Hope (For Love Online) Springs Eternal

Love, romance and all their expectations spring eternal online, if recent research about online dating is any indication. But privacy and security concerns are in bloom, too.

Despite the growth of online dating sites, privacy concerns are at the forefront of daters’ minds.

According to a new Pew Internet & American Life Project report, 37 percent, or about 4 million people, of single Internet users who said they were “currently looking to meet a romantic partner” have used an online dating site.

The survey also reports that approximately one in three American adults said they knew someone who had looked for love online, and 15 percent said they knew someone who had either been in a long-term relationship or married someone he or she met online.

With 89 million American singles, clearly there’s a lot of room for growth in the online dating market.

But one of the biggest stumbling blocks to online dating is a concern over privacy and security. Of those Pew surveyed, 66 percent share this sentiment.

Mary Madden, Pew Research specialist and co-author of the report, said daters don’t overwhelmingly see the sites as a more efficient or easier way to meet people.

“I think that speaks to the nature of relationships,” she said. Although this technology is providing more of a sense of control and opening up the playing fields, it’s still complicated.

“It’s still messy to go through the process of meeting someone online and screening them,” she added, noting that you need decent writing skills to create an attractive profile as well as the ability to post a photo online.

Despite those concerns, online dating is alive and well, though not as popular as it was during the dot-com boom. According to JupiterResearch, some 11 percent of Internet users say they have posted a personal profile online at one time.

Senior Analyst David Card attributes the success of online dating to the growth of the Internet. Back in the mid-1990s, you had all of these 20- and 30-somethings working in the online industry. So looking for someone online made sense.

“It wasn’t embarrassing anymore,” said Card. “Everybody knew somebody who found somebody online. The revenue growth of the business was explosive in those days. It’s slowed considerably since then, though, because the first few waves of adopters have been tapped.” (JupiterResearch and internetnews.com are owned by Jupitermedia.)

There’s also a lot more competition. While Match.com is the industry leader, eHarmony, Yahoo and Spark Networks are in hot pursuit, with new niche dating sites for vegetarians, conservatives, wine lovers and everything else you can think of popping up to challenge or supplement them all the time.

To stay competitive, the larger sites are offering new services to customers, such as Match’s “MindFindBind with Dr. Phil.” Match.com also recently announced that it was launching Chemistry.com, which will go head to head (or heart to heart) with eHarmony.

And to quell any potential safety issues, Match.com posts a list of Online Dating Safety Tips.

While an overwhelming majority of people who have used online dating sites expressed satisfaction, according to Pew, even more, some 74 percent (of single and “looking” Internet users), have used other forms of Internet-related activities to further their romantic pursuits

“We’re not finding that people are moving all of their dating efforts online, but they’re doing a wide array of dating-related activities online, like Googling their date before they meet them,” as well as e-mailing and instant messaging prospective dates, notes Madden.

“From a business perspective this tells us that online daters are generally happy with what they’ve got, but it may take some additional promotion of safety and privacy features by the services to get at those people who have those concerns.”

Love may not be a science, but it certainly is a thriving business.

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