More adults than ever are turning to dating sites and apps
Finding your soul mate might be one of life's trickiest journeys, but technology can lend a helping hand. Online dating has become mainstream, letting users find and get to know potential matches from a safe distance before arranging a face-to-face encounter. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that in 2015, 15 percent of U.S. adults said they had used an online dating site or app, up from 11 percent in 2013.
Despite the surging popularity of online dating, there has been little change in traditional web-based dating sites. The big names, including Match.com, eHarmony.com and OkCupid.com, have retained their popularity and lodged modest growth. However, users -- particularly younger ones -- have been flocking to numerous free dating apps including the most popular, Tinder.
Plenty of people have met and married because of online dating -- 29 percent of people know someone who met their spouse or a long-term partner this way, according to Pew -- but others report frustration and disappointment with the experience. Negative user reviews of online dating sites far outweigh positive ones. Common issues include dishonest profiles and scammers. Some also complain about sites inflating subscriber numbers, making people who sign up think they'll have plenty of choices, when most of the users are actually inactive. And nearly all sites with a subscription-based payment model draw criticism for their automatic subscription renewals, which users say are sneaky and hard to cancel.
The best online dating sites cater to a wide range of users
The most popular online dating sites allow members to search within a certain area for suitable matches based on what's important to them, such as age, education or religion. Members can evaluate potential dates by reading their profiles, which typically include several photos and a statement about what that person is looking for in a mate. Some of these sites also suggest other users based on profile information. Most services charge a monthly fee for a subscription period of one month to a year if you want to be able to contact other members.
Free dating sites let you try online dating with no financial commitment
If you're just not sure you want to commit to a monthly subscription, you may want to try a free dating site. These sites don't make you pay to communicate with other members, though some may offer premium features that you do need to pay for. Features vary widely, but experts warn you should be more on your guard for scammers on free sites. You may also find fewer people looking for something serious on these sites.
Matchmaking sites may be better for serious relationships
Matchmaking websites take a more scientific approach than search-driven online dating sites by hiring notable consultants to create compatibility or personality questionnaires. Users must fill out one of these in its entirety before they can create a profile. Typically, the pairing up is done for you based on your answers, though some matchmaking sites also allow users to search profiles for themselves. Generally, matchmaking websites are considered a better route for singles looking for a long-term relationship since users must be more invested in the process to join. The fee structure is typically similar to that of other online dating sites -- while you may be able to browse for free, you'll need to subscribe to contact another member.
Dating apps focus on ease of use
While most dating sites have their own apps, there are several app-only services that have attracted users with their elegant, easy-to-use interfaces. Approving a match can be as simple as swiping the screen with your finger. Many of these apps also aim to ease users' security concerns by mining their existing friend networks or requiring users to send current "selfies" to verify their profile pictures. Dating apps may be the best choice for younger users in bigger cities, where they're most likely to find a good number of other users. Most are free, but some offer premium features you can pay for.
How we chose the best online dating sites
There are dozens of expert reviews and roundups of dating sites, many of which involve hands-on testing. The most helpful include detailed comparative reviews and rankings based on real-world usage from sites including AskMen.com, PCWorld.com and NextAdvisor.com. Thorough expert roundups from sites such as DigitalTrends.com and LifeHacker.com were also helpful, even if they didn't involve rankings. User reviews of online dating sites are harder to evaluate, as they tend to be highly negative. We found the largest collections of user reviews at SiteJabber.com and ConsumerAffairs.com. To evaluate reviews, we focused on membership, ease of use, features, cost and security of each site or app.
Best Dating Sites
Dating sites let you do the searching
Traditional dating sites let you control your own destiny -- you search for other members using your own criteria, and you contact them how and when you see fit. These sites sometimes attract more members because they can be easier to join than matchmaking sites, but, on the flipside, that means not everyone is looking for a serious relationship.
Match.com is one of the biggest, longest-running online dating sites out there. Started in 1995, it had nearly 2.4 million North American subscribers in 2015. Members skew a bit older: Match.com says only 17 percent of U.S. members are 30 and under, while 52 percent are 30 to 49, and 31 percent are over 50, its fastest-growing demographic. Eighty-four percent of members say they have at least some college or a college degree. Most experts agree that Match.com and its detailed profiles are good for anyone who wants more than a fling. As editors of AskMen.com say, Match.com is "certainly not geared towards hookups or casual dating. Members include people who are looking for a serious relationship or marriage."
Though its interface is a bit dated and busy, experts with PCMag.com praise the "highly detailed search options" that make it easier to find better dates. Joining Match.com is free -- you can create a profile, browse and search others' profiles, and "wink" at other members without paying. However, if someone catches your eye, you must pay for a one-, three-, six- or 12-month subscription to communicate with other members (Est. $41.99, $23.99, $19.99 or $17.99 per month, respectively). Match.com offers a guarantee with its six-month subscription: If you don't find someone during that time, they will give you another six months free. However, you must comply with certain rules, including communicating with at least five different members via email each month. If you want to try the site for free, email promotions sometimes yield a free-trial offer that lets you have full access for a few days. There are mobile apps for iOS and Android phones as well as Amazon devices such as the Kindle Fire.
