Most in the market for romance have a List, a set of ideal traits they’d like to find in a mate. For some, the List is broad and generic — perhaps it includes “sense of humor,” “intelligence,” or “good looks.” For others, the List is much more specific.
Dale Graff had one item on his List that seemed particularly elusive: after dating women who made a big fuss about his gluten-free and dairy-free diet, he wanted a partner who shared his diet.
“I had one girlfriend who would make comments about not being able to just stop for pizza, or would inadvertently contaminate me,” said Graff, who was diagnosed with celiac disease eight years ago. “I thought my whole life would be a whole lot easier if I met someone else with celiac. We could have some semblance of a normal relationship.”
But in his town of Bozeman, Mont., population 40,000, the odds of finding such a woman seemed not very good. A friend told him about a new online dating site, GlutenfreeSingles.com. There he could search by diet preferences such as gluten-free, macrobiotic or paleo in addition to the standard categories of age, religion and education. Graff, 47, a land surveyor, was a little skeptical about dating online. Still, he signed up.
As online dating has shed its stigma and ballooned to a $2.2 billion industry, such niche dating sites have proliferated.
In 2009, industry leader Match Group acquired PeopleMedia.com, adding to its portfolio 27 niche sites that allowed it to dominate both the black and the senior singles scenes. The Passions Network includes more than 250 such niches sites, for fans of everything from scuba diving to mustaches. The site WhiteLabelDating.com made launching a niche dating site as easy as starting a WordPress blog — anyone can use the platform to build their own service in exchange for a 30 percent cut of revenue.
And independent dating sites get even more niche: the Atlasphere, the online Ayn Rand fan club, operates its own dating site for Objectivists.
“Niche sites are like traditional dating on steroids,” said Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies relationships. “People always selected different ways of meeting partners — at churches versus bars versus country clubs — and the idea was to meet someone who were especially compatible with you. But we’ve never seen this level of specialization or this level of easy access before.”
The Internet made it easier to search for a compatible partner. Niche sites are way to fine-tune that search.
“Niche dating sites help people design the life they want, they pare down the hunt so it’s easier,” said Renée Piane, a Los Angeles dating coach. “You don’t have to have all the same values to have a relationship. But a niche site puts people with the same top values in the same place.”
Niche sites first took off in what Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld terms “thin dating markets” — categories for which the pool of available mates was smaller, like those who chose to define their search by a specific religion. Since then, niche sites have expanded to encompass everything from dietary restrictions to hobbies.
The evolution makes sense, said Rosenfeld.
“People naturally want to sort themselves to be with people like themselves,” he said. “It’s a fundamental rule that people like people that are like themselves.”
It may seem that online dating can break down real-life barriers between would-be lovers — say, helping link daters of different races. But the number of interracial couples who have met online is slightly lower than those who met elsewhere, according to Rosenfeld’s research.
“One of the critiques of the Internet as a social medium is it creates some Balkanization,” he said. “Most of the people on Gluten Free Singles could date someone who eats gluten, but maybe for them it’s just easier to date someone who makes everything out of rice flour.”
And that narrowing of choice is probably a good thing. Online dating, Rosenfeld has found, is a proven improvement in efficiency. His new research found that people who meet online progress faster to marriage.
“I think it’s because they know more about each other sooner,” he said. “The search function helps them sift through faster.”
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and scientific adviser to the Match Group, said that niche sites also help cut down some of the noise of dating online.
“Sometimes online dating gives people cognitive overload,” she said. “People get the feeling you have an endless quantity of people you could meet. And you end up going out with so many people you choose none.”
Sam Yagan, head of Match Group, which owns Match.com, OkCupid and Tinder in addition to its many niche properties, said niche sites perform three key functions. First, they help people find people who are like them more efficiently. They provide an entry point into online dating for new Internet daters like Graff, who otherwise might be skeptical of the process. And they get daters on multiple sites. Most of the people on Match Group sites, he said, have accounts on three sites.
Hard to market
At the same time, while sites like BlackPeopleMeet.com, SingleParentMeet.com and OurTime.com, a seniors site, have been incredibly successful, Yagan is skeptical that sites catering to smaller niches, like Ayn Rand fans or the gluten-free, will really take off.
“For one, the marketing is very hard,” he said. “How do you even reach a gluten-free single? It’s just crazy.”
GlutenfreeSingles.com was created in July 2013. It now has about 25,000 users — a little over 6,000 of them are active on a weekly basis.
Co-founder Marcella Romaya had the idea for the site after she re-entered the dating world after two decades of marriage. She had developed a gluten allergy, which she feared made her come off as high-maintenance at dinner dates.
“Food is a huge part of romance,” said Romaya.
The site was originally free but now charges a $10 monthly membership fee. The company, based in San Diego, is entirely funded by Romaya and her business partner. As the gluten-free diet has grown in popularity, the site has also grown, expanding to nine employees.
“If you can narrow the dating pool, you can have a higher success rate,” she said.
There’s no evidence that niche sites match more couples than, say, Match.com — in fact Yagan said the success rates on Match and OurTime are comparable.
But Gluten Free Singles has had at least one success. In the fall of 2013, Graff received a message from Pia Strobel, a hair salon owner in Connecticut who is also both gluten- and dairy-free and shares his loves of running and the outdoors. In less than a year, Stroble made the move to Bozeman, where they are now buying a house together.
A small photo of the couple holds a prominent space on the GlutenfreeSingles.com home page, along with a message from the couple: “We had no idea love could stretch 2,300 miles. Now we’re together and working on ‘Happily ever after.’”
“The only real algorithm is your own brain,” said Fisher, the anthropologist. “None of these dating sites are really dating sites. They’re introducing sites. Once you’re on a date, you’re ancient human brain will begin to court the way it always has.”
Niche sites, she said, are just another avenue for introductions.
“But I don’t know about a mustache dating site,” she said. “That seems really quirky.”
Kristen V. Brown is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @kristenvbrown