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What you need to know about the world of online dating

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If a smoky, beer-soaked pub is the last place you'd go to find Mr. or Mrs. Right, online dating is a godsend. Ideally, it brings together like-minded couples in a non-threatening virtual space, so they can get to know each other before committing to a physical date. On top of the countless mainstream sites, there are specialized ones to help you find someone with the same religion, interests and sexual preferences -- whether you're seeking a friendly relationship, life partner or a one-night stand. There are serious pitfalls to avoid, of course: dodgy sites, "catfishing" and, worst of all, online predators. But despite the risks, online dating works. Most of us know at least one person who's met their partner online -- if you don't, I'm one of them. Nice to meet you! All it takes is some common sense and a pinch of savoir-faire.

WHAT IS IT?

Online dating sites are databases that can match you to a partner with the qualities you prefer. The concept of meeting in cyberspace predates the World Wide Web. The oldest dating site that's still around is Matchmaker, which started as a dial-up BBS in 1985 and ran on a RadioShack TRS-80 with six modems (above). At first, it was a crude listing of mostly computer nerds within the same area code, but it grew to include email exchanges and became one of the largest pre-web email networks.

Eventually that site and others joined the internet, and today, dating sites in the US draw nearly 30 million unique visitors per month. Some of those, including Match.com, offer free trials or crippled features, but require a subscription to make contact. Others, like OKCupid.com let you browse potential mates for free (supported by ads), while offering a paid premium option with more features -- advanced searches, message read receipts and so on. Another well-known, mobile-only site is Tinder, which lets you quickly like or reject suitors in your area. There are also specialty sites like Adam4Adam for gay men, or JDate (below) and ChristianMingle, aimed at Jewish and Christian singles, respectively.

Then there are the more controversial sites like Ashley Madison, targeted at people seeking extramarital affairs, or SeekingArrangement.com for "sugar daddies" willing to set up younger women in exchange for sex or companionship. At the bottom rung are risky sites like AdultFriendFinder, aimed mostly at people looking purely for sex.

WHO'S WHO IN ONLINE DATING?

There's no reason why you can't play the field with dating sites, but they vary widely in reputation. The top 20 in terms of unique visitors (according to Alexa) are shown above. They're ranked not only by size and type (romantic, friendly and sexual) but also reputation, as determined by MyWOT.com. The most popular subscription site is Match.com, which carries a "good" rating, while "freemium" sites OKCupid and PlentyOfFish (POF) each have "excellent" user ratings (Meetup.com is mostly targeted at folks looking to join clubs). The main specialty sites aimed at Jewish, Christian and black singles have garnered "unsatisfactory" ratings, while gay sites GayDar.net, Adam4Adam and Gay.com scored "excellent."

As you might expect, pure hookup sites are fraught with hazard: AdultFriendFinder.com and JustHookUp.com rate "poor" and "very poor" in reputation, respectively. Such sites have been accused of billing customers after they've canceled, inflating user figures with numerous fake profiles and rampant prostitution.

WHICH TO PICK?

Women gather and take pictures in front of boxes where men stand like toys, on September 11, 2012 in Paris, on the opening day of a store of the online dating site

Though rating individual sites is beyond our scope, we've compiled recent rankings from several sites like Marie Claire, PC Mag, Wikipedia, Lifehacker, Mashable and more. Here are the top four, along with the cost for a single month and the typical user.

Match.com, $43, leads in sheer numbers of users. On top of more choice, PC Magazine pointed out that the site has "far more search options than we found in any other dating site," including physical appearance, exercise frequency and occupation, to name a few. The downsides are the high price and constant requests for more cash to see who visited your page, for example.

POF.com, free, is popular, but it sure ain't pretty. The site will make design purists go cross-eyed, and it often serves up skeevy banner ads. Given the large number of user profiles, however, it might be a good place for a newbie to start before taking the subscription leap.

eHarmony.com, $20-$40/month, quizzes each of its users exhaustively and employs custom algorithms to make a match. As you'd expect, that scientific approach is best for users looking for a long-term relationship. And it does work: According to eHarmony, 90 of its members get married every day (you can read some of the touching testimonials here). On the downside, the site -- which started as a Christian network -- targets primarily heterosexual couples. It only started allowing gay and lesbian users in 2010 after it was forced to by a lawsuit.

OKCupid.com, free, is the anti-eHarmony. According to PC Mag, it's better at filtering out unsuitable partners than making proactive matches. However, it sports 30 million or more active users, with a million logging in every day. That gives you a good chance of finding a date, but according to the Telegraph, also makes it "an absolute hive of polyamorous kinksters, furries and others... at the odd end of the dating pool."

Our resident dating expert Tim Seppala prefers OKCupid, as do several other Engadget editors. Why? "Well, it's free, and it doesn't feel gross -- unlike POF.com." The large number of users and messages is a plus, though Tim added that "the overall user population isn't the best in my area, and there are a lot of people who are 'very hesitant' to meet someone in person."

