Inside Match.com: It's all about the algorithm.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
July 30 2011 7:12 AM

Inside Match.com

It's all about the algorithm.

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Not all digital romance is as wholesome and picture-perfect as the love between Cambry and O'Daniel, however. There is a dark underbelly to online dating that attracts spammers, con artists and those not suited for modern love. A recent lawsuit filed against Match levelled the claim that more than half of its profiles were inactive or fake, an accusation the company denies. Real-life users can be problematic, too. Stories of dates gone awry abound, ranging from the merely awkward to the truly creepy to the tragically abusive. A California woman sued Match after a sex offender she met on the site allegedly raped her. Match has since begun screening new members against the national sex offender registry.

Nor is the online dating experience universally positive. Plenty of users give up on the service after one too many bad dates. "The Match algorithm should have figured out that I don't want a 45-year-old from New Jersey," said one frustrated thirty-something professional woman from Manhattan. "Every time I log on I feel faintly insulted."

However, every corner of the web has its unsavoury aspects. "I don't know how bad an underbelly it is compared to the rest of the internet," says Andrew Fiore. "There are good and bad operators in every sector." And that people are often disappointed with their dates is no surprise to those who have studied the industry. "People tend to like their dates less on average once they've met them face to face," he says. "They tend to like the online version better."

An online profile, of course, is not an accurate reflection of someone, but a template for them to project their ideal self-image. "Once you meet them in person, it's harder to have as many optimistic illusions about them," says Fiore. "We engage in this kind of idealisation when we're faced with limited information about people online. We fill in the gaps optimistically." Fiore calls this "an illusion of specificity". "It's a way to give someone a sense of control," he says.

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And even Fiore acknowledges that for all the utility online dating provides, reducing potential soulmates to pixelated thumbnails and fields of information can be a draining experience. "It can feel a lot like shopping for a blender on Amazon.com," he says. "But these are people we're talking about, not blenders." Not even the most potent computers in the world, it seems, can engineer a panacea for lonely hearts.

Despite these concerns, it is becoming accepted wisdom that any lingering shame around online dating is gone. Familiarity with the internet, a more casual dating culture and verifiable success stories have all helped. By now, most of us are not far removed from a couple who met online. "There's a tipping point happening," says Ginsberg. "There used to be this stigma, or it was 'good for my friends but not for me'. People don't realise how pervasive online dating is."

We don't know another industry that can change people's lives so profoundly, except the medical one

And it is an industry that has evolved. Were Match still the site that Kremen founded in 1995, Cambry and O'Daniel would never have met. While plenty of online hookups still happen the old-fashioned way – by searching based on criteria such as location, age and interests – an increasing amount of digital matchmaking is being powered by sophisticated algorithms like the ones Ginsberg and Thombre conjured up.

With their algorithm, Ginsberg and Thombre have taken the allure of online dating and amplified it. Instead of simply creating a digital disco where it is easy to find lots of potential dates, they have put forward a tantalising promise. By evaluating your stated preferences, mapping your site behaviour and using triangulation, Match.com will get to know you, and what you want, better than you know yourself.

It's not a promise Match can keep with all of its users. But for some, like Cambry and O'Daniel, it can prove transformative. "We don't know another industry that can change people's lives so profoundly, except maybe the medical industry," says Ginsberg. "We often deal with the maths and the statistics, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is about helping people find love. There's not that many businesses that can say that."

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

David Gelles is a technology reporter for the Financial Times.