Unlike eHarmony.com and Chemistry.com, which are matchmaking sites, the majority of dating sites take a self-service approach. They expect users to search through profiles on their own for compatible singles according to parameters like geographic area and age. Despite this being a time-consuming process, self-searching gives users more control. Another benefit of this type of dating site is the profile process, which may take just a few minutes to set up.
How you search for matches depends on your approach to compatibility. Some believe that personality is extremely important, and for these people, many of the more popular dating sites have some kind of matching algorithm in place. Obviously, it can't compare to matchmaking sites that employ "relationship experts" to go very deeply into compatibility and personality characteristics. If, however, you think shared interests and other demographic information are more important than personality matching, many of these dating sites allow searches by such criteria, and the best allow keyword searches that scour the entire profile rather than just certain fields.
Launched in 1995, Match.com (*Est. $35 per month) is one of the largest and most diverse dating sites, open to all sexual orientations. It was voted the best dating website and honored for best site design at the 2010 Internet Dating Conference, and was named the favorite paid dating site by more than a third of users at DatingSitesReviews.com. It's user-friendly and has flexible search capabilities (including a keyword search). There's even a mobile application and the ability to communicate anonymously by phone for extra fees.
You must pay for a one-, three- or six-month subscription to begin communication with other members. Match.com offers a guarantee with their longer six-month subscription; if you don't find someone during that time, they give you another six months free. However, you must comply with the program rules, such as communicating with at least five different members each month, to qualify.
You can set up a profile, search for matches and read profile information with free registration. Potential matches are also sent to your inbox as a free member, but reviewers and users warn that many are inactive members. Even more frustrating is the inability to know who is and who isn't before paying. Many users have been enticed to pay for a subscription only to discover that the members they're interested haven't visited the site in months. Another complaint from users involves suspicious activity once they cancel a subscription. More than a few past users report getting a flurry of matches in their inbox after canceling, when, as subscribers, they got very few. We didn't see such complaints for other services.
Long-term relationship success has been reported from some users on Match.com, but if that's not what you're looking for, Lavalife.com (*Est. $30 per month) may be a better choice. This Canadian-based company has a strong presence in the U.S. and Australia. You get a choice of three communities: relationships (for long-term relationships), dating (for more casual relationships) and intimate encounters (for sexual encounters only). You can choose to belong to any one of them (or two or three) when you sign up.
Reviewers stress that this site caters mainly to those seeking casual relationships. Reviewers at NextAdvisor.com note that "Lavalife cultivates a more playful atmosphere than most online dating sites." It's definitely useful, though, to be able to indicate your level of seriousness up front. Creating a profile, searching and reading profiles are all free, but there's an added bonus on this dating site: You can reply to emails and instant messages from paying members without subscribing. Lavalife.com also reveals a member's last login date, letting you see right away who hasn't been active for weeks or even months.
No dating site is without flaws, though. The site's openness about intimate encounters may well draw greater danger for female users. The female editor at NextAdvisor.com describes the community on Lavalife.com as "a nightmare list of guys walking the line between desperate and creepy." The company doesn't do any kind of screening, so extra caution is necessary -- as is recommended for all online dating sites. Lavalife.com is skewed towards the younger set with most people currently under 30 years old.
Like Lavalife.com, non-paying members on Zoosk.com (*Est. $30 per month) can reply to emails or instant messages sent by paying members. They can even send an "icebreaker" (prewritten) question. Launched in December 2007, Zoosk.com began as a Facebook application and is growing in popularity, especially among younger (under 30) singles. Given its origins, it's no surprise that Zoosk.com integrates particularly well with other social networks and can even pull information from them to make the profile-creation process easier. It has more of a social-network feel to it, with the ability to give Twitter-like "status updates" and have your friends write "testimonials" to your character.
However, if you don't fall into the under-30 range, this site may not be a good value. Free membership does get you a profile, an initial "wink" or "icebreaker" message and the option to reply to messages from paying members (though only if you've uploaded a picture). However, you do have to pay to chat, to see who's viewed your profile and to use Zoosk.com's mobile application. The system doesn't have a matching algorithm, so you have to do all searching by hand, which can get tedious and time-consuming.