Does Online Dating Work? Yes and No

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THE GIST

- Online is one of the most common places that people now meet romantic partners.

- The Internet gives people access to far more potential partners than they are likely to meet in the real world.

- Matchmaking algorithms likely don't work.

In just 20 years, the Internet has become one of the most common places to meet romantic partners -- a close second only to getting introductions through friends, found an exhaustive new review of research into the science behind the online relationship industry.

By far the best service that online dating sites offer, the study found, is access to other single people who are looking for love. On the other hand, there is no good evidence to support the "science-based" algorithms that supposedly find the perfect match for you.

Among other limitations, user profiles also offer an incomplete sense of a whole person. And when daters are presented with too many people to choose from, they often get overwhelmed and give up.

By taking a comprehensive look at the exploding world of online dating -- with its many strengths and weaknesses -- the study suggests ways that singles might make the most of online dating sites. The findings also point out ways that the industry might serve its clients better.

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"The fact that online dating exists is a boon for singles, and it is a great addition to the way singles can meet potential partners," said Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Chicago. "But the industry makes a number of mistakes."

From Cupid to matchmakers to nosy grandmothers, intermediaries have been meddling in love since long before the beginnings of the Internet. Finkel and colleagues wondered whether online dating was simply a newer form of an ancient tendency to get people hooked up, or if the industry represented a quantum leap.

That proved to be a hard question to answer. After all, there are no studies that randomly assign people to one kind of dating or another and then test which works best.

Meanwhile, the algorithms that companies use to suggest potential dates to their clients are carefully guarded industry secrets. So, even though some companies claim that their methods are scientifically proven to spark romance, independent researchers do not have access to the formulas for testing.