Years ago, I was just out of a terrible relationship and in no mood to date again. My friends were all excited for my between-boyfriend time. I’d enjoy an exhilarating freedom – I could learn how to paint or wear yoga pants all weekend long if I wanted. Best of all, there were hundreds of online dating sites waiting for me to sign on.
There was just one problem. I didn’t want to throw myself back into the dating pool. It was exhausting, and often demoralizing. An attractive guy would send me a message. We’d meet up later that day, when I’d discover that he was (a) five inches shorter than he listed in his profile; (b) “fun-employed” and no longer looking for a job; (c) still in some kind of relationship; (d) possibly a serial killer; (e) all of the above.
I wasn’t interested in meeting dozens of single men. I just wanted to find the right man, someone who was perfect for me.
Between the time I started online dating and now, I’ve discovered exactly how dating websites work. I’ve tracked and analyzed data, spoken to computer scientists and figured out what makes certain profiles successful. I even wrote a book about what I learned – and included a final chapter written by the man who took me out on my last-ever first date.
Whether you’re creating a new profile or you’re a long-time, frustrated online dater, I have some insights that will help make your experience better. It may seem like online dating is straightforward, but what’s happening behind the scenes – and your screen – can be confusing and can often produce bizarre results.
Here are some basic answers to the questions you might be too embarrassed to ask.
1. Will anyone actually read my profile, or are they just looking at my photos?
In part because of how dating sites are designed, most of us see photos first, and that’s when we determine whether to read through the rest of a profile. It has to do more with neuroscience than superficiality. We’re drawn to photos over text, because we can process that visual information and make inferences more quickly. If you use Pinterest, which puts all its emphasis on photos, you already know the power of an image. Online retailers like Banana Republic and Zappos showcase photos of their products for good reason. It causes people to click and buy. With this in mind, think about the photos you’ve uploaded. Are they half-hearted selfies? Or do you look absolutely stunning – showing a little skin, wearing fresh makeup, looking happy?
2. I don’t want anyone to know who I am in real life. What happens if I decide not to include a photo?
Chances are extremely good that few people will click through your profile. If they do send you a message, a photo is likely to be the first thing they ask for. You need to post 2-4 casual photos of just yourself.
3. Am I really being matched with someone specifically for me, or is it all random chance?
In most cases, it’s random chance. The problem has to do with how dating sites collect and parse our data. A lot of sites ask some very basic questions, like whether you smoke or what religion you are. If you smoke a cigarette every now and again, maybe only when you’re having a cocktail, does that make you a smoker? To some people, yes. We’re all incredibly nuanced. Dating sites are built to interview you individually, and I’d hazard a guess that you’re not painting a truly accurate picture of yourself online. It’s okay – none of us do. Some sites ignore your answers and instead look at your behaviors. You might say that you’re looking for a tall businessman, but you only click on profiles compact musicians. The site will use your behavioral data and match you on that. But again, there might be a good reason you’re clicking on men who seem contrary to your stated preferences: you’re curious, you’re bored, you’re looking with a girlfriend and that happens to be her type.
There’s a much better way of matching people – asking you to describe exactly what you’re looking for in specific terms. We may fib a little when describing whether we smoke, but what incentive is there to stretch the truth about what we want in a mate?
4. I keep hearing about new mobile dating apps, like Tinder. How are they different from online dating sites? Which one should I use?
Unlike online dating sites, most mobile apps are free, require just a few seconds to set up and include a real-time geolocation feature, which is to say that they’re more immediate. They’re also photo-intensive. Set your location, age and gender preferences, and you’ll see a stream of pictures showing who’s available nearby. Just about everyone uses them for casual meetups, but some women I know claim that they’re finding significant others using apps like Tinder. If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, stick with the traditional online dating sites.
5. How much should I explain about myself in my profile?
Enough to create a curiosity gap. Think about how websites like Upworthy write their headlines, “9 Out of 10 Americans Are Complete Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.” After reading that, you want to know what the fact is, right? Use the same approach when writing your profile. Create a sense of mystery and excitement and give people a concrete reason to contact you.
6. I live in a very small town with slim pickings. Will online dating help me?
If you’re willing to expand your reach to the maximum number of miles allowed, or if you’re able to drive to the next town over, then yes. But you need to be explicit and honest about where you live early on – and you need to be willing to put in the effort to drive out to see the people you’re meeting.
7. I live in a massive city with millions of possibilities – why can’t I find anyone good online?
This may seem counterintuitive, but it can be harder to find what you’re looking for in denser geographic areas. There’s a collective “bigger better deal” phenomenon in cities. A bigger population tends to mean more people online, and choosier daters. If you’re not having any luck, try expanding your geographic zone if you’re willing to travel.
8. Why isn’t anyone contacting me? What did I do wrong?
There are many variables, so try to evaluate each one. Are you using the best possible photos? Did you write an extremely long profile? Or one that’s too short? Did you try to use sarcasm? Maybe it’s coming across as bitter rather than funny.
It’s entirely possible, though, that you’ve done nothing wrong at all and that you have a very good profile. Going in to refresh your profile once a day could potentially help, depending on the dating site you’re using. Some reward more active users with better placement (especially if they filter by last log in or update).
9. Should I buy a membership? How long is this going to take?
If you’re looking for a long-term relationship, you probably should buy at least a three-month membership. Even if you do immediately find the man of your dreams, it’ll take a few months of dating before you know whether you’re officially out of the dating pool. That said, if you know exactly what you’re looking for and you have a strategy, it may only take a few weeks. Once I had my own strategy in place, the next date I went on turned out to be my last one ever.
Amy Webb is the author of Data: A Love Story, out today in paperback.
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