As a free member, potential matches are sent to your inbox, but reviewers and users warn that many are inactive members, and you can't find out who is an active subscriber until you sign up. Additionally, more than a few past users report getting a flurry of matches in their inbox after canceling when, as subscribers, they got very few. There's no certain way to know how many of the members are inactive, but in 2012, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit alleging that more than half of member profiles were inactive or fake. A more recent class-action lawsuit alleging Match.com creates fake profiles to entice members was dismissed in 2014. Match.com screens its subscribers against national sex offender registries and provides several safety tips on its website.
While Match.com offers the chance to find a committed relationship, getting started and searching for dates can be quite a commitment. Major competitor Zoosk.com (Est. $29.95 per month) takes a more low-key approach, feeding you better matches as you simply click on profiles you like. It's "ideal for people who don't want to get bogged down in questionnaires and profile-building, but still want the benefit of a matching algorithm," say AskMen.com editors. The site claims 33 million visible profiles, of which 650,000 were paying subscribers in 2013. The company doesn't publish a demographic breakdown, but users skew younger and tend to be looking for more casual relationships, experts say.
Zoosk.com has a cleaner, more intuitive interface than Match.com that draws a lot of inspiration from social networking sites. As you use the site more, you'll receive more tailored recommendations. Like Match.com, Zoosk.com allows you to sign up and browse members' profiles for free, but you'll need to purchase a subscription to communicate with potential dates. This includes use of the site's chat function. Subscriptions are available for one month, three months and six months (Est. $29.95, $19.98 and $12.49 per month, respectively). You can also buy or earn "Zoosk coins" regardless of whether you have a subscription to do things like boost your profile visibility and see whether members have read your messages. There is no money-back guarantee. Apps are available for iOS and Android devices.
Some reviewers complain that Zoosk.com sends way too many emails and texts regarding activity on the site, though potential members should note that they can opt out of such messages. Many reviewers also say that it's hard to tell whether members have paid subscriptions, leading them to try contacting people who have no way of receiving their messages. Others don't like being pressured into buying coins for other features even after they've paid for a subscription. As for safety, Zoosk.com has an extensive online-dating security guide on its site, but says it "does not routinely screen our members" against any sort of database, unlike Match.com.
Free dating sites keep money in your pocket
While many dating sites follow a subscription-based model that requires you to pay to communicate with other members, some allow you to do so for free. Free sites typically make money via ads or selling members upgrades that unlock additional features. While free sites have undeniable appeal, consider the flip side -- since it's easy to join, they may attract many users who only want a fling, or worse, scammers who have eyes only for your wallet.
If you feel like too many dating sites emphasize beauty over brains, OkCupid.com gives you a chance to show off your quirky side in hopes of finding a kindred spirit. One of its main features is matchmaking questions that sometimes err a bit on the goofier side ("Which would you rather be? Normal or weird?") that also allow you to explain your answers. The site "seems to resonate with a younger crowd," say AskMen.com editors. Launched in 2004, the site had 12 million users in 2014, according to Bloomberg, and their median age was 29. Eighty-five percent were college-educated. Experts say users are looking for a range of relationships here, but are more interested in casual relationships than some other dating sites, such as Match.com, for instance.
Aside from completing its questionnaire, OkCupid.com also lets you write a profile essay and conduct your own search for others using criteria including age, location, marital status and sexual preference. Unlike sites such as Match.com and Zoosk.com, OkCupid.com lets you communicate with other members for free; a chat feature is included in the site. A number of advanced features are available if you sign up for a premium "A-List" membership (Est. $9.95 per month for six months), including advanced search options, invisible browsing and ad-free viewing.
Reviewers warn that the ability to use OkCupid.com for free means scammers have free reign here -- there are many tales of users coming on strong, and eventually asking for personal details and money. On the plus side, OkCupid.com doesn't collect your real name, and your profile is available only to OkCupid.com users who are signed in to the site. Unlike most other online dating sites, you can see the last time someone was online, so you can tell if a match has been inactive for a while. You can also browse anonymously, but then you can't see who's viewed your own profile unless you have an A-List subscription. Though there are safety tips on the site, OkCupid.com says it does not screen its members in any way.
Another free site, PlentyOfFish.com (free), claims to be "the world's largest dating site, with 90 million registered users." That's a staggering number, but how many of those accounts are active is unclear; the site does say more than 3.5 million people log on every day. There is a broad age range: the site says 20 percent of users are 18 to 24, 38 percent are 25 to 34, 22 percent are 35 to 44, and 20 percent are 45 or older. Experts say the huge user base sets PlentyOfFish.com apart, but they warn that quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Users indicate this might be a better place for casual dating instead of serious relationships.
PlentyOfFish.com isn't known for its interface, which is rather dated and "difficult and confusing to navigate," notes Jeffery Wilson of PCWorld.com. If you can get past that, the underpinnings are solid: an in-depth personality test helps provide you better matches, or you can use a detailed search function to show potential dates based on anything from basics (age, ethnicity, relationship type) to very specific criteria (personality type, car ownership, level of self-confidence and ambition). As with OkCupid.com, it's free to communicate with others, but there's a premium membership that adds additional features (Est. $12.75 per month for four months). Those include getting your profile highlighted in searches, skipping ads, and seeing whether your emails were read.
Again, one of the dangers of free sites like PlentyOfFish.com is that the low threshold for joining means it's easy for potential scammers to hop on, too. Reviewers also report another common problem: Many users aren't active and may not respond if you message them. There are safety tips on the site, consisting of pretty basic precautions that anyone on any dating site should take. Like OkCupid.com, PlentyOfFish.com does not perform background checks or screen members in any way.