At the global headquarters of eHarmony in Pasadena, Calif., one blue wall is papered with testimonies of love: snapshots of couples who met on the Internet matchmaking site and subsequently got hitched. There are older couples, military couples, kissing couples, couples with physical disabilities, couples dressed in wedding whites. Soon, if all goes as planned, there will be Chinese couples, Indian couples, European couples, many dressed in the brilliant matrimonial hues of their cultures. They're going to need a new wall.
Once a practice as provincial as it was personal, the art of pairing up people for marriage has become an increasingly international and technology-driven business. As young people all over the world move far from home for school and work, even those from traditionbound cultures can no longer rely solely on the resources of crafty aunties to find them suitable mates. Enter the Internet, where marriage and dating sites began to appear a decade ago and have multiplied rapidly over the past several years. In the U.S. alone, there are close to 1,000 such sites, led by Match.com eHarmony and Yahoo! Personals. The industry rang up $649 million in revenues in 2006, according to Jupiter Research, a market-research firm. With growth slowing in the U.S., Web matchmaking giants are eyeing fertile potential markets such as China and India. But an international match presents hurdles in business as in love: differing societal attitudes, wily competition and cultural quirks to bewilder the most sophisticated suitor. Love, it turns out, isn't the same in every language--not even close.
Love is, however, a lucrative and recession-proof business, and that makes translating it worth the effort. As far back as the Paleolithic era, arranged marriages served to forge networks between family groups, writes Stephanie Coontz in Marriage, a History. Families exchanged daughters and sons for labor, land, goods and status. These matches were so important that, in almost every society, a community member eventually set up shop in setting up unions; in northern India, it was the barber's wife, the nayan. "Be a matchmaker once," goes the Chinese saying, "and you can eat for three years."
In the U.S., matchmaking took off as an industry only in this decade, with the arrival of Internet dating sites. Suspicion and disdain eased into acceptance as more Americans found a partner--or at least a date and not a nut--on the sites. Of the 92 million unmarried Americans 18 and older counted by the Census last year, about 16 million have tried online dating, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In 2003 online daters increased 77%. With sites charging $35 a month on average, revenues popped accordingly. Growth has ebbed of late to about 10% a year, say analysts, partly because of the competing popularity of social-networking sites. You can flirt on Facebook too--and for free.
If a country with little tradition of matchmaking can embrace a version of it online, then it follows that cultures long used to a third party's hand in love affairs would do the same. That's what many Western companies seem to believe anyway, judging by their expansion strategies. Match.com the leading online dating site in the U.S., began exploiting first-mover advantage through international acquisitions in 2002. Now in 35 countries, the Dallas-based company says 30% of its 1.3 million members live outside the U.S., accounting for 30% of its $350 million 2007 revenues (the bulk of its 15 million members just browse for free).
But it has learned along the way that its model does not always translate. On Match, users post personal profiles and photos, attracting and perusing potential mates in what resembles a colossal bar scene. While many Americans like the freedom and convenience, single women in Japan felt threatened by the lack of privacy. Plus, parts of the profiles weren't culturally appropriate, as Match CEO Thomas Enraght-Moony learned over lunch in a Tokyo restaurant with his country manager. "He pointed to the women there and said, 'We really don't need to ask for hair color. We all have the same,'" says Enraght-Moony. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, the 2.2 million Web-savvy singles were long used to dating online. To differentiate itself from local competitors when it launched there in 2003, Match toned down its window-shopping aspect and played up the promise of long-term love. "The dream here is not to marry a millionaire prince," says Johan Siwers, vice president of Northern Europe. "The dream is to live a good life in the countryside and be happy." Match now rules the Scandinavian market, with 1.5 million members.
One way U.S. online matchmakers seek to set themselves apart from local competitors is science. Match hired Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher to devise a compatibility test for a spin-off called Chemistry.com As Chemistry prepares to launch abroad, Fisher is confident that the test--56 questions that place users in four temperament categories--is applicable to any culture (see box, left). The societal trends that drive online matchmaking in the U.S. apply in much of the world, after all: women going to work, young people migrating far from home and, perhaps most important, a newly pervasive insistence on love as an essential ingredient of marriage. Fisher cites a study that asked 10,000 people of 36 cultures about their No. 1 criterion for marriage. "Everywhere, the answer was love," she says.
That bodes well for the international hopes of eHarmony, the leader among compatibility-focused sites in the U.S. Started in 2000 by Neil Clark Warren, the folksy clinical psychologist who starred in the company's ads, eHarmony poses 436 questions to users in order to find them the best match. It has since accrued 17 million members, 230 employees, $200 million in annual revenues and 30% yearly growth. That's not to mention marriages at a rate of 90 a day, unions that so far have produced 100,000 children (a disproportionate number of them named Harmony).