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Online dating (OD) or Internet dating is a dating system which allows individuals, couples and groups to make contact and communicate with each other over the Internet, usually with the objective of developing a personal, romantic, or sexual relationship. Online dating services usually provide unmoderated matchmaking over the Internet, through the use of personal computers or cell phones.
Online dating services generally require a prospective member to provide personal information, before they can search the service provider's database for other individuals using criteria they set, such as age range, gender and location. Online dating sites use market metaphor to properly match people up. Most sites allow members to upload photos of themselves and browse the photos of others. Sites may offer additional services, such as webcasts, online chat, telephone chat (VOIP), and message boards. Some sites provide free registration, but may offer services which require a monthly fee. Other sites depend on advertising for their revenue. And some sites such as Badoo are free and then offer additional paid services in a freemium revenue model.
Many sites are broad-based, with members coming from a variety of backgrounds looking for different types of relationships. Other sites are more specific, based on the type of members, interests, location, or relationship desired.
At the end of November 2004, there were 844 lifestyle and dating sites, a 38 percent increase since the start of the year, according to Hitwise Inc. However, market share was increasingly growing by several large commercial services, including AOL Personals, Yahoo! Personals, Match.com, and eHarmony. By 2007, many prominent studies show that Baby Boomer interest in online dating had soared. 
Most recently, it has become common for online dating websites to provide webcam chats between members. In addition, as the online dating population becomes larger, sites with specific demographics are becoming more popular as a way to narrow the pool of potential matches.
The most successful niche sites pair people by race, sexual orientation or religion. The 20 most popular dating sites in 2006 as ranked by Hitwise include JDate (for Jewish singles), Christian Mingle, ChristianCafe, Manhunt (same sex introductions), Love From India, Black Christian People Meet, Amigos (for Latino singles), Asian People Meet, and Shaadi (for Indian singles). In March 2008, the top 5 overall sites held 7% less market share than they did one year ago while the top sites from the top five major niche dating categories made considerable gains.
In addition to niche sites, there are more general sites for the online dating beginner. Time magazine notes that leading the scene are Match.com and eHarmony.com. Match.com bases its matchmaking on the Myers-Briggs personality test. Conversely, eHarmony pair people up using their "secret key dimensions of compatibility" which are grouped into core traits and vital attributes. Match.com has a more open policy, whereas eHarmony.com only pairs up straight matches, however, offers another site for gay matches.
One of the "hottest trends in online dating" is the babyboomers on the top dating sites. Around 30% of America's 80 million babyboomers are single.
Since 2003, several free dating sites, operating on ad based-revenue rather than monthly subscriptions, have appeared and become increasingly popular. Several newer sites such as OkCupid are beginning to offer more full featured dating services for free, and are starting to compete with staples in the free dating site world such as PlentyofFish. Due to the level of competition between free dating sites, as well as the overall drop in traffic to and revenue for dating sites generally, some sites are branching out into self service advertising. This represents a break from traditional externally sourced ads and is just one of the ways that the revenue models of free dating sites are evolving.
Especially popular in Eastern Europe, some sites offer full access to messaging and profiles, but provide additional services for pay, such as bumping profiles up to the top of the list, removing advertisements, making paying users' profiles appear several times in different places in the search results, and giving paying users a more advanced search engine to work with (in one real example, free users may only search for persons of specified age, gender, orientation, and city, while subscribers may search for any and all parameters listed in profiles, such as height, weight, interests, etc.). Also, this model generally allows users to switch between free and paying status at will and without having to do anything, simply providing advanced features for a set period of time whenever the according payment is received. Ease of payment is also generally higher, with such sites accepting a variety of online currencies, letting users charge the payment to their cellular phones, etc. Such sites earn revenue from a mix of advertising and sale of additional options.
Online daters may have more liberal social attitudes compared to the general population in the United States.
Virtual dating combines online dating with online gaming. Virtual dating involves the use of avatars for people to interact in a virtual venue that resembles a real life dating environment. For example, individuals can meet and chat in a romantic virtual cafe in Paris or on a Caribbean resort. They can explore together, play games and take relationship quizzes to get a better, deeper understanding of each other. While online dating sites allows members to search on attributes such as education and income, virtual dating allows users to explore compatibility, sense of humor and rapport. Virtual dating sites include Weopia and Omnidate.
A Time Magazine article entitled "Internet Dating 2.0" was published on January 19, 2007 citing current and upcoming technologies and explains how people can now connect in a virtual dating environment. Time describes how websites are allowing people to meet for an avatar based, graphically enabled virtual date without leaving their homes.
Researchers at MIT and Harvard have found that "people who had had a chance to interact with each other (by computer only) on a virtual tour of a museum subsequently had more successful face-to-face meetings than people who had viewed only profiles."
