A New Form of Dating Site

by Mr. Cheap

I’ve used dating sites a fair bit over the last 8 years. Match.com was the big site for a long time, then LavaLife.com got big (a buddy of mine is gearing up to marry a woman he met on there). The two I recommend to friends are OkCupid.com and PlentyOfFish.com (both are free, of course).

For a while I thought collaborative filtering (where things you like help match you up to things people who are similar to you like: think Amazon’s recommendation system) would be an interesting idea for a dating site, but someone beat me to it.

The other idea I’ve had comes from what I think is a massive problem with on-line dating. Dating sites CLEARLY came from a techie’s mind. They aren’t much more than than a web interface slapped on a database. You choose the characteristics you want (red hair, not religious, no kids) hit search and start working through the list of results. This is a great way to order stereo equipment, but is it really the best way to find romance and/or a life partner?

Ok Cupid gets around this by having all users answer questions, rate how important each question is, then match people up algorithmically this way. Better, but it still involves a lot of shifting through people pictures, scanning their profiles and writing lots of messages for every response you get.

The joke of it is, women on these sites often get big egos because so many guys are contacting them, but then they don’t like the guys that they’re meeting. Some try to deal with this by putting a list of “requirements” on their profile for any guy who expects a response to them, and often come off as prima donnas. Guys realize these sites are a numbers game, and start spamming the women. There’s a very low signal to noise ratio for the whole experience.

The dating site *I* would design would be a radical departure from this model. Instead of wrapping a website around a database, the site would be like cocktail party with a VERY attentive host. When you first logged on, there would be minimal information to enter (for some reason people hate filling out profiles, about 1/4 of them whine about not knowing what to write). Say you get started with an e-mail address and password. You’re assigned 3 people to “talk to”. You can enter VERY, VERY minimal filtering criteria (perhaps just sexual orientation and geographic location). You and the three people you’re chatting with are given a question with a very limited space to answer a general question (perhaps “what was the last good movie you saw?”).

The next day you log in and see the responses from the people you’re currently interacting with. You pick the ones you want to keep talking to and reject the ones you’re not interested in. The ones you want to keep talking to and you are then given a more detailed question (or are asked more personal information which is exchanged, such as “how many children do you have?”). The ones you reject are replaced with other people you then exchange a short question with again.

If you get a question you’ve already answered, it resends your previous answer (you can update these if you want), so then you just accept or reject the response you get. Eventually you have chosen to interact with someone enough that the system suggests you exchange e-mail addresses, phone number or meet “off-line”.

Collaborative filtering could be applied to pick the people for you to interact with from the general pool of people.

The big advantage of this system is that I think people don’t really know what they want and are attracted to. With the database search we filter out people we may have taken a real liking to. Perhaps a woman refuses to date men younger than herself, until she starts interacting with a guy who loves the same music she does, has a wicked sense of humour and looks like her favourite contestant on “Survivor”. Perhaps a guy normally would have rejected dating outside his race until he gets into deep exchanges with a woman who shares his values and spiritual outlook. Perhaps two people who are 20 years apart in age find out they’re more compatible with each other than the people they’ve each been dating in their own age range.

This site would obviously be the complete opposite of a meat market. People who can’t write worth a damn and get by on their photo on other sites would be at a disadvantage on this one. It doesn’t seem to me to be the worst thing in the world if the site distilled off the flaky, beautiful people and built itself on a core of people who were serious about finding a partner and willing to put some work into connecting with like-minded people (maybe this would be too small of a niche). There are tons of “meat market” sites for people looking for that.

Dating sites are DIRT cheap to create and run (Plenty of Fish is arguably the number one site and is run by a guy out of his apartment), so the financial risk of starting such a site is pretty low (no need for venture capital or anything). Its a HIGHLY competitive area, so if this approach worked you’d quickly get lots of competition. There definitely is a benefit to being established (more users lead to more matches, which leads to more users -> its winner take all). Like the free sites, I’d be tempted to monetize it via advertising in order to maximize the user base. You could do other things like allow more conversations at higher (paid) membership levels and not canabalize your membership when you started charging.

