According to his online profile, he’s a single male looking for outdoor fun, long walks, hanging out in the park and conversation. Biscuit is his name, and he’s just 3 years old -- a shepherd/collie mix whose dating profile gets equal billing with that of his owner, Frank Lozano.
“If someone is not tolerant or is allergic to pets, it’s better for me to know that now before my heart starts to fall for them,” said Lozano, a 43-year-old Valencia resident who’s been using the online dating site Datemypet.com for about a year.
Lozano, who also has a cat, has communicated with 25 women through the site and has gone on four dates. As Valentine’s Day approaches, he hasn’t made a love connection -- yet -- but he’s hoping that using a niche personals site will increase his odds of finding The One.
“If they’re on [Datemypet.com] I hope they have as much love and compassion for their animals as I do for mine, which means maybe they have more of a tender heart in general.”
As novel as Datemypet may seem, the year-and-a-half-old site is part of a larger trend. As online dating has become more widespread, so have niche sites specializing by lifestyle and interest. Cruise the Web, and you’ll easily find dating sites for truckers (truckerpassions.com) and the tall (tallfriends.com), people with disabilities (friendslikeme.org) and goths (gothicloveonline.com), conservatives (conservativematch.com) and hip-hop fans (hiphopmatchmaker.com), Ivy Leaguers (rightstuffdating.com) and wine lovers (grapedates.com). You name it, chances are there’s at least one site for it. Usually there are several.
Just like generalist dating sites, some are free and some are paid, though paying sites tend to charge lower prices than mainstream sites. Like Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, most use simple matching software, pairing couples based on what they’re about and what they’re looking for in a potential mate. The advantage of niche sites is that users get to identify their deal breaker.
“There’s still a leap of faith involved for a lot of people when they go into online dating,” said Nate Elliott, online dating analyst for JupiterResearch, a consumer technologies analysis firm in New York. “Although the stigma has mostly gone away, they’re still doing something that might feel a little bit uncomfortable, and to be able to take that step within a predefined community can improve the comfort level for certain users.”
UPPING the comfort level was one of the main reasons behind Florida-based Sugardaddie.com -- “for those that live a better than average lifestyle, and those they want to share it with.”
According to representative Steve Pasternack, the men living a better-than-average lifestyle tend to be between the ages of 35 and 55; the women they’d like to share it with are in their 20s and early 30s. Of the site’s 40,000-plus subscribers -- who can post a profile for free but pay $18.99 a month if they want to make contact -- women outnumber men 3 to 1.
“Nobody has to hide what they’re looking for,” Pasternack said. “I think that’s why they like our site. You don’t have to be embarrassed to say, ‘I’m looking for somebody with money,’ or ‘I’m looking for somebody who’s good-looking.’ ”
Sugardaddie has been online for about three years. Many niche sites have been up and running about as long. There just wasn’t a market for most niches until online dating as a whole had reached a critical mass of users and acceptability, and that’s only happened within the last few years. According to JupiterResearch, 14% of American Internet users browsed personal ads in 2005. In 2006, that figure is expected to increase to 16%. Match.com, Yahoo! Personals and eHarmony are the top three players in the market. Together, they account for more than 50% of all online dating traffic, but none of them offers niche dating.
“People were complaining that on the big sites they weren’t finding people that shared their spiritual interests,” Erik Curren said of his motivation to start DharmaDate (www.dharmadate.net) -- for Buddhist singles -- in 2003. “I find that people, the deeper they are into Buddhism, the more important it is for them to have somebody else who’s interested in it. The people who meditate or go to a Buddhist center tend to place a high premium on finding people who share their spiritual path.”
DharmaDate’s system for helping people find an appropriate match isn’t based on a lengthy survey or complex mathematical-psychological algorithm, a la eHarmony or the newly launched Match.com subsidiary Chemistry.com. When users join the site, DharmaDate prompts them to fill out a profile stating their interests and the specifics they’d like in a partner and relationship -- and to fill it out from a Buddhist point of view. Subjects are expected to reference teachers with whom they’ve studied, Buddhist centers they’ve visited and books they’ve read, using terminology and concepts indicative of their practice. Real human beings then read each profile to determine whether potential users can join.
“If we feel they’re not Buddhist enough,” Curren said, “we’ll send an e-mail to the person and ask them to add more details.... We’re very picky.”
