Want to try dating online but not sure where to start?
A few years back, after being on my own for a while, I decided to try online dating in my search for a partner. Like most of us, I'm no expert on dating and relationships, and trying to get to grips with the thousands of different internet sites on offer, I quite naturally made a few mistakes. Thankfully, I learned from those early blunders and began to develop a few ideas of my own that would (hopefully) stop me making a complete fool of myself. Those ideas eventually led me to building a website, where I intended to review dating sites and in the process, pass on any hints and tips I picked up along the way.
The site lasted for two years before I moved on to other things, but by that time, I'd learned a few lessons about the dating game, lessons I'd like to share here. However, I should point out, while I'll be naming various companies, I don't intend supplying any links to their websites - if you want to go off exploring, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how to use Google!
Mainstream Dating Sites
There's a vast array of what I would call Mainstream dating sites, including some of the biggest ones around - like Match and Plenty of Fish. These provide a broad service, aimed at people looking for a partner, friend or just someone to chat with. If you're not sure what you're looking for it's generally best to start with a well-known site that has a good reputation. When you're familiar with how everything works, you can always try some of the Niche, or Specialist sites - these cover topics that, to the uninitiated, might seem less obvious.
Niche site might include, for example: people into uniforms, horses, or fetishes (Horse Lovers Dating, Army Singles and Fetish Dateaway). Hardly surprisingly, there are sites for just about everything you can imagine, from folk seeking particular sexual activities, to sci-fi fans, vegetarians, motorcyclists and even people in prison. So with plenty to choose from in the fee-paying range, and quite a number of totally free sites as well, there's something for everyone.
But how do I start?
So, where do you begin your search for the ideal date? And when you think you've found that Special Someone, how can you be sure it's real? Well, even if you know exactly what it is you're looking for, there are a host pitfalls and wrong-turns that can easily be avoided. Here's a few Do’s and Don’ts to get you started:
Don't use your real name or any identifying information in your online dating profile or other details. Be careful when you do give out personal information and consider: What the other person might want the information for. Could they use that information to harm you?
Don't assume that other online daters are being completely honest. That's not to say you shouldn't trust people - just be careful.
Don't reply to online daters who give out their email address in their first message to you - particularly if they give you a lot of spiel about how much they like and admire you and want you to be part of their lives. This is a classic tactic of people who're looking for money.
Don't be taken in by people who seem to just want to keep you chatting on line but don't seem to want to actually meet up. This can also be a sign that the dating site may be using its own employees to keep customers from cancelling their subscriptions.
Don't give out your email address before you’ve even met. Even though it’s difficult to trace people’s home addresses from their email, it can be done.
Don't enter a credit or debit card number unless you can see a small padlock in the window frame of the web browser (not the web page itself). Also, the address of the website should start with "https://". (This might not appear until you reach the page where you enter your card details). If you have any doubts about the site, keep away from it.
Don't set up your computer to remember your passwords.
Don't sign up for any dating site until you've read the small print, otherwise you might find yourself a victim to the dreaded Recurring Fees, which can leave with a lot less money than you started with!
Do make up an alias to use on dating sites and keep a separate email account so it’s easier to keep track of messages.
Do take care when communicating with other online daters. Remember - to begin with, the only information you have about the other person is what they tell you. It may not be the truth.
Also, if you sign up to a fee-paying site, bear in mind that some companies employ people to keep you interested - that is, they communicate with you as if they are genuine members themselves, when they simply want to encourage you to continue your subscription. Historically, both Global Personals and Cupid have been named and shamed as carrying out such underhand tactics, although they both claim this was in the past and they're now squeaky clean.
Do change your password regularly and try to use a mix of letters and numbers that will be difficult for others to guess. The best passwords are 12 or more characters long. For more infoon passwords, email and staying safe, check out Ask Leo where you'll findloads of great advice.
Do read the terms and conditions and any other small print details on fee-paying websites.
Do check emails and messages regularly – many Internet daters spend a lot of time online and if you aren’t around to read new messages, you might miss out on that all-important match. However, don't become addicted to online dating - remember your real life!
Do spend time completing your membership profile properly - the more appealing your profile is, the better your chance of success.
Do be aware of Internet scams. These tend to be, though not exclusively, from far eastern countries and often involve emailing thousands of online dating site members at a time, claiming to be the perfect love-match. All you need to do to find perfect happiness, is to fund their air-fare/pay for their passport or visa/or simply send cash!
First Date Basics
While dating in the real world is a situation that most of us are familiar with, it's important to remember that dating online is a virtual world. Our imaginations happily skip along like lovesick puppies, with our hearts shouting 'yes' when they should be saying 'no'. People are not always what they seem, and shared ideas, likes and fantasies might not be as mutual or reciprocated as you expect.
First dates are always going to feel a bit strange (as well as, hopefully, exciting and fun), so don't get carried away by the occasion. There are lots of easy ways to prepare yourself and make sure you don't end up regretting anything. Here's a few tips to bear in mind:
Daytime is obviously less ‘loaded’ than an evening date so think about
a look round a museum/gallery
or a simple coffee
Choose somewhere relaxed and casual rather than formal.
Cinema, sporting events or theatre performances are not good options for getting to know a stranger - you need to allow yourselves the time and space to chat, so if you do choose one of these, you must factor in time in a bar or café afterwards. Remember, theatre and cinema bars tend to be either very busy or very quiet and often lack atmosphere.
