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Online dating - John C. Kirk

Dec. 16th, 2012

02:35 am - Online dating

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Back in 2008, I had a go at online dating; I mainly used Guardian Soulmates, but I briefly tried out Penguin Dating. I've been having another go recently, with mixed success, so this seems like a good time to review the different sites I've looked at.

As a general point, these sites all work by allowing me to search through a database of members. There are some other sites (e.g. eHarmony) where the website pairs you up with potential matches, but I'm not so keen on that approach because it's out of my control. I've heard some suggestions that the website will be silent for a month, then send you new matches just when it's time to renew your membership; I don't know how true that is, but I'm also not interested in finding out.

Guardian Soulmates

I'm not a regular Guardian reader, but I sometimes look at articles on their website and they're probably the closest to my political views (woolly middle class liberal). When I used their "Soulmates" site in 2008, they'd bought a standard template, but they've now replaced it with their own custom version. This gives them more control over it, e.g. they've got rid of the questions that ask "How intelligent are you?" and "How attractive are you?"

Unlike some other websites, this is primarily aimed at people in the UK. Even when I've created a full profile, I still have 1500 potential matches. There are lots of multiple choice questions, both for who I am and who I'm looking for. For each question in the "Who you're looking for" section, I have to specify how important this is: there's a 5 point scale between "Not important" and "Essential". Personally, I'd like a way to repeat categories, e.g. "It's essential for someone to be at least 5'2" and I'd ideally like them to be at least 5'8"" However, I realise that this would be a bit more complicated and might confuse people.

You can see most info on each profile without logging in, but I think they limit you to a certain quota (5 per month?). This is probably based on IP address. Once I created a free profile, I could view as many profiles as I liked (including all photos), and it would show me a compatibility rating for each person. I could also "Like" people: this would add them to a bookmark list, and notify them of my interest. If they contacted me, I could read the message and reply from a preset list of 1-liners:



So, the main reason to pay for the site is to send proper messages to people.

As a free member, you can view all your matches (ranked by compatibility). You can also search by keyword, and limit the results by age/gender/location. This is a useful way to find info in the "free text" section of profiles. The less common the word, the better; I met one interesting person by searching on "hamster". As a paid member, you can also do an advanced search, and save these searches for later. This is a workaround for duplicating categories, e.g. I could specify an essential height in my profile and then specify the ideal height in a custom search.

As well as drop-down lists, there are a few categories where you can tick all options that apply, e.g. what type of books you read. That information isn't searchable at the moment, which is a pity. It will show up if you search by keyword, but that also leads to false positives, e.g. if I search for "cycling" then I might find someone's profile that says "I hate cycling".

Once I'd been on the site for a while, and found a few people I'd like to contact, I signed up for paid membership. Here are the current prices:

Guardian prices

I initially signed up for 3 months, and they then charged me £21.33 for my 4th month as promised.

During this time, I sent out quite a few messages, but most people didn't reply; in some cases, I could see that they'd logged into the site but they hadn't even read my message. If people aren't interested, that's absolutely fine, but I'd prefer them to tell me rather than leaving me hanging. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe some people are so popular that they're the equivalent of celebrities on Twitter, where it's physically impossible for them to keep up with all incoming messages. I contacted tech support and suggested that it would be useful to add a statistic to each person's profile, showing what proportion of messages they reply to. Anyone who was new to the site would start out at 100% (no messages, no replies), and they would only have to reply once to each person to stay at 100% (not once per message); a 1-liner would qualify. If someone sent an inappropriate message and the recipient reported it to the site admins, that would also count as replying for the purposes of this statistic. If the site implemented this suggestion, other people could then make an informed choice: is it worth contacting this person, or is my message likely to be buried in the flood? Potentially this could be built into the filter as well, e.g. "I only want to see people who reply to at least 50% of their messages." I got a generic reply from tech support saying "Thank you for your suggestion", so I don't know whether anything will come of this.
Edit: The Cupid on Trial experiment set up several fake profiles (male and female), and it shows how many messages the women received compared to men.

During my 4th month, I turned off auto-renew on my account. Once I'd done that, there was no way to resubscribe until my paid month ran out. Once it did, the price went up to £32, so their original advert is accurate. For now I'll leave my profile in free mode; if I don't get any replies to my outstanding messages then I'll probably hide or delete the profile altogether. (Hiding is basically the same as deleting, except that you can "undelete" later rather than retyping everything.)

This site isn't perfect, but it acts as my baseline. Since I have some geeky interests (e.g. sci-fi and comics) I then thought that I might do better with a niche site.

Edit (Feb 2015): I hid my profile a while ago, but they still email me every so often asking me to come back; these messages often contain discounts. (I could opt out of their mailing list if I wanted to, but I haven't taken that final step yet.) If you're not on their list and you're thinking about signing up, you may want to take a look at the Dating Price Guide website, which also lists discounts. I haven't actually used that site, and their discounts are lower than the offers I've received (e.g. 20% on the website vs. 50% by email), but the people who run the site seem friendly. (Unlike most of the spam I get, they demonstrated that they'd actually read this blog post!)

SoulGeek

I actually signed up to this one several years ago, but I just "lurked" after that and never completed a full profile (e.g. I didn't upload a photo). It's free, and the people who run it seem to be genuinely altruistic. However, almost everyone who's registered there is from the USA, so it's not very relevant to me. They sent out emails every so often to warn everyone about dodgy profiles, e.g. "There's a waste of space called X. If you get a message from this account, just ignore it." That always struck me as odd; if they knew which profile was dodgy, why not just delete it? That wouldn't stop the person from creating a new profile, but then the warning would be obsolete anyway. When I deleted my account, there was no automated method for that: I had to send them a message, telling them why I wanted to leave, then the site admins dealt with it manually. Again, they were very nice about it and wished me luck for the future, but I do think their website would benefit from some technical work.

