Love at First Byte: The Magic of Online Dating
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The Fiscal Times
February 12, 2011

Mail order brides, arranged nuptials, and matchmaker marriages are among the time-honored mating services people have used from the very beginning of the human experience — think Adam and Eve, a match made in ‘heaven.’  Those early unions joined not just the bride and groom, but two families who would often benefit from an infusion of cold hard drachmas, more land or an extra goat or two.  In short, matchmaking was a business.

Fast forward to the U. S. in 2011 where matchmaking has evolved into an Internet love fest and where the modern search for a mate often begins and ends on the web.  With 43 percent of the 18-and-over population single, browsing dating sites, checking out thousands of pictures and profiles, and evaluating who has the criteria and winning smile to make the cut is the new form of courtship. Actively seeking a mate on line used to be a no-no for young, hip daters. 

Today, it’s not only socially acceptable, it’s often the only way to find an eligible partner.  The result:  companies that function as online cupids have been thriving in spite of the great recession (or in part, because of it). “Fifteen years ago, somebody who used a dating service, let alone an online dating service, was regarded as somebody who had three heads,” said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and chief scientific advisor to Chemistry.com, the sister site of Match.com, which pioneered online dating in 1995. “Now we all know somebody who has been on one.”

Online Dating, by the Numbers
In 2006, one in 10 American Internet users said they or someone they know had visited an online dating site.  Today, that percentage has tripled according to the Pew Research Center. The global dating and matchmaking industry as a whole will generate about $4 billion in 2011, of which about $1.135 billion will flow from the approximately 1,400 U.S. dating websites, said Caitlin Moldvay, a dating research industry analyst at Ibis World.

“There is no market cycle to love.  Love is never out of style,” said Sam Yagan, CEO of OkCupid.com, an industry leader among free dating sites, which was acquired for $50 million last week by Match.com — the longtime online dating industry leader which charges $30-$60 per month in membership fees.  Yagan says the recession may have helped his business grow since during tough times, human beings seek companionship and community. “You’ve gotten laid off at work, or are working fewer hours, and the last thing you want to do is sit at home by yourself and feel miserable about your personal life.”  Yagan says his business nearly doubled in 2010 to reach 7 million visitors each month. 

The largest player in the U.S. market with just under 19 percent market share is InterActiveCorp (IAC), owner of Match.com, Chemistry.com and 27 other niche dating sites such as SeniorPeopleMeet.com and Singles.net.  The second largest, with a 12.4 percent share of the market is eHarmony.com with revenue of $250 million last year. According to a spokesperson at Match.com, the fourth quarter of 2008 was one of the strongest ever.  Even though the country had been shaken by the stock market, the number of subscribers grew by 5 percent.  The upward trend continued into 2009 and 2010, with IAC reporting a 30 percent revenue hike in its dating sites in the fourth quarter of 2010 and Match.com having its strongest quarter to date. 

Why Such a Boom?
One of the reasons for the spike in the industry’s revenues is that it’s “a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment,” said James Houran, a psychologist and columnist for OnlineDatingMagazine.com. “Most sites charge somewhere between $30 and $50 a month for membership. And in the grand scheme of things that’s fairly inexpensive for the potential return on that investment.” But the recession is not the only engine revving online dating companies.

Another reason is that women have become more economically powerful, Fisher said. With women increasingly remaining in the job market, the notion of marrying the boy they dated in high school or college is being left in the dust, she said. “As women marry later and become less economically bound to their spouses, they’re more likely to walk away from bad marriages in order to make good ones,” she said. This increasing trend of marriage, divorce, and remarriage means women and men are looking for a partner in their 30s and 40s, and once again in their 50s, 60s and 70s, Fisher said. “By the time they reach that age, they already know everybody at work, in their neighborhood, and in their social circle. So where are they going to meet people if not with dating services?”