A single's guide to online dating

Hey there, welcome to my page!

I’m a twenty-something writer and audiophile who enjoys record hunting, hiking, and spicy foods. I would rather go to a show than a party, can’t stand Lady Gaga, and will cut a rug if Tina Turner comes on. Looking for a driven, emotionally available man between 25 and 35, preferably with a beard.  

I was originally ashamed to have an online dating profile—I’m smart, I’m outgoing, and my mom says I’m cute. So why would I have to resort to the Web? The answer is pretty simple: I work as a reporter at a small-town newspaper, which keeps me pretty busy and away from a viable dating pool. In the two years I’ve spent at my current gig, I’ve met but one guy who was in my desired dating age range through more-conventional means.

According to researchers at the University of Rochester in New York, online dating is now the number two form of matchmaking in the United States, and although I was hesitant to try it at first, I took to online dating like a fish to water. It was fun to add photos, answer questions, and create witty snippets to highlight my irresistibly funny and cool (but definitely not desperate) personality with the hopes of snagging the music-obsessed, bordering-on-savant boy of my dreams.

Still, a 2012 Northwestern University study called popular websites such as Match.com and eHarmony “supermarkets” and “real estate brokers” of love. Associate professor of psychology Eli Finkel claimed that people don’t learn much from a profile, and often get overloaded by choice. The study also found no compelling evidence that the matching algorithms sites use to identify potential partners actually work.

“Limiting the number of potential partners is only helpful if the algorithmic-selection process favors compatible partners over incompatible ones, which it fails to do,” he said. “Even if the algorithms are cutting 2,000 potential partners down to five, if that process is random, is it really any better than strolling into the neighborhood bar?”

But dating-service advertisements, word of mouth, and several other studies would have you believe otherwise. In a marriage study conducted for eHarmony by ORC International in 2010, 37.8 percent of couples met at work or school, and 12.2 percent met online. For the 50-plus age group, however, 26.8 percent of surveyed couples met on the Internet, compared with 23.2 percent at work or school.

Match CEO Greg Blatt told the San Francisco Examiner that online dating is so successful because of societal changes.

"We get married older, work longer hours, move around more, and we're generally busier. These changes have put pressure on the way we traditionally have met our significant others,” he said.

With online dating having become commonplace, I opened the online menu of men and tried a few of the most popular websites. Before you throw caution to the wind, here are some things you should know about the top five online dating sites.

Plenty Of Fish: Serious relationship seekers need not apply

Plenty Of Fish was the first site I tried, and it seemed to be the Classic MySpace of dating sites—grainy photos, a not-so-sleek design, and a hookup culture that barely lingered beneath the surface. Users fill out a basic survey—which asks you to describe your personality in one word, using such fantastic choices as “diva,” “hedonist,” “blogger,” and my personal favorite, “music snob”—along with a 73-question personality test to determine matches.

Fill out Plenty Of Fish's basic survey to get started on the site.

Founder Markus Frind says his free site is the top dating site in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, with more than 2 million daily users in the United States alone. Frind adds that POF avoids niche demographics and is “the top in every age bucket.”

“The more you use the site, the more effective the match algorithm becomes…. We use this data to determine who you're most compatible with, and constantly reevaluate who you're compatible with,” he told TechHive.  “We look at people who are similar to you, millions of women who filled out a profile in similar ways, use the site in similar ways, [and] therefore we can predict that they will act like you. We are building neural networks.”

Plenty Of Fish monitors user activity to compare stated preferences with the people you’re actually looking at, which improves match quality by a factor of four. The site also asks people leaving the site in a relationship to give feedback.

Plenty Of Fish reveals basic info for your matches.

“We work backwards to see what combinations of traits and characters lead to relationships. We’re discovering all the things that cause relationships to break up and what causes relationships never to form in the first place,” Frind says.

Although I did meet one nice guy through Plenty of Fish (who unfortunately fell into the too-nice category), I did not like many of the matches it showed me. Either they were in a different stage of life, I didn’t find them attractive, or they couldn’t write in complete sentences (I’m a journalist, gentlemen).

Plenty of Fish was not my favorite site, but I know a handful of "fishermen" who had some degree of success finding a casual relationship. This may be the site for you if that’s what you’re looking for. If you're looking for something more serious, be warned: You will have to sift through many undesirables to find the snapper of your dreams.

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