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Online Dating Startups Drive Matchmaking Makeover

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Online dating has a way of feeling curiously 1.0. While news sites, social networks and even e-commerce websites allow for real-time, multimedia interactions, traditional online matchmakers are comparably low-tech, akin to virtual singles bars where daters wander around wearing boards listing their key characteristics: age, height, an aversion to poodles.

Growing numbers of online dating startups inculcated in the instant, massively connected, majorly interactive spirit of sites like Facebook are doing their best to upend what seems to them too old-fashioned to survive: dating giants relying on static, formulaic platforms that fail to capture the new spirit of online interactivity and the power of the social network. Some of these new services strive to imitate the feel and features of social networks, others integrate technologies like the global positioning system on smartphones, but all are working to make the digital world feel more genuine.

Most of the top sites in the industry today operate on the same basic model that they introduced a decade earlier. Users post their most flattering pictures, add some basic personal information to their profiles and then either wait to be matched by the site or begin to search its database of other single daters. Many sites use algorithmic matching that evaluates users on a set of characteristics and then sets them up based on some formula for potential compatibility. eHarmony, for example, relies on algorithms that tabulate the results of an extensive questionnaire users fill out upon joining. Subscribers cannot see anyone else on the site unless they're matched by the algorithm, relying on the site to send more matches in a timely fashion.

The top sites' formulas need some work, though, some industry observers say. "The bloom is off the rose," said David Evans, a consultant for e-dating companies who edits Online Dating Insider. "Dating sites say everything is okay, but no one wants to admit we're really screwing up right now."

It's hard, of course, to discount a formula that has made the online dating industry worth $4 billion worldwide each year, with top sites pulling in hundreds of millions in revenue, and hosting tens of millions of users, at least some of whom pay for the privilege.

"Match and eHarmony have a sacred cow, and they don't want to mess with it," said Brian Schechter, co-founder of the year-old dating site HowAboutWe. "Match is making over $300 million a year and it's off the same product as four years ago, so there's not so much incentive to try to innovate -- they're too big to be able to evolve into new contexts."

SOCIALIZING

Those looking to get into the dating industry decry sites like Match and eHarmony as outdated goliaths that, having turned a blind eye to innovations in mobile and social networking technologies, can be toppled by more forward-thinking newcomers. These entrepreneurs say the older sites are doomed by their failure to capitalize on the new capabilities of the web and the ways in which they've changed the behavior of the people using it.

Newer sites have already had success integrating dating websites into preexisting social networks like Facebook and MySpace. Take Zoosk, a dating site run like a social network that started as a Facebook app and has exploded. With $90 million in revenue in the past year and more than 5 million unique visitors in December 2010 according to ComScore -- making it second only to Match, ahead of eHarmony and Plentyoffish -- Zoosk's rapid success shows that plenty of people are ready for social dating.

"It's a social experience, not a transaction," Alex Mehr, Zoosk's co-founder and co-chief executive said. "There's a news feed, you can chat with your friends--we took what was working on social networks and specialized that for online dating. It's how the new generation uses sites"

Zoosk is far from the only site to begin embracing a more social model. In fact, many of the newer startups share a mentality that online dating ought to feel less static, and more interactive. DateBuzz lets users vote on the parts of other users' profiles to match them, while Clique uses an invitation-only system that allows users to see connections two to three degrees separated from them. Others integrate information from sites like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and Last.fm to provide some "web 2.0" insight into the character of each user. Some, like Heartbroker, ask friends to provide information that helps the site match users, as well as letting acquaintances give testimonials to help verify the attributes and identities of the daters.

"If you can imagine a real-world analogue to the traditional online sites, it's like going into a room with a two-way mirror and looking at a lineup of people, and then going into another room and having a conversation with a static photo of them," Heartbroker co-founder Craig Robinson said. "It's an awkward thing, it's an unnatural way to interact with people online and that has been highlighted by the rise in social networks."

But industry veterans are more hesitant about the role of social networking in online dating, which itself struggles to convince new users to try an unorthodox approach to handling their personal life. Despite the intensively active, hyper-innovative quality of the contemporary web, online dating sites rely on tactics born in a different era.

"I believe dating is not social networking -- I run OkCupid much more like eBay than Facebook," OkCupid CEO Sam Yagan said. "eBay is about bringing two people who are strangers and getting them to do something together. We want to bring two total strangers together to do something they both want to do."

Elizabeth Wasserman, CEO and co-founder of Mate1.com, a top paid site, went further in explaining the traditionalists' reluctance to make their dating sites as intensely public as Facebook or Twitter.

"If there's one thing you can say about online dating, it's that it's almost the antithesis of social networking -- discreetness, privacy, wanting to meet people you don't already know," she said. "You don't want to keep in touch and you don't want everyone you know to know you're on the site."

Even those who don't agree that dating sites should look like Facebook, however, are still trying to capitalize, to varying degrees, on its brand of social interactivity. Match recently introduced a new feature that lets users "like" and comment on other users' interests. OkCupid, a free site that has tripled revenue and doubled active membership in each of the last two years, benefits from a youthful vibe and a set of social features like blogging, member-created quizzes and chat, giving it some of the feel of a social network in tandem with the algorithmic matching and customized search of older dating sites.

