Beginner’s Guide to Online Dating

man, woman, heartThere are literally thousands of online dating and personals services to choose from, all claiming to be better than the next. When you’re new to online dating it’s confusing to say the least. Standard features, available at almost all sites, are often presented as “unique,”  and some may very well be unique but are baffling to someone who’s completely new to internet dating.

To help you cut through the confusion, this Beginner’s Guide explains the basics of online dating and personals services – how they work and importantly, what they all have in common. When you know what’s “standard” and what’s not, it’s easier to spot a genuine winner.

Is online dating for dating only? I’m looking for something more serious/casual

At one time, online dating and personals services focused on one thing only – dating. Today, you can go online to find friendship, a potential soulmate or marriage partner, even someone to expand your sexual horizons with, as well as casual or romantic dates. What’s more, members can usually connect on various levels within the same site. For instance, at you can look for friends as well as dates while over at Lavalife you can participate in any or all of three communities set up for dating, relationships or sexual encounters.

How do members advertise themselves?

Members showcase themselves through profiles which can include photos, video and voice clips, and a mix of basic and freestyle information. Profiles vary enormously from service to service in terms of detail, interest, style and features. For instance, some are very detailed but don’t really give you a sense of what someone’s like, while others are short on formal details but capture colorful insights into member’s personalities. The mother of all profiles is at eHarmony, taking at least an hour to complete! Consider the quality of profiles when choosing a dating site – the best profile is a profile that gives you the kind of information you’d like to have. (When it comes to writing your own profile, we have plenty of tips for effective profiles.)

How do members find their ideal match?

The top dating sites (see our Reviews) have developed excellent search tools that go to work to find people matching your personal “wish list” in seconds. However, if you want to narrow the field from the get-go, there are countless specialty or “niche” dating sites for meeting people with particular interests, ethnicities, religious or political beliefs, physical characteristics and so on. You name it, there’s a site to match.

How do members protect their privacy?

Members remain anonymous by using a nickname, or “username” and there’s no danger of “real” information leaking out. Online dating and personals services are ferocious about guarding members’ privacy – their business depends on it. So, when dating site features include anonymous phone calls or text messaging (as does), you can believe that they really will be 100% anonymous.

Do I have to sign up and pay money to see what a service is like?

In my experience, first impressions made by the home page – simply view for free – are usually in line with what the service is like. Also, most of the better sites have a “take a tour” feature on their home page for a “member’s view” of the site with screenshots of key pages and features.  That said, almost all dating sites are free to join – usually taking just a few minutes. It’s a good idea to take advantage of this and take a really good look around several to find one that really feels right for you.

Can I try out services for free?

Absolutely. Free membership is standard at almost every online dating and personals service. Exceptions are usually very specialized services that will be going the extra mile for members and laying down money indicates you have serious intentions! However, even these tend to offer free trials.

What can I do for free?

At most sites, you can do the following for free: sign up, browse through profiles, post a profile yourself, use search and matchmaking tools, take personality tests, and have some limited communication with other members. As a free member, communication options usually take the form of preset flirty messages, icons, “winks” and so on, which don’t let you say much, if anything, of your own. However, take a close look at what’s on offer – some sites, Lavalife included, are much more generous than others in the way of free commnication options.

When do I have to pay?

You’ll need to subscribe to be able to communicate in full with other members, so it’s up to you and ultimately depends on how eager you are to get talking with other members. many people like to subscribe and connect with people right away while others prefer to flirt with the limited free communications and check the interest is mutual before subscribing.

What do I get as a paying member, a subscriber?

The main difference between being a free member and a subscriber is that your subscription opens up the communications door: you can communicate as much as you like with other members. The range of communications options available to subscribers varies from site to site. Email and instant messaging are the norm, some services also have onsite mail and chat rooms, while outdoes just about everyone with enough options to satisfy any communications junkie.

How much do subscriptions cost?

On average, subscriptions cost about $20 to $25 dollars a month – considerably less than a single night at the bar – or less if you subscribe for several months at once. Most services often have special offers and free trials available. As a free member you can be advised of these by email. Specialist services tend to cost more, because they’re keen to ensure a certain level of commitment and/or social status among members or simply because they do more on your behalf. For instance, eHarmony, which offers scientific matchmaking designed to help you find your soulmate, costs about $50
a month.

Can’t I find a totally free dating site?

There’s no such thing as a totally free dating service, though many promote themselves as such. Remember, online dating and personals services are in business – got to be making money! The truth is, they’re like almost every other service: free, up to a point.

Do these services practice any kind of quality control?

Larger services have the resources to employ teams of people dedicated to weeding out offensive and inappropriate members and profiles. For instance, (the friendship and dating giant) rejects about 3000 applicants and 2000 profiles a month and eHarmony (for serious relationships and marriage) rejects about one out five applicants. Credibility keeps their industry alive and thriving. Some services also use cost as a quality control tool, pricing themselves high to deter undesirable members.

I’m gay. What are my options?

Most online dating and personals services are set up for both hetro and same-sex relationships. You simply select which sex you’re interested in meeting: men, women or both. If you prefer to be on the same page as everyone else from the outset, there are numerous services specifically for the gay community of which the most popular are Manline (part of the same group of services as Lavalife), OutPersonals (part of the FriendFinder group) and Planet Out.

Is it safe to use an online personals service?

Online dating services do their part by protecting your anonymity and weeding out people who threaten the quality and credibility of their services. Beyond that, it’s up to you. Exercise common sense, follow some down-to-earth online dating safety tips and your online dating experiences will be safe as well as enjoyable.

Which are better: large services or smaller ones?

If you’re looking for a very specific sort of person, a smaller, specialist service is best because everyone will be more or less your type. Otherwise, your best bet is to go big. The biggest names in online personals have perfected their act and offer genuinely unique and superior features with huge memberships to boot. In other words, they’re large and popular for a reason – people like what they do, and they do it very well. For the most part, the rest are wannabe copycats with much smaller memberships. You’re as well to go for an “original” and enjoy the benefit of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of members to find your match in.

Will I receive lots of junk email if I sign up?

I join a lot of services for my reviews and have never received any spam, only mail which I’ve asked for – details of special offers, new features and other “customer service” messages – by checking boxes on the sign-up pages. Watch out though: at some services these boxes are pre-checked and you’ll need to uncheck them to avoid receiving mail, although if you miss them you can easily cancel further messages at the site or by clicking a link in the mail. I can’t speak for obviously low-end services – I pass them by! – but suggest you think twice before giving them your email address.

Your next step is to find an online dating service that’s right for you. Our Tips for Choosing an Online Dating Service explains the main areas in which dating sites differ so you can decide which features matter to you most. You can also check out my Reviews of the Top Online Dating Sites for a ready-made shortlist of the top online dating services!