Oct. 2, 2008 -- Forget tall, dark and handsome. Try geeky, wealthy and Wiccan.
As the online dating marketplace continues to flourish, up sprout more and more sites that cater to nearly every belief system, hobby and lifestyle.
According to a February 2008 study conducted by JupiterResearch, a media research firm, the online dating and personals market will increase from $900 million in 2007 to $1.9 billion in 2012.
"Two to three new online dating services open every day," said Joe Tracy, publisher of the Online Dating Magazine. "It's so hard to compete. The last seven, eight years, the same people have been at the top of the bubble and no one has been able to break into that."
Recognizing that it's difficult to go head to head with the heavy hitters in the industry, such as Yahoo Personals, Match and eHarmony, Tracy said companies increasingly seek success by launching niche online dating services.
Are you a hardcore sci-fi fan? Trek Passions might be for you. Interested in meeting other atheists? Try Free Thinker Match. Hung up on horse lovers? Maybe you'll find Mr. or Ms. Right at Equestrian Cupid.
According to Internet traffic monitor Hitwise, the top-five dating sites enjoy about 46 percent of the market share. But literally hundreds of niche sites populate the rest of the online dating world, including services for vegetarians, farmers, plus size singles, geeks, golfers, Wiccans, bikers, the goth community, the incarcerated and the very wealthy.
Founded more than four years ago, the Passions Network has built its business model around supporting niche communities. The network includes 110 networks and nearly 800,000 members.
"The whole concept of the network is that it should be easier to break the ice," founder Michael Carter said.
With a couple hundred thousand members, the Large Passions site is the most active and popular, but other quirky sites also seem to be doing well.
Just this summer, Carter launched sites for lovers of pirates, horror flicks, guns and even mullets.
Jim Houran, a clinical psychologist and expert on the psychology of compatibility and online testing, said that niche sites are so popular because they allow people to immediately filter for the qualities and beliefs that are most important to them.
"Niche sites really do speak to deal makers or deal breakers," he said. "They're such strong things that people start by screening those out."
In addition to allowing people to immediately identify others who share baseline beliefs or interests, niche sites make it easier for people to talk about the qualities that define them, he said.
Jennifer Lahotski, a 26-year-old who works for a Los Angeles-based comedy Web site, joined Millionaire Match two years ago after a friend recommended it. She said that she isn't looking for a husband but chose the site because she wanted to find others who share her interests and level of achievement.
"I want someone more together -- without credit card debt and student loans .... people who have the same interests as I do," she said, adding that she enjoys fine dining and travel.
She isn't a highly active member; she doesn't pay the monthly fee that allows users to e-mail other members, and she has had only about five dates through the site. But she said that it has been a good way to meet people similar to her in the Los Angeles area.
Steven Kasper, the vice president of marketing for Successful Match, the dating enterprise that started with Millionaire Match, said that 40 sites now comprise his company's network.
As the flagship site, Millionaire Match has about 1 million members (including, at one time, actor Charlie Sheen). But Kasper said a few newer sites include Sober Kiss, for people in recovery programs, and Biker Kiss, for biker singles.
Kasper said that because niche dating sites so closely resemble social networking sites, members develop friendships and communities that seem to last longer than those on mainstream dating sites.
The industry averages about three months per user on a dating site, but he said visitors to his company's sites tend to stay for five or six months.
"What's nice about niche sites is that you develop a community because you focus on a lifestyle or a particular interest," he said. "You find that a lot of people find comfort in surrounding themselves with people in the same situation or who have a similar interest."
Spencer Koppel, founder and owner of Geek 2 Geek, said that as a geek himself, he knew that other geeks needed a bit of a nudge when it came to matters of the heart.
"Because they are introverted, they don't meet other people through more traditional channels, [such as] the bars," he said. "They don't go to those things. They go to comic [conventions], they play online games. They don't have opportunities to meet people in the face to face old way that other people do."
Mainstream sites, such as Match.com, don't really match up geeks with those with whom they'd be most compatible, he said. Geek 2 Geek not only de-emphasizes looks (posting a photo used to be prohibited, but now they're allowed), it prompts users to provide information about their favorite Web sites, gadgets and other more "geeky" topics.
Online Dating Magazine's Tracy said that one of the trends he has seen is an increase in sites for people with sexually transmitted diseases.
When he started his online magazine in 2003, he said dating sites tended to ignore the topic. But now several sites, such as Positive Singles, H-date (for people with herpes) and MPwH.net (Meet People With Herpes), specifically target those who have STDs.
Carter said Positive Singles has grown in membership to 300,000 members since its launch in 2002.
But psychologist Houran said that as with all online dating interactions, niche sites can set users up for disappointment. He said that people who might not ordinarily exaggerate their best qualities offline might inflate their personas online to compete, not deceive.
Someone could present themselves online as being more religious, wealthy or enthusiastic about a particular activity than they are in real life.
But as online dating becomes more sophisticated, tools such as chat rooms, video conferencing and online quizzes give users extra windows into the new people they meet and help them overcome "errors in advertisement," he said.