Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

There's no doubt online dating sites are big business. Unlike personal ads, which were once seen as embarrassing, finding love on the web has become one of the most popular online activities. According to ComScore, online dating sites drew 22.1 million unique visitors in December last year.

And unlike many social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, they actually make money - the top sites bring in hundreds of millions per year, mostly in subscription fees.

These online dating services run on a curious mix of technology, science (some say pseudoscience), alchemy and marketing. Under the covers, they combine large databases with business intelligence, psychological profiling, matching algorithms and a variety of communications technologies to match up lonely singles - and to convert one-time visitors into paying monthly subscribers.

Security is one big challenge for e-dating services, which can attract peadophiles, sexual predators, scammers, spammers and plain old liars - most notably, people who say they're single when in fact they're married. And sticky questions have yet to be answered over what rights such sites have to your personal information - how they use it to market other services to you, if and how they share it with advertisers, and how long they store it after you've moved on.

Finally, there's the biggest question of all - do these tech-driven, algorithm-heavy sites work any better to help people find true love than the local bar or chance encounter in the street?

The business model behind online dating

A well-oiled internet dating machine can generate well in excess of $200m a year in a market that's expected to top $1.049bn in 2009 - only gaming and digital music sites generate higher revenues - and is expected to grow at a rate of 10 percent annually, according to Forrester Research.

Most online dating sites generate the bulk of that revenue from subscriptions, although free, advertising-supported sites are starting to gain some ground.

In fact, Plenty of Fish, a free service, was the second-most-visited online dating site last year, according to website traffic monitoring service Hitwise.

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NEXT PAGE: How dating sites succeed

  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

Most dating sites allow users to sign up and create a profile for free. Before communicating with matches, however, visitors must sign on as a paying member. To succeed, a site needs to do the following:

  • Offer excellent response times - people want instant gratification, so the sites try to give users at least some matches as soon as they've created an account and completed their profiles.
  • Convert at least 10 percent of visitors who register into paying customers - preferably more.
  • Deliver an acceptable range of probable matches and offer a variety of ways to pursue those prospects, including high-tech developments from video chat to photo-realistic avatars.
  • Keep the quality of the prospect pool high by weeding out inactive and misbehaving users and by blocking the 10 percent or more of new accounts every day that are estimated to be scammers, con artists, criminals, sexual predators and other undesirables that can overwhelm a site and drive away paying customers.

The battle isn't over once a service has its inventory in place and has paying customers. The business needs to keep priming the pump to bring on new subscribers because the typical customer - one of the 10 percent who actually pay - stays on less than three months.

But one man's folly is another man's fortune: A large percentage of customers fall off the love wagon after finding their 'one true love'. They keep coming back over and over again, producing a revenue stream that has a very long tail, says Herb Vest, CEO and founder of the dating site True.com.

A perfect match, served up fast

Online dating sites take two basic approaches to provide users with matches.

Online personals services such as Yahoo Personals, which costs $29.99 (£20) for one month, are glorified search engines - big, searchable databases. Users fill out a short profile with checkbox items and short descriptions about themselves.

They then narrow down the search by filtering prospects using criteria such as gender, post code, race, religion, marital status and whether or not a person is a smoker. Users filter through the results themselves, deciding on their own which prospects to pursue.

The 'scientific' matching services, such as eHarmony, which costs $59.95 (£41) for one month, attempt to identify the most compatible matches for the user by asking anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred questions. The services then assemble a personality profile and use that against an algorithm that ranks users within a set of predefined categories; from there, the system produces a list of appropriate matches.

Some sites take a hybrid approach. Match.com, for example, issues recommended picks but also lets customers browse the ‘inventory' for themselves.

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NEXT PAGE: Sophisticated data centres

  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

The technology that powers these dating sites ranges from incredibly simple to incredibly complicated. Unsurprisingly, eHarmony has one of the most sophisticated data centres. Joseph Essas, vice president of technology, says the company stores 4TB of data on some 20 million registered users, each of whom has filled out a 400-question psychological profile (eHarmony's founder is a clinical psychologist).

The company uses proprietary algorithms to score that data against 29 'dimensions of compatibility' - such as values, personality styles, attitudes and interests - and match up customers with the best possible prospects for a long-term relationship.

