Does Online Dating Actually Work?

In the second and more light hearted look at online dating, I want to help answer the question about whether it actually works. After all it is clear that so many businesses are doing very well in the online & mobile dating worlds and making money off the basic premise of people’s search for love, sex and everything in between.

So in some ways this isn’t so casual given it affects our core emotions and physical needs as a human being and to many is the cornerstone of our society and at the very least the perpetuation of our species. Given that 1 in 5 relationships already today originate this way (and fast rising), and 40 million people in the US use them then it must work right?

Well whether online dating works for the consumer really depends on how you define the word “work”. Let’s have a quick look at some of the major components of dating and how it has been impacted by the online/mobile era;

  • Finding People:
    Historically it was our associations and affiliations that dominated how we largely found the people we dated be it via friends or family or via neighborhoods, high school, college, religious institutions, work, social clubs and of course nightlife like bars. This by its very nature was limiting as didn’t allow us to meet anyone beyond our immediate 1st or 2nd degree connections for the most part who also shared a common characteristic we might desire like a hobby or religion.
    Online dating has meant we can search on any characteristic we so desire and filter to an even more granular level if we choose with height, dietary habits and of course looks before we even meet someone. It also allows us to expand beyond our natural geographic boundaries and to people who might be opposite to most of our current associations and various sites often cater to different groups. Finally from the specifications of a person’s profile, if indeed truth is being told, you can determine whether someone is in it for the long haul, a booty call, something in between or all of the above.
  • Meeting People:
    We meet people at the movies, for dinner/coffee/drinks, we go for a walk, meet at the beach or even plan an activity as the basis of a first or early date. This has not changed much in the online dating era other than maybe the original precaution of meeting someone in a public place initially given there is no personal verification of safety from yourself meeting them first or a trusted person you both know. Often a first date in both the pre and post digital era may have been preceded by a longer phone call. Additionally in the online era a lot of research may go on online prior to or during initial meetings on Social Networks or identity search sites.
    One of the two things that may have been impacted by the online era and particularly the mobile era is the speed at which the first date might happen. Via apps like Tinder, the point at the first contact via phone to the time of a meeting at a local Starbucks might be a matter of 30 mins. This actually might be a change within the internet era with mobile era with younger people differing from the match.com and more traditional online dating era. The other is the likelihood that the first encounters end up in the bedroom, although that could be as much about societal changes as it is with online dating itself.
  • Relationships:
    Regardless of how someone met, the mechanics of dating have largely remained the same other that timeline era changes. Online however means the broadcasting of ones relationship through Social Media reaches a wider audience and more becomes known in general about a given couple’s lives. Additionally validating one’s relationship on social media has become a marker point for many couples in their relationship evolution and often a new source of angst as the idea of the “exclusive” conversation was in the past. Additionally the speed and action of disabling all of one’s online dating profiles following a new relationship beginning is seen as another new major sign of commitment.
    For successful relationships be it ending in marriage/partnership or a long term relationship (great than 1 year), I doubt there has been any definitive study done on online dating vs. all other methods. However given 2% (men) and 9% (women) say they found relationships at bars, I would think online dating provides a far more efficient approach to get to a long term desired result. Although one study says it takes women up to 14 dates to fully assess a male partner versus only 3 for a male. There is of course also the gay dating world and increasingly marriage so it is probably to early to tell if results differ from any other 2 person couple.
    However while online dating and the internet era might be facilitating a more efficient way to get to end results, it also might hasten (and sometimes unnecessarily) the end of relationships. Any “successful” relationship probably has harder times but with relationships more public and broadcast online more than ever, more opinions on said relationships coming from a wider array of sources, photos and videos flying all over the world at speed of light via mobile phones and minor and major transgressions harder to hide, a rocky period might be more likely to end in failure than in the past. Some might say this is a good thing but doubt, ego, mistakes are probably hallmarks of any relationship and online dating has created new rules that is hard for us all to live up too. An online break up can have major ramifications on other areas of your life as well.

Now we have looked at the impact, back to answer the original question as to whether it actually works. I am going to use myself as the example for this exercise and OKCupid as the determinant of success. Of course this meets no standard of being statistically significant but after watching the TED talk video below of the OKCupid algorithm of suggested matching two people, I thought it sounded interesting enough to experiment with.

OKCupid was founded by 2 math major from Harvard so certainly they did not try to be frivolous when coming up with an appropriate matching algorithm for sorting through potential mates. We are going to be the priming data to see if this algorithm really works and gives a correct ROI result!

Essentially the OKCupid dating site recommends strongly you answer as many multiple choice questions as possible and then rate how important (also multiple choice) that question is to you in terms of a mate. So for example a question could be;

  • How Messy Are You? (Slob, Very, Somewhat, Tidy, Neat Freak) and then How Important is it to You? (Yes, No)

From these 2 elements of a question they attached exponential weights to the scores and multiply and compare with similar answers from others to come up with a percentage compatibility score.

Now I am in what I described as a “successful” relationship which is longer than 1 year and actually much further in advance of that. However I was curios that if we setup OKCupid profiles now and answered about 100 questions whether we would score highly in terms of our own matching.


Online dating (at least OKCupid style) works…well kind of with a few caveats. We scored a match of 91% which actually surprised me given we are very different people but possibly what we both value strongly is matching and what we differ on is not as important to us in general.

However we both also match with a few people higher than us in the (92-96%) range so we looked at least in a profile view at these “better” matches for ourselves. Of course we aren’t properly comparing and judging these people because we are not meeting them let alone over a period of time, but for the most part there were immediate deal breakers for both of us. For example with me it was things like being Vegan (I eat everything and want to share) and Want Pets (no animals unless on African safari) amongst others.

So maybe the better answer OKCupid does a reasonable job if you answer enough questions and the hidden gem is in there somewhere near the 90%+ range but may not be the top ones. Or maybe this ad hoc sample of 1 is terrible, we were just lucky and/or over time our commonalities and things we find important have become more in sync. Some might also say OKCupid and others have a vested interest in getting some people in relationships but keeping a lot of others single so they have a business so may screw around with matching.

I am an optimistic person though so I would say definitively that Online Dating Works. However if you want further proof from a data perspective, read the story of this PhD student who supercharged the OKCupid matching algorithm in his quest for a match. He is now engaged!  … So go create your profiles now and get to meeting people!! 🙂