These three dimensional experience has reported more registrations from women than men. One explanation for this phenomenon is that virtual dating allows women to have complete control over who they select and how they interact. Virtual dating also eliminates large amounts of emails in women's inboxes and allows women to enjoy a friendly dating option.
Video dating is a form of virtual dating that allows all users to use live dating services with actual reality that stimulates a real dating experience. Sites offering video dating allow 3-5 minute webcam interviews with online matches.
Not a long time ago, various websites were available on the Internet with access to valuable tips on how to find a partner, and especially focused on how to find women. Dating Internet services have expanded and are now offering many more services to make it easier for people to find a partner.
Last June, 2010, The Washington Post published an article on a new service Internet dating companies are offering: online dating assistants. Dating companies offer the services of ghostwriters to help busy people find dates through Internet.
The services start by helping customers build their profile, a practice already offered by several online dating sites. However, the service continues with picking out potential matches, the writer then sends introductory e-mails to the possible matches and continues messaging back and forth until they can confirm the date. Although the service was used at first mainly by men, this has changed with more ladies using this service as well.
This kind of service has been considered as misrepresentation and, thus ethically questionable, by those against it.
The role of social networking services in online dating has been explored in a book dedicated to the subject. The findings of the study reveal that the online dating services driven by subscriptions offer the least amount of social networking opportunities, as they often only utilize the personal homepage genre of online community, which only makes them effective for the bonding and encoding stage of the relationship. The dating services modeled on the free-at-the-point-of-use model scored much higher as many of them utilized the Circle of Friends social networking method and a wider number of online community genres. The highest scoring dating service was Facebook, which uses the personal homepage genre, the message board genre, the weblog and directory genre, as well as utilizing the Circle of Friends. The second highest scoring, Second Life utilizes virtual worlds, message boards, chat groups and profile pages to allow people to contact in a three-dimensional environment. More recently, the impact of social networking on online dating has been featured in the Museum of Social Media's exhibit "i luv you!"
In an editorial post titled "Why you should never pay for online dating", a founder of free dating site OkCupid criticized pay-dating as exploiting users and as "fundamentally broken", and noting that "pay sites have a unique [financial] incentive to profit from their customers' disappointment". The post analyzed the business model used for pay dating and noted that it gave rise to "strange incentives [because] the only way they don't make money is to show subscribers to other subscribers." (emphasis in original)
Instead it creates an incentive to show profiles of lapsed and non-paying members (described as "ghosts" in the analysis) in the hope that site visitors will wish to contact these profiles and will subscribe to do so, or that once contacted by new or existing users some of these "ghosts" will wish to respond and will re-subscribe in order to do so. This causes a low response rate, which in turn encourages respondents to become desperate and formulaic, reducing their chances of meeting people.
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There can be a variety of problems when utilizing online dating sites.
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Gay rights groups have complained that certain websites that restrict their dating services to heterosexual couples are discriminating against homosexuals. This has taken place mostly among Christian dating sites but major dating sites are generally heterosexual oriented. However, it should also be noted that some services (such as Gaydar) only cater for homosexual dating.
In addition, many sites require members to specify what sex they are looking for without having the option "both", which complicates things for bisexuals. Many sites also require members to specify themselves as "male" or "female", complicating matters for transgendered as well as intersexed individuals.
US government regulation of dating services began with the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) which took effect in March 2007 after a federal judge in Georgia upheld a challenge from the dating site European Connections. The law requires internationally oriented dating services to conduct, among other procedures, sex offender checks on US customers before communication can occur with a foreigner.
Singapore's government has actively acted as a matchmaker for singles for the past few decades, and thus only 4 percent of Singaporeans have ever used an online dating service, despite the country’s high rate of internet penetration. Singapore's Social Development Network is the governmental organization facilitating dating activities in the country.
New Jersey became the first state to enact a law requiring the sites to disclose whether they perform background checks.
There are several sites that already offer the option for users to request background checks including True.com. Match.com is now offering screenings for sex offenders to their users.
In 2008 a variation of the online dating model emerged in the form of introduction sites, attracting a large number of users and significant investor interest. Introduction sites differ from the traditional online dating model, where members have to search and contact other members, by introducing members to other members whom they deem compatible, thus claiming to eliminate much of the mayhem of traditional online dating. Although the two introduction services operate differently and offer different features, both claim to be more effective than traditional online personals.
Most free dating websites depend on advertising revenue, using tools such as Google Adsense, affiliate marketing. Since advertising revenues are modest compared to membership fees, free dating sites require a large number of page views to achieve profitability.
Some "free" online dating services offer free registrations and search but are not truly free, since they charge users to communicate. Some websites offer a free trial period, yet require a fee for continued use. Truly free online dating services offer free communication and obtain their revenue from advertising or other sources. Other dating sites operate upon a mixed or "freemium" model, where basic features are free of charge, but advanced features such as virtual gifts are available to paying users only.
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