Compatibility 2012: eHarmony Versus HowAboutWe


How dating sites approach compatibility and what that means for you.

In 2002 Wired Magazine said, “twenty years from now, the idea that someone looking for love won’t look for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the card catalog to instead wander the stacks…” Only 10 years have passed, but dating digitally is a massive movement. In fact, one in five relationships begin on an online dating site. And as the sheer number of users and couples grow in the online dating industry, innovation follows.

Earlier this month at South by South West, an interactive conference in Austin where 20,000 techies come for inspiration, information and announcements (Twitter and Foursquare launched during past conventions), I moderated a love battle featuring eHarmony and HowAboutWe that discussed consumer patterns of online dating. As the panel unfolded one thing became clear: how we understand compatibility today is ever morphing. Though eHarmony and HowAboutWe naturally compete for many of the same users, each site takes a completely different but unique approach.

But what do their actions regarding compatibility mean for you as an online dater? Let’s take a look at the panel’s key insights and how you can benefit from what was revealed by Julie Fields, VP of Brand and Creative Strategy at eHarmony and Brian Schechter, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of HowAboutWe.

Matching Is An Unknown

What They Say: On the topic of how sites create compatibility, eHarmony and HowAboutWe had different takes. eHarmony’s business is centered around what Fields describes as “our understanding of psychology and what creates long term relationships and compatibility.” Scientists and psychologists are on staff, so their innovations happen behind closed screens. Matches are selected for and delivered to users via a massive algorithm.

But on HowAboutWe, users can search for matches as far and wide as they’d like — no algorithm exists. While Schechter admits to understanding the need for algorithms on large volume sites so users can find one another, he counters that there is “no scientific support for any of the algorithms that any dating site has ever put forward.”

And yes, he’s correct that a positive correlation between algorithms and compatibility has yet to be firmly established. In a recent scientific report on online dating published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, online dating was found to be a great thing for society but algorithms “are no better than finding a relationship by strolling into any bar,” according to lead psychologist, Professor Eli Finkel. Fields, however, rebutted and said, “The reality is that they had nothing to back up that [algorithms] don’t work because they didn’t have access to IPs or intelligence to make the claims.” Touché, eHarmony, touché.

What This Means For You: Different sites function in different ways, and as more users log-on, new sites launch, adding diversity to what singles experience online. Innovation is rampant, so there are multiple sites, apps and networks. Get excited, early adopters! But pay less attention to how you’re being matched and more to the site’s value as a whole. Fields stressed that eHarmony “is responsible for 542 marriages a day — and that’s just the people who get married, not engagements or long-term monogamous relationships that lead to something more, whatever that may be,” she said. “That accounts for 5 percent of all U.S. marriages, so the proof is in the pudding.” Algorithm or not, make sure you’re comfortable with the experience on the site. 

Giving You Quality Matches is a Priority

What They Say: Both sites agree that ensuring compatibility means acquiring quality users. Schechter said, “Building a dating site is a lot like an ecosystem.” If singles don’t see other users they like, they leave without engaging, affecting business and compatibility potential.

This means that dating sites focus on geography and gender/sexual orientation distribution. Schechter and Fields both recognize that even though their companies are on the Internet, ultimately, dating is a local business. This is less an issue for eHarmony who Fields said has “close to 95 percent brand awareness.” But there’s a more delicate balance for HowAboutWe, a startup founded in 2009. As Schechter simply put it, “too many [straight] dudes leads to a problem.” So as HowAboutWe grows, they market more to women than men in cities where they have robust communities already, or wish to build them.

What This Means For You: When you log on to a site, you should see matches you like in your city or state. If you don’t, you’ll never meet who you’re looking for! As an online dating coach, I always recommend that singles join a site and sneak a peek prior to paying for a membership when possible. This is particularly true when joining a niche or startup site since critical mass might not yet be achieved in your age group and city. But even if quantity isn’t there, keep a profile up to receive notifications of digital movement in your area.

Your Success Is Analyzed (but not in a creepy way)

What They Say: Knowing the intimate details of how successful you are on their site matters. Naturally, as a premium, relationship-oriented site, eHarmony weights marriage as the ultimate measurement of success, but they also take into account how engaged users are on the site. Schechter agrees and said that HowAboutWe’s goal is to have every user out on a date within a week of membership. Other milestones for knowing you’re on track to digital dating bliss: over three messages between two people (HowAboutWe), completing the questionnaire and becoming a paying subscriber (eHarmony), and exchanging phone numbers (HowAboutWe).

What This Means For You: If you’re not hitting some of the milestones above, it’s time to revamp your online dating presence. OK, marriage might not happen tomorrow (and might not even be your intent), but if you haven’t exchanged three messages with one match after a few weeks of online dating or exchanged phone numbers/been on a date within a month, it’s time to analyze what you’re doing online and switch strategies. Above all, make sure you’re actively using the site — logging in multiple times a week, sending messages and flirting with the idea of getting offline with someone.

And when you do find compatibility — and maybe, love — on an online dating site, you can look out for the launch of new products that will keep the sparks flying online and off. Fields revealed that eHarmony is currently developing The Story Of Us, a Facebook app that feeds into your timeline and tells the stories and history of a couple’s relationship. And Schechter is developing HowAboutWe Couples, a personal dating assistant around discovery, coordination, recording and sharing of dates and memories. So even when you’ve found compatibility with that special someone, you can still use online tools from the brands who brought you love to help your relationship grow.