You can do almost anything online these days: Check a bank balance, buy shoes, choose a mattress, order a cab. So when Roberta Caploe was ready to start dating again after a divorce, she didn’t ask her friends to fix her up or feel the need to frequent bars or health clubs. She signed up for JDate, an online dating site for Jewish singles. “All kinds of people are doing it,” says Caploe, 54, a publisher who lives in New York City. “It was—unbelievably—not a crazy experience.”

Online dating has certainly lost its lonely-hearts stigma. Just look at how many people seeking dates or mates are flocking to matchmaking sites and apps. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of American adults have used online dating sites (web-based platforms like Match.com) and/or dating apps (location-based smartphone apps like Tinder).

Participation by those 18 to 24 has almost tripled since 2013, and boomer enrollment has doubled. In fact, people over 50 are one of the fastest growing segments. “It’s a product of the growing normalcy of using social media apps,” says Moira Weigel, author of “Labor of Love: The Invention of Online Dating” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). “Our real-life and online identities are more and more interwoven.”

Because of this cultural shift, online dating sites now have unprecedented reach into our lives. They are gatekeepers to a massive population of potential partners; they control who we meet and how. Collectively, we spend huge sums of money on matchmaking, not to mention all the time and substantial emotional investment.



But do these sites really work? Are they safe? Are some better than others? Reams have been written about online dating, but as far as we know, no one has put the sites to the test.

So Consumer Reports decided to survey almost 115,000 subscribers about online dating and their experiences with it. Given that we usually rate products (like refrigerators) and services (like banking), this is new and fairly unusual territory for us. But as we explored the possibility of taking on this investigation, we discovered that 20 percent of our subscribers are either divorced or have never married, and might benefit from what we found.

Our survey included many people who at some point had used a dating website or an app, as well as a subset of 9,600 respondents who used them in the past two years. The more recently active group rated specific sites.

Our findings tell an almost contradictory story. On the one hand, the numbers indicate that these sites are helping people find mates. A whopping 44 percent of respondents who tried online dating said the experience led to a serious long-term relationship or marriage. That kind of connection rate would shatter Hall of Fame records, at least in baseball.

But the responses from the more active group suggest they’re highly frustrated. They gave online dating sites the lowest satisfaction scores Consumer Reports has ever seen for services rendered—lower even than for tech-support providers, notoriously poor performers in our ratings.

What’s going on? Well, finding a mate can be arduous and exhausting. “I was on a date with a guy who turned out to be a convicted felon. Another guy claimed to be 38 but was at least 60,” says Kate, a 33-year-old government analyst from Washington, D.C., who has used OKCupid, eHarmony, and Tinder. “Sometimes I will go on a date to see how bad it’s going to be.”

The fact is that online dating is, well, complicated. There’s a whole range of difficult human emotions to contend with: insecurity, disappointment, rejection, maybe heartache. Not to mention it’s a ton of work.

“Sometimes there is nothing that clicks whatsoever,” says Julien Nguyen, a 30-year-old software designer from Austin, Texas, who has used Bumble and Tinder. “Sometimes whatever chemistry we had just fizzles out.”

The Limitations of the Modern ‘Meet’ Market

Perhaps being in the market for a mate can’t be compared with using other services. Michael Norton, Ph.D., a professor at the Harvard Business School who studies consumer behavior, thinks so. Online dating is different from shopping for, say, a sweater, he explains: “Once you decide on the sweater you want, you can get it. But with dating, the sweater has to agree, too.”

Another reason for the low satisfaction scores may be that “most dating sites have some misalignment between profit model and user experience because they are financed through subscription fees or advertising,” says Scott Kominers, Ph.D., a junior fellow in economics at Harvard University. In other words, there’s no incentive for them to make the experience speedy. If you find your life partner on your first date, the site doesn’t make much money off you. Our survey found that among respondents who stopped online dating, 20 percent of men and 40 percent of women said they did so because they didn’t like the quality of their matches. Perhaps that’s why, among those who said they had used multiple dating sites, 28 percent had tried four or more.

But our research also found that online dating, however painful and time-consuming, often does produce the intended result if you use it well—and persevere.

What Makes a Site Successful

You can find the right person more effectively by choosing the right site, which means determining the demographics it caters to and figuring out whether a large or niche site will best serve your needs. Our survey found that OkCupid and Tinder, both free, were more popular among millennials than Generation Xers and baby boomers, who were both more likely to use a paid subscription-based dating website or app. And we found that the free sites generally did marginally better than the paid ones, presumably because they offer a better value.

