Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
Melissa Arseniuk, 30, isn't leaving her dating life to chance. She's a paying member of the dating websiteHowAboutWeand also uses the mobile appSinglesAroundMe. Arseniuk, a writer in New York, plunged into both about six months ago after the end of a three-year relationship. She says the phone app is particularly handy.
"I could be at a coffee shop or meeting a girlfriend and she's running late, so I could fire up the app and see who's around," she says. "It's kind of a good supplement to the more traditional Web-based dating sites. It's about exploring all avenues and putting yourself out there."
As online dating revolutionized romance in America over the past decade, the proliferation of dating apps is now taking love to a whole new level, remaking an industry that's expected to reach $1.2 billion this year. The mobile dating segment is projected to double its revenue over the next five years.
This Valentine's Day, fewer singles searching for love are tethered to laptops or those other technological relics: desktops. Just as other industries have watched online traffic and business migrate from the Web to mobile devices, the dating industry has been rolling out apps that are connecting hearts, and breaking them, in surprising new ways and splintering an audience once captured almost exclusively by the goliaths of online dating.
"I see the industry breaking off into a billion different directions," says Marc Lesnick, founder of iDate, an annual trade show for the online dating industry.
If you have a specific dating need to be fulfilled -- from the sacred to the scandalous -- there's probably a site for you, many with their own apps as well. The niches range from ethnic, religious or age-based to sites for occupations (FarmersOnly.com) or eating preferences (VeggieDate.org). For gay men, there'sGrindr.comand a site launched in December calledStagg.
"I love the siteDateMyPet. The idea is you like pets and I like pets. That's the level it's gone," Lesnick says. "It's everything you can imagine now. That's where it's heading."
Among the satisfied customers are Melissa Levine, 27, a physician assistant, and Corey Pew, 29, an engineer. They met on the niche siteJDate, for Jewish singles, and will marry next month.
"As an engineer, you don't meet a whole lot of girls on a daily basis," says Pew, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In 2010, he moved to Austin. Levine was moving there as well and started looking online for Austin daters. She had tried JDate after college graduation and "ended up going on horrible dates."
"One guy was talking about the mating of bees for three hours straight," says Levine, now also of Seattle. "Most of my friends -- when they would tell me stories, they are not good stories about dating online. Weird, weird guys."
Until Pew. "I met him three days after I moved to Austin. I was talking to two guys on JDate at the time and planning on meeting both. I went on the date with Corey first and canceled the other date," Levine says.
In less than two decades, online dating has soared and is "in the growth phase of its economic life cycle," says an IBISWorld report. Though 18- to 29-year-olds make up the biggest chunk of users, with 30- to 49-year-olds next in line, demand is expected to increase with the north-of-50 crowd, too. More than one-third of Baby Boomers are unmarried, and as more and more migrate to the digital world, the industry is beginning to target this unattached and largely underserved market.
Just as the social stigma of "online dating" has begun to fade, the name itself might also go the way of dial-up Internet service. With the dating industry moving so rapidly, the phrase "online dating" will soon disappear from the lexicon, says Sam Yagan, CEO of Match, Inc., which oversees sites such asMatch.com,Chemistry.com and all online dating operations for the global operations of its parent company, IAC.
"It's all converging so quickly that the idea of differentiating online and offline in five years will be anachronistic," he says.
Whether it's an app for a dating website or a dating app alone, mobile is "leading the industry's growth," says Caitlin Moldvay, a senior industry analyst at IBISWorld, based in Santa Monica, Calif. She calls 2011 "a significant milestone -- it was the first year people spent more time on dating apps than on dating sites. It was a huge change from the year before."
It's also heading to even bigger money. Last year, the mobile dating market reported revenue of almost $213 million, up 29% from the previous year, according to market research company IBISWorld. In the next five years, revenue is expected to nearly double to more than $415 million.
Nielsen reports that the number of Americans using apps or a mobile version of a dating website was 13.7 million in November 2012, more than double the previous year's 5.8 million.
These apps are downloaded free, but communication with others on paid sites requires a subscription, which entitles users to the same access -- online or mobile.
"We're trying to mirror real life as best we can," says Chris Klotz, 46, founder of SinglesAroundMe, one of the first location-based mobile dating apps for smartphones, launched in 2010. "It's a natural evolution of online dating."
But the shifting traffic is a sign of strength rather than weakness, experts say.As the focus has shifted to apps, the online dating website category has seen a drop in visitors over the past two years. About 22.9 million people visited dating websites in January 2012, down from 29.3 million in January 2011, according to ComScore, which tracks website traffic from computers separately from mobile devices.
