1. “Finding a soul mate can cost you.”
As the data breach of the adultery website, AshleyMadison.com, has shown, online dating doesn’t come cheap — in terms of monthly fees and, in extreme cases, public embarrassment and lawyer’s fees in divorce court. Hackers alleged late Tuesday that they had dumped account details and log-in information of around 32 million users of the website, revealing millions of street addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and credit-card details. Avid Life Media called it “an act of criminality.” Many people are looking for love online, and some — even those who are already married — are looking for hook-ups, but even those who are looking for love should be aware of what lies ahead.
Nobody said it was easy. Roughly 30 million unique users, or about 10% of the U.S. population, visit dating sites every month, according to market researcher Nielsen. And many of them pay a hefty sum for that chance to meet their perfect match. At the two biggest subscription-based sites in the U.S., Match.com ($42 a month) and eHarmony ($60 a month), users can save by signing on for, say, a six-month bundle ($24 per month and $40 per month, respectively). And some sites, like PlentyofFish.com and OkCupid, offer basic membership for free. But most subscription sites automatically renew until the customer cancels, and those fees can add up.
Indeed, for online purveyors of love, business is booming. While people used to meet mostly through friends, says Reuben J. Thomas, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mexico, “that’s been sharply on the decline since the advent of the Internet.” The dating industry is now worth about $2.4 billion, with revenue split between advertising and subscription services, up revenue up around 5% per year, according to a report by research firm IBISWorld. Of that, around $1.1 billion is from online dating, $576 million is from mobile apps such as Grindr and Tinder, and the rest is made up mainly of matchmakers and singles events.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that as the popularity of online dating has risen, so have prices. A decade ago, many sites were free or had minimal fees of around $20 a month. (Match.com charged $9.95 per month when it launched in 1995.) eHarmony, launched in 2000 and marketed toward people seeking long-term relationships, blazed a trail with its prices, charging some of the highest in the industry, says Mark Brooks, a dating-industry analyst and the editor of Online Personals Watch.
Of course, there was a business reason for charging low rates in the early days, some experts say: Sites needed to stock the sea of love with fish. The faster they attracted users, the more useful the sites would be, Brooks says. And paying fees, he says, can have an upside: People may be more likely to actually use a site if they pay for it.
2. “Everyone is single sooner or later.”
Not so long ago, if a couple met online, they’d accidentally on purpose fail to mention it in their wedding speeches. Nowadays? Online dating is not only mainstream, but the fastest-growing segment is baby boomers, experts say. In fact, 16% of online daters are over 50, according to IBISWorld. Two years ago, the advocacy group AARP launched its own online dating service, AARP Dating, powered by dating site HowAboutWe.com. It’s a good fit, says Brooks, the online dating consultant, especially given that 25% of AARP’s 37 million members are single.
Another site, OurTime.com (a subsidiary of InterActiveCorp, which also runs Match.com and OkCupid) also targets members in the 50-plus age category.
A number of dating apps have emerged in Asia that aim to offer something for users who aren’t quite ready for marriage but aren’t interested in casual hookups.
Compared with the general population, baby boomers are more likely to be single, divorced or widowed, studies show. One in three single baby boomers has never even been married, according to a 2012 survey by Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research in Ohio. And while the overall divorce rate in the U.S. has declined slightly in recent years, the so-called gray divorce rate has risen sharply — from just one in 10 people over the age of 50 in 1990, to around one in four in 2009 — according to research by sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University.
Of course, people over 50 aren’t the only growth market being targeted by online dating companies. Those who face a smaller market for potential partners and may not have bars or social groups where they can meet potential partners in their areas — like gay men, lesbians and middle-aged heterosexuals — are generally more likely to turn to the Internet, says Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University.
3. “Cupid’s arrow often misses.”
When they met on Match.com, he was a real hoot. In real life? Not so much. Sharon Rosenblatt, an IT consultant in Washington, D.C., decided to go on a date with one of the men recommended to her by the site’s algorithms. During their meal, she says, he asked her whether it was too late to call a woman he dated two weeks prior. He then “friended” her on Facebook during dinner and, before the check arrived, asked, “Why couldn’t you have hooked me up with your hotter friends?”