A giant Oracle 10G database spits out a few preliminary candidates immediately after a user signs up, to prime the pump, but the real matching work happens later, after eHarmony's system scores and matches up answers to hundreds of questions from thousands of users.

The process requires just under one billion calculations that are processed in a giant batch operation each day. These MapReduce operations execute in parallel on hundreds of computers and are orchestrated using software written to the open-source Hadoop software platform.

Once matches are sent to users, the users' actions and outcomes are fed back into the model for the next day's calculations. For example, if a customer clicked on many matches that were at the outset of his or her geographical range - say, 25 miles away - the system would assume distance wasn't a deal-breaker and next offer more matches that were just a bit farther away.

"Our biggest challenge is the amount of data that we have to constantly score, move, apply and serve to people, and that is fluid," Essas says.

To that end, the architecture is designed to scale quickly to meet growth and demand peaks around major holidays. The highest demand comes just before Valentine's Day. "Our demand doubles, if not quadruples," Essas says.

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  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

Online dating site visitors

PerfectMatch.com, which claims to have five million members, uses a matching algorithm, but its psychological test is shorter than that required by eHarmony.

"We wanted to take the basic concept of the Myers-Briggs indicator and apply that to relationships," says founder and CEO Duane Dahl.

The core architecture of the system consists of five front-end web servers and a large, back-end SQL Server database, plus a variety of servers that handle messaging, marketing and other functions. The matching process is immediate.

True.com also offers 'scientific compatibility' matching based on how users answer about 200 questions. The site uses about 200 servers, including a 64 bit, 32 processor Unisys server running Microsoft SQL Server. The matching algorithm's calculations are performed on an array of 64 bit servers that hold a compressed version of the entire multi-terabyte database in memory to facilitate fast matching. "The system can shoot back [matches] with little or no delay," says CEO Vest.

On the other end of the spectrum, Plentyoffish.com's philosophy is to keep it simple. The service focuses on searching and filters: it uses a short questionnaire, and while it does offer some matching capabilities if users want them, CEO Markus Frind says he doesn't promote them - and he is disdainful of the complex matching algorithms offered by some competitors.

The business operates on just three web servers, five messaging servers and five database servers (the entire database is just 200GB in size), yet it serves up 200 billion pages a month to some 12 million users.

"My entire cost is only a few hundred thousand dollars a year," says Frind. The biggest piece isn't the technology, he says, but the bandwidth required to keep traffic to the site flowing smoothly.

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NEXT PAGE: From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'

  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'

When it comes to converting users to paid subscribers, the battle is all uphill in an industry in which more than 90 percent of users never pay a penny. That's where having extensive demographic and psychological data on customers comes in handy.

In fact, online dating sites are so adept at using personal data, potential customers can be forgiven for wondering just who is being ‘matched up' - two strangers bent on true love, or lonely customers and the matchmaking site that needs them.

Yahoo Personals uses all of the information at its disposal to tailor its sales pitch to the user.

"We try to take advantage of what we know about the user and where they are in their level of engagement with the product," says Ellen Perelman, general manager.

Once users sign up for a free account and fill out a short questionnaire, Yahoo uses targeted messaging to push them through a "conversion tunnel".

The messages that users see to persuade them to sign on as paying customers vary depending on the user's profile and his or her behaviour on the site.

Similarly, PerfectMatch.com puts users on different "message tracks" based on their profile and what they're doing on the site at any given time. "Everything you do or don't do triggers a response," says Dahl. "We take the information and do a comparative analysis on the fly to serve up the best possible offers to you based on your profile."

Users who aren't "taking full advantage of the site" - who haven't posted a photo, for example, or have failed to review all their matches - are targeted by the system. "You will get an email message custom to your situation, encouraging you to perform the action needed," Dahl says.

eHarmony, which has the most comprehensive user profiles, may be the most sophisticated in the ways in which it leverages that information. It pulls information - more than a terabyte of data each day - from its Oracle database into high-performance Netezza data warehouse appliances that slice and dice users into behavioural and demographic 'buckets'.

"We use [Netezza] to do a lot of offline calculations to try to understand patterns and business intelligence about user behavior," explains Essas.

Some of that feeds back into the matching process, but it also helps eHarmony persuade users to subscribe to its service.

"Because we know more about them, we can target them much better," says Essas. Messaging is tailored to each user's behaviour on the site - and their personality type.

