Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Kiss-Off to Online Dating

The Web 2.0 generation isn't going to hook up on eHarmony when it's cooler to scope out the action on sites like Digg and Yelp

Dear Online Dating Sites,

I am writing to tell you it's over between us. It's not you. You've been great. You've helped me connect millions of happy couples and no one can take that away.

It's just that—well, I've changed. My needs and users are different now. And you were right when you asked about my relationship with MySpace and Facebook. I can't ignore the feelings I have for them any longer. Please don't be hurt. We had a good run, and you'll always be a part of me. But I'm moving on. I hope we can still be friends.

Love always,

The Internet

That's right. I'm declaring it now: Online dating as you know it is dead. The brand of matchmaking sites that blossomed in 1990s is as good as gone. Sorry, Match.com. So long, eHarmony. Adieu, Yahoo! (YHOO) Personals.

Like so many other vestiges of the Web 1.0 era, you've been outdone by the Web 2.0 way of the world.

Time was, the ability to spouse-hunt online was just as revolutionary as seeking a job, buying a book, or any of the myriad other tasks you could accomplish with a keyboard, mouse, and on-ramp to the Information Highway. The sheer size of the Internet audience enabled lonely hearts to check out profiles of a far larger pool of people than they could offline.

Meet the Social Networking Generation

And it was effective; if you believe the dating sites, millions of couples have connected with, successfully dated, or even married people they've met online. The phenomenon lost its stigma. A cultural change among twenty- and thirty-somethings made it suddenly socially acceptable to put out a singles ad. You were not a loser; you were just busy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Web. Many of today's young adults wouldn't dream of posting a profile on one of the traditional online dating sites. "Um, we have these things in New York called bars," Patrick Mulligan, my 28-year-old editor at Penguin Group told me once when I asked him if he'd ever used the Web to meet girls. My other proxy for the young and passably hip, BusinessWeek's own Burt Helm, knows only two friends who've consciously sought love online. He admits he once posted a personal ad after one of those friends had success. But he says he quickly got embarrassed and took it down.

There's a reason Mulligan and Helm are above online dating. They're part of the social networking generation. Neither would admit to going on sites like Facebook or News Corp.'s MySpace (NWS) expressly looking to hook up. And that's precisely why it's such a better answer to the problem of meeting someone interesting. It's like going to a bar with your friends. Maybe you are going to meet someone special, but maybe you're just going to hang out with your friends too. You can play it cool. "MySpace and Facebook feel like going to a nature preserve, [whereas] a dating site is like walking past a bunch of animals in cages at the zoo," Helm says.

Traffic Patterns Confirm the Trend

Other sites that meld user-generated content with social networking to accomplish certain tasks can be even handier. Consider Yelp, where people write reviews of their favorite restaurants, bars, and other haunts, or Digg, where users vote and post comments on their favorite online stories. You can scope out Yelp or Digg users on their profile pages, which show pictures and list basic likes and dislikes. But you can really find out about them from the locations they Yelp about or stories they Digg. Both sites have features that even let you connect with fellow users based on shared traits. It's like a version of eHarmony you don't have to opt into. And while many online dating sites charge a fee, most new Web sites are free.

The trend away from traditional online dating shows up in traffic patterns too. According to comScore (COMS), the number of people visiting online dating sites dropped 6% in September from a year earlier at a time when growth has soared among social networking and user-generated sites. Some of the most prominent sites suffered the biggest declines. Unique visitors to Yahoo Personals and eHarmony fell 21%, Match.com had a 16% drop, and True.com's visitors plummeted 46%. ComScore does show some names like Plentyoffish.com growing, but these are new sites with far smaller user bases. Many of them go at online dating in a new way. Plentyoffish, for example, allows you to browse profiles for free. I doubt they'll ever get to the size or valuation of a Match.com. The Web and the way people use it have just changed too much since then.

I was among the panelists at the TechCrunch40 conference. Among the startups that debuted at the conference was WooMe.com, owner of a slick, easy-to-use, video speed-dating site. It's backed by startup royalty Niklas Zennstrom, who co-founded Kazaa, Skype, and Joost. Everyone on the panel loved it except me. Smart idea; great looking site. But big business? Nah. In subsequent PR, the company has begun to emphasize that it's not just a dating site, but also a distributor of video-introduction software that can be also used to interview prospective nannies or travel companions. Smart move.

The cultural shift from online dating to social networking and its financial repercussions isn't that different from what happened with online job hunting. In the late 1990s, digital job boards gave people an easy way to find job listings, and it was revolutionary. But how many people do you know find great jobs through the classifieds, whether online or in print? In real life, the vast majority of people find jobs through friends and referrals. LinkedIn got that. And as soon as it built a large enough network of people's real-life relationships, it launched a smarter, more human way of searching for jobs and checking references. Revenues from that business alone have made LinkedIn one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most profitable Web 2.0 businesses to date (not to mention a solid initial public offering candidate for 2008).

The Web moves fast. And sorry online dating, but you just didn't keep up. In the parlance of the kids who won't use you, you got "pwned."