It’s been over 20 years since Match.com opened up a new way to meet potential dates, and as the years go by, the stigmas about online dating continue to fade. (That’s what happens when one in five relationships and one in six marriages are between people who met online, according to Match.com statistics.)
Think it’s only for young people? According to Pew Research Center, 45-54 year olds are as likely as 18-24 year olds to use online and mobile app dating tools. But unlike the younger set who are at an age when nearly everybody is unmarried, the “mature” demographic has a “thin dating pool”—a limited number of potential partners in their social circles. Online dating is a good way to push those boundaries and meet new people with compatible interests.
Not sure where to start? The market has exploded, with choices that range from the powerhouse Match, to free sites like OkCupid and POF to speciality sites like FarmersOnly and Geek2Geek. Here’s a look at the most widely used sites:
Big picture: Match.com had 12 million multi-platform unique visitors in July 2014, according to industry statistics, well ahead of its competitors. It claims to have nearly 1.8 million subscribers.
How does it work? Users create a profile and add some photos. Match creates a list of users its analytics think are a good match for you, and you can search based on your own criteria. Send private messages or instant messages to users you’re interested in, and when you get a response, take it from there. Match also hosts singles events and offers online dating advice.
The downside: Its parent company, IAC, cross-posts your profile on its other sites, including OkCupid and Chemistry.com. That isn’t clear unless you read the fine print. Your profile also remains active on the site—even if you’re not using it—unless you specifically cancel, deactivate and hide it. (A class action suit—eventually dismissed—claimed the company used inactive profiles to boost its number of users and attract and retain paying members.)
How much does it cost? $23.99/month for a six month membership.
Big picture: POF claims 3.5 people log on daily and that they have 70 million registered users, and 50,000 new users daily.
How does it work? Much like Match, you create a profile and start browsing those of other users, based on your criteria. POF also asks users to take tests measuring things like self-confidence, family orientation and social dependency in order to collect data used to match you with compatible users.
The downside: Because POF is free, some of its users may seem more interested in window shopping, hook-ups or side orders. Your mileage may vary. Profiles remain online until you specifically hide or delete them, and may be used in its promotions and advertising.
How much does it cost? Free, with paid upgrades
Big Picture: Founder Christian Rudder wrote “Cataclysm,” the book on Big Data—human behavior and Internet data collection. (He discovered, for example, the very best day to meet someone online is January 4.) That thinking drives OkCupid.
How does it work? Users create a profile and answer lots of questions about habits, interests, sex and relationship attitudes, among other topics. “We use algorithms, formulas, heuristics — a lot of crazy math stuff to help people connect faster,” the website says. If users don’t answer the questions, they won’t see many matches.
The downside: OkCupid asks some VERY personal questions—which users can answer or avoid, but avoiding questions means fewer matches. Also—answers can appear on profiles, and the site is free to browse, so users with a giant fear of their officemates knowing what sex acts they prefer may be uncomfortable here.
How much does it cost? Free, with paid upgrades
Big picture: eHarmony boasts it is the most trusted online dating site for American singles, and that 438 eHarmony couples get married each day. It was founded by clinical psychologist Dr. Neil Clark Warren, and is geared to those looking for a serious, long-term relationship.
How does it work? eHarmony works on the theory that compatible couples leads to happiness in long-term relationships. Users take a lengthy (436 question) patented compatibility survey that rates them on factors like curiosity, humor, passion and intellect. From there, a handful of compatible matches arrive in the user’s email box each day. No searching. Your answers will be used for further research, though no identifying information is used. (That said, it had a massive data breach in 2012, and users’ private information was at risk.)
The downside: There’s no searching. If you believe opposites attract, this is not be the place for you. Also, if you are outside the norm—say a member of MENSA—you may prove difficult, if not impossible, for them to match.
How much does it cost? $39.95/month for six months (check Groupon for deals)
Big picture: The up-and-comer, howaboutwe was founded in 2010 as a way to get people offline and out doing things with people with similar interests. A TONIGHT app allows subscribers to speed up the process to find a date for that night.
How does it work? Users post date ideas (How about we team up and challenge a couple of strangers to a game of darts?) and check out other date ideas and profiles to find users in their geographic area who like to do the same things. Date suggestions and profiles can be browsed for free, but a subscription is required to connect with other users.
The downside: Meet new people online this morning and go out with them tonight? Introverts—and believers in the 20-minute first date rule—may panic at the thought.
How much does it cost? About $10/month for a six-month membership
Big picture: This dating site focuses exclusively on the 50+ crowd, for those looking for relationships, casual dating or companionship.
How does it work? Similar to Match, although the walk-through for uploading information is tweaked to give a hand to those who might be newish to technology. Users are matched on a compatibility scale based on a personality test.
The downside: Read the fine print; users have criticized the site for downplaying the limited access points of the cheaper membership model, which lets users browse and answer simple questions but not read email.
How much does it cost? $23.99/month, with 6-month $11.99 and $13.99 membership models available.
Avoid online scams
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
Sometimes you read a profile that doesn’t add up and you wonder if it’s a scammer. It may well be. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, between July and December 2014, online daters lost $82 million to scammers claiming romantic intentions. The overwhelming number of victims—82 percent—were women and they lost (on average) more than $100,000 each.