“You’re generally going to be best off starting your search on the ‘Big 3’: Match.com, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish,” says Scott Valdez, founder of Virtual Dating Assistants, which helps people write their profiles and then manages their accounts. “Those are among the most popular dating sites in the world, and when you’re fishing, it just makes sense to drop your line in the most crowded ponds.”

That’s generally true unless you have a particular guiding factor, such as religion, race, or politics, in which case you can go to a niche site like JDate or BlackPeopleMeet. Kate, the government analyst, has started using Tastebuds, a site based on music preferences.

Many dating sites rely on matchmaking algorithms the same way that Netflix uses them to recommend movies. So if you live in the Denver area, you’re a single heterosexual man in his 50s who loves to travel, and you don’t believe in astrology, your matches may reflect women who have similar interests. Apps like Bumble, Grindr, or Tinder use things like your location and sexual preference. Tinder is set up more like a game, where you swipe left on photos of people you’re not interested in and right on ones you are. If the interest is mutual, you can send messages to each other. Because these apps are based on proximity and users don’t have to fill out lengthy profiles, many of them have a reputation for promoting hooking up rather than creating lasting relationships. But that can happen on any site, says Laurie Davis Edwards, a professional dating coach and founder of eFlirt in Los Angeles, which helps clients navigate the dating world. “It’s a myth that some sites are better for relationships while others are more for hookups,” she says. “There are people of different intentions on every platform. It’s more important what your intention is, and approaching the technology with that mindset.”

And even the best matches can’t account for that most ineffable of things: chemistry. Joseph Lynn, 50, was matched with a woman who seemed perfect. “We met for dinner and there was no spark between us,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You’re really a great guy. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I feel like I’m having dinner with my brother.’ I was about to say the same thing.”

Disappointment, clearly, is almost unavoidable. Our survey found that among those reluctant to try online dating, 21 percent of women and 9 percent of men said it was because they knew someone who had a bad experience. Veteran online daters become adept at realizing when a match is going nowhere. When Marc Riolo, a retired 67-year-old in Washington State, started online dating in his late 50s, “a lot of the women seemed to be shopping for a husband, just sizing me up,” he says. “I felt like I was being interviewed for the position of husband.”

It’s no wonder you often hear that people will do a few months of online dating, grow frustrated, then take a break for a few months. But persistence paid off for Riolo: He’s been dating a woman he met on Yahoo Personals for the past 9 years.

“She didn’t have an agenda; we both just wanted someone to do things with,” he says. They live separately but spend about half of the week together. “Our friends say we have the perfect relationship.”

Vince Manfredi, 61, who is divorced and works in marketing in San Diego, found that deception is all too common. “I went on a few dates with someone who claimed to be a professor,” he recalls. Where that person taught and what subject kept changing. “Finally I pressed it and found out it wasn’t truthful, and that bummed me out.”

Edwards has sensed a pattern of untruthfulness. “Baby boomers are most likely to lie about age,” she says, “while Gen Xers are most likely to fib about their income.”

Manfredi wishes the sites would offer verified information about users. But that runs counter to another user concern: privacy. Among those singles in our survey who hadn’t tried online dating, one in 10 said they’d like to give it a shot but had concerns, describing themselves as private people (50 percent), and worried about data and information security (48 percent) and scams (46 percent).

How to Protect Your Privacy

They’re not alone: Many of us are wary of the marriage of technology and our love lives. Weigel points to real-life concerns, like the data breach in 2015 of the extramarital affair site Ashley Madison, which revealed user details including email addresses. “Or I think of professor friends on Tinder who are afraid they’ll see their students,” she says. Most sites offer common-sense tips on how to protect yourself, including not sharing personal contact information right away and going on first dates in public places. And if someone asks for money, don’t send it. The FBI says Americans lost more than $82 million to online dating fraud in the last six months of 2014. 

Success in online dating requires a realistic idea of what the sites can offer and the patience to go on lots of coffee dates. “They’re made for meeting people,” says Christian Rudder, a co-founder of OkCupid. “They should be called online introductions, not online dating.”

When Caploe got back into the dating game, she tried to keep the whole endeavor fun. “It wasn’t, ‘Now I need a man to make my life complete.’ Some people look at online dating as a second job. That was definitely not me.” Her first-date strategy was to pretend it was just a business meeting, “which made it easy to go and just see what happened.”

