Feb. 14, 2006 at 10:00 AM ET
If you are alone this Valentine's Day, feel free to go ahead and blame online dating services.
It seems everybody else is.
After years of skyrocketing 70 percent or 80 percent growth, online dating revenues have leveled off, according to a recent study. Subscriber numbers are actually falling slightly. And there's a growing rap sheet for the services. A lawsuit claims dating services create fake women to keep subscribers paying; Nigerian con artists have used dating sites to bilk women out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Even The New York Times best-seller "Freakonomics" took some nasty swipes at online love. The book cited a study by two economists and a pyschologist that found troubling statistics concerning online dating and dishonesty. For example, how could 4 percent of online daters be earning $200,000 a year, when less than 1 percent of the Internet population does? And while we’re at it, how could 70 percent of women have above-average looks? Then there's this: 57 percent of men studied who posted a profile -- more than half -- never received a single e-mail. Talk about Red Tape!
It seems the honeymoon is over between Internet users and online dating. But is this just a typical bump in the road, or is the love affair with online love really over?
Consider this: Trish McDermott, a co-founder of industry leader Match.com, has left the company, saying online dating doesn't work. Her four-part critique echoes the bad things you've already heard about online dating.
1. It’s full of liars. You'll have no trouble meeting married men who look nothing like their pictures and really don't like holding hands while walking on the beach.
2. It’s a rude place. People don't show up for dates, they mislead others, they don't respond with polite no-thank-yous
3. It fosters out-of-line expectations. Marketers would have you think love is as easy as "Insert a quarter, get a partner." Six months and $300 later, on a lonely Valentine's Day, you might feel cheated.
4. It's isolating. Online dates can be a bit secretive, and online relationships can happen in a bubble.
Before we go on, it's important to note that McDermott has a keen interest in dissing online dating. She has a new Web site, Engage.com, which she claims solves all these problems.
And yet, her observations ring true.
Women duped out of $623,000
Your friends often know best, so dating in a bubble often fails -- or leads to something even worse than a bad evening. After falling for a scam herself, Barb Sluppick started a Yahoo support group for online daters who have been duped by scammers. She now has well over 1,000 members. At last count, 120 people have said they lost $623,000 to Nigerian scammers putting up fake ads, posing as eligible bachelors.
Online dating services have also long been full of fake ads that hawk porn sites or Russian bride services. That's not to mention the fake ads posted by those married men.
And there are those accusations that dating sites themselves have posted fake ads. Those claims, made in a highly-publicized lawsuit, have yet to be substantiated. But as McDermott points out, the lawsuit resonated with people –- including many MSNBC.com readers –- because it tapped into a general dissatisfaction with the services. There is a sense, she said, that something is not quite right.
All of these problems no doubt led to a finding by Jupiter Research last year that only 28 percent of online daters said they were satisfied with their service. That's a remarkable dissatisfaction rate, McDermott says.
"I don't know of any business that could get away with that," she said.
Dr. Phil to the rescue
Well, it looks like the sites aren't getting away with it. After years of raging growth, consumers have put on the brakes. The percentage of Internet users who pay for online dating has dipped slightly from 6 percent to 5 percent in 2005, according to Jupiter. The conversion rate of browsers-to-paid-subscribers fell last year for the first time since Jupiter charted such things.
The services have responded with obvious over-the-top marketing plans designed to stave off the inevitable for a few more quarters. Match has hired Dr. Phil. eHarmony is expanding into new markets and is now giving out marriage advice. Yahoo is offering a pricier "Premier" service with its main benefit seeming to be the ability to connect with other members who have also paid extra to achieve premier status.
If this column has begun to sound like an obituary, then it's time for Mark Twain to have his say. Word of the demise of online dating is definitely premature.
For one, online dating is still far and away the No. 1 paid content category online. And while days of explosive growth are waning, revenue still grew at many sites in single-digits in 2005 and sits at around $500 million for the industry. That's still a respectable business.
Meanwhile, Match.com, the only site that publicly reports its results, says its rolls of paid subscribers are still rising, up more than 20 percent this year. With 1.2 million paying members, and new services in the offing, Match.com spokewoman Kristin Kelly says talk of an online love bust is bull.
It's still No. 1, and it's no worse than blind dating
Now, there is still that troubling customer satisfaction number. But the author of the Jupiter study, Nate Elliot, is far less troubled by it than you might think. Consider, for example, what percentage of people would say they were satisfied with their experience blind dating? Or going to bars on weekends? One in four starts to sound pretty good in that light.
And despite these somewhat rocky times, Yahoo and Match.com have managed to raise their prices in recent months, Yahoo by 25 percent in some cases. Higher prices are rarely a sign of a desperate business.
Rather, it's a sign that single people often can't resist trying anything they can to find love. Even if it doesn't work very well. Even if they end up rejected, scammed, ignored and out a few hundred bucks. Even those who are dissatisfied with online dating often come back. And they go to bars, and they go on blind dates, and they get set up by parents and do about 100 things they said they'd never do again after it didn't work out the last time.
Once again, the Web, it seems, imitates real life.
The advice for safely finding love online is well-worn: Meet in a public place, involve your friends early on, and never, ever wire money to Nigeria.
There's an interesting new wrinkle in the coming wave of online dating sites that should make things a bit safer. McDermott's Engage.com and Match.com's new site Chemistry.com, which launches in April, are among those that will allow feedback from daters, a bit akin to eBay.com feedback. Community regulation should rein in the cheaters. If your picture is a lie, people will find out and warn your future dates. A side benefit will be the kind of character-building, brutally honest assessments of dates who didn't like you and why. Don't worry, Chemistry.com won't let people rip you heartlessly. You'll get a digest of dater feedback after you meet five people in person.
Still, online dating will be full of frustration and misrepresentation. So if you are looking for love online, it’s critical to remember that on the Internet, many, many things are not what they seem. Since Cupid's arrow rarely brings with it a healthy dose of skepticism, it's best to bring along an extra supply when looking for love online.
One final note: More than a few readers have intentionally re-titled this blog the Red Shoe Chronicles in their correspondence. Despite the spirit of this holiday, I will keep the current moniker, thank you. Good luck finding love wherever you look for it today.