Nobody Likes Cousin Anonymous : Making a Family Tree to Share Online

One of the most important, but often overlooked steps in identifying your DNA matches is creating an online family tree. You may be looking at a list of potential 3rd cousins wondering how you’re connected and wishing those matches had attached a family tree to figure out your relationship. But, have you created a tree and attached it to your own profile? If you’re an adoptee just getting started on your search, not having a tree is understandable, but it’s a good idea to share your adoptee status somewhere on your profile. If you need an image for your account, try something like this.

If you wish to remain private and aren’t looking to connect with your DNA matches, you probably wouldn’t be reading this guide. Each person who chooses DNA testing has the right to privacy, but setting your profile to anonymous will discourage many of your matches from contacting you. At the very least, add some kind of profile image.

Not comfortable putting a photo of yourself online? There are plenty of images online you can add to a profile to instantly become more approachable.  I created this icon to share, so feel free to save it and upload as your own profile image if you like.  It may seem like you’re putting a lot of info “out there” for anyone to see, but by default, the information you share on your Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, or 23andme profile is only visible to the people who match as your DNA relatives (or people they have trusted to handle their accounts).

Most sites have an option to create a tree and attach it to your profile. I’ll be discussing the top 4:  Ancestry DNA, 23andme, Family Tree DNA, My Heritage, WikiTree, Geni, as well as some other options.

Ancestry DNA has the largest database of DNA-tested members and it offers a user-friendly tree-builder. A paid Ancestry account is not required to use Ancestry DNA or to create a family tree, but it is helpful in researching the matches you find.  Although the premium genealogy memberships may seem pricey, Ancestry sometimes offers up to 50% off memberships and you may even purchase a “gift” membership and send it to yourself.

It only requires a paid membership to use the site for research or to follow the little green “hint” leaves that will pop up on the icons of the relatives in your tree. As long as you don’t click those, you can add as many people to your free tree as you like. If you already  have printed family trees, all you’ll need to do is copy the info over to the tree.  Ancestry also has a huge database of informational articles and how-tos, including how to build a tree, which can be found here.

Remember, by default, Ancestry hides all living people. Although you can see your name on the tree, nobody else can see information about living people unless you go into the account settings and specifically assign them full access to view your tree (I suggest only doing this for close family or people you trust).

Note: Some sites like 23andme will allow you to share a link to your Ancestry tree. You can obtain that link by simply copy/pasting the address from your browser while logged into your tree.  Simply right-click and copy the entire link, like in the photo below, and paste it wherever you want to share it. Keep in mind, this only works if you have not gone into the settings and changed your tree to private. Also, only matches with paid Ancestry memberships will be able to view this link.

23andMe makes attaching a tree to your DNA results a little bit trickier.  They do not allow you to create a family tree, but they do give you the option of attaching a tree you’ve created elsewhere. Log into your account, go to the top of the page select “Tools,” and then “DNA Relatives.”  This brings you to the page with a lost of matches.  On the right-hand side, there is a small blue link that says “Update DNA Relatives Profile.” (see below) Click on that.

You’ll need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the next page.  There is an option to add a link to your tree. If you’ve tested on Ancestry as well, you can insert the link from your own tree into this space, as mentioned in the previous paragraph about Ancestry.  Because Ancestry links can only be viewed by people with a paid Ancestry subscription, it may not be the best option, but it’s better than having no tree at all.

As the info box below shows, 23andme supports links to several tree-building sites. I’ll be covering a few of them.

Unfortunately, not many 23andme users take advantage of this feature, but if your match has a family tree, you’ll find it at the very bottom of their match page.  Here is the top of the DNA comparison page for one of my matches (with names and identifying data blocked out).

Scroll all the way down to the bottom, and if they have a tree, it will be here.

This is also where your tree would appear to your matches when they view your profile. In this example, the match has chosen to attach a link to a MyHeritage tree.

Family Tree DNA is the home of many regional and surname-specific groups. If you haven’t already joined a project, check out this guide.

Family Tree DNA has the functionality to attach a family tree to your profile by uploading a GEDCOM (short for Genealogical Data Communication) file.  A GEDCOM is the standard file for sharing family trees across platforms. If you created a tree on Ancestry, you can download that file and use it with standalone software like RootsMagic, or in this case, upload it to Family Tree DNA. You can also create one from scratch and enter each person manually.

Just click on the “myFamilyTree” icon.

Next, you’ll see a page that looks like this…

If you have a GEDCOM file, upload it now. You may see a message that says “Uploading a GEDCOM will override your current family tree. Do you want to proceed?” FTDNA offers this warning regardless of whether you have a tree already uploaded or not. Click “Upload” and add the GEDCOM file.

