The problem clearly extends well beyond dating sites. “Anytime you get on the Web, there is the danger of cognitive overload,” says Nicole Ellison, a professor at Michigan State University who studies online relationships and dating. Ellison believes that the sheer amount of information online presents a challenge to users, although search engines such like Google have proven effective for sorting through the simplest types of information. “Google already has a pretty sophisticated algorithm,” she says. “We know that few people go past the first page of results when searching.”
When searching for more complex, subjective information, such as the ideal holiday destination, however, Web users may experience similar cognitive overload and make equally rushed choices.
As for dating sites, Chiou suggests a few technical solutions that could help. Users could be reminded of the number of profiles they have reviewed already, and told how closely a profile matches their own. Ellison’s research suggests that collecting more interview data also helps refine searches and produce more relevant results. “Including different kinds of questions in the profile would be helpful–questions that allow individuals to highlight unique aspects of their personality,” Ellison says.
Norton goes further, suggesting that prospective dates should not be searched for “as though they were shoes online.” Simple demographic variables such as height and religion have poor relevance to whether a romantic pairing will be successful, he says. Better predictors of relationship success are concepts such as humor and rapport. Unfortunately, these are highly subjective–one person’s joke can be another’s bad taste.
A startup called Omnidate hopes to profit from technologies that help users gather and evaluate this kind of subjective information. The company’s solution is an add-on for existing dating sites that allows users to interact as avatars in a 3-D virtual space. Rather than waste time with pages of matches with meaningless information, users can evaluate qualities that are only revealed during a meeting.
“As people chat, their characters respond naturally, providing a realistic dating experience,” says Omnidate’s president Igor Kotlyar. He adds that women are particularly pleased with the virtual experience. They comprise 60% of the site’s registrations (twice that of a typical dating site) and prefer virtual dates to email exchanges.