Online dating: Your profile's long, scary shelf life

Your online dating data can be used to sell you additional services, lure advertisers or bolster a lawsuit against you.

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Most services use this profile data to try to convert customers who are just looking into paying subscribers. But what else can they do with it?

For one, they can try and sell you other products or services from their own company. While Yahoo Personals, Plenty of Fish and PerfectMatch.com all say they eschew this practice, eHarmony uses the business intelligence it has gained about its customers to market related services on four advertiser-supported advice sites, including Project Wedding and Fertile Thoughts. More are planned.

Advertising issues

That same data also can be used by online dating sites that carry advertising to deliver ads or offers for complementary advertiser-supported services that are highly targeted to individuals. "Ultimately, we're looking at hypertargeting individuals to deliver ads that way," says a spokesperson for eHarmony.

Ross Williams, CEO at White Label Dating, which provides business and hosting services to dating sites, says the prospect of offering highly targeted advertising based on detailed demographic, behavioral and psychological data -- and even very detailed profile data such as the color of your hair and that you're balding -- is attractive.

"We know that information. If I have a hair product for men, I don't think there are any places online other than online dating where you can get that [demographic data]," he says. That type of information, Williams says, gives online dating sites a unique competitive opportunity, if they're willing to exploit it.

That raises concerns for Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. He thinks that users who sign up for online dating services may be giving up too much about themselves in the bargain.

"I would be reluctant to provide the level of information they are requesting. You're essentially providing a gold mine of information, both for behavioral and marketing purposes. That information -- on hobbies, interests, religion -- is very valuable information that you are aggregating into one location," he says.

Stephens also notes that it's probably better not to reveal too much about yourself before you meet someone. As with a good resume, an online profile should be a teaser that makes people want to meet you, rather than a detailed biography. "You might want to use a bit of discretion and leave a little bit of mystery there," he says.

Mark Brooks, editor of Online Personals Watch, a newsletter that covers online dating and social networking sites, sees highly targeted marketing as inevitable. He says traditional "interruption marketing" -- rollovers, pop-ups and so forth -- hasn't worked well on Internet dating sites because users don't pay attention to the ads.

Brooks thinks ad-supported sites such as Plenty of Fish (a client of Brooks' consultancy, Courtland Brooks) should leverage compatibility profiles to allow advertisers to target users with highly contextual offers that would be of the most interest to them. "Advertising is an annoyance. The only way it will work is through the power of the friendly referral," he says.

But for now, Plenty of Fish's Frind says the site's current advertising model, which lets advertisers target users based on basic demographic information, is working just fine. He claims that the site has a higher click-through rate than social networking sites and generated about $10 million in ad revenue last year.

As these profile databases continue to scale, the economics of targeted adverting could one day switch the dominant model from subscription-based to advertising-based. "Once you build up a big enough database, advertising becomes quite interesting," Williams says.

Protecting your personal data

Both Stephens and Dixon recommend that users who have concerns about how their data will be used should read the privacy policies of these services before signing up. Sablone suggests inquiring about user account data retention policies as well, which may not be in the privacy policy.

Once you're through using a service, some sites will delete your data if you ask. If you think you'll return to the site, it might be convenient to have your profile waiting. But users who value their privacy may want to ask to have their profiles deleted when they leave.

Plenty of Fish will honor that, says Frind. Vest says True.com will also delete user profiles on request. But Sablone warns that if there's no stated policy or agreement in advance, a customer request to delete data is just that. "It's a request that the company may follow -- or not," he says.

eHarmony has a different policy. "We do not permanently delete account information from our system, but when members ask to close their account, we ensure that their profile information is turned off and not shared with other members unless the member explicitly asks for the account to be reactivated," says a spokesperson.

eHarmony also deletes the user's e-mail account information once the account has been closed. Presumably, you won't be hearing from them again. But that time capsule of data about you remains in the vault forever. And, says Dixon, "that [privacy] policy can change any time the site wants to change it."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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