Can you put a price on love? For online dating site Match.com, the answer is yes – about $50 million.
Just in time for Valentine's Day, Match acquired competitor OkCupid for that sizable cash sum. The acquisition indicates that the online dating industry is successful not only romantically, but also financially when it brings together business relationship seekers.
In fact, the Internet has become one of the most popular places for people to meet, according to the 2010 large-scale survey How Couples Meet and Stay Together.
"(Online dating) definitely works," said Reuben J. Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York, who collaborated on the survey. "We estimate that 23 percent of the couples in the U.S. who met in the two years from 2007 to 2009 met online. More people meet online now than meet through school, work, church, bars, parties, et cetera."
These online avenues have opened up an eligible dating pool particularly for certain groups that might not have as many offline romantic opportunities.
"Online dating is used most by subpopulations that don't have a great number of potential partners available to meet in their everyday life," Thomas told Discovery News. "This can include people in their 30s and 40s, populations that are largely already coupled, or minority sexualities."
However, sites like Match, OkCupid and eHarmony aren't necessarily bringing more people together overall.
"The rate of partnering doesn't seem to be changing," Thomas said. "When we look at data on women's sexuality over the past few decades, they seem to be no more likely to be in a relationship now than before."
Rather, the statistics indicate that they've evolved into replacements for offline social dating outlets.
At the same time, some people remain distrustful of all those glowing online dating profiles promising the perfect guy or gal, despite nearly a quarter of American adult couples meeting online these days.
And in reality, what you see online probably isn't exactly what you'll get offline.
Rutgers communications assistant professor Jennifer Gibbs has studied online dating patterns and has noticed that people feel a tug-of-war between creating ideal profiles to stand out from the crowd or building more accurate profiles that risk getting lost in the enormous online dating market.
"I think we do the same thing in the real world when we write a resume or in a job interview, you try to embellish and exaggerate the positive sides and mask the negative qualities," Gibbs said.
Some online daters try to game the system slightly by fudging their ages or weight to prevent getting filtered out in demographic searches as well. And certainly, minor "flaws" can become magnified online, compared to real world interactions.
"When you meet someone face to face you might not know exactly how old they are, but online you might develop these stringent criteria, like ‘if you're 35, I'll date you, but if you're 36, forget it'," Gibbs explained.
On the flip side, putting too much stock into someone with a seemingly perfect online profile and with whom you have an easy Web rapport can also lead to offline disappointment. Researchers refer to that tendency to idealize people based on the bits and pieces of information they share online as the "hyperpersonal effect."
"There's been some research that's found the longer people communicate online before meeting face to face, the more like the first date is to result in rejection because they build up this fantasy persona of this person that might be hard to live up to," Gibbs said.
So while statistically online dating certainly works, with more than 10 million American couples as proof, it's important to grasp the difference between what Gibbs calls online "relationshopping" and offline "relationshipping."
Essentially, online dating sites provide a marketplace to easily shop around and find interesting people to meet, but building lasting relationships requires more offline maintenance.
"Online dating sites are all about bringing people together, and sometimes it forms this illusion that with a few clicks of the mouse you can find your soul mate," Gibbs said. "But really, that's just the first step, and to get to know the person there's a process of developing a relationship."
And Gibbs would know. The communications researcher met her husband on Match.com.
Photo: CJ Burton/Corbis