RealTime IT News

Online Dating: Can Social Networks Cut In?

By Siobhan Fitzpatrick

Not enough love in your online dating world? If so, you haven’t looked very hard.

From the biggies, such as Match.com, eHarmony, Yahoo Personals, to smaller, niche Web sites like ChristianCafe.com, JDate (for Jewish singles), sites that offer match-ups, hookups and dating prospects are, well, blooming. Even the newer social network sites like MySpace, BlackPlanet, CarDomain, and Zaadz.com offer an opportunity to meet like-minded people.

It's all good for lonely hearts, but is it getting too crowded for dating sites to make money?

"The most significant new issue that large online dating services now face is the adoption of social network sites as de facto, free dating services," said Brian Shuster, founder of Redlightcenter.com, a social network virtual world modeled after Amsterdam's Red Light District (think Secondlife.com but sexed up). "Sites like Match.com have to compete with more targeted services that selectively offer pre-screened matches with a common interest, usually at no charge."

David Evans, author of Online Dating Insider, a popular blog covering the online dating industry since 2002, concurs. "I would say that free dating sites and social networks have hurt the large paid dating sites the most."

Jerry Kaplan, the former CEO of Egghead and founder of Winster.com, a free social network site where singles can meet and play games with other singles, claims social network sites are more inviting to people because they are not focused only on dating. "The problem with dating sites like Match.com is the 'meat market' effect -- everyone knows why you are there and what you are looking for."

Kaplan argued that social networks are better alternatives to traditional dating sites because, just like in the physical world, people meet as a side effect of engaging in other shared activities or interests, like dining, cars or volunteering. "The new generation of social network sites address this issue by offering shared social activities that create a comfortable environment in which to get to know other people without the heavy social pressure," he said.

Playing The Field?

Not everyone who follows the sector agrees on the social network factor. Nate Elliott, a senior analyst for JupiterResearch, said while some people find dates on social network sites, that's not the main reason they spend time there. "It's like going to church or school. You might meet someone there you'll date, but that's not why you go there. People go to dating Web sites to find a date."

That's how it worked for Gary Brown, a 41-year-old technical manager for a Chicago ad agency who met his girlfriend on Nerve.com, a site known for attracting artistic, creative professionals. "If you're looking to meet someone, you're going to go to a dating site, not a social site where there's simply a chance of meeting someone," he told internetnews.com.

Joe Tracy, publisher of the magazine Online Dating, agreed. "I think the threat to traditional dating Web sites is minimum because social network sites are not focused exclusively on dating."

Finding Dates...and Data

But not as many people are doing the online dating dance as in recent years. According to JupiterResearch, 10 percent of the online and available population used dating Web sites in 2006, a 6 percent decline from the year before.

That's just fine for online dating site TRUE, which just came in second as the best dating Web site behind Match.com, according to Top Ten Reviews, an online research company. The firm cited Match.com as the best site so far in 2007, followed by the more racy TRUE in second, and matchmaking site eHarmony.com in third place. Yahoo, which, according to a GMI Poll was the most popular dating Web site in 2006, came in ninth in this survey.

The decline helped spur chatter that Yahoo might sell the personals divison, especially as it reorganizes some of its divisions and renews its focus on its core business lines to compete with the growth of search rival Google. The buzz was only helped by Yahoo's current policy of paying Match.com to power its European Personals.

While there might be some truth to the rumor, said JupiterResearch's Elliott, it is not necessarily so. It's quite possible that executives at the colossal Yahoo have determined that Match.com might do a better job of running its dating site and save Yahoo some money. A Yahoo spokesman did not comment.

As as for the surge in TRUE popularity, Carolyn Creekmore, senior director of media analytics for Nielsen/NetRatings, cautioned that smaller and newer entrants may simply see a greater increase in traffic than the other long standing services because the challengers have a smaller base to grow from.

Joe Tracy of Online Dating magazine attributed TRUE's growth in users, which includes paying and non-paying numbers (14 million, according to TRUE, compared with just over 5 million for eHarmony and 15 million for Match), to its original launch as a free site and "racy" advertising, which includes videos of scantily clad women.

But others, including the reviewers at Top Ten Reviews, cite TRUE's dedication to client safety, with background checks on potential members to make sure they are not married or have a criminal record, as setting it apart from the other dating Web sites. According to a 2005 Pew Internet Research study, 66 percent of Internet users said safety is their main concern with online dating.

Elliott of JupiterResearch doesn't see TRUE's surge in popularity as any serious threat to Match, eHarmony, Yahoo, smaller niche dating sites or social networks for that matter. There are plenty of people interested in online dating for services to go hungry.

"Nearly any dating site can make money if you make it well, if you can keep user level up. It's just a smaller amount of money you'll make. But you'll make money."

Kaplan of the Winster social network agreed. "This is a question of niches. 7-11 isn't going to put Wal-Mart out of business, but for some people, it's a more attractive option," he said. "Like 7-11, we're happy and successful to have a fraction of Match.com sales."

And, like their single-and-looking customers, they are all keeping an eye on the competition.