Find the dating site that's your perfect match(maker).
Thinking of lining up a date on the Internet? Do your homework; with the proliferation of dating sites online, you'll find dozens—maybe even hundreds—to choose from, but you also want to make sure you find the one that's right for you (especially if you have to pay one of those pesky membership fees). Use this primer to find out the basics for some of the top dating sites on the Web.
Looking for variety? Try Match.com, one of the largest (and oldest—since 1995) dating sites on the Internet. It has more than 20 million members, plus international versions of the site available in 18 different languages. If you're feeling overwhelmed you can take advantage of features like matchmakers who will help do some of the work for you (you'll pay extra for them), or just browse on your own. You can search by keywords, age, location or other criteria, and it's free to look around the site before you commit to a membership. You'll also be asked to fill out some information about yourself to line you up with potential matches. Keep in mind that the site is intended for "serious relationships."
"This site is good for making multiple connections; there are so many people that you can date frequently," says Stefana. "Just verify the facts on the profile, because some people just make them up—and get a recent picture." Caveat: If you contact someone who isn't a member, they won't be able to get back to you unless they pay up—of course, leading you to falsely believe they just weren't that into you.
Looking for marriage? Many singles who seek The Ultimate Commitment head to eHarmony.com, where you'll be matched with dates according to the site's proprietary "29 Dimensions"—compatibility factors such as "cognitive mode," personal values and social coping skills (yep, this site was started by a clinical psychologist), which will be determined by a lengthy evaluation (set aside an hour) when you first join. These services come at a price—about $60 per month—but the site claims that a 2007 study showed 236 eHarmony members getting married every day. There are more women on this site than men, but everyone on eHarmony has one thing in common—they're serious about meeting a soul mate. Caveat: If you live in a sparsely populated area, you may not get any matches nearby, which will leave the site desperate to connect you with anybody.
"I got 'matched up' with people from two states away," says Bill. "I guess they overlooked the fact that I said I wanted someone within 20 miles."
Looking for a well-read hipster? Log on to Nerve.com's personals, where you can find a young (most members are in the 20 to 30 range) guy or gal with literary interests, tattoos and body piercings, or dominatrix tendencies—or perhaps all three. This site is especially handy if you're in a major urban area, like New York, and tends to attract smart, quirky individuals who are more likely to read Sartre and browse art galleries (the site also has writing, photography and blog sections) than spend the day camping in front of the tube watching the latest episode of American Idol. However, intelligent doesn't equal commitment-ready. "I'd take this more as a fun meeting-people site rather than somewhere to go for serious relationships," says Jessica. "But the people definitely have personality!"
Caveat: You can only contact someone when you've signed up for a membership…and, until then, the pictures you see of your potential mates are almost too small to decipher whether that's a really disfiguring scar or just a funny expression.
Looking to play the field? Check out Lavalife , one of the largest dating sites in the United States and Canada. You can pick from three types of status—none too serious—to indicate what you're looking for: dating, relationships and intimate encounters (you can even post separate profiles—with completely different pictures and info—in all three). If you don't want to pay to join, you can flirt for free—just set up a profile, send someone a "smile" electronically, and if s/he's interested, s/he can contact you (provided that person has paid for a membership). In this way, you can use the site entirely for free as long as you can get others to contact you…so start shaping up those profile pics, stat.
"Unless you're a hot female, you'll probably need to pay," says Michael. "But maybe if you're any female who is looking for a quickie, you'll get a response?" Caveat: LavaLife used to get props for its system in which you could buy credits that never expired; now, the site, like many others, has a monthly fee that is automatically renewed.
Looking for a freebie? Plentyoffish.com is the largest online dating site out there, because anyone can join for free—meaning that you'll never have to pay any dues, but you may also have to wade through a ton of profiles to find someone to your liking (and beware that the profile pics often look skewed, due to a lack of software on the site; once you're on a profile page, the image quality improves). This is a great site to start with if you're new to online dating—since it's free and easy to use, here's the place to dip your toes in the water and get ready to sink or swim (pun intended) in the online dating game.
"I didn't have much luck on Plentyoffish.com, but it's a good place to start if you've never been on a dating site," says Elizabeth. "I know others who have gotten a few dates from it, but you have to go through a lot of profiles and be choosy, because some wacky people are on there!" Caveat: Because nothing is at stake for the people on this site, expect to meet up with a lot of dishonesty (perhaps even more than you'd usually expect on the Web). Also prepare for forum moderators who can be capricious, and usability issues that make you remember that the site is free.
Maybe you want a lifestyle match. Vegetarian or vegan? Go to Greenfriends.com or Veggiedate.org. Looking for a cowboy? Equestriancupid.com is there for you. Love sci-fi and fantasy more than real life? Lose yourself in other galaxies with Trekpassions.com. And, no surprise, there are plenty of sites for those seeking wealthy men—Millionairematch.com, Wealthymen.com, Millionairemate.com, to name a few. Niche dating sites—for everything from plus-size to STD-positive to deaf singles to wine lovers—abound, so search around if you have one absolute necessity in mind. Now all you have to do is make sure you're compatible in other ways.