With Valentine's Day quickly approaching love may be in the air, but it's nothing compared to the amount of romance that's happening 24 hours a day, every day, online.
Over 16.3 million people visited online personals sites during 2002, according to Jupiter Research, and as the medium becomes more socially acceptable, that number is expected to grow.
"There's a lot of love happening out there," said Trish McDermott, vice president of romance at leading online personals site Match.com.
And, it seems, this love knows no boundaries. Men and women, gay, straight, young and old, are all jumping online in search for romance. Underscoring the boom in online dating, Match reported Monday that it had a 90 percent increase in paying subscribers at the end of 2002 over the previous year. The company now has almost 725,000 subscribers and nearly 3.4 million registered members.
Much of this growth is due to a shift in attitude, said McDermott.
"Online dating has profoundly changed since Match began in 1995," she said. "Early on there was clearly a stigma and people would lie about meeting online." Now the company is seeing people order Match.com T-shirts and even put its logo on wedding cakes, she said.
The online dating stigma has been shattered by word of mouth, she added. "People talk about dating," McDermott said. "They ask, 'Where in the world did you meet him?'"
The answer to that question is increasingly not "at a bar" or " through a friend" but "online."
"I realized that no one new had come into my social circles for a long time," said Katie Redding, a Toronto resident who began online dating about a year ago.
"I figured that if I wanted to meet people, it was either take a commercial lease on a comfortable bar stool, or post an online personal," she said.
Redding posted a profile on the personals service of literary sex magazine Nerve.com, and quickly began receiving messages from like-minded romantics. Since then, she has had several relationships with men she met through Nerve.
Nerve.com's personals service is powered by a company called Spring Street Networks - which actually sprung from Nerve - and provides personals for other niche sites such as Salon.com and The Onion. By providing personals services for distinct Web communities, Spring Street executives believe that there is a higher chance that people will meet other singles that they already have something in common with.
"When the product you're selling is yourself, the largest market isn't always the best place to go. You want to be matched to a segment of people with common interests," said Brian Battjer, vice president of product development at Spring Street.
Finding potential mates with a common set of interests is a big draw for users like Redding.
"Generally, when you find a site you like, you know that the pool of people is going to be a pool you want to dip your toe into," she said. "It saves you a step or two of figuring out if you've got common interests or perspectives."
For McDermott, however, a wider pool has its advantages in that people can search for potential partners with a laundry list of qualifications and turn up a decent amount of prospective matches.
Match.com just refined its searching capabilities for this purpose, allowing users to do detailed personality searching.
"Users can search for a 35-year old man who is clean and athletic and likes cats but doesn't like to watch football, for example," she said.
With that level of variety, it is perhaps no surprise that online personal ads have become a serious form of entertainment.
Another big name player in the online dating game, Yahoo Inc., has recently upped its entertainment value, allowing users to add a 30-second audio greeting and video clip to their profile, for free. Yahoo's video feature, which has competitors such as Match in hot pursuit to launch their own video services, adds to online personals' existing interactive capabilities, such as instant messaging (IM).
But high-tech love is not just being confined to the desktop. Match is launching a service this week that connects singles via their cell phones. The service, dubbed Match Mobile, is being provided through a deal with AT&T Wireless and allows users to search and find partners based on location.
Who can resist the luring mix of audio, video, chat, mobility and romance, all at their fingertips? Apparently not workers, tethered to their computers each day while secretly pining for love, and at the very least, entertainment. According to a report released by ComScore Networks Inc. earlier this month, at-work Internet users account for 35 percent of all time spent at online personals sites.
What's more, at-work personals perusers spent an average of 51 minutes at personals sites in December of 2002, compared to the 37 minutes spent by at-home visitors, ComScore said.
While those figures may be worrying to employers, they offer all sorts of fodder for water cooler gossips.
Online dating has not just become a form of entertainment, however. In a way it has become its own sport, the experts said.
The scope, variety and ease offered by online personals has led to some curious dating habits. Many users, for example, have said that they have received "dating spam," or a form of e-mail sent to numerous potential dates.
These date spammers are typically men, McDermott said, which leads to another curiosity about online dating. Despite the revolutionary state of the technology, users fall back on typical dating stereotypes, McDermott said, which in the case of date spam implies that men still lead the pack in initiating contact, as impersonal as it may be.
The majority of online personals users are in fact men, Jupiter reported. Of the 16.3 million singles that visited online dating sites last year, 10.2 million were men and 6.1 million women. While that may be good news for single ladies, it can lead to measures such as dating spam.
The advantage in online courting, however, is that there are options. Spring Street's Battjer argues that his company's business model is more " fair" to women.
While Match charges users a monthly subscription fee to use its service, Spring Street's clients allows users to put up profiles and respond to inquiries for free. Users have to pay to initiate contact, however, making them more selective in who they contact and thus avoiding date spam, Battjer said.
Yahoo has also taken this tack, which not only serves to make users more selective, but also allows the company to rapidly grow its user numbers by offering free online profiles. And by throwing in other free services, such as video and audio clips, users get hooked and pretty soon they find they want to initiate contact and eventually pony up their subscription fee.
In fact, the popularity of online dating allowed service providers to reap an estimated US$313 million in revenue in 2002, according to Jupiter Research, and is expected to continue to bloom, raking in an estimated $642 million by 2007.
While growth in online personals is expected to continue, the sheer number of players crowding the space, from bigwigs like Match and Yahoo to smaller players like Kiss.com and Udate.com, is expected to decrease, said Jupiter analyst David Card.
"The only option for a number of players is to customize the experience and deliver a niche," he said.
While online dating enjoys booming popularity, the turnover rate from free users to subscribers remains relatively low -- below 10 percent -- Card said, and there is the aspect of perpetual churn. After all, the goal of most users is to eventually meet their match and leave the dating world behind.
Considering these factors, Card believes there is only room for a few major players in the market, and a handful of niche providers.
Right now, however, business is booming. And with Valentine's Day coming this Friday, singles are hopping online in droves, hoping to find a date for the special day. Traffic to personals sites in February of last year spiked to 20 million visitors, according to Jupiter, and this year looks to be no different.
"January through February is our busy season," said McDermott. " A lot of people have just gone through the holidays as a single person and they don't want to do it again."
With a little bit of daring, and some cutting-edge technology, perhaps some of them won't have to.