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The Sacramento Bee

Love at first byte:
Internet offers a 'better mousetrap' for matchmaking

By Michael Stroh, Bee Staff Writer
(Published Feb. 11, 1998)

Vicki Owens had tried the single's scene but nothing clicked.

Then a friend told her about Match.com, one of the Internet's hottest dating services. After months of exchanging e-mail with Richard, a Concord auto mechanic, the 47-year-old single mother from Davis got hitched last October.

"I'm so incredibly happy now," gushed Owens.

She's not alone. A growing number of lonely hearts are turning to the Web to find a mate -- and a stampede of entrepreneurial Cupids are rushing to help them make the love connection.

"It's simply a better mousetrap for meeting people," said Dave Kennedy, co-founder of an online matchmaking service called "One & Only."

Demographics make the Internet juicy turf for matchmakers. Singles make up 44 percent of the U.S. population, with the dating business -- everything from traditional video dating clubs to newspaper personal ads -- generating nearly $400 million annually.

Most online dating services are cheap, costing just a few dollars a month to join. Traditional video dating services, meanwhile, charge as much as several thousand dollars to make a love connection. Personal ads in newspapers charge callers a few bucks a minute to browse ads or leave voice mail.

Match.com, which boasts nearly 100,000 members, earns money through both subscriptions and advertising. Started three years ago, the Web site has helped to broker nearly 400 marriages, including four planned for Valentine's Day this Saturday.

Subscriptions range from $9.95 for one month to $60 for a year. Slightly more than half of its members are male, which means that "men have to work a little harder," said Trish McDermott, Match.com's online dating expert.

Like most online dating sites, Match.com allows singles to post long, descriptive messages for other singles to browse. But the service has powerful search functions to quickly narrow the number of prospective matches. Singles, for example, can specify whether they have or want children, if they smoke, or how far they're willing to travel to make a love connection.

"We are seeing people who have traveled halfway around the world to meet their match. Their paths would never have crossed were it not for technology," said McDermott.

Most matchmaking sites also protect a person's identity by giving them a new online nickname and e-mail address.

"I felt like I was in more control," said Owens. "If the other person doesn't like you and bolts, so what? It's a face you've never seen. If someone starts bugging me, I could pull his plug at any moment. Blip."

Today, there are hundreds of Web sites catering to all manner of singles. Auto enthusiasts in the market for a new driving partner, for example, can cruise the official "Car Talk" Personals Web site, where singles must describe themselves as a car. In this way, they can "avoid the '63 Dodge Darts of the dating world." (For those dating on company time, the site contains a convenient "boss" button. Hit it and up jumps an official-looking pie chart.)

Animal Lovers Personals, on the other hand, is an online dating service for people with a parakeet but no paramour. Here pet-minded people can find others with similar interests by posting photos of themselves with their pets. Cost: $10 for a 90-day membership.

Amid all this competition from online upstarts, traditional matchmaking venues such as newspapers are rushing online to protect their franchise.

"Personal ads are still dominated by the phone," said Bret Busse, marketing director at MicroVoice Applications Inc., which manages personal ads for hundreds of newspapers nationwide. "But the online side is growing fast."

One common fear among people who use Internet or newspaper personal ads to date is whether the other people really are who they say they are.

"I had one guy who told me he looked like Mel Gibson," said Marion Beck, who dated several men she met through Match.com before falling in love. "When I met him, it was like, 'Not!' "

At least one Internet company has found that fear pays.

DateSmart.com is a cyber-eye investigation service that can help people dig up information on everything from marital status to criminal history to employment record. The fee starts at $175.

Carmen Lynn of DateSmart.com said about 50 percent of her clients investigate someone they've met on the Internet. "A lot of times they've never met the person, or are contemplating going to another country to meet the person, and want some information first," she said. But those who have found love online disagree that the Internet is especially dangerous.

"My Mary Kay lady used to tell me, 'I wish you'd do something else, meet somebody at church or the library,' " said Owens. "But you could meet some weirdo there just as easily. Different mediums work for different people. The Internet is the one that worked for me."

Copyright & copy; 1998 The Sacramento Bee

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