February 13, 2011

With improving technology and decreasing stigma, online dating appears nowhere near saturation

How do we find out about a restaurant? Go online. Research an unfamiliar subject? Hit Google. Seek romance? Increasingly, we're hitting the Web for that, too. Cupid may be finding the mark: Nearly 1 in 5 recently married couples has met through an online-dating and matchmaking site, according to some estimates.

With improving technology, more familiarity because of social-networking sites and greater acceptance because the longtime stigma is wearing off, online dating appears nowhere near saturation.

Sites are more and more tailored, to the point where it's possible to look for matches among cancer survivors and people who like the same car makes.

Mobile apps for smartphones let users review new matches and update profiles and pictures from wherever they might be. And in the future, virtual dating could replace the awkward first meeting.

In many ways, the burst of online dating reflects how people form relationships now, media researcher Jeana Frost said. Approaching people and meeting them online, for example, or contacting a distant acquaintance on Facebook for a date, are both types of online dating.

"What was once considered online dating may just become dating," she said.

So far, technology is playing the perfect cupid for Connie Newton.

Near Thanksgiving, Newton, 46, of Chandler, posted her profile on bbpeoplemeet.com. She'd never heard of the site. The two B's stand for big and beautiful.

Newton said she was surprised at the quality of the men she met. She went out on dates a few times, but no one was the perfect match.

In early January, she came across the profile of Bob, 56, who retired early and lives in Washington state.

"The spark just ignited, and he's driving down and bringing his dog and his banjo and going to stay with me a couple weeks," Newton said.

Business growth

The spark between couples is translating to an electric time for those in the business.

Online-dating sites, which already claim millions of subscribers and registered users, are growing. Match.com reported 1.8 million subscribers during the quarter that ended in December, an increase of 30 percent from the same time in 2009.

E-harmony.com claims more than 33 million registered users in 192 countries.

Tech-savvy singles and even the relatively new market of Baby Boomers are willing to spend $30 a month to find love.

The business of online dating and matchmaking has performed strongly in the past five years, according to market researcher IBSWorld. As a result, online matchmaking has become one of the most profitable online industries. Revenue grew an average of 2.6 percent annually during the period, to $2 billion in 2010, the company said, adding revenue was expected to jump 3.6 percent last year alone.

There are nearly 13,800 companies engaged in online dating and matchmaking, and they hauled in $394 million in profits in 2010, IBSWorld said.

Last year was one of Match .com's strongest, prompting Mandy Ginsberg, general manager of Match.com North America, to suggest the market is nowhere near saturation. There are more than 100 million single Americans, and only a small portion are using and paying for online-dating sites, Ginsberg said. The Baby Boomer segment, and those even older, is growing fast, too, thanks in part to older singles using social-networking sites to keep in contact with children and grandchildren, she said.

Experts and those who oversee the online-dating sites said the stigma that was associated with them is wearing off.

"Years ago, you'd be at weddings and someone would ask, 'How did you meet?' " Ginsberg said. "And someone would say, 'Didn't you meet online?' And you'd be so embarrassed. You're starting to see a massive change."

Yet the lovelorn looking for that special someone this Valentine's Day should be cautious, critics say. Problems include unmet expectations, deceptive posters, scammers and poor and unscientific matchmaking methods.

The Better Business Bureau said one of its most frequent complaints comes from people who stop online-matchmaking services but still get billed.

Cupid goes electronic

Dating aides changed significantly from the personal newspaper ads of 1970s and telephone chat lines and video dating of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Today, large online-dating sites feature GPS-based apps that allow people to see who's close by to instantly meet.

"There are possibilities to use the Internet in some new and different ways," said Robert Epstein, a psychologist and author. "Most of what's out there, though, is not like that.

"Most of what's out there is really just like Match.com, which I still call the 'long bar.' Instead of your bar being 25-feet-long at your local tavern, you have a bar that's literally miles long. It's just putting bodies in front of you and you reacting mainly to photos."

Epstein calls eHarmony's model the "long test" because of the company's lengthy personality questionnaire.

"They're using statistics to tell you we can find your soulmate," he said. "And there's no evidence whatsoever that they can do that."

Newton feels pretty confident about her match. Before Bob (who preferred that his last name not be used) ventured to Arizona for a longer stay, he came down for a weekend.