"The goal of dating sites is to eventually meet in person with another person. That makes it inherently local and mobile," says Yagan, 35, of New York, who co-founded the free dating siteOkCupid, which launched in 2004 and is now part of IAC. Last month, OkCupid launchedCrazy Blind Date, a mobile app that arranges blind dates with just a few hours' notice and allows singles to provide real-time feedback.
Part of IAC's strategy has been to purchase niche dating sites, with 37 brands in more than 25 countries now under its umbrella. IAC acquiredDateHookuplast year, OkCupid in 2011,Singlesnetin 2010 and People Media -- which includes sites such asSingleParentMeet,DivorcedPeopleMeetandInterracialPeopleMeet-- in 2009. IBISWorld says IAC alone accounts for 24% of the dating services industry revenue.
What happensafterpeople are connected via apps or dating sites is more difficult to quantify. Some sites, such aseHarmony, do more than collect profiles of singles shopping for a date. They have users fill out detailed questionnaires about their personalities and what they want in a potential match. The site pairs them up using proprietary compatibility algorithms.
Although research published last year found "no compelling evidence" that such matching software better predicts compatibility, one can't help but wonder how many online matches actually lead to the altar.
Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, of Stanford University, set about to answer this question. His new analysis of nationally representative data found that of 926 unmarried couples followed from 2009 to 2011, those who met online were twice as likely to marry as those who met offline, with a yearly marriage rate of 13% compared to 6%. Rosenfeld's earlier research has found that about one in five new relationships began online.
The eHarmony site touts that, on average, 542 Americans get married each day after meeting on its site; that represents almost 5% of all new U.S. marriages. The findings are based on a 2009 Harris Interactive online survey of 7,994 adults ages 20-54 who were married between January 1, 2008 and June 30, 2009.
TOP 5 MOBILE DATING APPS
Total unique visitors ages 18 and up:
1. POF (PlentyOfFish) sites: 1,698,000
2. Skout.com: 1,397,000
3. Zoosk.com: 1,203,000
4. eHarmony: 535,000
5. Match.com sites: 330,000
Source: ComScore, December 2012
Founder Neil Clark Warren, 78, acknowledges a "significant lag" in business over the past few years, and he is aiming for rejuvenation by transforming eHarmony into more of a "relationship site" that will help sustain couples who met on eHarmony. The company's mobile app, launched in 2010, is key to this revival.
"We started losing subscribers at a rapid rate," Warren says. "We've turned that around now and are going to gain those people back again."
The challenge for the industry long term, experts suggest, is that its goals -- making money and growing an audience -- are somewhat at odds with those of its customers.
"It is kind of a weird category," says Peter Farago, marketing vice president at Flurry Analytics, a firm that analyzes smartphone and app activity. "Success for the consumer is they pair off and meet someone and no longer use the service."
Lesnick says the typical online dater stays with a service two to four months -- paying an average of $20 a month (some as high as $60) -- and then is gone.
"They'd love to keep them all year long, but the reality is they've either found someone and they don't need the service anymore or they didn't find anybody and are frustrated with it," Lesnick says. "That's been a problem since Day 1. How do we extend that time period?"
Valeri Ziegler, 54, of Santa Paula, Calif., who was married 23 years before her 2009 divorce, has tried online dating off and on for a few years. She's tried free sites and paying sites and now says "I just don't have the energy for it." But because she still gets e-mail from HowAboutWe and weekly updates from PlentyofFish, she pays some attention.
"You get to say if you're intrigued or interested, and that's about the extent of my looking now," she says.
As with other world-changing technologies, part of the appeal of apps is speed.
"People should try to get to that face-to-face meeting as soon as they can," says psychologist Paul Eastwick, an assistant professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. His research found that the wish list of traits when searching online for a romantic partner doesn't matter as much as you might think.
Once you've met in person, you stop using your wish list to evaluate the person, he says, citing a 2011 study he co-authored that was published in theJournal of Personality and Social Psychology.
"When you meet somebody you have a gut reaction to that person and that drives whether we pursue somebody romantically or not. Chemistry -- you can assess that in four minutes. That is the thing driving your responses," Eastwick says.
Mark Brooks, a consultant who has studied the industry from its infancy, says the online and mobile dating industry is more than just a business: "Going from where it is now and where it's going to be in the next 20 or 30 years time, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a business -- outside of the medical industry -- that will have more impact on society."