Research Tree Tips and Tricks

Research Trees can grow very quickly, making it hard to focus on the specific lines/branches within your tree. 

Despite all the tree-building options available on Ancestry, you may still find it helpful to draw diagrams when you are looking at some aspects of your search – a hand-drawn tree forces you to think things through person by person, which can be really helpful!

Some ideas to make it easier to work with your Research Tree:

Keep notes about the work you’ve already done!

  • You need some sort of system to record which Matches you have already investigated – it can be all too easy to repeat the same work more than once…
  • The easiest place to record progress is in the notes area for each DNA Match. As a limited amount of information is shown on the match lists, it makes sense to keep notes brief and place the most important information at the start of your note:
  • Using emoji symbols can reduce the amount of text you use – for example, I use the 🌳 symbol to indicate that I have added the match to my Research Tree and a ✔when I have connected them to Common Ancestors. A ✉ and date indicates whether I have attempted to make contact.

Adding un-named people to your Research Tree

  • You may only be able to find limited information on some people that you want to add to your Research Tree.  For example, a DNA Match may have living parents who would appear within their tree marked “private”, so you cannot be sure of their full names.
  • If you have unknown first names/surnames, using five underscores  _____  is a good substitute for the missing information:

Keeping track of Matches and Ancestors within your Research Tree


Ancestry’s recent update includes tagging tools – to find out more about this, and how to opt in to using it, click here: 

  • You can add Tags to people within the tree by clicking the icon beneath their name on their profile pages:
  • There are options to tag people in many ways, but the DNA Tags include:
    • Common DNA Ancestor
    • DNA Match
    • DNA Connection
  • You can then identify all the people who are tagged in this way by using the Tree Search Filters.
Using Profile Pictures within your Research Tree

The Tagging system is useful, but does not offer a visual way of identifying DNA Matches, DNA Connections and Common DNA Ancestors within your tree.  An alternative/additional way to achieve this is by adding profile pictures to people, eg:

This can be very time-consuming, so may not appeal to you!  However, it does make it easy to see connections within your Research Tree.  If your Research Tree is private and unsearchable these images should not appear as hints to other users. 

See here for Ancestry’s Support Guide on adding profile pictures.

For DNA Matches I use a DNA symbol with a pink or blue background:

For Common DNA Ancestors:                                                         

For the generations in-between – DNA Connections:

If you would like to try using these symbols as profile pictures within your own Research Tree you can download them from the media gallery here: 

Pictures for use in Research Trees

Right-click on a picture, then click on Save Picture As to save it to your own computer.

Using “placeholders” to connect different generations

  • A Research Tree can lead you to a point where you believe you have identified some of your Direct Line Ancestors.  For example, you might have found one set of Grandparents and maybe a set of Great-Grandparents on a different branch.
  • But, with these people all “floating” around on different branches it can be hard to keep track of them.
  • Once you have an idea of who some of your closer Direct Line Ancestors might be you can add “placeholder” people, just to space things out correctly so that there are (roughly) the right number of generations between you.

For example…

If you were confident that you had worked out the identify of your Great-Grandparents (Gordon Smith and Hattie Williams in this example) you know that your Grandparent should be one of their children – you just don’t know which is the right child (yet)! 

  • You could add a placeholder child labelled “Grandparent
  • Then give the Grandparent placeholder a child labelled as “Birth Father”, “Birth Mother” or “Parent
  • And finally add yourself:

The placeholders let you make a best guess as to where you belong in the tree.  You can always edit the tree as more information is available.

Set yourself as the Home Person

If you have added placeholder people, or set your tree up to test a theory about who your birth parent(s) might be, it is worth making sure that you are set as the Home Person.  You can find instructions on how to set the Home Person here: Ancestry’s Support Guide

Once the Home Person has been set, Ancestry adds relationship descriptions to people within your tree:

NB This won’t work for people on Floating Branches – there needs to be a continuous connection between the home person and the person you are viewing.

This can be a useful way of cross-checking information on DNA Matches. 

In this instance, 103 cM is within range for a 2nd cousin once removed.  If you found that you were 4th cousins with someone who shared 356 cM, it would be a sign that something was not right somewhere!

There seems to be a regular problem on Ancestry with the Home Person “unsetting” itself.  If you find that the relationship descriptions have disappeared, it is worth checking the settings.

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