Newton said, "We met because we wanted to know if we were infatuated with our imaginations or if there was something really real here."

Deception and science

Epstein, who recently created a free website to measure compatibility, said the majority of dating sites continued to be plagued by the problem of posters not being truthful about their careers, height, weight, marital status and other issues.

"We're still facing, as far as I can tell, the same 10, 20, 90 problem," he said. "In other words, if you ask people whether they deceive, you get between 10 and 20 percent saying, 'Yes, I do.' And if you ask them how many other people deceive, they'll say '90 percent.' "

He said a huge challenge was that the proprietary matching algorithms on sites don't measure compatibility.

For its part, eHarmony said its algorithms were proven. Its users are presented with matches who have been found to be compatible across 29 personality dimensions. Before the company launched in 2000, the company said its founding research team spent several years studying marital satisfaction and determined that couples who share values, beliefs, attitudes and personalities are likeliest to remain happy in relationships.

A spokesman said the company continues its research and created eharmonylabs.com to share its findings.

It encourages members to portray themselves accurately, and it has built-in mechanisms to identify who may be using the site for something other than a long-term relationship.

A 2009 study commissioned by the company shows nearly 5 percent of new marriages in the U.S. were the result of a pairing on eHarmony.

Match.com, which was established more than 15 years ago, also uses sophisticated formulas to pair people. They are fine-tuned as users rate daily matches sent to them. The company also uses communication patterns.

The goal, Ginsberg said, is to get more people talking so they go on more dates, have more relationships and marriages.

"We can't promise you you're going to find the love of your life," she said. "What we can promise you is based on sophisticated algorithms and the fact they get more and more intelligent, that we are going to do everything we can to improve more relevant matches so you strike up conversations."

Perseverance and profiles

Frost said her research showed that online dating expanded the pool of available options. But it can lead to frustration and discontent, she said. In general, people are overly optimistic about how much they will like someone when they get to know them, she said. Because of that inflated optimism, many online dates result in disappointment.

"Online dating might be even more prone to disappointment than face-to-face meetings as people make judgments based on highly edited information in an online personal ad," she said. "For online dating to 'work,' a person must be prepared that there will be bad dates as well as good dates and persevere."

And perusing sites with gads of pictures and profiles does not necessarily equate to success.

"There is a lot of evidence that having a lot of options actually causes decision-making to be more difficult," Frost said. "When choosing between many options compared to few, people tend to be less committed to the option they do choose and experience higher levels of regret afterward."

Newton offers two pieces of advice, including using a service that requires a subscription.

"You're going to weed out a lot of losers that way, and a lot of people just looking to hook up for a night," she said.

"Secondly, write a killer, killer profile that's not 'I like to walk on the beach,' because everybody likes to walk on the beach."

Love at first sight

Dr. Suraj Muley, a neurologist at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, said it appeared harder to fall in love online than in person. He points to research that suggests the first time you look at a person, it takes one-sixteenth of a second to really fall in love, he said.

"Traditionally over generations, that's how people have fallen in love," Muley said. "The brain batteries that are triggered by seeing someone are different than if you have a lot of information about that person and you select that person based on interests and educational backgrounds and so on. I think it's a different mechanism for falling in love, in a sense, than the true, traditional mechanism."

Avatars next?

Epstein said true virtual dating was on the way. People will go on dates to museums, amusement parks and restaurants while sitting at their computers or while on mobile devices. Females' safety concerns would be eliminated, and men wouldn't have to spend much money, except at first for a possible fee for the services, he said.

"We're talking about potentially being able to have a lot of fun with someone you don't know very well and getting to know them in a safe, virtual environment," Epstein said.

He said that he believed many people would be spending a lot of time in virtual environments that would be much richer than those offered now by sites such as Second Life, a free 3-D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using free voice and text chat.

Users will pick their bodies and appearance, he said.

"You could pick a body that's based on your actual body, or you could make one up," Epstein said.

"There are still possibilities for deceit, but you really will be interacting with somebody. It's better than a phone call. It's even better than a video date because you're going to be able to interact with them over time in a setting."

by John Yantis The Arizona Republic Feb. 13, 2011 12:00 AM

With improving technology and decreasing stigma, online dating appears nowhere near saturation

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