On the other hand, don’t choose somewhere that’s crowded, noisy or with loud music, that’s difficult to get to or where you might run into friends or acquaintances. Friends may be well-meaning, but can unintentionally make an interesting situation very uncomfortable. (This happened to me on a date, and while it wasn't particularly embarrassing, it did feel awkward). A restaurant dinner is probably a bit too formal for a first date while an informal lunch might be fine. In order to avoid embarrassment and misguided expectations, be prepared to pay the full bill - even if you are the female partner.
Get a Plan 'B'
Be prepared to change your plans - what seemed like a great, exciting, or fun activity when you were emailing your virtual date at midnight on Friday, may suddenly appear less attractive on a cold Sunday morning. Always have a back-up plan - if you've agreed to have lunch together and then find your date isn't really hungry, suggest something else.
Good to Talk
Have a few subjects of conversation ready. Check out your date’s profile and emails for important information, such as their job, children, pets and interests. Most people like to talk about themselves, so if your date is into sky-diving (for example), show a bit of enthusiasm and give some thought to your own point of view on the subject.
As always, don’t drink too much and make sure you have a fool-proof way of getting home independently.
Don’t be tempted to continue emailing your intended date for too long before your first meeting. Remember, however ‘bonded’ you feel online, your online contacts are still strangers. They'll have their own agendas, even though you may be exchanging thoughts, confidences, flirtatious nonsense and private jokes several times a day. This can mean that a real meeting might result in the relationship being called swiftly off by either party. Even if it’s your decision, you will badly feel the loss of someone who you may have made a significant emotional investment in, however imaginary, so keep the online contact as casual and short as it can safely be, before deciding to meet.
If, as often happens on meeting, the relationship does not progress, don’t take this personally. Your contact will have one of many different possible reasons for not wanting to meet again, and these will probably not be to do with your personal attractiveness. So, instead of thinking that the relationship ended in your ‘rejection’, tell yourself instead that the relationship 'did not work out' this time.
Here’s a list of terms you’ll come across in online dating:
When you join or sign-up to a site you become a member. This usually involves supplying an email account, bank details (in the case of fee-paying sites) and creating a profile.
If you sign up for a fee-paying dating site, you'll come across recurring fees. These are fees that are taken out of your bank account on a regular basis – every month, year etc.
Many websites oblige you to have some sort of membership profile. This usually includes personal details, preferences, likes etc as well as one or more photos. Sometimes videos can be included too, though this tends to be on adult dating sites.
Your Screen Name is the name you use as part of your membership. It’s a good idea not to use your real name, as it is incredibly easy to find people who have an online presence through social networking sites such as Facebook, Flickr etc. One of the screen names I’ve used as an online dater, is Pete the Pirate. My real name isn’t Peter and I’m not a pirate, so it would be difficult for anyone to link that name with the real me. Don’t be fooled into thinking people are generally honest/nice/good/reliable/trustworthy – most people are, but it’s really not worth the risk to reveal personal details on dating sites – dating online makes it easy to masquerade as someone or something other than who you are.
When you sign up for online dating you will need a password to access your profile and read messages etc. If you’ve created a new email account for your Internet dating adventures, you could use the same password (though to be more secure, your email address and password should be different from your dating site Screen Name and password).
These are the individual profiles/photos etc that you will either find yourself through searching dating sites, or those sent to you by email by the site admin team. This is often an automatic system that will send profiles that match your search criteria – the details you supply about the sort of person you're looking for etc – though you will likely get many more profiles sent to you that are nowhere near your specified criteria. This is particularly true in terms of geographical details. For instance, if you specified in your profile that you’re only interested in women from Greenock, you’ll no doubt be sent information about women from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Birmingham too, though they'll typically be further down the list, with the nearest matches at the top. You can of course opt out of email notifications so the only messages you see are those that come to your own page on the dating site and will not be copied to your personal email.
Fees are those monies charged to you by the dating site. This varies from a few pounds for a few days to several hundred over the course of a year. Beware! Don’t fall into the trap of signing up to recurring fees unless you’re happy about how much you’ll be paying.
Some sites don’t charge any fees for their services. Be careful though, as a few "free" sites do have fees for additional areas of their sites, such as Adult or video sections, so be clear about what they offer before you sign up.
This refers to your (and other people’s) search criteria and any details you've supplied about the type of person you're looking for – eg the geographical area you’re interested in, or the age range of potential partners. Some dating online sites will only allow you to see search results that exactly match your stated criteria, so if you’ve said you’re only interested in men aged 50-60, you won’t get and results for men aged 49.
Many dating sites have icebreakers, or mini-introductions that you can send to other members. Eg "Hey, I like your profile – why don’t you check out mine?" You might see these on fee-paying sites where you haven’t signed up for payment and therefore don’t have full access to email and messages. Often members are allowed to send ice-breakers to other members but generally won’t be able to see any reply, or aren't allowed to respond to their reply. This is just another way of dangling the carrot to get you to cough up some cash.
Ice-breakers are also a cop-out that men in particular (sorry guys) use to avoid going to the trouble of writing someone an actual message. If you’re interested in someone, the best thing is to send a message that shows you’ve taken time to read their profile. No-one wants to think they’re just another tick on your give-it-a-try list.
I do think internet dating works for some people and while I did meet the woman of my dreams on a dating site, that particular relationship didn't work out, so...
I leave you with the immortal words of that wise old bird, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus:
"Hey hey hey! Let's be careful out there."