For this post, or any other of the wacky business ideas I post, obviously I’m releasing any ownership claims I may have over these ideas. If you like something I post and feel like you can make money from it, please feel free to do so! Let me know when you’re opening and we’ll do a post on it to give you some free advertising.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jo

Interesting post MC. I don’t know the first thing about dating sites so take my comments with a grain of salt. I suspect you are right that to an extent at least a lot of single ppl don’t know what they want. It’s a lovely concept that through the q’s and a’s people could connect with others whom they might have otherwise filtered out. But if the info entered was minimal (not sure how this would work with the collaborative filtering you propose) you might have to read and write a lot of answers to questions before you stumbled upon someone you were remotely interested in. Wouldn’t the people who hate filling out profiles also hate writing all those answers to questions? It could be a lot more work I guess. I think I’d rather spend time on a profile at the front end, though I guess I’d fall into the category of having a sense of the kind of fella I’d connect with. Also, this sounds awful, but I’m not sure many people can carry themselves at length on the strength of the written word alone. The upside could be that you’d attract some smart cookies to your site.. people who are hesitant or loathe to try traditional dating sites. But then why not just set up a site exclusive to people that can pass the interesting, smart person test? I have no idea whether those already exist… Is there a site for frugal singles?? I just googled and couldn’t find one.. now that would be something ;) users would be encouraged to go on free dates – meeting in the park for a walk or bike ride, renting a DVD from the library, bringing a thermos of iced tea and meeting at the waterfront – I could go on!

By the way, MC, for the benefit of your readers – does this mean that you’re single? ;) You don’t have to answer that of course.

2 Mr. Cheap

Jo: You’re totally right that it would attract smart cookies (or at least drive off people who aren’t smart cookies), and that’s part of the strength of it! If you had a site that just said “for smart people only” it would probably attract people who who had high opinions of themselves rather than genuinely bright people. This lets them PROVE it.

I think people might be more willing to fill out questions if they were interacting with three people they are potentially interested in, rather than just sitting down for 15-20 minutes filling out a profile. You could be right though…

A frugal dating site is a good idea! “The Millionaire Next Door” talks about how wealthy people often marry people more frugal than they are. You could promote it along those lines…

If you haven’t tried dating on-line, you totally should (assuming you’re single ;-) ). I’m amazed that there’s still a stigma associated with it, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how else people meet to start dating.

Alas yes, I’m single. I wrote up this post, but haven’t gotten any responses yet.

3 squawkfox

I seemed to have missed the whole internet dating scene. I found being a woman studying computer science put some serious odds in my favor…for finding a male computer geek. To be honest, I really stuck out in class.

4 Nobleea

As someone who’s frequented dating sites for a fair amount of time, I don’t know if this idea would fly. With so many ‘selections’ available, they all become generic after a while. The profiles are really what draw you in. Something that is well written, shows their personality, and a bit of sense of humour.

I’ve thought about writing a book about my internet dating experiences, but I think the market has changed too much that it wouldn’t be topical.

What you are suggesting sounds more like a social networking site. Or even an actively managed speed dating endeavor. It’s tough to get a sense of their sense of humour and personality in a few questions. Plus it would seem too much like an interview.

I met my fiance off lavalife. I’m going to ask them to sponsor our wedding as we were interviewed on local tv extolling the virtues. I know at least two other married couples who have lavalife to thank. I think plentyoffish is the big one now, and a good friend has met a really good girl off there.

5 Jo

I suspect on-line dating works best in large urban areas where people don’t otherwise speak with strangers (I was in TO a few weekends ago and had an impression that people were just a little more disconnected from one another v. my mid-sized city.. mostly everyone on the subway looked a little depressed to be truthful). Around these parts young singles seem to meet up playing ultimate frisbee or through a friend of a friend. So old-fashioned I know… :)

6 Thicken My Wallet

What happened to meeting people the old fashioned way?

The on-line dating scene has become very competitive and fragmented. It may be an idea 2 years too late in the game.

Mr. Cheap- what? You have no blushing bride from that post?!? What is the world coming to…

7 Mr. Cheap

TMW: Plug in man, meeting people the old fashioned way is *SO* old fashioned!

I was as shocked as anyone that that post didn’t work ;-).

8 Quietrose

Good post, Mr. Cheap, as always! :)

One of the online dating websites (eHarmony.com) has something like what you are suggesting, but I don’t believe that they use collaborative filtering. They state that they match people based on personality characteristics and such, but then they “guide” you through the process. There are like 4-5 steps before you get to the point of getting an email address or a phone number of the person you are interested in. One of the steps gives you various questions, including a chance to write your own question, to the person you are interested in. I don’t believe that eHarmony matches you based on these questions, but merely encourages more in-depth connections via the questions.

I think that your idea for a new online dating site definitely has potential, as it would inherently screen out people who were just interested in photos or brief descriptive statements. Having a more select pool of participants who were more motivated would be a real advantage to the meat market sites, like the ones you mentioned. (And in my opinion, while OkCupid has tests to attract people, they are superficial and silly most of the time, and don’t seem much different from database online dating sites.)

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