How Online Dating Works


Online dating can be a tricky world to navigate.
Online dating can be a tricky world to navigate.

­One of the basic human impulses is to develop a romantic relationship –- and maybe even fall in love. But there are a lot of obstacles that might keep someone from meeting the love of his or her life in today’s world. Maybe dating co-workers is against company policy. Perhaps you hate the bar scene. You might not be in the right mood to meet your soul mate while you’re trekking through the grocery store.

People of all ages, lifestyles and locations have been facing this problem for decades. In the last 10 years or so, a new solution has arrived to help lonely hearts find their soul mates: online dating.

­Online dating is simply a method of meeting people, and it has advantages and disadvantages. The variety of dating sites is constantly growing, with many sites focused on very specific groups or interests. There are sites for seniors, sites for Muslims, sites for fitness-oriented people, sites for people just looking for friends and sites for people who are interested in more adult activities. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the most basic type of dating site –- one that works to bring two people together for a romantic relationship. While this article applies to the majority of popular dating sites, the rules and practices of any given individual site may differ.

Once you decide you're going to give it a shot, the first thing you need to do is create your profile. See the next page to get started, and learn what online dating is like, find out how (and if) it works and get some helpful tips on making your online dating experience safe and successful.

Online Dating: Creating a Profile

An online dating profile is what presents you to potential dates.  When you first sign up, you fill out some basic profile information.
An online dating profile is what presents you to potential dates.  When you first sign up, you fill out some basic profile information.

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­ When you first arrive at an online dating site, you can browse through profiles without entering any information about yourself. The amount of information you can see about each user depends on the site. Some sites allow users to restrict access to their profiles to paying members. Photos might not be displayed unless you have a paid membership. This helps preserve anonymity, since a co-worker or family member can'’t accidentally stumble across your profile. They’'d have to pay for a membership to see a picture of the person they're reading about. ­

When it’s time to make your own profile, you’ll start with some basic information. Are you a man or a woman? Are you looking to meet a man or a woman? What age range are you interested in? Where do you live? (Some sites just ask for a zip code, while others may allow you to choose form a list of cities.) This is generally the same information you provide to perform a simple search, or “browse.”

Basic profile information may also include your birthdate and a valid e-mail address. Site administrators will communicate with you through this address, and some sites allow messages from users to be sent to your e-mail anonymously. When they send you a message, it is routed through the site’s system and redirected to your e-mail without the other user ever seeing your address. Some sites use their own internal messaging system. If you’re especially concerned about privacy, it’s easy enough to create a free e-mail account somewhere and use it solely for your online dating contacts.

Indicating your physical attributes is usually the next step. Height, weight, hair and eye color and body type are common pieces of data, while some sites ask about piercings and tattoos. At this point, the process becomes increasingly detailed. Interests and activities, favorite sports, authors, music or movies, how you like to spend weekends –- these topics are all fair game. More personal questions might involve whether or not you have children, whether or not you want children, your religious beliefs and your political views. Pets, occupation, income and living situation are usually on the list as well.

­ Next, you’ll be asked to answer many of these same questions a second time, but instead of indicating your own traits, you’ll be describing your ideal date. The site will then use this information and the information you provided about yourself to find suitable matches that you might want to contact. Most sites will also allow you to write about yourself in a more freeform manner -- a chance to get across more of your personality than a series of pull-down lists can offer.

Posting a photo of yourself is another important step. Most sites report a huge increase in responses to ads that have photos posted. There will usually be guidelines as to what sorts of photo you can post, and there might be an approval process before it actually gets posted. In general, avoid posting revealing photos, don’t post photos with people other than yourself in them and don’t post glossy, “glam” photos. Although you want to look your best, try and make sure the photo is accurate to how you currently look. If you’re 35, your high school yearbook photo isn’t a good choice. If you recently dyed your hair purple, try to get a photo that reflects that.

There’s one last rule that needs to be mentioned, and it’s an important one: Don’t put personal identification information in your profile. This includes your address, phone number, social security number, full name or place of employment. You might meet people on the site that you’ll want to share some of that information with down the line, but it should never be public knowledge.

Now, let's go through some helpful tips on creating a profile that encourages people to contact you.

Online Dating: Creating a GOOD Profile

If you browse through a typical dating site, you will see hundreds of ads from people who are “looking for Mr. Right.” Nearly everyone “enjoys a night out on the town, but also likes a quiet evening at home.” It would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t like a good sense of humor in a date.

Begin with the subject. Inject some humor into your subject line or include one of your interests. “Bogart fan seeking unusual suspects.” “Come sail away with this boating enthusiast/Styx fan.” This is the first thing people will see, and it needs to stand out from the crowd.

When it comes to the profile itself, make sure you fill out the whole thing. Take your time and put some thought into it. It may seem tedious or difficult to describe yourself, but leaving sections blank or putting in short, generic answers makes it look like you aren’t really interested. Avoid phrases like, “I wouldn’t normally use one of these dating services, but my friends put me up to this.” Remember, your target audience is other people who are using this dating service. You don’t want to start off by insulting them.

Think of specific aspects of your personality that you want to highlight. Then, don’t just state them –- demonstrate them. Instead of, “I enjoy Stanley Kubrick films,” say, “The other night I was watching "A Clockwork Orange," and I found myself thinking it would be a lot more fun to watch and discuss it with someone else.” Humor is especially important. Not everyone shares the same sense of humor, so saying “I’m a funny person” isn’t sufficient. “I love quoting lines from Monty Python sketches and Simpsons episodes” gives other users a better grasp of your personality.

