that a support contact to change your email address would follow the same protocols and my goal here is not to socially engineer 23 and me or my great uncle. It’s really simply to see this basic information..where do we match and where does he match others I’m sharing with. I don’t need his health results. They are useless to me because I already have my own.
Someone somewhere got into his account and changed some settings so he would appear in DNA relatives, but all that really tells me is that he is my dad’s uncle…which I already knew.
Now every time I look at my DNA relatives list, I can think about the 22%..really 44% of my dad’s DNA I won’t be able to define and about how a simple mistake in my planning and missed communication between family members can lead to this total loss of information. I may never get this opportunity to see these results again. I doubt my great uncle would take another test, assuming I can ever get in contact with him in the future. This attempt to catalog my grandmother has been a total failure.
The sad part is that if I had tested him at FTDNA, I would have his results without anything more needed on his part…which I’m pretty sure is what he would want. Now I have to try to get him to navigate this confusing maze of settings and check boxes or have him go through a password reset. Or not. Maybe he can already log in. I just don’t know.
I’m also impatient. I’ve waited for a year for these results. You’d think that would make me more patient but it hasn’t. Maybe in a couple of months I’d be able to get in touch again and get more information. Maybe he’ll be back next week. Maybe not. It’s frustrating to be able to brush your finger tips on something but never actually grab it. I view the last year as lost time.
Making the Switch
Of course, I’m angry and I’m making decisions while I’m angry (ill advised). On the other hand a cost/benefit analysis is telling me that I’m already not getting the level of service I need to make informed decisions and that my preferred company is no longer compatible. Instead of bumping up their service for genetic genealogy like we all hoped they would in the wake of the FDA issue..it’s just stagnating under the same rules they’ve always had, without the benefit of being able to transfer to other companies. Their focus is clearly on getting their medical information back online, not in making it easier for genealogists to use their products.
I still really appreciate the built in limited Y haplogroup which, with a little research you can match up to todays haplogroup listings..but I’m not sure that minor benefit outweighs the detractors.
The writing appears to be on the wall.
Why not Ancestry DNA? Simple. They don’t offer any tools yet, that I know of, to actually compare segments of DNA. So it’s less information than I need and I would have to go to Gedmatch to do any comparisons. Ancestry provides “leaves” saying you have a genetic relative who has matches in your tree, but no information about where they match making it possible to have a relative show up as part of your maternal family because of a tree match, when really they belong on your dad’s side. Both FTDNA and 23 and me win that one hands down.
Tests I purchase in the future for my wife and her family should probably just go to FTDNA where I already have some of her family members Y tested. Chances are I can use their current sample to upgrade to family finder and then check them against her.
I should also purchase my mom’s families tests there since I would also likely Y test one of her brothers to gather my Hutchinson Y DNA. I have maybe 3 more autosomal tests to get for them and a Y.
Future autosomal tests for the U152 Thompsons could go there as well. With the option of checking my last 23 and me tested Thompson at Gedmatch.com for comparison.
The next test I plan to get for my dad is a test to define my dad’s Finks family. I have another aging relative on that side who has agreed to do it. My plan was to order the 23 and me test and ship it to myself and then hand deliver it to this relative, but I think my plans have changed. Now I think I will ship a family finder test to myself instead and then actually transfer my dad’s test to FTDNA too. Two Seelye relatives are already tested there so we won’t be alone.
$99 for the FTDNA test and $69 for the transfer. Those are the minimal costs in switching my dad’s results and having someone known to compare to. You might also count the $99 we spent on the lesson in privacy from 23 and me. It takes me sometimes a whole year to save up money for these tests but I think at this point, it will be worth it.
That is just the money involved. What really has me disappointed is the loss of information. My great uncle’s results are available but they are untouchable..that’s way worse than losing a hundred bucks.
As an update, I did eventually get the results shared by my dad's uncle or a member of his family, but only with my account. So family inheritance advanced shows me where they match each other but I cannot check him against all of my dad's matches because they are shared with my dad's account not mine. I maintain separate accounts for my kits with separate email addresses to make things easier…except in this case. Now I have to see who might overlap using my spreadsheet and then log in to my account and beg the person..who may not match me at all..to share with me so I can compare them to my dad's uncle..who will not share with my dad. Since so many are anonymous their security settings sometimes keep me from finding their profiles to ask for the share, even when I copy and paste the url from my dad's profile to my own logged in profile in a separate browser. So. I have the information which is better than nothing by a long shot, but in all the confusion and security and distrust, it's in the hardest abstraction layer possible for me to use. That is why I bought my Finks test from FTDNA and will now pay the transfer fee for my dad's results to FTDNA. I will miss family inheritance advanced..but I will really enjoy seeing where people match right up front.
I've been able to talk to more people about the difference in testing companies and learned about another caveat for FTDNA. There is a 20cM total requirement for a match to show up in your match list. 7cM is considered the cut off point for valid matches. I've seen in the past that FTDNA reported on very small matches and then added them together. So you may have that 7cm Match and several smaller matches that add up to a total of 20cM and those would show, but a solid 19cM match without any smaller matches to boost it would be lost. Something to consider because I collect matches well below 20cM.