Curren says the site has about 8,000 registered users, which may seem like a lot -- until you spread them out over the entire world.
Ultimately, the success of any site depends on the number of people using it. The greater the number, the greater the odds of finding a good match.
“You have to be able to go on the site on a regular basis and see enough profiles that you’re not seeing the same people over and over again, which sounds easy and obvious, but it really depends on the depth of the search you’re doing,” said JupiterResearch’s Elliott.
VEGGIEDATE, for vegetarians, has about 16,000 profiles -- about 1,000 of which are from the L.A. area. In comparison with gargantuan sites such as Match.com, those numbers may not add up to particularly good odds, but they worked for Eric Brent.
“I tried a couple mainstream places,” said Brent, 39, a Westwood vegetarian who runs an online vegetarian restaurant guide. He started using VeggieDate.com 2 1/2 years ago.
“Basically the people I met were good people, but we didn’t have enough in common, even the ones who might have stated on the sites that they were vegetarian,” he said. “The people on the site put it as something that they liked rather than more of a definition of their lifestyle.”
Brent was on the site six months when he met Diana Hsieh -- a now 29-year-old vegan from Rowland Heights who was also interested in traveling, hiking and the outdoors. Two weeks later, Brent and Hsieh were living together. One year later, they were married.
“We find that niche sites are attracting people who aren’t looking for one-night stands or hookups. They’re seriously looking for a relationship, and they’ve already done the work: What is the must-have in my relationship,” said Gail Laguna, vice president of corporate communications for Spark Networks in Beverly Hills
The fourth-largest provider of online personals services in the U.S., Spark operates 26 dating sites. Twenty-five of them are niche, including blacksinglesconnection.com, deafsinglesconnection.com, singleparentsmingle.com, christianmingle.com, militarysinglesconnection.com and the site that pioneered the segment back in 1997 -- JDate.
The largest dating portal for Jewish singles, JDate (www.jdate.com) currently claims 600,000 members. According to Laguna, 1 in 10 Jewish singles has a profile on the site.
When it comes to niche dating, JDate is synonymous, and Spark Networks’ success has led to a number of other aggregate niche dating portals that are carving out every niche imaginable, whether it’s bodybuilders, punks or smokers.
Though many niche sites are founded and run by individuals who come from the community for which the site was created, many others are the product of companies catering to numerous niches at once.
The Passions Network, in New York, runs more than 100 niche sites, all of them free.
Among the most popular: largepassions.com (“for big beautiful women and big handsome men”) and shypassions.com. The least: nerdpassions.com and redheadpassions.com.
While sites for self-identified nerds and redhead lovers may, at first blush, seem a little too obscure and limiting, even they “are beginning to take off, so it’s hard to say whether or not they are too niche,” said Passions Network President Michael Carter, who launched the company a year ago.
The fact that the Passions sites exist entirely through advertising support is indicative of how lucrative the niche market may be.
The second largest category of paid Internet content (behind entertainment-lifestyle services such as music downloading), online dating rang up $245.2 million in sales during the first quarter of 2005, according to the Online Publishers Assn. In 2004, it accounted for $227.9 million; in 2003, $214.3 million.
An increasing number of niche sites are claiming a piece of that pie -- though not everyone agrees they’re the best bet for finding a good match.
“The niche sites create a comfort level because the people going there are exclusively part of that niche, but the reality is you have better odds of finding someone in that niche on a generalist site than a niche site. That’s a function of just the sheer numbers involved,” said Elliott.
“The real question is, ‘For how many people is a niche interest a deal breaker?’ Because that’s what they’re saying: This is something so important in my life that I’m willing to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit that mold.”
For Brent, the deal breaker was vegetarianism. For Lozano and 50,000 others using Datemypet.com each month, it’s pets.
“It started off not as a joke, but a crazy idea, and next thing you know, it just took off,” said Robert Yau, who co-founded datemypet.com with his fluffy Samoyed dog, Hershey, in late 2004.
“The way we look at it is we’re like a boutique shop,” he said. “Sure, you go to Costco to buy your bulk, but you wouldn’t go to Costco to buy your evening gown. We’re specialized. Filter whatever you want, but at the end of the day these are people that love pets.”
Susan Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.