Another key to success is knowing what you want and putting it in your profile. You’ll get more responses from people who are looking for the same thing you are, whether you want to settle down with a long-term relationship or just want a date for Friday night. “I think there is more of a mental connection first by online dating,” said one user, a teacher from New York. “Also, you know what you're looking for, not what your friends think would be ‘perfect’ for you.”

Last, but not least, mind your grammar. Poor grammar and spelling doesn’t lead to a good first impression, so take the time to get it right.

Online Dating: Making Contact

If you’ve decided to become a paying member of a dating site, you can start contacting other users if their profile appeals to you. These messages don’t have to very elaborate, since you’ve already put a lot of information into your profile. Something along the lines of, “Hey, I saw your profile and it seems like we have some common interests. Take a look at my profile, and if you’re interested, send me a message,” is probably sufficient. You might send messages to several people at once, or you might contact one at a time –- it’s up to each user.

From there, you simply wait. Some people will write back to let you know they’re not interested, while others will simply ignore your message. In some cases, the person you wrote to might not be visiting the site anymore. But a few of your contacts will eventually respond, and other people will start contacting after they see your profile. How long it takes depends on the site and the individual user. Reports from dating-site users range from one who cited a ratio of “about a million to one” contacts to actual dates to another who had two dates almost immediately and is still dating one of them.

Before long, you’ll have e-mailed back and forth with someone you’re interested in meeting face to face. In the next section, we’ll plan a date for maximum safety and success.

The amount of time between that first e-mail and a first in-person date varies from person to person. That’s one of the benefits of online dating –- you can take your time if you want to and really get to know someone well before you ever meet. Or you can plan a date right away and find out if there’s any chemistry. Either way, it’s important to keep safety in mind, along with a few other things to make sure your first date goes smoothly.

It’s important to talk to your date on the phone before you meet. Even if you’ve been conversing via e-mail for weeks, just one call can avoid a lot of problems. If the blonde, 24-year-old, female swimsuit model you’ve been writing to turns out to be a 13-year-old boy playing a joke, a phone call is a good way to find out.

Once it comes time to plan the actual date, choose a neutral, public setting and arrive there independently. There are some dangerous people in the world, and even though they may be thankfully rare, it’s still not a good idea to take a long hike into an isolated area with someone you don't know. Going to someone’s house can be risky, too, for both men and women. In one case, a man went to meet a women he met online, and when he arrived, she pulled a knife and took his wallet.

Specific suggestions include a coffee shop, a busy restaurant, a college sports game or a movie theater. The key is to make sure there will be plenty of other people around. Make sure you let someone know where you’ll be going and what time you plan to return. A little caution never hurt anybody.

Of course, the vast majority of dates will turn out to be perfectly normal, safe people. However, quite a few of them can be boring, annoying or just plain unattractive. For this reason, plan for a short first date. Dinner or a few cups of coffee won’t take more than an hour or so, so even the worst date will be over soon enough. If all goes well, you can plan for more lengthy dates in the future.

Next, we’ll see how online dating sites put people together.

Online Dating: The Science of Matchmaking

What makes someone a "97% match"?
What makes someone a "97% match"?

Once you’ve filled out a profile, online dating sites will provide a list of matches -- people they think you are compatible with. How do they decide who matches up with who?

Sometimes, the process is very simple. Each profile has a list of attributes or interests that members check off. The more matching attributes that two profiles have, the higher “match percentage” the site will assign to it. Some sites, like match.com, allow users to specify how important each attribute is. Each matching attribute is assigned a different weight depending on how important it is to the user. For example, if you prefer blondes, but really have nothing against brunettes and redheads, then you can rank that attribute as very low. If it’s very important to you that your date has a college degree, you can rank that very high. Then the site will match you with highly educated brunette sooner than a blonde who didn't finish high school.

Some sites use very complex personality surveys and mathematical algorithms to match partners. Online matchmaking site eharmony.com uses “29 key dimensions that help predict compatibility and the potential for relationship success.” Their system was developed by Dr. Neil Clark Warren, who studied thousands of marriages to develop his “predictive model of compatibility.”

Do such scientific methods work? Obviously, the dating sites claim they do. However, scientific personality tests completed with the guidance of a trained researcher do not have 100 percent accuracy (it’s closer to 75 percent). And when you’re sitting alone in your living room filling out a personality profile on a Web site, there is an even greater chance that the resulting matches will not be perfect. When you multiply the chance for inaccuracy by the number of users on a given dating site, complicated matching systems are probably not working much better than basic attribute-and-interest matching.

Fortunately, the main advantage of online dating is that it gives each user control over who they contact and with whom they subsequently communicate. It might take more work than relying on the site's matching system, but browsing through profiles yourself may ultimately be the best way to find the right person.

Specific facts and figures for online dating are hard to come by. For obvious reasons, each individual site tends to inflate membership numbers and success rates in its promotional materials. There are close to 100 million single adults in the United States alone. Of those, 40 million use online dating services [ref]. FriendFinder.com claims over 11 million members. Eharmony.com claims responsibility for more than 9,000 marriages.

On the other hand, there are those who think the online dating industry may have reached its saturation point. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, consumer spending on these sites declined slightly in the fourth quarter of 2004, indicating that growth for online dating sites may be stagnant.

While some of the numbers may be fuzzy, one thing is certain –- the use of online dating services continues in huge numbers. According to Online Media Daily, consumer spending on personals and dating sites rose by 8 percent in the first half of 2005, topping $245 million.

For more information on online dating and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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