MOBILIZING

Others are looking to mobile apps as the next big advance in online dating. The mobile dating industry was worth over $550 million in 2008 and is predicted to reach $1.3 billion by 2013. Mobile means different things to different people, though: For established sites, "mobile" may just a smartphone-accessible app that makes the site available on the go. For others, it means enhancing dating with the small arsenal of tools that smartphones have made instantaneously accessible, like GPS.

"What we've said is ever since we've launched OkCupid is the mission is to get people out from their computer and out on dates," said Yagan, explaining the paradigm shift. "Now those two things are merging and you can be out on a date and on your computer."

Sites that evolved in the pre-smartphone era are hesitant about mobile apps that involve geolocation, again citing privacy and security concerns. The average age of users on older sites like eHarmony and Match also tends to be closer to 45 than 25, meaning that like the sites they use, the batch of online daters using traditional sites probably didn't come of age in the Internet era. Some people now in their 20s have been cell-reachable since middle school, while older generations still have landlines. And Millennials are veterans of the age of overshare, happily building digital identities to augment their physical ones.

"I am very, very cautious about location-based," said Mandy Ginsberg, general manager of Match.com and Chemistry.com. "People say, 'When I'm shopping in a grocery store with one of my kids, I don't want my match to be shopping in the next aisle. I want to do it on my terms.'"

Still, startups like MeetMoi and StreetSpark are targeting mobile dating with the belief that people are getting accustomed to the rapid pace of smartphone-enabled life and want that speed to translate to their online dating. Instead of setting up a date a week in advance, mobile can plan one for three minutes after a first conversation. Grindr, a popular mobile app used for meeting gay singles, has reached over a million users since its founding only two years ago.

"What we've done is simply allowed you to see the people around you, immediately around you -- that introduces a whole spectrum of new connections that are now possible that were never possible before," said Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai. "At the most simple level it just shows you who's around you. What happens then or after that is really not -- we don't really do much more than that."

THE PEOPLE PROBLEM

Electronic communication no longer feels a step apart from the real world. It is the real world. Like it or not, resistance to cyber-contact has worn down so that GChat, Facebook messaging, and Twitter replies are now just as valid as texts, calls or notes. So why isn't online dating less awkward? There's something almost retro about logging onto a site to let your beautified web avatar send its missives off to other gussied-up people portals. Despite their eager foray into new technologies, startups are still chasing the framework for a new authenticity. Figuring out how to give people an easy way to input a believable facsimile of their fleshly selves into pixels and bytes is a problem not wholly solved by social networks or mobile access: the cyberself is still a 2-D construct.

"I'm amazed at seeing the ways in which people express themselves and build meaning online," said Schechter of HowAboutWe, a site that brings together people based on proposed dates and logs an average user age of 29. "They're rooted between their digital life and their real life--it's an extension and a further form of exploration."

Online dating has the tendency to front-load, letting users set up a profile or fill out a questionnaire at the outset and then spend the rest of their time looking for matches. What it doesn't do -- yet -- is allow for the expressive creativity that social media promotes.

"Everything starts to look the same -- you read the same profiles and the cliches are there because its true," said Melisa Mae, who has been actively online dating for about eight years. "Everybody loves their job, everybody loves their family and their friends, everybody loves the outdoors, blockbusters nights in -- that bores me."

Of course, the Internet now allows people to meet "in person" online via easily, freely-accessible video chat. Most new laptops ship embedded with webcams, once derided as the refuge of heavy-breathers in empty rooms, and many new dating sites offer the opportunity to talk face-to-virtual-face with other users. Speeddate offers users five-minute video chats with as many people as they'd like. While some may fear that success in video communications signals the end of traditional human interaction, anyone who's tried video calling has felt both the remarkable authenticity of the experience as well as the eerie effect of the screen's intermediation.

These tender young startups may be raring to play e-yentas, but before they can get started, they need to solve the same problem any social media venture confronts: community-building. Most startups lack the capital and the user base that established sites draw upon for their success. A dating site can't work if there aren't enough singles on the site. But to draw new users, sites often must rely on advertising to distribute their message -- Match, which saw a 30-percent jump in subscribers last year, increased its advertising budget, introduced a new video campaign and is listed as one of the top advertisers on Facebook. Though some sites, like Zoosk and Badoo, have had viral success leveraging social networks to get signups, especially for new paid sites, there is constant pressure to amass new members.

The desperate need to keep membership up has led dating sites into a number of controversial practices, most infamously the Match.com lawsuit that accused the site of keeping outdated profiles on the site to boost numbers. Startups are not exempt -- new site WooMe was caught by TechCrunch using fake signups to try and make the site seem more attractive to real users.

The kind of outrage that stems from perceived fraud on the part of the dating site can seem intense, but it's reasonable given the industry's product. Sites may not explicitly promise that they can find a user's soulmate, but the implicit suggestion of any website designed to facilitate some dates is that those dates may flower into something more.

"I'm not selling socks or airplane tickets or sweaters," Ginsberg said. "I'm selling the ability to connect and have a meaningful relationship."

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