Looking for Love in All the Online Places

When business goes bust, hearts go boom. That's the romantic theory behind why the online dating industry appears to be thriving in the recession.

One of the most popular pay sites, Match.com, in 2008 had its strongest fourth quarter in seven years. The last time a lift like that occurred was on 2001, after 9/11.

But high anxiety might play less of a role in the increase than do economic issues. The unemployed having more time to troll around online, and the budget-minded preferring free laptop cruising to $9-martini nightspots. Whatever the motivation, many of the most popular dating sites saw unprecedented gains as the recession loomed and set in.

Evidence that this busier beehive is related to the economy: When the stock market tanks, dating-site traffic spikes. From September 2008 to January, monthly eHarmony registrations rose by an average of 20 percent compared with the same period the previous year. Match.com reported 16 and 17 percent increases in November and December, respectively.

Fees range from $20 to $60 at those two sites. At popular free sites, the number of unique visitors rose much more: Visits to Plentyoffish.com increased 32 percent from November to January, and OKCupid rose 104 percent from December 2007 to December 2008.

New memberships at many sites flattened somewhat in March, which is typical following the annual January-February jolt associated with New Year's resolutions and Valentine's Day. But the average time spent on dating sites for the third week in March was up 11 percent from last year, said Heather Dougherty, director of research for the Internet monitoring company Hitwise. She also noted that sites are more visible and acceptable due to TV commercials.

Judi Taylor of St. Cloud, Minn., signed up for eHarmony last year, not long after losing her job.

"The economic times are practically forcing people to do online dating, especially for people in my age bracket, because you don't want to go to bars," said Taylor, 51. "When I was out there dating, I would often go Dutch. Guys can't afford to pay for everything."

Taylor is an online-dating success story: Within a month of being on eHarmony, she met Rick Anderson, a financial advisor.

They are now engaged. And in a true marriage of love and money, she is getting her license to join him in his financial business.

A greater desire for comfort and security seems to be driving formerly happy-to-be-single adults to the dating sites. Molly Galler of eHarmony.com said the company's research indicates that "people who are stressed about the economy may be drawn to long-term relationships even if they are not aware of it." In the site's 2008 relationship-anxiety survey, "those who said they are at least a little stressed about the economy were more likely to believe they would be in a committed, long-term relationship by the end of next year."

People don't want to wade through the nationwide anxiety alone, says Mandy Ginsburg of match.com: "During times of uncertainty, people look for someone to weather the storm with, [looking for] a little hope in their in-boxes," she said, adding that what romance seekers spend on one night out with their friends would give them a "month of possibilities" on a dating site.

Practicality Meets Emotion
Economic factors might even be a bigger reason than recession worries for the online dating boom. People who are more practical than lovelorn -- or more desperate -- figure that two household incomes are better than one, and it's less expensive to hang out at home with your significant other than to go out on the town.

For the same reason, divorces tend to decrease during economic downturns, according to national statistics. But Woodbury divorce attorney Gerald Williams hasn't noticed a slowdown, at least not yet.

"Many couples can't afford to get divorced, but they also can't afford not to," he said. "A top cause of divorce is money issues, which only get worse at a time like this, leading to more divorces. But the fact that it's expensive keeps some from doing it. So one cancels the other out."

Another type of matchmaker-for-hire is also on the up side of hard times: The service It's Just Lunch, which charges its professional clientele $1,900 a year for a guaranteed minimum 14 dates, is opening a new office in St. Cloud this year.

"The economy has probably stunted our growth some," said Sara Darling, owner of It's Just Lunch franchises in several cities. "But we still average 75 to 80 new clients a month."

What a recession is really good for, says Noel Biderman, is clandestine affairs. His Toronto-based website, ashleymadison.com, charges $49 to help arrange on-the-sly affairs. Biderman said the site has acquired 2.7 million members from the United States in the last year and a half, more than twice the number than in the previous five years.

"Love is a way to feel better about yourself for almost no cost -- not like cars or vacations," he said. "People look for external relationships to invigorate their self-worth, and those in what is called the sin businesses, like this one and alcohol, benefit from it disproportionately."

Need a place to vent about online dating woes? Check out loveinthedumps.com, an irreverent clearinghouse for advice-dispensing and kvetching.



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