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Choosing an Online Dating Service

The problem with choosing a dating service is choice -- too much of it! There are hundreds of services. To choose a dating service that's right for you, you need to be clear about what exactly you're looking for. As a newcomer to online dating, unfamiliar with all the options, you might be a little hazy on this front. Here's a rundown of the main areas in which dating services differ which will help you draw up a dating service wish list to compare sites to.

Relationship options

One of the most obvious things to think about when choosing a dating service is what kind of relationship(s) you're looking for.

Some services, including top dating sites like Yahoo! Personals (singles dating) and eHarmony (soulmates) focus on one type of relationship only. The advantage of choosing a dating service that's dedicated to a particular type of relationship is that everyone will be on exactly the same page as you are in terms of intentions.

If you're not clear what your intentions are, you might be better choosing a dating service where members can pursue different types of relationships within the same site. Again there's no shortage of choice. However, at some multi-relationship services it's not immediately clear who's looking for what and up to you to figure it out, using the search tools. If this sounds like trouble (and it can be), choose a service like Lavalife which has separate communities within the site for each type of relationship.

Members

Think about the type of person you want to meet. Are you open-minded, in which case a mainstream service will be fine, or do you have a lengthy list of "must haves" regarding your perfect match?

If you have set ideas about the type of person you'd like to meet, finding them in a mainstream service could be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. (By "mainstream", I mean that members are as diverse as the general population.) Instead, consider choosing a relationship service that specializes in bringing people together who have something very specific in common -- religion, political beliefs, ethnicity, body size, certain lifestyles, you name it.

Simply run a search for "dating (or matchmaking, or marriage)" plus whatever you're looking for (vegetarian, republican, biker?) and it's almost certain you'll find a relationship service to match.

Matchmaking features

Dating sites have thousands if not millions of members so good search tools are important. However, it's still up to you search out your perfect match and not everyone has time for this. Luckily many dating services have matchmaking features (more sophisticated search tools) that will help you find "the one" quickly and easily.

Matchmaking features range from the very simple, based on profiles and/or basic wish lists, to the sophisticated, based on personality and other tests as well as more detailed profiles and wish lists. Unless you're unusually picky (or just very unusual), these one-click options will typically churn up a good selection of possible matches on a regular basis -- popular dating services attract many new members a day. You can usually opt to have these matchmaking searches run automatically on a regular basis and receive new match details by email -- another time-saver.

At some services, matchmaking features are part of a complete matchmaking service where the selection process is much stricter, usually because they're geared towards serious relationships. Typically you'll receive just a handful of potential partners over a length of time. For example, eHarmony (designed to help people into marriage) advises clients not to expect more than one or two matches a month. To accept this level of matchmaking you have to be happy with the idea of letting the "experts" have the final say about who's right for you and who's not.

Tests

Online dating services are about much more than dating. They're also an opportunity to gain some valuable insights into yourself and the type of person you're looking to meet which could help improve your love life, online and off. If this appeals to you, choose a dating service with personality and other tests for members to take.

For the most part, larger, well established online dating services have the most insightful and detailed personality tests because they have more resources to put into their design. Almost all personality tests are free to take and at many sites matchmaking tools draw on the results to find members who are compatible with each other. So, by taking several tests and judging the results, you'll get a good idea of which site is going to do the best job of helping you find your perfect match. After all, if the results are a true reflection of what you're like, they'll be a true reflection of potential matches too.

Communications

There are two levels of communication to consider when choosing a dating service -- what you get for free and what you get as a paying member. On both fronts, some services offer a lot more than others.

Free communications matter because they let you get to know someone, or at least that the interest is mutual, before you spring for a subscription. (A subscription will let you communicate as much as you like.) At most services, free communications are limited to flirty icons and preset messages that members send to each other, but search around. Some services are much more generous than others.

Once you subscribe, the norm for communicating is by on-site email and instant messaging. Many of the top dating services, Yahoo! Personals included, have stuck with this simple set up and show no sign of changing any time soon. Others, like Match.com, are continuously adopting new technologies to offer members more communications options. Typically you'll pay more so think about whether or not you really need to to be able to access their services anytime, anywhere.

Entertainment

Think about what sort of experience you'd like to have with online dating services. Do you intend to focus on finding your perfect match or would you like to enjoy other activities as well? Many services offer entertainment features including light-hearted quizzes and polls, contests, articles and newsletters, as well as chat rooms and the option to sign up to meet new friends as well as dates.

Offline activities

If the idea of meeting someone online then having to meet them face-to-face at some stage is a little intimidating, look for a dating service that helps members meet and mingle, casually and as part of a group, offline too. Though some dating services go as far as offering singles holidays, offline activities usually involve meeting for concerts, shows and other events in your area or elsewhere.

You can get that all-important "feel" for someone in relaxed atmosphere with plenty of food for conversation and make as much or as little of the occasion as you like. If you haven't met someone yet, offline activities are an opportunity to meet someone you might like to continue chatting with online, with the advantage that you've already met.

International dating

If you're away from your native country, would like to chat in your native language or are planning to relocate or travel to a different country, some of the more established and successful online dating services have extended their services into countries other than the US. For example, Yahoo! Personals has a new Canadian service while Match.com is live in 27 different countries.

Cost & Payment Options

Most online dating services charge about the same for a subscription -- between $20 and $25 a month -- so cost isn't going to be much of a deciding factor when choosing a dating service. Instead, look for value -- services might charge about the same but there are big differences in what you get for your money. Also, check out payment options. Several dating services accept money orders and checks as well as the usual credit cards.

Find out what discounts will be available if you sign up for several months at once, and if any special offers are available. Finally on this one, look for free trials and try out all the extra subscriber features before committing to a subscription.

More resources to help you choose a dating service

When you've drawn up a checklist of what you'd like in a dating service (and hopefully this article has helped) choosing a dating service will be a lot easier. You can compare your checklist to dating service reviews and, for more specific details, explore FAQs, help pages and "take a tour" options (all good dating services have these). And don't forget, signing up is free and you can usually explore sites without having to post a profile first. Most of all, though it's important to choose a dating service that's right for you, one you'll enjoy using and are mostly like to have success with, choosing a dating service should be fun. If one dating service doesn't work out for you, move on and choose another!

Caroline Mackenzie is Co-Owner/Webmaster of The Dating Muse, a guide to online dating services and personals featuring reviews of the top online dating sites plus tips and ideas for finding friends, dates, soulmates and sexual adventure online. You can visit her site at http://DatingMuse.com and subscribe to her newsletter at http://datingmuse.com/subscribe.htm

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