By Scott Baughman

Forget Spring, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner THIS is the time when a young man’s fancy turns to love. And people of all ages are starting to date more and more now. But you can’t just go out there willy nilly these days and expect the girl – or guy – of your dreams to fall into your lap.

There once was a time when a boy and a girl would meet at a bar or restaurant. Their eyes would find each other across the room and the guy (or sometimes the gal) would muster up the courage to walk over and introduce themselves. Then, if things went well, they’d hit it off and have a few more dates to decide if the pairing was going to work out for them. Or maybe your best friends or even a family member would suggest a date for you based on how well they knew you and the other party. If you were lucky, those “blind dates” would turn out to be at least a passably good time and not some horror story you eventually share with your own kids when they venture forth into the often choppy and treacherous waters of the dating world.

I’m glad to say that the odds of my own kids experiencing that kind of “scarred-for-life” dating experience are very low indeed.

Why?

Well, you do know this is the tech column, right? It’s the Internet, sir! Yes, just as many other aspects of modern life have been enhanced by ye olde World Wide Web – matters of the heart are now more or less matters of bandwidth. I’m talking about online dating, of course. But as Pat Benatar once sang – love IS a battlefield and it’s no different out there in cyberspace, at least when it comes to trying to figure out exactly how to use the net to go looking for love in online places.

Fear not, your friendly neighborhood geek is here to offer you heart balm in the form of a brief overview of the most popular online dating sites. And lest you think I’m just doing this all as an academic exercise, many years ago when I found myself single again after my divorce, I met the love of my life online. The lovely Meda Baughman and I were hooked up thanks to the online dating scene and so I can’t say enough good things about it. Let’s get started, shall we?

First up is perhaps the most popular of the free – or “freemium” – online dating sites is OkCupid.com. The site prides itself on ease of use and believe me it is easy. The interface is pretty light, it does a good job of analyzing your personality without a ton of questions and the best part is the price – “free” is the right number, yes? But I do classify this as “freemium” because the site offers a few extra bells and whistles if you want to pay a modest fee.

The OkCupid profile components are guided questions presented in fill-in-the-blank-sections such as “My Self Summary” and “On a typical Friday night I am….'” They prompt users to provide a general information, yet still allow for answer flexibility. For example, “The Six Things I Could Never Do Without…” section lets users answer questions as they see fit. It isn’t all canned responses. There are also photos and other descriptors you can select. Members who sign up for the $4.95 per month A-List premium service enjoy an ad-free experience, photo albums, read receipts for sent messages, additional filtering options (for example, you can only choose to see four- or five-star rated people in your results), the ability to see who’s rated you highly, higher placements within search results and a few other things. But note, unlike a few other sites on this list, OkCupid allows users to message each other directly right away. There is no intermediate step with filtered messages.

Next up is Match.com on the more high-end scale. A subscription to this site is going to run you about $43 a month – and that’s the basic package. You can browse profiles and look at potential suitors without subscribing, but the only interaction you can have without being subscriber is to send a “wink” to one of them. But Match.com has a pretty robust profile system allowing you to catalog yourself in a variety of ways. However, my major complaint about this site is that even if you go with the basic package, they constantly dangle some rewards in front of you that they offer for “just a few dollars more” as you browse the site.

Finally, we come to the best of the bunch in my opinion – eHarmony.com. In the interest of full disclosure this is the site where Meda and I met each other. Needless to say, after 8 years of marriage I am more than pleased with the results of this site. The key difference, for me, is that the site focuses immensely on the personality profiles. You will find yourself answering questions for what seems like hours – or even days if you decide to pause the questionnaire and come back to it later. But it is well worth it. Sometimes the amount of connectedness I feel with Meda verges on other-worldly in that even after our first date we were finishing each other’s sentences. And we still do that today. But affairs of the heart ain’t cheap. Of our three sites, eHarmony.com is by far the most expensive at around $60 per month.

Hopefully, though, with proper use of the sites outlined above, you won’t need to spend more than a month or two on searching out love in cyberspace.

Until next time, download complete.