Editor’s note: WRAL Local Tech Wire has added another feature with the launch of the "Innovation Exchange." Noah Garrett, former executive director of communications for the North Carolina Technology Association, is a creative spirit, from writing music to news stories, who recently launched his own communications firm. The focus of the Innovation Exchange is just that – creating a Web community through which people can exchange ideas and foster creativity.

Participate in the Exchange. Send ideas and feedback to: noah@thinkngc.com

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK —
Like so many other vestiges of the Web 1.0 era, online dating services may have been outdone by the Web 2.0 way of the world.

The online dating industry is losing a big chunk of its market to social networking services. Some industry insiders see social networking washing away the online dating business. One thing’s for sure, the time when you could make millions in the dating business with a staff of 10 IT guys is over.

U.S. residents spent more than $500 million on online dating and personals last year, the second largest segment of "paid content" on the Web, according to a study conducted by the Online Publishers Association (OPA) and comScore Networks. And, in the years to come, many prominent studies show that Baby Boomer interest in online dating will soar. In comparison, few social network services charge for membership. They operate under an autonomous business model, in which members serve dual roles as both the suppliers and the consumers of content. Revenue is typically gained via advertisements.

So, will online dating disappear with the emergence of free social network services? No. But, it must evolve to retain the prominent market share it has enjoyed for nearly two decades.

One theory is that online dating companies need to be more specialized and highly customized in order to succeed today. The distinction of online/offline dating has to fade away, as these two types of services must be integrated into a product that responds to the needs of real people, looking for real relationships. People more than likely will continue to pay for dating services in niche market standards, if they get something that corresponds to their specific needs.

Those that feel that a dating service is run by an IT department, and that it is nothing more than another Internet business, will not connect with the person who really is looking for love. It’s the era we live in – the customized, me-generation.

The ability to spouse-hunt online once was revolutionary. The sheer size of the Web audience enabled lonely hearts to check out profiles from a far larger pool of people than they could offline. And it was effective, if you believe online dating sites. What’s more, the phenomenon has lost its stigma. A cultural shift has made it suddenly socially acceptable to put out a singles ad. You are not a loser; you are just busy.

In comparing what a common dating site and a social networking site offer to singles these days, there isn’t much difference. According to personal research conducted for this post, it appears that whatever Yahoo! Personals, eHarmony or match.com can come up with in terms of technology to support individuals in their quest for love, a social networking service can emulate. So, there is no surprise that people are opting for free services generally available through sites such as MySpace or Facebook.

While online dating will evolve to fit cultural standards, social networking services will, too. Who will come out on top and win the power of love? That remains to be seen. An even bigger question here is what will "online daters" be willing to pay for in the future?