Cupid's algorithm: Do dating sites know love's formula?

Flamingos wrap their necks in the shape of a heart Be my Valentine: Dating sites think they can predict what makes people fall for each other

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"To date, there is no compelling evidence any online dating matching algorithm actually works."

Those words from Eli Finkel, associate professor of social psychology at the Northwestern University in Chicago, are likely to ring true with any online daters still to find love on the web.

Yet with Valentine's Day often bringing out the worst snuggly excesses of loved-up couples, both in public and on websites like Facebook, singletons may well find themselves tempted to give one of the many online dating sites a try in an attempt to find The One.

However, while sites such as claim their algorithms can help generate genuine potential suitors, Mr Finkel, writing in a recent paper in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest, argued such boasts need more rigorous testing before they can ever be taken seriously.

"If dating sites want to claim that their matching algorithm is scientifically valid, they need to adhere to the standards of science, which is something they have uniformly failed to do," he wrote.

Start Quote

It no longer carries the stigma of being for 'sad, lonely people'”

End Quote Sarah Beeny Founder of

"In fact, our report concludes that it is unlikely that their algorithms can work, even in principle, given the limitations of the sorts of matching procedures that these sites use."

Despite this assessment, dating sites can claim many success stories - plenty of couples have got together having met online. says it is responsible for a third of all online relationships that led to marriage, according to a YouGov survey published last December.

The site's UK managing director Karl Gregory told the BBC part of this success is due to users browsing the site and making connections, but he also said its algorithms offer good recommendations for people who may not otherwise make contact.

"We know there is often a difference between what people say they're looking for in a partner and the members they might actually interact with," he explained.

"By learning from people's behaviour on the site, we're able to show them a wider variety of matches. Eventually, what you do becomes as important as what you say."

Wandering eyes

Even if you do decide it is worth letting an algorithm guide your heart, there is another issue with dating sites that is coming under scrutiny.

A recent study conducted in a San Francisco café by digital engagement firm Answerlab, using eyeball tracking technology from Swedish company Tobii, found that men and women have very different agendas when they browse online profiles.

A small but indicative survey of 39 dating site users, 21 male and 18 female, found that the men spent 65% longer looking at pictures of prospective dates than females.

A couple in Paris Some suggest dating sites should be tailored to look different for men and women

However, the females surveyed were far more interested in the rest of the information on a page, spending 50% longer reading through the text on profile pages.

While this is perhaps unsurprising, Tobii's North American manager Barbara Barclay said the data showed dating sites are missing a trick by not optimising profile layouts for these very different browsing styles.

"Dating sites could do a lot better by changing their navigations to improve the experience of users on these sites," she said.

"This information [from the survey] could help people to re-design their sites."

Answerlabs chief executive Amy Buckner concurred with this assessment, adding that it would help let users offer a more tailored viewing experience.

"Dating is an incredibly personal experience; online dating sites would be even more successful if they enabled the overall experience to be more personal."

Trawling bars

One site already aware of this issue is, founded by TV presenter Sarah Beeny.

She explained to the BBC that the site has already considered tailoring profiles to suit the differences of men and women, although has not implemented any changes to date.

"Our research found that if we could make the site more relevant and even potentially change the colours, then this would lead to a better user experience," she said.

"The content of the profiles is still fairly similar though as this does help to keep things consistent - however some criteria are definitely more important to men than women and vice-versa."

For many, though, the fact dating sites can't guarantee you'll meet the love of your life is irrelevant, as some believe the internet offers a far better chance of doing so than trawling bars or clubs.

A man walks past a lot of hearts Sarah Beeny said online dating is no longer about "sad, lonely people"

"The web is a gateway to more: more time, more convenience, more choice and yes, potentially, more social interaction," Ms Beeny said.

"There are many reasons why dating online is growing at such a phenomenal rate, but the main one is that it no longer carries the stigma of being for 'sad, lonely people'. It has now become an obvious and viable choice."

In fact as Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, notes in the same paper co-authored with Mr Finkel, the online world is actually a very natural place for people to meet, regardless of algorithms and profile layouts.

"The internet holds great promise for helping adults form healthy and supportive romantic partnerships, and those relationships are one of the best predictors of emotional and physical health."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Interent dating has got to be a good thing. All it does is add another dimension to the dating game as it's existed for millenia. As for the perfect fit thing, I reckon a good relationship has to be grown into anyway. Expecting perfection is asking too much of a human being and an algorithm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    All this computer based chemistry matching up is just rubbish. Even if you both like the same interests on paper it won't work if one person out of the match up thinks the other is ugly. This applies to both men AND women who can be as equally as shallow. Its just easier to hide behind a computer and make that judgement without feeling like you've hurt the other persons feelings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Met my partner over ten years ago on AOL, and we are still a very happy couple. Not sure about 'calculating' who is compatible, I've seen some very odd pairs work out just fine, but I don't think meeting someone from the Internet is any more of a risk than going home from a nightclub with someone you only met that evening, just with less chance of getting into an alcohol-fueled fight on the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    On the dating sites I've used the matching algorithems seem to be spot on. Sadly they don't promote honesty, so you land up having to kiss a few frogs. Users should remember that the written profiles are usually how a person wants to be, rather than how they actually are, and their trophey partner, rather than their comfortable partner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Oh dear, lots of comments by prejudiced people who have never used online dating. Some people who use these sites are serious, decent people. You can read what they have written about themselves, and if they seem like a good match, meet up. From then onwards it's just the same as any other way of meeting, except you know you have a lot in common, rather than a random person you picked when drunk.


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