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Digital matchmakers share the love

Former dot-commers, no longer married to their jobs, are looking to marry each other. They are turning online dating services into one of the few Web ventures showing a profit.

5 min read
David Orleans never thought he'd find his soul mate online.

But a couple of years ago, Orleans decided the Web couldn't be much worse than the bar scene. No worse, at least, than the time a woman he was chatting up suddenly slipped her wedding ring back on her finger midway through their flirtations, telling him she was happily married but curious whether she could still attract men.

The incident prompted Orleans, 31, to put down his drink and pick up his mouse to search for true love.

"For folks who are tired of weekend after weekend of trying to get to know someone in places where people are half-drunk, it's a much more sober way of making something happen," said Orleans, an environmental lawyer. "It's a much more mature, cut-to-the-chase kind of thing."

This fall, Orleans will slip his own wedding ring onto the finger of fiancee, Arianna Gallup, whom he met on Matchmaker.com.

Digital yentas such as Matchmaker, Match.com and Yahoo Personals' ClubConnect are all the rage these days among singles searching for sweethearts. Timed to coincide with Valentine's Day is newcomer Romantic Planet, which plans to launch Thursday.

The shock of Sept. 11, the bust of the dot-com bubble, and the economic doldrums in general have marked a radical change in many people's priorities. No longer married to their jobs, former dot-commers are looking to marry each other. Engagements are up. Comfort food is in. And more people are pointing and clicking their way to love.

"People are realizing that they sacrificed a lot in their personal relationships in the past couple of years," said Dave Shefferman, the organizer of volunteer site One Brick and a former dot-commer who's noticed more friends getting serious about commitment.

A recent study by Match.com found that 59 percent of men and 55 percent of women surveyed said they were seeking committed relationships or marriage, up from just 37 percent of men and 40 percent of women a year ago.

Such quests are giving major sites such as Match.com surges in traffic. The number of paid subscribers to Match.com has jumped 153 percent in the past year, including a post-Sept. 11 spike.

David Orleans and Arianna Gallup found love via the Web. What's more, online dating services are some of the few Web ventures actually turning a profit. Match.com's earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) increased more than fourfold to $7.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2001, compared with the year-ago quarter.

Craig Newmark, operator of the wildly popular community site Craigslist.org, said the jump in personal ads on his site has outpaced growth of the site in general. The number of ads from men seeking women--the most popular category on the free site--has jumped more than fivefold since the beginning of last year, to 3,500 postings per week.

"Between the economy and Sept. 11, people are realizing they need to have lives. A big part of that is having a date," Newmark said.

Personal ads for a high-tech world
No longer stigmatized as a magnet for dirty old men, online dating is attracting slews of hip urban professionals looking for love.

Those who've tried online matchmaking say searching for sweethearts online is cheap, easy and, for the most part, safe. The sites act as a conduit, so women don't have to provide information to those who are interested in them unless they want to. In most cases, those who want to initiate contact can't do so unless they pay a fee to the site.

Unlike a newspaper ad, online postings can be changed or withdrawn. They also provide more space, allowing singles to display for potential dates not only their physical attributes but also their fondness for fly-fishing, their cravings for cosmopolitans or their soft spot for spelunking.

In addition, people posting online can immediately weed out people who don't fit their profile instead of waiting for a second or third date to broach sensitive subjects such as political or religious leanings, or a desire to have children.

In a polar opposite to bar pickups, online dating also lets people test for compatibility before chemistry, instead of the other way around. Some say the real-world meetings that follow virtual flirtations are more like a third date than a first.

Several matchmaking sites let singles home in on people with specific interests or religious backgrounds.

Jody Lerner, a 31-year-old San Francisco resident and MBA, raves about JDate, a dating site targeting Jewish singles. During the past nine months, Lerner has gone on dates with 10 people who've contacted her via the site. Though she has yet to make a perfect match, the East Coast transplant said the site has led to offline friendships and widened her social circle.

"The caliber of people is very high," Lerner said. "Even if there's no attraction, I meet educated, articulate people. They're great guys."

Plus, it's an ego boost. Women who post on the sites get dozens, if not hundreds, of responses. Call it the thrill of the digital chase.

Lerner said the compliments on her picture and posting at least lift her spirits, even if they don't lead to the wedding chuppah.

"It's just so flattering," she said. "Who doesn't like to hear all those nice things?"

Some sites will even do the matching for singles who are too lazy to wade through pages of profiles. Romantic Planet is trying to differentiate itself in the online matchmaking market by offering a double-dating option and a feature that "learns" a poster's preferences by tracking the characteristics of the people they correspond with.

Not always a fairy tale
Although online dating is shedding the image that it's a playground for geeks without lives, it isn't without hitches.

Gallup, Orleans' fiancee, said she was wary of online matchmaking services before she tried one. Some of her friends had less-than-stellar luck, including one who went on several dates with a man before learning he was a porn king.

Nevertheless, Gallup, 30, a community college professor, decided she would give online dating a whirl after meeting a woman at a party who had hooked up with her fiance via online matchmaking.

"Then I had proof that it does work for people," said Gallup, who stated in her profile that Republicans need not apply.

She met Orleans in the fall of 2000, and they watched a presidential debate together as one of their first dates.

These days, she downplays the Internet component of her relationship with Orleans but said she still would recommend online matchmaking to her single friends.

"All you really need is the catalyst. You will meet who you're supposed to meet," she said, with all the gushing effusiveness of a bride to be.

Orleans said the virtual connection and courting saved him a lot of stress and helped him meet a smart, attractive woman with similar interests. "It's not the most romantic thing," he said, "but it's realistic."