Dating sites pride themselves on the wizardry of their algorithms, but even the most sophisticated dating site can’t always screen for jerks. “It’s very early in the online dating industry,” says Dan Slater, author of “Love in the Time of Algorithms: What Technology Does to Meeting and Mating.” Sites have gotten better at cross-referencing what people say and do, “but there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he says.
Match.com says the site does its best to suggest people based on the information they supply. The site cross-references users’ preferences and also tracks what profiles they click on, in an effort to ensure that their online habits jibe with their stated preferences. eHarmony, in turn, says its team of data scientists and psychologists look at multiple “points of compatibility” between applicants. Prospective members fill out psychological tests based on categories like emotional status, character, self-perception and conflict resolution.
The sites also point to the tools they’ve introduced in an effort to improve results: In one Match.com feature, for instance, a multiple choice question like “When it comes to style, I like a man who dresses like this” is followed up with a list of photographs of men with various styles. Other questions let members choose from a range of voices and photographs of celebrities.
4. “So many liars, so little time.”
Over half of U.S. online daters lie on their profiles, according to a survey global research company Opinion Matters commissioned by BeautifulPeople.com, a dating website where members vote on whether (or not) to accept new members. U.S. online daters lie more than their U.K. counterparts by a difference of 9 percentage points (53% versus 44%), the survey found. “There’s more emphasis on celebrity culture and being successful in the U.S.,” says Greg Hodge, managing director of the site.
This is supported by other studies. More than half of online daters (54%) said dates have “seriously misrepresented” themselves in their profiles, according to a 2013 study by the nonprofit Pew Research Center’s “Internet & American Life Project.” Men will typically add one to two inches in height, while women will shave 10 pounds off their weight, Slater says. Tinder went on a Twitter rant earlier this month against Vanity Fair magazine over a provocatively entitled article, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.’” Nancy Jo Sales, the author, tweeted data by market research firm GlobalWebIndex, which alleged that 30% of all Tinder users are married. GlobalWebIndex said that figure is actually 34% of global Tinder users, while Tinder said its own survey of 265,000 users found that only 1.7% of its users were married.
Short of scanning each member’s driver’s license and cross-checking their height and date of birth, there’s not a lot that dating sites can do about the honesty of their members, experts say. “Bad data in means bad data out,” says Amy Webb, author of “Data, a Love Story: How I Gamed Dating to Meet My Match.” But the truth will out: Webb says online suitors should expect their dates to be a little taller or shorter than stated in their profile. And if people appear older when they’re sitting under the bright lights of Starbucks? Well, it’s probably because they are.
On the plus side, people who lie online tend be people-pleasers and very self-aware, says Jeffrey A. Hall, associate professor of communications at the University of Kansas. Most people looking for love probably lie about something, he says. His estimate? “Closer to 80%, but not all lies are created equal when it comes to consequences.” If a person takes a year or two off his age and 10 pounds off his weight, he says, most people wouldn’t even notice.
5. “And you thought Facebook was nosy.”
Perhaps because of the big potential payoff and veil of anonymity, singletons online seem eager to overshare. eHarmony says it asks users as many as 147 questions, to increase the client’s chances of meeting someone with a compatible world view and personality. And OkCupid offers up to 4,000 questions at any given time, addressing an array of topics, from sexual proclivities to philosophy. Last year, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder admitted that the site has analyzed user data. “Guess what everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work,” he wrote in a blog post. Of course, the more people learn about each other before that fateful first date, the better, author Slater says. “But nothing is free,” he says, “you’re giving them a ton of data.”
For their part, the sites say they don’t sell data to third parties. Instead, they use the data to improve matches, and to attract more users. “We realize the value of our database,” says Noel Biderman, CEO of Ashley Madison, a site with more than 15.5 million U.S. members that’s geared toward prospective extramarital affairs. (Biderman spoke to MarketWatch before the hack of the site.) The site’s database is a rich source for surveys, which are picked up by websites, magazines and newspapers, producing free publicity for the site. One recent survey, for instance, revealed that IT and engineering workers accounted for 11% of members and, as such, were judged to be the most likely to cheat on their spouses. The financial industry ranked No. 2., with over 8%.