There was the time a man messaged her on JDate and she responded that she couldn’t get together because she was having lower back pain, “which is a total baby boomer problem,” she says now, with a laugh. When they eventually met in person, she thought he was 10 times more attractive than in his photos. “We went to a gallery. We hung around in Central Park and he bought me an ice cream,” she says. “And that was it.” Today, 15 months later, they’re still going strong.


Field Guide to Popular Dating Sites



  Methodology Pros Cons
SeniorPeopleMeet online dating site logo You answer a standard personality questionnaire that emphasizes activities and interests. You can specify who can see your profile. It's simple to use, even for the tech-phobic. Setting who can see your profile is good if you're looking to date in a specific age range. There's no option to search for matches within a certain distance or ZIP code, although you can search within a state.
SeniorPeopleMeet
Format: App and Website
Cost: $15 per month for six months
Audience: For singles 55 and older.
eHarmony online dating site logo eHarmony's founder, Neil Clark Warren, patented the site's proprietary matchmaking system, which has a 155-question survey at its core. The Guided Communication process encourages users to get to know each other gradually via prompts instead of more free-form messaging. Users can't search on their own; the site sends matches based on information in profiles.
eHarmony
Format: App and Website
Cost: $20 per month for 12 months.
Audience: People who may want to take it slow and get to know each other.
Match.com online dating site logo Users fill out a questionnaire about themselves (their hair color, for example, or whether they have children) and what they're looking for (say, someone of a particular religion). It launched in 1995 and has lots of add-on services, including the ability to talk or text on your cell phone without revealing your phone number. The questionnaire is on the long side, so signing up might feel arduous.
Match.com
Format: App and Website
Cost: $21 per month for six months.
Audience: Singles ages 30+ ready to settle down.
JDate.com online dating site logo Users fill out a questionnaire that includes questions about their Jewish identity, such as whether they keep kosher. The site caters to Jews of all levels of observance. Non-Jewish members are welcome but are asked about their willingness to convert. The site’s open-arms policy may defeat the purpose of a site organized around religion.
JDate
Format: App and Website
Cost: $19 per month for six months.
Audience: Jewish singles (and those looking to meet them).
OKCupid.com online dating site logo Its motto is "We use math to find you dates." The site was founded in 2004 by four math majors from Harvard. Members generate unusual questions, such as "How often do you keep your promises?" You can rate how important the answers are to you. The profile questions can be so free-form—essay questions like "I spend a lot of time thinking about . . ."—that signing up can seem daunting. And there's advertising.
OkCupid
Format: App and Website
Cost: Free.
Audience: The site has a reputation for attracting young, hip, tech-savvy users.
Tinder online dating app logo Tinder uses a member's smartphone location to find fellow users in a set radius. Swipe left on photos of users you aren't interested in and right on those you are. If you both swipe right, you're matched and can message each other. The swiping interface is very simple to use and is almost like a game. And the double opt-in system means you won't get messages from anyone you aren't initially interested in. There's very little information on fellow users beyond pictures, so matching can feel a little shallow for relationship-minded users.
Tinder
Format: App
Cost: Free.
Audience: This location-based app, which has a reputation for finding casual romance, attracts young adults.


Your Online Dating Dictionary

DTE: “Down to earth.”

DTR or LTR: “Define the relationship” or “Label the relationship.”

Exclusive: Indicates relationship status where neither party is dating other people.

F2F: “Face to face,” or meeting up in person.

FWB and NSA: “Friends with benefits” and “No strings attached,” ways of signaling a desire for a casual physical relationship without a commitment.

IRL: “In real life,” i.e., not online.

Meet up for coffee: A short, informal date, often during the daytime.

Netflix and chill: An invitation to watch Netflix together, which has become slang for coming over to have sex.

No hookups: Hooking up is slang for any kind of casual sexual behavior, from kissing to intercourse, so “no hookups” indicates someone looking for a serious relationship.

Official and FBO: “Official” is when two people are publicly dating; “FBO” stands for “Facebook official,” i.e., when the relationship status on one’s Facebook account has been changed to reflect that a person is no longer single.

Sexting: Where sex meets texting; sending someone sexually explicit messages or photos.

Tinderella: A twist on Cinderella; popular with male Tinder users to describe the perfect match.

Click on the image to download a PDF of our exclusive ratings.

Click on the image to download a PDF of our exclusive ratings.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.