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Online dating: Computer says yes. But will we click?

Online dating: Computer says yes. But will we click?

Eharmony boast that couples they have brought together are 66% less likely to get divorced than the average: Emma meets a potential match. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Eharmony boast that couples they have brought together are 66% less likely to get divorced than the average: Emma meets a potential match. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

I recently went to the wedding of a friend who had met her spouse online. I expected the fact to be referred to, obliquely, in the best man’s speech, where it would cause a twinge of embarrassment in the marquee, and never be mentioned again. But the place was buzzing with it, and not in a whisper-behind-the-hand way, but in a spirit of inquiry. Which site had they used? And how much did it cost?

According to a survey by , two-thirds of UK singles have now tried online dating, and it’s a virtuous circle for the dating sites – the more success stories there are, the more “normal” it becomes, the more people sign up

Internet dating has come out of the closet. A few years ago, if I told a friend I was meeting a man I’d met online, they adopted a frozen smile and told me to be careful, then rapidly changed the subject. Today, I’m likely to be blitzed with a battery of success stories flirtymature.

Among the major players jostling to claim the UK market are a number from the US, which remains at the forefront of internet dating. Match, which began in Dallas, Texas, is the UK’s biggest dating site, with seven million users; Zoosk, which launched here in paign. But neither can make the claims of eHarmony, which has arrived in the UK with a grand ambition: to lower the national divorce rate.

The company isn’t interested in brief encounters; their system, based on psychometric testing, is supposed to pair you with your most compatible long-term partner. If the concept sounds Orwellian, their results seem utopian. Although it has more than 20 million users worldwide, eHarmony likes to rate its success on the number that make it through to marriage, and in the US last year they could claim 271 weddings a day: that’s 4.77% of all marriages that took place in the country. Even more impressive is their divorce rate. Based on a survey of 500 couples, eHarmony could boast that those they’d brought together were 66% less likely to get divorced than the average.

The plan, says Sean Cornwell, its vice president for international markets, is to change the face of UK dating for good

The company soft-launched the UK site two years ago, but its American adverts – beautiful couples with gleaming teeth and floaty outfits running along beaches together – didn’t chime with a savvy, sceptical British clientele. Now eHarmony has regrouped and last month launched a vigorous paign, aiming at the 30-plus demographic, particularly those who have traditionally not been drawn to dating sites before. “We’re much more of a matchmaking service,” he tells me, “and that’s very different to what was out there before we entered. We don’t hide what we’re about, which is finding your soulmate.”

For those looking for love, the shelves are packed with product. Hundreds of brands cater to all different kinds of loveseekers, in ever more niche markets, whether it’s London professionals (lovestruck), gardeners (lovegarden.co.uk) or redheads (dateginger.co.uk). As a 32-year-old who’s dipped her toe in these shark-infested waters and emerged with all her limbs still intact, I like to think I know a few things. One is that it really does matter which site you choose. Forget the old saw about opposites attracting: in the online world like attracts like, and you are far more likely to agree to a drink with someone who already owns the same DVD collection as you. On mysinglefriend – set up by TV property expert Sarah Beeny – I met a lot of Sloaney skiing types who work in property, or the city, or who have their own cabinet-making business. Dates on Guardian Soulmates often involved the Southbank, or existential cinema, or both.

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