More Americans than ever—some 48 million—go online in their quest for love, signing up on dating sites increasingly tailored to them. There are sites grouped by religion, such as ChristianMingle and the Jewish-oriented JDate, or time-pressed casual users can swipe to find a match on apps like Tinder. (Even Disney fans have MouseMingle.com.) But as the New York Times reports, the business model behind these sites is rarely a happy marriage. With the exception of companies like Match Group, which has 51 sites, most of the 4,500 online dating outfits are tiny. While it is cheap to start a dating site, it has "never been more expensive to grow one," says consultant Mark Brooks. Most traffic is now going to mobile apps that suffer from low advertising revenue, and subscribers who time balk at paying for the service.
Take the case of Spark Networks, owner of 30 sites including JDate. With revenue down 22% and 55,000 fewer subscribers than in 2012, the company last summer closed its Israel office, scaled down, and sold off 16% of its stock to an investment firm. All the while, the company estimates that 70% of American Jews (1 million registered users) have some contact with JDate or its spinoff, JSwipe. "Every Jew knows someone who knows someone who met on JDate," says one former exec. Online dating execs are split over the industry's future. While Spark's Brad Goldberg thinks users, tired of swiping apps, will want "deeper interactions," a chief strategist at Match Group foresees tapping users' accounts on Instagram and the like to find their perfect mate. Then again, if Match acquires Spark, as some predict, the distinction could be moot. "I bet the world of online dating in 18 months to two years will look completely different than it does today," says Goldberg. (These are the 10 best and worst cities for singles.)