Here are the red flags to look for, adapted from romancescams.org, an online information and advocacy group. Scammers may use one or a combination of these tools:
• The profile and messages use poor or odd English and grammar, inconsistent capitalization, incorrect slang and frequent abbreviations (brb, ru, etc.)
• He/she claims to be an American living or visiting overseas because of family or business matters
• He/she quickly suggests moving off-site, to instant message, text or email
• He/she uses highly romantic and/or sexual language early on
• His/her profile disappears from the site soon after the conversation begins
• He/she wants your address to send you flowers or a present
• He/she follows through, and may shower you with meaningful/romantic gifts for a short spell—which makes you let down your guard. You find yourself “falling” for someone you don’t know, and are hesistant to tell your closest friends or your children because you anticipate their (highly legitimate) questions
• Things happen fast—he/she claims love without having met you in person within a short amount of time (a few days to a few weeks), immediately uses pet names, claims God or destiny brought you together
• He/she ignores questions about his personal life, while claiming a tragic past that left him with no one in the world
• He/she contacts you at odd hours and is difficult to reach. Plans to meet in real life somehow always fall through
• He/she uses language equating love with financial assistance; conversely, the person may lay out a set of dire circumstances in which they need help, and wait for you to take the bait
• He/she may ask the relationship to remain secret until he/she has come to live with you/near you/returned home
Scammers rely on the fact that most victims are too embarrassed to come forward. If you are suspicious, do a little research. Scammers often replicate the photos of lesser known public figures for their profiles—one used Montana’s attorney general. If a Google search of the photo shows up multiple versions of the same image with a variety of screen names on different sites, it’s likely a scam. Google the text of the profile, too—scammers may reuse it on various sites. If you are contacted by a suspicious user, report it to site and block the user.
If you were a victim of an online dating scam, file a complaint with the FBI (yes, that FBI) through its Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
Put your best profile forward
Even people who write for a living get to the “Create a profile now!” page and freeze at the thought of what to write next. It’s personal, it’s revealing and it’s terrifying. Google “online profile tips” (don’t plagiarize them, please!) and you’ll find some great examples—they humble brag, don’t overshare and strike the right balance between their job, their kids and their colony of cats. They seem flirty and fun . . . and make you feel like the Angela Merkel of the dating world—the serious, uptight one who always has to bail out Greece.
Relax. If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage, pour one. We all have at least a slightly warped view of ourselves, and may have no clue what qualities make us most appealing to our friends. So call your bestie for a reality check. Ask them what they’d say to someone they’re setting you up with. Get words down (hint: This is not the LSAT. Your phone has a voice recorder. If it’s easier to talk than type, that’s not cheating.) You just need something—anything—so you can edit, edit, edit.
Once you have something, you can make it better. Here’s what to target:
Paint a picture with words. Instead of saying you love long walks at the beach, say you love to get sand in your toes at sunrise. Love fine dining? Be more specific. “I love to savor the last drops of a fine Cabernet over a good meal and a starched white tablecloth.”
Accent the positive. Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, once wrote, “you can call a spade a spade, but you don’t have to call it a (poop)-shovel.” A long list of even the worthiest “don’ts” (cheat, smoke, drink to excess, do drugs) still make you sound negative. Focus on the healthy aspects of those choices: “I am as faithful as a Golden Retriever, like to hike and paddle and enjoy a Guinness or two at the local pub.”
Don’t overshare. Relationship therapists say it takes two years to get to know someone. While honesty is the bedrock of a relationship, your potential dates don’t need to know about your deadbeat ex, 26 years of celibacy, workaholic tendencies or litter box-filled living room before they’ve even met you. Or even over your first coffee. To resist the urge, remind yourself oversharing gives scammers more to feed on. A little mystery never hurts.
Finally, come up with a clever headline. Think of the words in your profile that best describe you and Google that + “idioms” or “memes” for ideas. Brainstorm 10—those will be the tired, overused ones—and use No. 11.
All the cute, flirty words in the world won’t save a bad photo. Like it or not, online dating is a visual medium and good profile photos = more dates. Here are the quick tips:
1. Use recent photos. At first sight, your date shouldn’t have to guess if the person talking to the Barista at Starbucks is the person from Match.com. Change your photos seasonally—winter photos in summer might make someone wonder if you don’t want to be seen in fewer clothes.
2. Full length. Include at least one (clothed) full-body shot, so your body type is clear. Remember the adage, “A butt for every chair.” There really are people who prefer someone carrying a few extra pounds to a date with rock-hard abs who spends 20 hours a day in a gym and will only consume kale and protein powder shakes.
3. Smile. Selfies are acceptable, so long as you are smiling. Resist the urge to duckface.
4. Ditch the mirror in the bathroom. It’s there so you can see the spinach in your teeth. It is NOT there to hold up a camera and take a photo of yourself. (Why men? Why?) If you don’t want to ask a friend to take a photo for you, buy a selfie stick.
5. Men—one word: Shirts. While not scientifically proven, there is compelling evidence men who post shirtless profile pics are more likely to send unsolicited, explicit photographs. At least, this is what potential partners will think, for better or worse.
6. Group shots. Don’t awkwardly crop out a former date or family member, or scribble marker over their face—it seems hostile and weird. If you post three or more photos (three to five is a good number, more than that and you seem self-obsessed) one group shot is OK, but only if it’s clear which one is you.
7. Pets. You and your dog is OK. You and your cat(s), rat or reptile, not so much. It’s discriminatory, but the stigma is real.