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A friend once said online dating is like a full-time job with only occasional benefits. America’s 40 million online daters must answer questions, post pictures, run searches, write emails, and block bikini-clad spambait, usually across multiple sites. Susan Mernit, a former product director at Yahoo! Personals, reports the average online dater uses at least 3-4 dating sites. It’s exhausting — and not in the good way.

There are nearly a thousand dating sites for every niche you can imagine: farmers, gold diggers, Star Trek fans, 7-inchers, and even diaper wearers. Some companies run multiple sites from the same database -– the Passions network runs over 110 different sites –- but most sites are walled gardens that don’t share data. This is a pain for users who don’t care which site works as long as love or lust is found.

What online daters need is a centralized dashboard to manage their dating life. Other highly fragmented markets like travel and jobs were aggregated long ago, and event tickets is doing it now. As people become increasingly comfortable with sharing social network profiles and the stigma of online dating continues to decrease, daters want to scale these walled gardens.

Let’s call our hypothetical site DateCentral. Users would sign up and select the list of sites that target their interests, price point, orientation, and other traits. The dashboard could then push and pull data to offer several benefits:

  • Central search and alerts: Daters currently endure constant searches and alerts for new members. DateCentral would offer one search engine and alert system to find the best matches across sites. Searches could be run actively or passively, filter on criteria that some sites don’t offer, and present matches in new ways, such as a map of match locations to see the people closest.
  • Central messaging: Each dating site has its own messaging system for contacting members. DateCentral would centralize the ability to send and receive messages while keeping a copy of data on partner sites. If a site requires subscription for contact, DateCentral would direct users to the site’s payment flow.
  • Central posting and editing: Just like college admission forms, dating sites have a myriad of different questions and requirements, many overlapping. The effort to duplicate this information across sites sets a limit on how many daters will use. DateCentral would offer one interface to publish the same answer to common questions. The Common Application for colleges does this for 346 universities and has saved students decades of time. Central editing will also allow daters to quickly tweak profiles for different sites (you might mention your herpes on PositiveSingles, but not so much on BigChurch).

Additional services could include experts to evaluate your profiles, photographers to snap quality photos, and a date planner to prepare the best outing.

Of course, this product is entirely dependent on the tacit or active approval of dating sites. These sites still generally view user profiles as their crown jewel. Like a supermodel on a first date, sites won’t share their jewels without strong incentive, if at all.

New, small, and niche dating sites have the strongest incentives to partner:

  1. Wider exposure: If you have a small niche dating site -– say, horse lovers -– you need to offer your users more leads to fuel the network effect and justify continuing fees. DateCentral would drive more traffic, pooling the liquidity of small sites to compete with the larger ones.
  2. Higher subscription conversion: Paid sites dangle the bait of their users to convert new subscriptions. Many dating sites already offer healthy commissions of $50-100 for referring paying users. DateCentral would dangle more bait and piggyback on this model.
  3. Higher revenue than ads for free sites: The largest dating industry trend in the last few years other than niche sites is the advent of free sites, which charge users nothing and monetize through ads. PlentyOfFish is the poster child with over $10 million in yearly Adsense revenue. Though daters click-thru ads at 5-10x the rate of social network users, it still takes an ungodly amount of pageviews -– PlentyOfFish has 1.6 billion/month, six times the size of Digg — to make the free model lucrative. Per below, DateCentral will charge a subscription fee and can share some much needed revenue with small free sites.

These are the same incentives that encouraged job sites to work with aggregators like SimplyHired and Indeed. Oodle already aggregates listings from 120 dating sites, including large sites OkCupid and PlentyOfFish. CEO Craig Donato said they only scrape public data and some sites pay for sponsored placement. When I asked Donato about DateCentral’s prospects, he said it’s unknown whether the large dating sites would partner but that “directionally, it’s exactly what should happen.”

The largest dating sites have the least to gain from DateCentral, but there are still a few arguments that could delay them from booting you out of the building:

  1. Walled gardens are falling: Users are increasingly demanding data portability, and initiatives like OpenID, Facebook Connect, and Friend Connect are gaining traction. Daters already use multiple sites, and companies that truly focus on serving their users will thrive in the long run.
  2. Traffic is flat: Most major sites have seen flat or declining traffic for a while. It’s commonly thought social networks and free sites are eating their lunch. DateCentral can help stem the tide.
  3. DateCentral will never become a competing dating site: As a meta-service, DateCentral would never bite the hands that feed it. The company would sign a non-compete agreement stating it will not allow its users to contact each other directly on DateCentral. All messaging would flow through partners, and copies would stay on their sites.
  4. Even the largest sites don’t have enough liquidity: Because dating is mostly local, picky daters can quickly exhaust appealing options in their area. DateCentral would offer more leads to help the large sites keep users engaged.

DateCentral could offer a basic free service that integrates just two sites for a limited period, then offer more sites for a tiered monthly fee of $5-15. Daters already pay sites $20-50/month, so this fee would not be a substantial extra cost.

A few past and present sites have launched related ideas, primarily dating search engines that only send you to partner sites. Rubixx is a meta-engine with a bizarre mad libs interface probably conceived in a late-night drinking session. It offers profiles from Match, Lavalife, and FriendFinder, though links weren’t working when I visited, so it’s not clear those are authorized (hope we didn’t just out you guys).

Canoodle is another meta-engine but doesn’t seem to have a lot of profiles –- only nine 26-35 year-old women in San Francisco and none in Palo Alto? Lycos launched a dating meta-search in 2005 but stupidly required partner sites to pay an inclusion fee and eventually phased out. It’s unclear whether previous sites didn’t offer central posting and messaging because partners resisted or because it just wasn’t a focus.

Overall, DateCentral likely fills a need but lives or dies based on partnerships. It’s possible the idea wasn’t feasible five years ago when walled gardens persisted but may work on today’s promiscuous web.

What do you think?

Do you think DateCentral is a good startup idea?(poll)

If you missed my previous “What’s Next” posts, follow the links:
What’s Next: Free computers for small businesses?
What’s Next: A butler for your idle computer?
What’s next: Signatures as a service?

Mark Goldenson is starting an innovative web venture in health care. To submit an idea for the What’s Next series, email Mark at mjgold3@gmail.com. Selected ideas will receive attribution.

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