Online Dating Sites Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

Dating online involves doing awkward stuff like describing your taste in music and explaining what your hypothetical "perfect" match would be like. But when it comes right down to it, what you say you want is not necessarily what will make you happy. And the folks behind Match.com know this.

As David Gelles writes for the Financial Times, Match.com has been working on an "improved matchmaking algorithm." Mandy Ginsberg, the president of the site, tried JDate when she got out of college but is married to someone she used to work with — and he's not Jewish. "If I had laid out a criteria for what I was looking for, it would not have been a guy from south India," she says. "People are complex." So Match.com uses a complicated algorithm that attempts to "learn" from a user's habits.

Amarnath Thombre, a engineer at Match.com, explains further: "Before, matches were based on the criteria you set. You meet her criteria, and she meets yours, so you're a good match… But when we researched the data the whole idea of dissonance came into focus. People were doing something very different from the things they said they wanted on their profile."

Gelles interviews a woman, Karrah O'Daniel, who in October will marry a man she met online. She was looking for a dude between the ages of 21 and 26; he was 28; she was looking for a guy whose body was "about average" or "athletic and toned"; he described himself as "stocky." "We didn't match, but you can't really sum up a person in a check box," says O'Daniel. Gelles points out that O'Daniel and her fiancé never really searched for one another at all — the site suggested he check out her profile. "They were introduced by the algorithm."

For instance: If you claim you're not interested in older guys but click on the profiles of a bunch of older guys, the algorithm will realize that you're open to older guys and start suggesting profiles of men above your age limit. The formula is big business: Match.com is owned by digital media group IAC. Last year Match.com and IAC's other online dating sites generated $401 million. (IAC also owns Chemistry.com and OkCupid.)

The question, of course, is whether or not this algorithm means Match.com is successful. You hear a few romantic tales like Karrah O'Daniel's, and then there are the other stoires.

"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."

Maybe love is the one problem computers can't solve.

Inside Match.com [Slate via Financial Times]