Online dating: The technology behind the attraction

Ever wonder what powers eHarmony, Plenty of Fish, True.com and PerfectMatch.com? We peek under the covers at online dating sites.

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True.com takes a broad-brush approach to security by blocking users with IP addresses associated with specific countries, such as Nigeria. Such steps immediately filter out about 10% of applicants, says CEO and founder Vest. eHarmony flags certain IP addresses, but Essas says it doesn't do wholesale blocking because many of its clients travel.

True.com is the only major online dating site to run criminal background checks on everyone who subscribes to its service -- a fact that it trumpets in its marketing messages. Vest says True blocked 80,000 felons from subscribing last year -- about 5% of total requests. "Our view is to do more than anyone else is doing and make it so hard on the scammers that it's easier for them to go elsewhere," he says.

Other sites have been hesitant to embrace background checks. "Scammers use stolen credit cards all the time, so what good is a background check [on a stolen identity]? It's more of a [marketing] gimmick than anything," says Plenty of Fish's Frind.

Dahl doesn't think background checks are reliable. "There are hundreds of law enforcement databases that aren't communicating with each other," he says, adding that PerfectMatch does offer its users the option to buy background checks using a third-party service.

Users like Mary and "Michelle," a 45-year-old scientist who asked that her real name not be used, liked the idea of background checks. But a much bigger problem in their eyes was meeting "single" men on dating sites who turned out to be married. "There's supposedly a screening process. That's why you pay the extra money," Michelle says.

Vest understands the problem but says technology can't help. "We tried to screen for married people and it got to be almost impossible," he says. True.com dropped the practice last June.

Do online dating sites work?

While they may be helpful as an introduction service, the jury is out on how effective they are at creating better long-term matches.

eHarmony and other online dating sites have their own studies and success stories about the services, but no independent research has been completed that demonstrates the effectiveness of online dating services.

Do the matching algorithms produce better matches that lead to long-term relationships? Dan Ariely doesn't think so. "The sites are claiming a lot, but show no evidence of doing anything useful in terms of matches," says Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT who is researching ways in which online dating sites can do a better job.

Ariely hasn't examined how well those proprietary matching algorithms work, since eHarmony and other sites won't release the details. But he suspects that they're not very effective. "My unsupported guess is that their algorithms are placebos," he says.

His suggestions focus on providing more meaningful information -- more along the lines of what people typically exchange when they meet, such as the books they like to read and who their friends are. He also advocates virtual games as a way for people to get to know one another better.

Joe, the aerospace engineer who's now happily in a relationship, thinks people get out of online dating services what they put into them. While he was reluctant to consider online dating at first -- he says he was "bullied into" using eHarmony by friends and family -- he says the service worked well. "Most of the matches -- maybe 80% -- were pretty close to what I was interested in."

The key, he says, is being honest when filing out the profiles. "Honesty really is what makes the filtering work," he says. To that end, he not only tried to be honest with himself, but recruited two friends to review his answers. He says the service pushed him to consider people just outside the boundaries he had set for criteria such as age and distance. "I'm not sure we would be dating if I hadn't been matched up with her," he says of his new girlfriend, who was located outside of his initial distance limit.

Others have had less luck. Jake, a 56-year-old writer and editor, has used many of the free services online. He is still single, and his expectations aren't high. "I don't expect miracles from these sites, but they do increase the number of interactions I have, and that's all I'm looking for."

Michelle has all but given up. Online personals helped her meet people who were at least looking themselves for someone, but the quality of the matches -- and the number of married men on the sites -- left her turned off on the experience.

Ariely sees that situation as a tragedy. "This is a market that needs a lot of help -- people are single and want to find a match -- but the sites are not really helping solve this problem. They just provide a list of other people, somewhat like a catalog," he says.

While Joe met a girlfriend on eHarmony who is "pretty much everything I could hope for in a woman," he's still hedging his bets. "It has only been a few months," he says. "I'm interested to see if it will last."

If it doesn't, he'll be back in the game -- and the dating sites will be waiting for him. "The relationship doesn't end once they cancel the subscription," says Perelman at Yahoo Personals. "A high percentage of our users resubscribe."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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