Dating Sites Hang on Despite Increasing Competition

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Online dating Web sites are facing ever-increasing pressure due in part to social-networking sites, but lucrative advertising and subscription revenue keep a high number of companies competing in the area.

The surge in the popularity of sites such as MySpace and Facebook have drawn attention away from dating Web sites. That has in turn made competition more intense in an already crowded field.

"Social networks are cannibalizing the dating services, no question about that," said Tony Blin-Stoyle, director of the U.K. and Ireland for Parship, a site focused on helping people find long-term partners.

Owners and companies running dating Web sites are meeting Monday and Tuesday at the Internet Dating Conference in London to discuss challenges in their industry.

In some cases, the number of page views for dating Web sites are falling, and people are spending less time on dating sites than they used to, said David Burstein of Persuasion Lab, a company that provides a so-called "white label" dating platform that can be integrated into other Web sites, such as those of newspapers.

"People have a finite amount of time, and they're splitting their time," Burstein said.

The market, however, is very fragmented, said Martin Bysh, managing director of the online dating service

In the U.K., for example, the top 10 dating sites only hold 50 percent of the market, with hundreds of other Web sites comprising the rest, Bysh said. The top dating sites in the U.K. for June were PlentyofFish, followed by Meetic,, and GirlsDateForFree, according to comScore, a Web metrics analyst. In North America, the top sites in June were PlentyofFish, Singlesnet, eHarmony, and Yahoo Personals.

But at the same time, revenues are growing and there's no problem in finding interest among singles.

Meetic saw its revenue go from €53.2 million (US$76.9 million) in the first half of 2007 to €117 million for the same period this year, said Mark Brooks, who runs a consultancy focusing on social networks and dating Web sites. Over the same periods, doubled revenue, from €63 million to €127.5 million.

But dating Web sites are also plagued by other annoyances: an abundance of bogus photos, scammers and users who misrepresent who they really area, degrading others' overall experience.

"People lie about so many things," Brooks said.

Although social-networking sites aren't configured specifically for dating, it's often easier for singles to vet other prospective singles if they share trusted friends. But social networks often lack privacy and anonymity features offered by dating sites.

"Dating on a social network is a bit like washing your laundry in public," said Dan Winchester, who runs out of a spare room in his house.

Winchester started his site three years ago. He's the sole employee, doing both the technical and business work. He tried to implement a feature that would let people add friends to their dating profile.

"It totally bombed," Winchester said.

As indicated by its domain name, Winchester's site is free, and he makes money by showing ads. It's the same model used by PlentyofFish, a relatively simple site that debuted in 2003 and has surged to the top spot in the U.S. and U.K. markets.

Winchester shows Google AdSense ads and is also signed up with advertising networks that sell ads for his site for a share of the revenue. But the days of just plonking ads on a site and charging per thousand ads shown are fading, Winchester said.

Advertisers now are much more interested in only paying when an ad results in some action by the user, such as giving up their e-mail address or buying something, which is known as CPA (cost per action). Winchester said he's trying to figure out how he can serve ads that are likely to interest a person based on their profile.

The other revenue model is subscription. But social networks and free sites tend to draw people away from dating Web sites with the lowest fees, around US$30 a month and below, said Blin-Stoyle.

"The players in the middle will be squeezed," he said.

Parship instead focuses adding value to its service. People fill out an 83-question form, and the service automatically suggests matches, Blin-Stoyle said. It starts at £30 a month. Parship also offers a special call-in service where people can talk to a singles coach.

Other dating Web sites are also picking up on the potential for offering premium services used by traditional matchmaking companies but at a much cheaper cost.

A site in China, Zhenai, charges $200 a year for access to its online site and team of match matchers who work with singles over the phone. That's far less than fees charged by traditional matchmakers, which can cost $5,000 or more a year, Brooks said.

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