Sunday 18 March 2018

A guide to online dating: what's really out there

Are we still shy about online dating in 2015? If we are, it's silly, because many of us have actually done it, including Katy Harrington, who gives us the low-down on what's out there, and what to watch out for

Katy Harrington
Katy Harrington
ROMANCE: Online dating is now the third most common way (after ‘through friends’ and ‘in a pub’). Katy Harrington, opposite page, has used online agencies herse
Katy Harrington

Katy Harrington

Advances in technology and a host of new apps have transformed the way we date and meet new partners.

Statistics show that online dating is the third most common way for people to meet a partner (after 'through friends' and 'in a pub') and soon, industry insiders predict, half of all relationships will start online. Right now (post-Valentine's Day) is a boom period, driving even more singles to look for love online, so whether you are trying it for the first time or bolstering yourself to give it another go, here's what you need to know.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT SITE: London-based Charly Lester started a career in dating accidentally when her 30 Dates blog, chronicling her mission to find love took off. Her advice is to try before you buy.

"Think of it like you are looking to date the site as well as the people on it", she says. So start by flirting. Avail of free trials, sign up for three months at a time and "dip your toe" until you find one that fits. Consider the demographic too. The last time I dated online I signed up for Guardian Soulmates, because I live in London and it's a newspaper I read, and I don't want to date someone who voted for Tony Blair.

So, think about what matters to you. For example, Lovestruck is aimed at single professionals while Tinder tends to attract fun-seeking 18-24 years olds. You could go niche with sites tailored to single parents, country bumpkins, over-50s, Christians, or men and women in uniform.

On the other end of the spectrum is Plenty of Fish. Lester says her friend branded POF the 'TK Maxx of dating' because while you can find great stuff, it takes a bit of rummaging. Whatever site you choose, the important thing is not to stagnate, according to Lester. When it starts to feel like a job rather than fun, take a break and pick up again in a few months.

TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY? With so many free options available, you might wonder if it's worth it to pay for online dating. It really depends on what you are looking for. Members of sites like eHarmony, which requires members to fill out lengthy questionnaires, and charges membership fees of up to £40 per month, are usually looking for serious, long-term relationships. Free sites will have more members (so more choice) but that means more admin on your side.

Wading through thousands of options might sound like fun in the beginning but leads to online dating burnout. Lots of sites are free to sign up and browse on but will charge you for 'upgrades' or add-ons to message your matches back or to push your profile to the front of the pile (even free-and-easy Tinder has introduced Tinder Plus with extra options, like an 'undo' button, all available for a small fee).

Dating events are a huge growth area and lots of sites from My Single Friend and now organise anything from speed dating and pub quizzes to champagne tasting and cookery classes. One word of warning here - women tend to buy tickets for these events much more than men, so make sure the event you are going to has an equal ratio. If you are signing up for a paid dating service beware of the rolling subscription, says Lester. Many sites have an auto renewal function so make sure you untick it if you don't want to continue to be charged. Remember too that even free apps and websites are making money out of you somehow. By signing up you are giving them access to your profile and personal information (name, age, location, sexual preference etc) which they sell to third parties and vendors.

WRITING YOUR PROFILE: This is something many online daters struggle with. "Write them quickly, don't overthink it and check your grammar and spelling" is Lester's rule of thumb. She's right, I once received a message from a guy online asking why I liked men with 'breads'; I meant beards. My personal advice when writing your profile is not to be too generic. If I had a penny for every time I read a dating profile describing people who like coffee, traveling and spending time with friends, I'd be richer than Donald Trump.

Profiles that start with "Not sure what I should write here..." are another bugbear of mine. Also, it goes without saying that lying (about your age, height, job or marital status) is a pretty bad way to start. Long lists of what you are looking for in a partner can be off-putting too. I've read things like, "if you are vain, conceited or selfish don't bother getting in touch", which not only makes you sound bitter and twisted but will also ensure no one ever messages you. I still remember the worst thing I ever read on a dating profile: "As well as a pretty face you should have an intoxicating soul, I want to drown in your aura" which brings me to the next point made by eHarmony. "Don't indulge the inner narcissist", meaning "don't demand that your future partner love, worship, and adore you. Instead, focus on what you have to offer."

Do try to keep it lighthearted, don't overshare and if you are really struggling, ask a mate you trust for help. There are people out there who will gladly take your money to write your dating profile for you; but honestly, if you are too busy to spend 10 minutes writing a profile then you are too busy to date.

CHOOSING PICTURES: After your profile is written, choosing 4-5 pictures of yourself should be the easy part. Right? Wrong. Photos are a major stumbling block, and you see the same mistakes over and over again online. First of all, your profile needs pictures, plural. Again, it sounds silly, but your pictures should look like you, not taken from a freak flattering angle and not taken 10 years ago. Writer Daisy Buchanan has a rule in her book Meeting Your Match that states if you don't own the jeans you are wearing in the picture anymore then it's too old. All your photos should be clear (not pixelated) and should include a mixture of head and shoulder and full length.

Last year Zoosk conducted a survey which concluded that full-body photos boost both sexes success by 203%. Charly Lester adds some good advice: "Remember that people make assumptions based on your pictures", and by that she means that if you include four shots of yourself at The Great Wall of China but you have no interest in travel, or walking, or China…then it's a bit misleading isn't it?

Some more common pitfalls are using too many group shots, including pics with your ex, or shots taken at your wedding (yes, really), too many selfies (what does that say about you?) and men holding children. That any adult would choose to include pictures of children on a dating website has always struck me as inappropriate and bizarre. Last thing, smile. Everyone looks better when they do.

TRY AN APP: In 2012 Tinder arrived and blew online dating out of the water. With Tinder's success (50 million users worldwide) it was inevitable that other fast, fun apps would follow, and Karl Gregory of says the emergence of wearable technology is set to have a huge impact on how we access online dating sites in the future.

In the last 12 months we've seen the launch of Happn (which uses GPS tracking and then lists people you have crossed paths with), Daatch (a new app for lesbian daters which just launched in Ireland) and Bumble, the brainchild of former-Tinder exec Whitney Wolfe. Bumble is a "social discovery app" which aims to take the sleaze and cheesy pick-up lines out of dating, making it a "safe and respectful" for men and women, or there is Trueview, which Charly Lester describes as "Tinder with more information" including height, occupation and a larger profile.

STAY SAFE ONLINE: Karl Gregory, UK and European MD of, says personal safety online should be a "top concern", so take heed. His five "golden rules" are firstly to be alert, "always use the same common sense as you would meeting someone in a bar". The second is "Never send money to anyone you meet online", or as Lovestruck put it, be aware of "sob stories of illness and bad luck that require your urgent financial support".That might sound obvious, but at one dating seminar I heard a horror story of a woman in her 50s who paid hundreds of pounds to buy flights for someone she met online, who, surprise surprise, turned out to be scammer.

Rule three is "Stay on the site, rather than using your personal email while communicating with new people". Any reputable dating website will have a team of moderators, as well as a function where you can report or block any users who send offensive messages or ask for bank account details. For taking things offline, Gregory advises to tell a friend when you are meeting someone, and meet in a public place. Finally he says "Trust your instincts", so if that shy 26-year-old Brazilian supermodel looking for an Irish 64-year-old man for nights on the couch seems too good to be true, it's because it is.

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