WHAT'S THE STRATEGY?

Lifestyles Online Dating

Instead of making a long-term subscription commitment and regretting it, why not start with a free site? That way you can test the waters, figure out what does and doesn't work and get a nice, tight profile before paying anything. Some sites will give you a free trial with a credit card, but automatically start billing unless you cancel the subscription -- which is often difficult to do. If you do decide to go onto a pay site, take a long, hard look at the cancellation policy. One pro tip for trials: Many credit card companies will give you a virtual account number to use, which you can limit in time and value.

Next is that all-important profile. You need clear photos that accurately represent how you look now. Avoid selfies, and if possible, have a friend take a full body shot, preferably outdoors. According to Marie Claire, action photos that show you playing sports or the guitar get the most messages. Meanwhile, your self-description should be free of "long walks on the beach" tropes, and focus concisely on specific things you love, fun facts about yourself and sociable hobbies -- not activities you do alone. Avoid negative comments, especially about previous relationships. Finally, ask friends to read your profile, since they might know certain things about you better than you do.

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Once you're ready to contact someone, GQ adds that it's best to keep messages cool and casual. Coming on too strong, while occasionally amusing, is off-putting. Try to focus on the other person and not talk about yourself too much. Our Managing Editor Dana Wollman recalls meeting several nerdy dates online who, upon learning her job, proceeded to talk all evening about gadgets. Guess what! When you work in tech all day, it's the last thing you want to discuss. If you actually pay attention to the other person and read the signals, you'll avoid such faux pas.

Finally, be patient and picky. You might get lucky and meet Mr. or Ms. Charming right off the bat. But more likely? You'll have to give a lot of frogs the ol' cheek turn. Here's an example of a date gone wrong from our own Tim: "I went out with a really cute girl for three weeks, and then she suddenly tried passing me off to her (much less cute) roommate. It was a ploy, and they were both in on it." Ouch.

DANGER!

US-LIFESTILE-LOVE-INTERNET-ADULTERY

The bad news: Online dating (or any dating) has a seamy side, and women especially need to beware. As recounted by Jezebel, certain dates can go sideways, but at least you can laugh about them later. However, there are plenty of deranged individuals out there who look at dating sites and see a trove of potential victims. In some cases, the results can turn out tragically.

The good news: There are steps you can take to ward off such problems. Here are some tips from JDate, Reader's Digest and others.

Choose sites wisely. It's best to stick with reputable sites that have at least a "good" trust rating. The Dating Gurus and others can help with full-encounter site reviews. Beware of signing up long-term (even if the price is tempting) and make sure it's easy to cancel your subscription.

Never give out your private contact information. This should go without saying, but criminals can be very persuasive. If anybody insists on having your phone number or other private info, it's a strong red flag.

Never send money. Scams abound on dating sites, and con men or women will often string marks along for months before swooping in for the score. A typical scam might be similar to a Nigerian con: Somebody needs money to, say, import a large inheritance, and if you can just help them out, they'll pay you back, double. Sure.

Speak by telephone a lot. Though it's tempting to just IM and message all day, you'll generally get a much better sense of someone over the phone.

Meet in public and tell a friend where you're going. A restaurant, mall or other public place is great for a first date, but a hotel room or private home is definitely not. Make sure to touch base with a friend or relative to let them know when and where you'll be for a date. Confirm when you're back home safely.

Arrange your own ride. Never accept a lift from someone you just met in person, no matter how nice they seem. Have a plan for getting home.

Go with your gut. If a situation doesn't feel right, back out. A potential partner that seems too good to be true probably is.

WANT EVEN MORE?

On top of the many links you've seen so far, there's more! They say the best education comes from your own mistakes, but do you know what's even better? Other people's mistakes! The Awl has a compendium of dating horror stories; read them and weep -- and learn. For a deeper dive into the sociology of online dating, check out Vice's chat with New York Magazine columnist Maureen O'Connor. Meanwhile, check out PCMag's comprehensive reviews, along with The Dating Gurus (which also has general dating advice) and Wikipedia (which shows traffic, trustworthiness and more). Mashable has a list of the hottest new dating sites; Marie Claire compiled a top list for UK denizens; and LifeHacker has a recent list of the best sites. It's a very, very deep topic and we've left out huge swaths like speed dating, virtual dating, dating assistants and others we haven't even thought of. Heck, if you're at a loss for words, you can even hire a ghostwriter.

(Image credits: Getty/AFP [Lede photo]; Wikimedia Commons [Matchmaker.com]; Hippo75/Wikimedia [Online dating chart]; JDate [JDate YouTube ad]; FRED DUFOUR/AFP/GettyImages [Adopteunmec]; AP [Laptop image]; Getty Images [Speed dating]; AFP/Getty Images [Danger image]; Kelley Boone/Wikimedia Commons [Couple])

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