Note: Be sure you are set as the “home” person in the tree you’re uploading, otherwise it will be very confusing to your matches. By default, most tree-builders ask you to set yourself as the home person, but if you have changed this setting, it’s a good idea to change it back and download the amended GEDCOM.

If you do not have a GEDCOM file, you can manually add people to your tree. And to best assist your matches, try to add ancestors as far back as you can. Just adding your grandparents is only going to help the matches who happen to be your first cousins — and you probably already know them.

To create a new tree, just click on the person icon

From here, it’s a pretty straightforward step-by-step process. Just click ‘Father’ to add the name of your father, add details, etc. If you aren’t comfortable entering that information, it is completely fine to enter “Private” or “Living” as a first name and leave the rest empty. FTDNA gives you the option to set living people to viewable or hidden. As you can see, the default setting hides all living people and even deceased ancestors born less than 100 years ago.

To access the page shown below, navigate to My FTDNA –> Account Settings –> Genealogy

Select whatever options fit your needs. I like to make it easy for my matches, so I change the settings like this:

This means that only my matches (and project administrators) can see living people.  You can change these settings back to the defaults at any time.

Oh, and remember that friendly green icon from above? This is how you can change your photo on FTDNA. From MyFTDNA –> My Dashboard, on the right-hand side of the screen, click on “edit image” and upload something. A photo of your dog, a flower, or my green icon  — anything is better than that unwelcoming default image.

If you saw that image in a list of matches, I bet you’d send me an email. If you get too many emails, you can always change your image to something less friendly. Like this photo of a honey badger.

MyHeritage is another site that allows DNA uploads. They have a much smaller pool of people to compare against, but it doesn’t hurt to “fish in all the ponds.” MyHeritage also has a free family tree option. The free version is limited to 250 people and you’ll get a lot of emails and pop-ups urging you to upgrade to a paid subscription, but it can be a worthwhile option if you’re looking to attach a tree to a 23andme account or just to share the link to the tree with a match. Anyone with a free account can visit your online tree.

The MyHeritage website has a tutorial for tree-building here.

They also allow GEDCOM uploads, but for the free account, the maximum size of 250 people may not be enough. If that’s all you need, creating a free tree on ancestry and uploading it to MyHeritage may cover all bases.

Note: MyHeritage does not use the same defaults as many other sites and it is very easy to “accidentally” display information about living people. I recommend entering the name of all living people simply as “living” and start entering real names at grandparents or great-grandparents.

Wikitree is a popular and free site that proclaims, “Our mission is to grow an accurate single family tree that connects us all and is freely available to us all.” This site allows users to collaborate on tree-building and has a “compact tree” feature that allows users to share a link to a small and easy-t0-view version of their tree.

The downside is that the process of creating a tree and getting to the point of creating a shareable link is quite complex. There is a getting started page that walks users through the process, but I can’t find a way to summarize it in a few paragraphs, so I’ll just leave a link to that page right here.

Geni is similar to Wikitree and as their About page states, “Geni is solving the problem of genealogy by inviting the world to build the definitive online family tree.” Geni was acquired by MyHeritage in 2012, so technically, they are the same company and any info you enter on one site may very well end up on the other.

Like Wikitree, Geni has a bit of a learning curve, but also has plenty of resources explaining how to use the site. Here is a good place to start.

Other Options/Tips for helping your matches find you include some basic, but often overlooked steps.

  • For sites that allow a profile bio or place to write a little bit about yourself — be sure to use that space. Are you puzzled by a dead-end somewhere in Güssing? Let your matches know what regions and surnames you’re researching and maybe your great-grandparents’ seemingly un-findable marriage record will just fall into your lap.
  • Don’t have time to build a tree? Or maybe even with my guide, the process is just too time-consuming or complicated? You can always take a photograph of your hand-written or typed family tree and email it directly to your matches or upload it to one of the many free file-sharing services.For example, take a photo with a phone, email it to yourself, then upload it to tinypic or imgur. If one of your matches emails you (because they couldn’t resist your new, super-friendly profile icon), just send them the link to the photo of your tree. Click on this link  to see an example of how this works.
  • Per the previous bullet point — This image-share method is how I often reach out to matches. It’s a lot easier to share a small photo of a tree when making first-contact with a match than to direct them to 5 different websites or try to explain several generations of your lineage.

Remember, to find our DNA matches, we all need to be “find-able.” Having a thorough and easily accessible tree makes finding those matches much easier and it makes those matches more likely to reach out to you. Additionally, those matches may share information on common relatives they have discovered, in turn saving you a lot of time and research.


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