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Algorithm of Love

A dating site created by geeks, for geeks.

Photo: Sarah Kehoe

MATHEMATICAL MATCHMAKER: Yagan.

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By Erin Biba

Whether overclocking their computers to get the best possible performance, or using sensors to maximize the effectiveness of their workouts, nothing defines geeks (aside from a love of spaceships) so much as the belief that data and information can improve, well, everything. So why not optimize the search for love?

That's the idea behind dating site OkCupid.

It began in 1999 when Sam Yagan, MBA '05, then a Harvard undergrad, launched TheSpark.com with classmates Max Krohn and Chris Coyne. The site included humorous quizzes and a dating service, among other things. But the matchmaking function was overshadowed by the success of SparkNotes, its online study guides that ultimately were acquired by Barnes & Noble in a multimillion-dollar deal.

Fast forward to 2007: Yagan teamed up with Krohn, Coyne and Christian Rudder to launch OkCupid as a stand-alone service. The site's founding principle is that the way to a geek's heart is through statistical analysis (the founders were all math majors).

"eHarmony believes psychologists hold the key, but we believe data and algorithms can unlock compatibility," Yagan says. "The fundamental premise of our site is: You give us data, we give you dates."

OkCupid's users provide data by answering a series of multiple-choice questions. For each one a user answers, the site collects three key pieces of information: the user's response; responses he or she will accept from someone else; and how crucial the question is in determining dateability. Qualities that a user deems important in a mate—whether it's being tidy or being a Trekkie—are weighted more heavily in calculating compatibility with potential matches.

The questions are wide-ranging, covering everything from gender roles to hygiene habits, political leanings to sexual predilections. Users also can contribute questions of their own, such as "If you landed on an alien planet where the local intelligent life form tasted unbelievably good, would you eat them?" The more questions a user answers—there are thousands to choose from—the more the site's algorithm refines potential matches.

"It's addictive," says Kerry O'Connor of the system's gamelike qualities. Since signing up last spring, O'Connor, MBA '05, has gone on about a dozen dates. The San Francisco-based design consultant says the site has made the search for love more fun. "It feels like they are trying to find you the right person. Their algorithms for matches are based on what you think is important in yourself and a mate."

Unlike leading sites that allow users to create profiles gratis but restrict communication to paid subscribers, OkCupid is completely free. The company earns money primarily from ad sales, although it does offer a $9.99-a-month premium membership sans ads that includes enhanced options for filtering and sorting matches.

O'Connor says users don't have the feeling that OkCupid is in it only for the money. With pay sites, she notes, "It doesn't feel like [they're] trying to help you find someone—it feels like they're trying to hook you into a recurring revenue stream. If they do their job well, they lose money."

With some 10 million active users, OkCupid's market share is small; Match.com reportedly has 29 million members. But with each user answering 200-plus questions on average, the site generates a mountain of data. To capitalize on this, the company launched a companion blog in 2009. Each post on OkTrends highlights some aspect of users' behavior based on deep-dives performed by the staff.

Some of the results run counter to conventional wisdom: Men are better off not smiling in their profile pictures; the most effective photo for women is the oft-derided self-portrait known as the MySpace shot. Other findings validate widely held assumptions: Even among the tech set, Internet slang in a first message is a nonstarter; people routinely embellish their profiles, particularly when it comes to height and net worth.

OkTrends has become a major draw for the site. "[The] posts are telling you how to start email messages, what photos to post and when to take them," O'Connor says. "They're doing everything they can to make you successful in this dating adventure." Yagan notes that on the days they upload a new analysis—every three weeks or so—the number of new OkCupid users generally doubles.

As the site has become more popular, it is starting to attract attention from researchers hoping to learn about how people behave online. The company is working with researchers at Yale and the University of Massachusetts as well as Neil Malhotra, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Malhotra, MA '05, PhD '08, is using OkCupid user data to study how people's political beliefs influence their behavior on social networks. He praises the company for doing its own research: "They're interested in learning about the world and developing ideas . . . . They're interested in answering basic questions about social behaviors."

Obviously they're doing something right. More than 10,000 users have submitted success stories, including at least 100 marriages in which the site played cupid. Ironically, though, the site's founders all met their spouses the old-fashioned way. Yagan married his high-school sweetheart, Jessica (Droste) Yagan, MBA '05.


ERIN BIBA writes about science and technology. She is based in San Francisco.

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