How Does Online Dating Work?

While online dating has been around for well over two decades, it’s still relatively new to a lot of people. Maybe you’re freshly single, maybe you’re just getting to the age where you can try online dating, or maybe you just thought it was super weird but are open to giving it a shot now? Whatever the reason, it’s totally normal to wonder how online dating works.

And today, we’re going to show you all of the ins and outs of the online dating industry.

Online dating diagram

A General Overview of How Online Dating Works

The best way to start this discussion is with a very high-level view of how online dating works. We’ll share this first and then in the coming sections we’ll dive into the specific details.

Online dating is a digitally-driven process to help singles of all different ages, ethnic backgrounds, social groups, and geographical locations meet other like-minded singles. Online dating can be used to connect people for casual dating, hookups, serious relationships, or marriage.

How it all works may differ from platform to platform, but the general idea is the same. Online dating apps and websites get singles to join and share information about themselves. Then the apps or sites use that information to help create connections. Sometimes those connections are picked out by the dating apps themselves and sometimes it’s up to the user to make their selections.

Once one member shows interest in another or two members show interest in each other (depends on the platform), there is generally a way for the members to send a message or begin a connection. From there, if they talk and find that they’re interested in meeting up in real life, they can do that independently from the dating site.

If you’re still a bit confused about how it works, it will make a lot more sense in the next section when we talk about the different types of matchmaking processes that are out there.

Types of Online Dating Matchmaking Processes

As we mentioned, not all online dating applications or websites work in the same way. The end goal of making connections between singles is always the same, but the way that goal is achieved is often quite different. Let’s look at some of the most common ways this is achieved.

Traditional Profile Systems

The way that most online dating applications work is through a profile-type system. When you join the app, you share pictures of yourself, information about yourself, and information about what you’re looking for. The dating app compiles this information into a profile that is generally visible to other users.

At the same time, other users who join the app are doing the exact same thing. Once you’ve completed your profile, you can start looking at the profiles of other users who fit the criteria of what you’re looking for. If you see someone you’re interested in, you usually can send them a message to start talking. On that same token, if another user sees your profile and is interested, they can send you a message. If you find you like each other, you can set up a time to talk or meet off of the dating platform.

Sometimes you are given access to all of the member’s profiles who fit your matching criteria. Other times, you’re given a set number of profiles each day to look through. Each of these systems has its own pros and cons. When you can see everyone at once, it’s a lot more opportunities right away, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed. When you see just a few a day, it might be a slower process, but you can focus more on quality interactions without the risk of feeling overwhelmed.

Some of our favorite traditional profile-type dating sites include:

Swipe-Style Dating

One of the newer trends in online dating is swipe-style dating apps. With profile-style dating apps, only one user needs to show interest in order to start a conversation. With swipe-style dating apps, there has to be mutual interest before a conversation can happen.

Here’s how it works. You create an account, add a few pictures, and fill out a much shorter profile. Once complete, the app starts showing you pictures and the mini-profile of other users. If you are interested in the user you see, you check yes or swipe a certain direction. If you are not interested, you check no or swipe the other direction.

As you’re doing this, other people are also doing it and seeing your profile. If you swipe yes on someone and they swipe yes on you, the site lets you know that there is a mutual interest. At this point (and only at this point) can you send a message to each other.

The pros of this are that you’re never going to get a message from someone you’re not also interested in. The cons, though, are that it’s generally a very superficial, photo-driven process. People usually look at your profile for just a few seconds and make their decision, often only based on how you look. If you’re attractive, this could be something you like. If not or you care more about deeper relationships, this might not be ideal for you.

Some of the more popular swipe-style dating apps include:

  • Zoosk (Swipe and profile style in one)
  • Tinder
  • Bumble

Dedicated Matchmaker Services

There is one other form of matchmaking that takes place online that is technically not online dating but is close enough to consider and cover in the discussion. We’re talking about dedicated matchmaking services.

Here’s how these services work. You contact a company and give them a lot of information about yourself. Often, they conduct an interview with you to find out about you and what you’re looking for. The company then looks through its list of other clients to see if they have someone they think is a good fit. If they do, they let you both know and set up a date.

With matchmakers, you do absolutely none of the looking. They look for you and set the dates up for you. For some, this is an ideal option because it does save time. However, because of the personalized service, dedicated matchmakers are usually a lot more expensive (like A LOT more expensive). Additionally, you’re limited to their clientele, which because of the higher price is going to be a lot smaller.

Still, it works for some people. Technically, it’s not online dating, but because most of it takes place online, it’s worth considering in this discussion.

Mainstream vs. Niche Dating Apps

Now that we’ve talked about the different matchmaking processes, it’s time to look at the next aspect of how online dating sites work—niche vs. mainstream apps. Not every online dating app is targeting the same clientele. Some dating apps are targeting everyone, while some are targeting a very specific group of people. The apps for everyone are known as mainstream dating apps, and the apps for specific groups are known as niche dating apps.

