Online dating under the covers: How Joe got the girl

The story of how Joe found the woman of his dreams leads my feature this week on the technology behind online dating sites. Joe, a 34-year-old aerospace engineer, put his faith in the science of online matching. He used eHarmony, which has one of the most extensive online questionnaires and one of the most controlled matching processes of all online dating sites.

But the feature doesn't tell the details of the process. Here's how Joe found Ms. Right, in 10 not-so-easy steps:

  • STEP 1: Joe signed on and filled out the profile. To participate, he had to fill out a 400-question demographic and psychological profile questionnaire. Thoughtful responses are the key to success, he says. "Honesty really is what makes the filtering work," he says. To that end, he not only tried to be extremely honest, but had two friends review his answers. eHarmony then scored the profile and used proprietary algorithms to identify matches which were sent out to him in small batches.
  • STEP 2: After receiving his first group of matches, Joe reviewed them, found someone of interest and sent a request to initiate communication. The subject either accepted or declined the invitation.
  • STEP 3: If both parties agreed to communicate, Joe selected three canned questions (from a list of about 40) to send to the subject. Each question included four possible answers.
  • STEP 4: The recipient responded with any of the generic answers, could answer her own way - or could end the communication at that point.
  • STEP 5: After receiving a response, Joe had to decide whether to end communication or continue with another question.
  • STEP 6: Once all questions were answered, the process reversed. The woman either selected three questions or could create up to three of her own to send them, one at a time, to Joe, who would then answer.
  • STEP 7: If both parties wanted to continue they then opened a line of communication using an eHarmony-hosted messaging function that allows posting back and forth.
  • STEP 8: If all went well, Joe and the prospective date then could choose to speak using the e-Harmony teleconference number. Joe didn't use this. "Most people exchange e-mail addresses during STEP 7, and later phone numbers, he says.
  • STEP 9: Finally! Joe set up an in-person date.
  • STEP 10: Joe repeated the process, circling back at various steps over and over again.

After repeating this process many times over a three-month period last fall, Joe ended up reviewing about 500 potential names. He went through the initial question process with 100, exchanged messages with 50 and went on dates with three. He's now happily engaged in a relationship.

The actions Joe took on the eHarmony site affected the next set of matches that the matching algorithms would produce. "If I initiated or responded to someone who was at the edge or beyond the limit [for age or distance], the next set of matches would be slightly changed to include the expansion," he says. That's how he met his final match, who was outside of the original proximity limit he had set.

Not so fast

While Joe liked the thoroughness of the process, not everyone felt the same. Mary, a 45-year-old executive at an IT consultancy, says she found the process "very frustrating." She likened the experience to a job interview that never ends. "What's frustrating is you go through this and all of sudden he stops chatting. So what happened?" The problem used to be that you gave him your number and he never called back. Now, she says, they just don't message you and you never know what happened. "You would never think about doing this 20 years ago," she adds.

Another problem was that some people simply didn't match her criteria. For example eHarmony served up people who were smokers. Then there were the guys that said they were separated but weren't really. "I met a guy and we dated. He was separated but married and living in the same house [with his wife]. A lot of guys think that something like that is OK. I have been out with a few "separated" guys. That happens quite a bit."

But the biggest issue for Mary were outright liars and cheats she ran across online, especially married men.

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT who is researching how online dating sites can work better, thinks Mary's criticisms are spot on. For more on Ariely's research project on online dating and what he thinks is missing in the mix, jump to the story's conclusion: Do online dating sites work?

The feature is a fascinating tale of how online dating sites mix  science, technology, and a whole lot of marketing. I hope you enjoy it.

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Rob Mitchell's online dating blog

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