6. “This place is a hotbed of adulterers.”
While most sites don’t promote infidelity, some make it easy. Sites like DiscreetAdventures.com, MarriedSecrets.com and AshleyMadison.com cater to married men and women. Biderman founded the latter in 2001. He says got the idea from every other major dating site: “They were overrun with married men,” he says.
Facebook enables users to list their relationship status as single, and “friend” high school sweethearts and scroll through other people’s “friends” lists. A study published in the July 2014 issue of the journal “Computers in Human Behavior” says increased use of Facebook is “positively correlated” with rising divorce rates during the same time period even when adjusting for economic and socio-demographic factors that might affect divorce rates. “Although it may seem surprising that a Facebook profile, a relatively small factor compared with other drivers of human behavior, could have a significant statistical relationship with divorce rates and marital satisfaction, it nonetheless seems to be the case,” the study concluded. A spokesman for Facebook says it’s “ludicrous” to suggest that Facebook leads to divorce.
Why the uptick in online affairs? Biderman — who says he is a happily married and also operates other sites, including CougarLife.com, for older women dating younger men, and EstablishedMen.com, “in the sugar daddy space” — says Ashley Madison took off in 2007, just before the U.S. financial crisis. It now claims 37 million members in 45 countries. “Challenging economic times lead to more marital discord,” he says. This theory appears to be supported by recent research. A December 2012 survey by Relate, a U.K.-based relationship advice charity, found that 38% of people say financial worries had led to more arguments and stress in their relationship.
Biderman says he merely facilitates infidelity and doesn’t encourage it. While sites like his may put temptation in people’s path, some experts say, the marriage and divorce rate has been unaffected by the Internet. “It does make it easier to cheat,” Reuben says, “but online dating makes it easier to fall in love and get married.” In fact, when people use these sites to cheat, they often leave an online trail, he says, “so it may even make it easier for people to get caught.”
7. “Don’t judge a person by his photo.”
Once upon a time, the most common online dating sin was featuring a photo of your younger self. But tech-savvy daters have long since discovered the power of Photoshop, and plenty of apps (such as Instagram) and software (such as Portrait Professional) now make retouching a snap even for Luddites. The trouble with modifying your image, of course, is that “your date is not going to have an Instagram filter over his glasses, and that’s going to cause problems,” Webb says.
What’s more, some bachelors and bachelorettes don’t even use their own photos. Spare a thought for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who in 2013 said he was duped into developing a relationship with someone calling themselves Lennay Kekua, who contacted him over Twitter with a fake photo. Te’o had spoken to the media about his grief over Kekua’s supposed death in a car accident after battling leukemia. A new dating app, The Grade aims to help people rate their profile picture, messages and overall profile on a scale from A to F based on profile quality, responsiveness and message quality available for everyone to see. Photos with tattoos and eyeglasses were among the lowest rated for women and hat wearers were among the lowest rated photos for men. Understandably, many people are not professional media personalities and often fall on the first hurdle when dating online – by posting an unflattering or inappropriate photo of themselves.
Attracting suitors doesn’t require you to be an expert in photography (or Photoshop), say pundits. Some tips: “Men like it when a woman is looking into the camera, as a man wants to believe that a woman is focused on them exclusively,” says Slater, the author. Men who stare into the lens, on the other hand, should take care not to appear intimidating, he says. Clothes (and keeping them on) can also help the click rate for the lovelorn. Men over 30 might refrain from taking their shirt off unless they keep their body in good shape, or from wearing clothes that might look better on someone 10 years younger, Slater says. Fellow author Webb agrees that clothes can make the date. “The photos I wound up using in my profile were what I would look like if I went out with somebody on a date,” she says. In her earlier online dating efforts, she had posted a picture of herself wearing a work suit, which she says was a mistake.
8. “Keep a close eye on your wallet.”
Singles are a prime target for con artists, experts say. Consumers lost $80 million to romance scams in 2013, up from $50 million in 2011, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. All the big sites offer similar advice to members: Never wire money, don’t give out your home address, and always meet in a public place. Online robots posing as potential matches may also lure singletons to click on malware links, experts warn.