Niches can be based on the type of relationship people are looking for, the interest of the audience, some sort of personal lifestyle characteristic, or the user’s faith.

Let’s look at a few examples of each to show you what we mean.

  • Zoosk – This is a mainstream dating app that’s really open to anyone (probably why they have 35 million+ users). No matter your background, interest, faith, or even what type of relationship you’re looking for, Zoosk is there for you.
  • eHarmony – This is a dating app that niches down based on the type of relationship people are looking for. If you’re looking for a serious or committed relationship (or marriage), eHarmony is geared specifically for you. If you’re looking for casual dating, eHarmony is not designed for you, and you’ll have a terrible time on the site.
  • Christian Mingle – As you might guess by the name, this is a niche dating app designed for people of the Christian faith. If you don’t fit into that group, you’re probably not going to have much luck on the site.

One important thing to point out is that just because a site is targeting a particular niche, it doesn’t mean that people outside of that niche can’t join. If you’re Muslim and want to join Christian Mingle, you can. However, you’re probably not going to have much luck there.

In general, niche dating sites have smaller pools of users, but may be a better experience as the large majority of the users will fit what you’re looking for.

Paid vs. Free Dating Apps – How Pricing Works

A lot of people looking to understand how dating apps work are curious about paid vs. free options. Most dating apps at least offer some form of free trial for you to check out the services. However, beyond that, some apps offer everything for free while others require you to pay for a subscription or for usage credits.

At first glance, most people assume free dating apps are the way to go—well, because they’re free! However, you might rethink that when you look a bit deeper into how dating apps work. With paid dating apps, a lot of the money from subscriptions and credits gets reinvested into the app to add features, increase security, and pay customer service for a better experience.

With free dating apps, though, they don’t have that money to reinvest into the experience. Often, this means they have to show you a grip ton of ads, or they skimp on the quality of service.

Ultimately, we always recommend using a paid service because the money just means a better experience and better results for you.

Apps vs. Sites – The Innerworkings of Online Dating

The last piece of the puzzle of how dating apps work that you may be interested in understanding is the apps vs. sites discussion. What’s the different between a dating app and a dating site or website?

Well, in the “old” days (like 10-15 years ago), the difference was big. However, nowadays, the difference is quite minimal, especially as it pertains to user experience.

A dating app is a dedicated program that you download onto your phone, tablet, or device. It usually puts an icon on your home screen that when clicked opens up the program.

A dating website is an application that you get to by going to your web browser. So, instead of clicking on something from your home screen, you go to your device’s web browser and type in the address.

In the old days, dating apps that you download worked way better than the website versions of dating companies when you used them on your phone. Today, though, dating sites are mobile friendly and look great no matter if you’re looking at them on your computer or phone.

In fact, we now recommend people use mobile friendly dating websites over apps because you can literally use them on any device with the same experience. Apps can only be used on your phone or tablet, unless the company also has a dating website you can use.

So, the bottom line here is that these differences only have to do with how you access the dating site/app, and how things are programmed in the backend. Mobile friendly sites have caught up with apps negating the real need to have a dedicated and downloadable program taking up space on your phone or tablet.

How Online Dating Does NOT Work

The last thing we want to look at today is how online dating does not work. Sometimes understanding what something isn’t is the best way to learn what it is.

Here are some common misconceptions about online dating that we’d like to clear up:

  • Online dating is not a magic pill. – The biggest misconception about how online dating works is that it does all of the work for you. Some people think all they have to do is create an account and magically they will be in a relationship. This isn’t how it works. Sure, online dating goes above and beyond to make things easier and more efficient. But you’re still going to have to do your part like filling out your profile, sending and responding to messages, and actually going on dates with people you’re interested in.
  • Online dating is not weird. – In the early days of the industry, online dating had a stigma of being weird and only for the oddballs. Today, that couldn’t be further than the truth. Online dating works for busy singles who are looking for love without having to troll bars.
  • Online dating does not have to be exhaustive. – Can online dating be exhaustive? Absolutely. Does it have to be? Absolutely not. Many dating apps set up features and their processes to help you limit yourself from exhaustion while still seeing results. 
  • Online dating doesn’t exclude. – While there are some niche dating sites that may seem like the exclude people, online dating as a whole is quite inclusive and can work for just about anyone. All you have to do is find the right site, and you’ll have a great shot of finding the types of singles you’re looking for.

The Bottom Line

Hopefully by now, you have a better idea of just how online dating works. We’ve talked about the main goals, the inner workings, the types of sites available, and what online dating is not. With all that knowledge, hopefully it can help you to better understand the industry, pick out the best dating apps for you, and find the success you’ve been looking for.