Deana Cacus' idea of a great date is going to an astronomy lecture. She wears glasses and science camp T-shirts, carries a Darth Vadar messenger bag, and would never miss Comic-Con, the comic book/sci-fi convention where grown-ups dress like Harry Potter and Storm Troopers.
Asked to name a romantic gift, Cacus didn't miss a beat. "Petri dishes. I'd much rather have a guy bring me that than flowers."Cacus, a 23-year-old college student, is a geek. When she went looking for a guy who knew how to fire up a Bunsen burner, she turned to gk2gk.com (that's geek to geek), a Web site that encourages members to list their favorite board games and rate how important "Star Trek" is in their lives.
"I didn't feel I would fit into the general Match.com or eHarmony.com category," said Cacus, who's so at ease with her nerdiness that she seems rather cool. "Those are geared for more normal people. It's really hard for people who are quirky and 'out there' to find people who are like them on those sites."
Niche dating sites are multiplying like empty glasses at happy hour. Singles can search for their perfect match on thousands of sites catering to every interest, taste, trait and lifestyle, from datealittle.com (for dwarfs and other little people), to datingforsmokers.com, to starmatch.com (for those who see nothing wrong with using 'What's Your Sign, baby?' as a pickup line.)
Can't stand the thought of smooching someone who just ate a hamburger? Try veggie-romance.com, veggieconnection.com or happycow.net. A bit of a snob? Try goodgenes.com or rightstuffdating.com, for Ivy-leaguers only, diploma required.
A lying, cheating bastard? Go to philanderers.com, where adulterers can seek willing partners and read tips on avoiding detection.
At a time when general dating sites are having to work harder to attract new customers, specialty sites are attracting singles who think they'll have a better chance of finding a soul mate in a smaller pond.
A few years after her divorce, Julie Sankowski, a 44-year-old real estate agent, signed up for Match.com, which has some 15 million members. Even though she had three school-aged children, she wanted to meet a childless man. That way, his children wouldn't take time away from their relationship, and her kids wouldn't have to compete with his. "I was looking at it in a selfish way," said Sankowski, who lives in San Diego. "That's not how I should have been approaching it."
The never-married, childless guys she dated were "egocentric," and unwilling to share their "personal space," Sankowski said. She decided a man with kids might be more interested in going to her children's cheerleading and cross-country matches on the weekends, and would understand her responsibilities.
On New Year's Eve, Sankowski struck up an online conversation with a father of two from Colorado Springs, Colo., on singleparentsmingle.com, which has 64,000 members. They chatted for hours. She found him witty, romantic, and was impressed that he was still friendly with both of his ex-wives. Things went even better when they met in person for the first time. "It sounds cliche, but he's my missing piece," Sankowski said. "It's just great that it's finally happened."
Anyone who's ever browsed the online personal ads - and a 2003 survey by Jupiter Research found 21 percent of Internet users have - knows finding love online can be a time-consuming and disappointing endeavor.
Still, singles keep trying. In 2005, about 39 percent of U.S. singles had gone on a date with someone they met online, according to a Starbucks phone survey. A WeddingChannel.com survey had found 12 percent of engaged or married couples meet online.
Though the growth rate of new customers has slowed, the online dating market reached $516 million last year, up 30 percent from two years earlier, said Nate Elliott, an analyst for Jupiter Research in London.
Jim Smith sampled sportsfanmatch.com, veggiedate.org, athleticwomen.com and spiritsingles.com. Recently, he perused maydecember.net, for those who prefer someone much older or younger. Smith, 55, from north San Diego County, said he'd like to meet a woman about 15 years younger.
"What I have found with women who are over 45 or 50 and who are single is that they've had so many disappointments and so many brokenhearted situations, I don't want to have to deal with all that," Smith said. "Plus, they're not as active. Their knee is bothering them. Or their back. Or there's some physical limitation."
Few women pulled a muscle rushing to respond to Smith's personal ad, which Smith believes is because the niche sites have too few members. His complaint is a common one.
Most niche sites have just a few thousand members, making it hard to find a geographically desirable match. Maydecember.net has about 1,400. "Online dating, if anything, is a numbers game," Smith said. "They're great ideas, but the specialty sites don't have enough numbers."
The behemoths - Match.com and Yahoo! Personals, followed by eHarmony and Americansingles.com - dominate the industry. To get into the top four, eHarmony spent tens of millions of dollars, and possibly more then a hundred million, on advertising in the last few years, Elliott said.
With the industry locked up by the biggies, upstart dating sites for a general audience have little chance of surviving. Specialty sites are trying to improve their chances of succeeding by setting themselves apart.
"There are four players that matter," Elliott said. "Between them, they have at least two thirds to three fourths of all the money spent on the industry. These thousands of others are competing for a very small piece of the pie."
Jdates.com, with some 300,000 single Jewish members in the United States, and Gay.com, with several million members, are among the largest niche sites.
One niche that does seem to draw customers in sufficient numbers is the BBW category - Big, Beautiful Women and their admirers. There's greatbigdates.com, BBWdatefinder.com, plussizepersonals.com, BBWpersonalsplus.com, largeandlovely.com and overweightdate.com, to name a few of the hundreds of sites catering to people of size.
With more than 60 percent of the population overweight and 30 percent obese, the BBW niche is surely expanding, said Ian Klein, a Bostonian and founder of overweightdate.com.
"Five years ago, online dating was still taboo. Now, it's socially acceptable," Klein said. "How long will it take for saying, 'I met on overweight date' to become socially acceptable? It may take a little longer. But people are leaving the mainstream dating sites for niche dating sites."
Ave Annel Polsdorf, a divorced mother of two children ages 8 and 9, signed up for bbwpersonalsplus.com two years ago. "I call myself a cute fat chick," said Polsdorf, a software project manager until she was laid off late last year.
Shortly after signing up, she hit it off with a man in Tennessee. They've been dating ever since, but she doesn't think it will work because of the distance. She's also made new friends. About 20 of them, male and female, met up in Las Vegas for a weekend.
"There are quite a few guys who prefer larger women," Polsdorf said. "My preference is not to date a bigger guy. I've had plenty of luck dating younger, more athletically built men."
Deana Cacus hasn't had much luck yet finding someone to share her love of science exhibits, "The Twilight Zone," "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and Popular Science magazine. The one guy she met on gk2gk.com so far was a "Hal 9000 type," who was condescending when he realized she didn't know as much about computer coding as he did.
"A lot of geeks are awkward, shy and totally into their own world," said Cacus, who lives in Poway, Calif., and has a science lab in her home where she does experiments for kicks. "The dating universe is like another dimension to them."
Still, she's hopeful. Unlike pretty much every other dating site, gk2gk.com doesn't allow members to post photos, which she thinks will appeal to a geeks' intellectual side. That, and the fact that sitting in front of a computer screen is where geeks feel most comfortable. "The Internet is where we belong," she said. "That's home to us."