On newer, smaller sites, as many as one in 10 profiles could be fake, according to Brooks, the dating consultant. “It’s a huge problem for all dating sites,” he says. “Scammers come in droves, and they’re very aggressive.” He advises talking to someone on the phone before meeting — as he says you can tell a lot from a person’s voice and the quality of the conversation — rather than going into a date completely blind.
That’s not always enough. After a date arranged on Match.com in 2011 resulted in a sexual assault, the site agreed to begin screening members against public sex offender registries, a Match.com spokeswoman says. “We’re very proud that our case helped pave the road for a safer online dating experience for women,” says Mark Webb, the lawyer who represented the prosecution in the case. Match.com says that Match’s 200 customer service agents “read through every single profile and approve every picture” looking for inappropriate content like sexually explicit language or pictures, or any signs of criminal behavior such as illegal drug use.
Rival eHarmony says it also performs screens for sex offenders, and has since 2009. But experts point out that free sites may not be able to do so, because they don’t collect members’ real names through their credit card. When you meet someone online, “assume the same thing as if they approached you at the bar,” says Sam Yagan, co-founder and CEO of Match.com.
9. “Your great personality won’t get you far.”
If scrolling (past) photos on Tinder and Grindr wasn’t brutal enough, BeautifulPeople.com from time-to-time hosts a series of social events across the U.S. for members and, in keeping with the site’s virtual door policy, installs “door judges” to make sure everyone who gets in is attractive. “It can be hard turning hopefuls away,” says Hodge, the site’s managing director, “but it’s the nature of the beast.” Indeed, experts say this is exactly what most online daters do every time they log on, without a second thought.
Some sites go so far as to remove faces from the equation altogether. Location-based mobile dating site Grindr, for instance, which has 1.8 million daily users, frequently offers up a roll call of headless torsos. Your next date could be 10 feet away, standing in the next line at the grocery store, or 50 feet away in the shop (or hotel) around the corner, and you’d never recognize them. On the one hand, experts say, such sites encourage singles to take care of themselves physically. On the other, they subject users to more of an objectifying experience than a romantic one. “There’s a fine line between what constitutes flirting and quickly finding a short-term sexual partner,” Hall says.
Nonetheless, on-the-go dating seems to be a hit. Mobile dating revenue is expected to nearly double over the next several years, although it still makes up just 26% of total (online and offline) dating industry. Mobile dating on Match.com’s and OkCupid’s apps account for over half of all users. In the meantime, some sites realize that there’s fatigue among members. The app does away with most of the complex matchmaking by encouraging people to trust in serendipity and take a chance on a first date.
10. “Endless love — or endless chat?”
Many online daters are voyeurs and just “pick and click” — that is, browse and chat. The endless supply of fresh faces, and the modern worker’s lack of leisure time, combine to make it difficult for people to ever actually go out on a date, says Hall, of the University of Kansas. Spending a lot of time to meet Mr. or Ms. Right “decreases your chance of ever doing so,” he says. Answering questions and looking at prospects for hour upon hour, he adds, “is not conducive to forming a good match, and it’s not exactly a productive use of your time.”
Other studies point out their success rates: Around one-third of American marriages now begin online. And those marriages are less likely to break down and are associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction rates than those of couples who met offline, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Of couples who got together online, 5.9% broke up, versus 7.6% of those who met offline, the study found.
Users, meanwhile, typically stick to a site for three months before moving on, says Brooks, the dating-industry analyst. But then roughly one-fifth of members on the big sites return within 18 months, he says. (Whether returning clients’ first effort failed or they’ve recommitted to the search is unclear.)
Last year, Andrew Sink, 26, moved to Richmond, Va. from Sarasota, Fla. and wanted to meet friends to show him around. He also wanted to test out his robotic invention — a mechanical finger that held a conductive pen. He called it the “Tinder-O-Matic,” which “likes” a new profile every 4 seconds, or 900 likes an hour. In 12 hours, it will “like” over 10,000 profiles. Around 550 girls liked him back. He received about 70 messages from girls within a 100-mile radius, but he only replied to one girl who worked in engineering. But, he says, he was 100% upfront to the women who “liked” him back.