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NEXT PAGE: Make a high-quality connection

  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

Make a high-quality connection

Once users have paid for a subscription, online dating sites offer different tech-driven options for contacting and getting to know prospective dates, everything from chatrooms to instant messaging, email and even video chat.

eHarmony controls the process by moving users through a series of proscribed communication steps on its website. The idea is to make users of the site comfortable with each other, but sometimes the technology just gets in the way, or backfires, users say.

Mary, an executive for a large IT consultancy, says the process of moving from eHarmony's pre-written questions and responses to online chat to email to telephone can be tedious when what you really want is to meet someone. "You continuously go through this job interview". Then, after all that, people will suddenly cut off communications. "What happened?" she asks.

Video chat is perhaps the most controversial communication method offered, if only because video sessions often take a 'sexual tilt', especially with men, and that drives away the women, says Mark Brooks, editor of Online Personals Watch, a newsletter that covers online dating and social networking sites. Mary explains the situation more plainly: "You go look at their webcam, and they're naked."

Some sites try to police that. True.com, which refers to video chat as 'virtual dating', has staffers who constantly watch banks of security monitors that alternate between the 300 to 700 video chat sessions occurring at any one time. Participants who are breaking the rules may be kicked offline for an hour - or permanently - or staff may 'whisper' a message to them to knock off the deviant behaviour.

Flashing your breasts, showing a weapon or showing your kids will get you a whisper, while showing 'below the belt' body parts or verbal abuse will get you kicked off for an hour. 'Porn site girls', underage users and scammers get the boot.

Perhaps the most innovative communication method is virtual dates in a 3D world. One company, OmniDate, offers an avatar-based virtual dating system that acts as a kind of front-end to existing online dating sites and is developing a new version for rollout later this spring that will use photo-realistic avatars.

So far, few sites have adopted the technology. Frind at Plenty of Fish decided to pass. "At the end of the day, it creates a false sense of reality for people. The point is to meet someone as quickly as possible," he says.

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  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys

Mary, who says she has used most of the major services out there, worries about stalkers and fraudsters when visiting online dating sites - and for good reason.

Stories of negative user experiences associated with online dating sites range from the woman duped into sending $4,500 in emergency funds to a man she thought was stranded in Nigeria, to peadophiles who scan the online dating sites looking for lonely women with kids to the New York woman who was the victim of a romance scam that cost her $100,000.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center's 2007 Internet Crime Report found internet fraud had risen and that online dating fraud was one of the most commonly reported complaints.

Keeping out the riffraff is a big headache for Plenty of Fish. "Ten percent of sign-ups a day are people trying to scam someone - or rude, obnoxious people, or spammers," Frind says, adding that he removes about 2,000 suspicious users from the system daily. The issue is such a large problem that Frind has spent more time writing programs to deal with undesirables than he did creating all of the other elements of the service.

Online dating sites use a variety of approaches to detect suspicious accounts. "These are not the sharpest guys out there. They use the same techniques over and over," says PerfectMatch.com's Dahl. He looks for scammers who set up an account and blast email messages to thousands of people, as well as for certain keywords and phrases that might indicate trouble.

eHarmony has recruited outside help to combat the problem. In addition to in-house tools, Essas says, the company has contracted with Iovation, which offers ReputationManager, a service that gathers information on individuals' illicit activity from online dating and other sites and makes it available to subscribers.

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 percent of applicants, says CEO and founder Vest. True.com is the only major online dating site to run criminal background checks on everyone who subscribes to its service.

Vest says True blocked 80,000 felons from subscribing last year. "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.

"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.

However, a much bigger problem in some user's eye is 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," says one user.

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.

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NEXT PAGE: Do online dating sites work?

  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?

Online dating is hugely popular, so we took a look at how some of the most popular sites work.

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 behavioural 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.

For every success story, there's also online dating users that are less than satisfied. 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."

Meanwhile, another user 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 catalogue," he says.

"The relationship doesn't end once they cancel the subscription," says Perelman at Yahoo Personals. "A high percentage of our users re-subscribe."

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  1. Can you really find the love or your life online?
  2. How dating sites succeed
  3. Sophisticated data centres
  4. Online dating site visitors
  5. From 'just looking' to 'paying customer'
  6. Make a high-quality connection
  7. Weeding out cheats, scammers and married guys
  8. Do online dating sites work?