Online dating once seemed the perfect option for Allison Gold, a stock trader in Manhattan. It was a vast, exhilarating marketplace, humming along with the efficiency and unlimited opportunity of the financial markets of Wall Street, where she makes her living.
Gold -- lithe, outgoing, athletic, blond -- seemed to have plenty to sell. And judging by the profiles of men on Match.com, the buy side had no shortages either. If she wanted a guy with green eyes -- and she sort of did -- she could type that requirement right into the search field alongside the desired height, income and ZIP code.
"At first, you're like a kid in a candy store," said Gold, who is 46. Hundreds of men answered her ad, and they all seemed great. "They're perfect," she said, referring to the way men portrayed themselves in their profiles. "They're all like the guys from Ocean's Eleven. "
Then she got a closer look. On dates, more than a few of the handsome, rugged, athletic types she thought she had been corresponding with looked more like George Costanza than George Clooney. Some of those "single" guys turned out to have wives.
Feeling weary and, she said, "jerked around," Gold let her paid subscription to Match.com expire, and she has turned to real-life singles mixers for professionals. "I think I just burned out," she said.
"It's kind of like communism. On paper, it's a perfect system."
Apparently, many others have also found that the god of online dating has failed.
"It's clear that it's plateauing," said Peter Zollman, the founder of Classified Intelligence, a consulting company that focuses on online advertising. "A lot of people feel like, `I've been there, done that. I've met everybody there is to meet. I'll take a break.'"
Evidence is appearing that after years of rocketing growth, the online dating industry is drifting to Earth. In 2002 the industry's revenues rose 73 percent over the previous year's, according to industry reports, and in 2003 they grew again by 77 percent. This year the growth has cooled, relatively speaking, to 19 percent, and tepid increases are forecast for coming years.
"The slowing has begun," said Nate Elliott, an analyst at Jupiter Research in New York.
Many early adopters -- those quick to explore innovations -- are moving on to the next big thing, which looks a lot like the last things on the dating front: bars, real-life matchmaking services, setups arranged by friends.
Consumer spending on online personals in the US dipped during the first two quarters of this year, to less than US$114 million a quarter from about US$117 million in the final quarter of 2003, as measured by comScore Networks, a research company in Reston, Virginia.
"Virtually any new industry goes through a period of rapid growth and expansion, followed by some adjustment," explained Daniel Hess, a vice president of the firm.
This industry, apparently, is adjusting busily. In September Match.com laid off 10 percent of its work force and replaced its chief executive. Its third-quarter sales inched up 3 percent over the same period the previous year, and profits dropped 37 percent, a decrease that one executive at the company attributed to a rise in marketing costs.
An online service called True, which started up in Irving, Texas, in January, has already slashed 60 percent of its 162 original employees, though it says it is now rehiring. Spring Street Networks, which operates the dating networks for Nerve and The Village Voice, has recently made significant staff cuts. In August MatchNet, a company in Beverly Hills that operates JDate.com and AmericanSingles.com, backed off from plans to go public.