Seek a Geek

I heard about this online: apparently it's run by the same people as the Den of Geek website. However, I wasn't impressed. I got a message within 2 hours, from someone who lives 50 miles away, but I couldn't read it unless I paid for an account. Similarly, there's no meaningful search option without paying for an upgrade. Since I hadn't put in a photo or any text blurb, I doubt that the other person got much sense of who I am. None of the multiple choice options have anything to do with geek topics, and none of the blurbs I looked at mention them either.

It seems to be similar to Penguin Dating, i.e. a custom front-end to a shared database (White Label Dating). So, I cancelled my account the same day that I created it. There wasn't an obvious way to do this: I had to follow the "support message" link from an email they sent me (asking why I hadn't upgraded), then click "Delete My Account" on that page.
Edit: My Vegetarian Dating is another front-end to White Label Dating.

Personally, I think that any site which acts as a front-end for a shared database should declare that prominently on the front page.

Geek2Geek

You can view profiles without logging in, and do a search based on gender/age/location. However, you need to create a profile to specify advanced options, e.g. filtering out the people who haven't logged in for the past 6 months. In theory this is free, but they gave me a hard sell to pay for membership at the end of the process:

Prices

The basic implication was "If you do this later it will cost you twice as much." Normally I'd tweak my profile after creating it, and see whether I have any compatible matches, but in this case I signed up for 1 month's Gold membership.

This site definitely has a US bias, and they're happy for me to say "I'm married and I want to meet other married people". That seems a bit iffy, although you can say that you're only looking for friendship rather than romance.

There are several multiple choice questions in the "About My Match" section. Unlike the Guardian site, there's no way to specify how important each criterion is. Instead, you just pick the 3 most important categories when you get to the end; I specified Tobacco, Relationship Status, and Distance (in that order). There isn't an option to specify diet (e.g. vegetarian), but they do have multiple-choice questions for personality type (e.g. INTP) and "areas of interest" (e.g. Tolkien, Star Trek).

After I signed up, it said I had 0 matches. It also said: "Please check back tomorrow, the system will try to find new matches for you tonight!" So, this website seems to recalculate compatibility as a scheduled task, whereas the Guardian site does it on the fly.

The following day, I did have a match. However, when I clicked through I noticed that she was a regular smoker. I queried this with support, and they said: "The automatic matching system trys to find some matches for you. If it cannot, it starts removing criteria until it gets some." I'd say that smoking is my only "deal breaker", so I'm not impressed that their website would cheerfully ignore it; I'm just glad that I spotted that line before I sent her a message, otherwise it would have been embarrassing for both of us.

Their website also suggests "out of area matches". See whether anything strikes you as unusual about this one (photo redacted):

Geekette near Montreal

Apparently it's only 121 miles from London to Quebec! When I clicked through to her profile, it said "Approx. 5336 mi from you". That sounds more plausible, given that England and Canada are separated by the Atlantic Ocean. I've seen the same problem in reverse on other profiles, i.e. claiming that people in London are thousands of miles away. It's also odd that I get different results from the same profile on different parts of the website; this implies that they're not reusing their code properly. So, back to tech support. They replied: "Geek 2 Geek uses google geocodes. If google has not updated their geocodes that may cause the errors in locations."

Hmm. I suppose it's possible that Google have made a mistake, but I'm more inclined to blame this website. Since the distance keeps changing, I assume that Gk2Gk are retrieving the geocodes each time I display a profile and then calculating the distance on the fly. I criticised them above for doing overnight calculations, but in this case I think that it would be better to store the geocode each time someone updates their profile (specifically their location) rather than hitting Google every time. After all, how often are people going to move? I don't know exactly how the Gk2Gk website works behind the scenes, but I do know that recent versions of SQL Server can store spatial data and have functions to calculate distance.

Digressing slightly, I've done a bit of website development but I wouldn't apply for a job doing it professionally because I don't think I'm good enough. So, it bothers me when I see people who are doing this for a living and know less than I do. As another example of a dodgy interface, each time I contact tech support I have to enter all my contact info (e.g. email address). Since I'm logged in, they should have that information already! At the very least, they should auto-complete the form, then allow me to correct anything that's out of date, but I'd prefer them just to assume that my profile is accurate and skip all those boxes.

Since I joined this website, I've only seen 1 vaguely relevant profile. There are some "good" profiles there, i.e. people who I think I'd get on well with, but they're all based in America. So, this website may be useful to Americans, but I don't recommend it to people in the UK.

I turned off auto-renewal on my profile, and my paid month has now expired. However, they say that for "a limited time" the same prices are still available. I now suspect that this is the equivalent of a DFS sale, i.e. the discount applies almost all the time. So, the only reason I haven't completely deleted my profile yet is that I'm curious to see if/when they raise their prices.




There are also a couple of other sites that I've glanced at but haven't tried. (I keep seeing adverts for these on Facebook, presumably based on what I've put in my profile.)

Uniform Dating

Their tagline is: "Online Dating for anyone who works in uniform or fancies those who do!" In theory, this has potential. I spend a lot of my time doing volunteer work with St John Ambulance, which does take its toll on my social life, so I might have more in common with other people in uniform (e.g. working at weekends). I can also understand why they might want to pair up people in uniform with people who just like it. The snag is that you'll presumably end up with lots of non-uniformed people looking at each other's profiles; there's nothing wrong with that, but then this site loses its unique appeal.

Fitness Singles

I do a lot of cycling and a bit of outdoor swimming, so it would be nice to have an "activity buddy". On the other hand, I'm not a super athlete, so people who routinely take part in triathlons would probably get fed up of me slowing them down.

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