It may not be quite what George Osborne had in mind to boost the economy, but the UK is leading the way in the "march of the daters" as more than 9 million Britons log on to find love and sex.
The value of the UK online dating market jumped 6% to almost £170m last year as a growing number of singletons turned to the internet rather than speed dating nights or their local pub to meet Mr or Miss Right. "In the UK there is a longer tradition of using online dating and people are willing to spend more," said Metaflake's chief executive, Henning Wiechers, who said the trend towards meeting partners online was most successful in secular, well-to-do countries. The big increase was attributed to aggressive advertising by rival dating sites.
The internet dating boom began in 2000, when around 100,000 early adopters braved a dial-up internet connection to find a partner.
Now that figure is 9.1 million, according to the Metaflake study, with two-thirds using mainstream dating sites such as Match and eHarmony, while 2.8 million pursue "erotic encounters" on websites such as Shagaholic and Sexintheuk.
Not only did the UK have the highest concentration of single people in the pan-European study, according to Metaflake, but it was also judged to have the "most colourful dating landscape" due to the volume of themed singles dating sites, ranging from Cougar Dating to Uniform Dating, to those catering for religious groups or body-type preferences. Of Europe's 5,000 dating portals, roughly 1,500 emanate from the UK. The five biggest players in Europe are Friendfinder, Match owner Meetic, Badoo, C-Date and eDarling. Match is the UK market leader.
"The British are very open-minded," said Wiechers, who said the country was also the market leader for "webcam" dating. "Germans [the second largest market] are much shyer."
He believes the UK online dating market will have expanded by another 5% in 2012 but said it was tough for companies to make money due to the crowded marketplace: "The UK is a very competitive market and companies have to reinvest all their earnings into advertising to fight for their market position."
While Google and Facebook dominate search and social networking respectively, Metaflake estimates there are 50 online dating sites with more than 100,000 members operating in the UK, suggesting the prospect of further consolidation. Scottish firm Cupid, which is listed on the junior market, has made a series of acquisitions in recent years, including Uniform Dating and French and German websites Amour and OnlineLiebe, respectively, and generated annual sales of £53m in 2011.
The growing use of smartphones is also changing the market as "somewhat more superficial" – and cheaper – sites aimed at 18- to 30-year-olds take off. Apps include features such as a location-based search function for spontaneous encounters.
The Metaflake study estimates that today around 30% of new relationships arise from the internet, but also adds a hefty health warning for romantics. It estimates that 25% of those combing the web for a new partner, "particularly men", are already in a relationship.
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