Call me a cheapo whiner, but I find paid dating sites to be a pain. In a lot of cases, it’s not entirely clear who can message who in such a situation–i.e., it’s possible that you as a paid member are able to message someone, but they as a non-paid member can’t write you back. Which just means that paid members are effectively serving as salespeople, with each communication providing a chance for the site to tease the intended recipient: “You’ve received a message! Sign up for our paid membership so you can read it!” Or: “You’ve got a message! Go ahead and read it. Now, want to reply? Sign up for our paid membership!”

Pardon my language, but that’s bullshit. And that’s exactly how some of the paid dating sites work. Even the paid members get jacked. Some sites are more clear about this than others, but…hey, wait a minute! Who cares? There are 3 perfectly-functional and well-populated dating sites that let you communicate openly for free. One of them is even pretty good! So why not just use them, and leave the Match.coms of the world behind?

Here are the three sites, with my least favorite first:

Plenty of Fish
POF is plenty big and works OK, but I find their interface to be clunky and non-intuitive (it most likely still looks a lot like the site did when it started in 2001). I also don’t like their attitude toward vices (drugs, etc.), and they have been increasingly pushy about forcing you to answer certain profile questions just to keep using the site. Overall, I would say that if was a person, he would be kind of a dick, and annoying to deal with. I’ve been phasing out my usage of that site. That said, there are plenty of people there, and communication is free–if a bit censored. (Example: mention “OK Cupid” (see below) in a message to someone, and POF changes it to “another dating site” without telling you. Like I said – kind of a dick.)

DateHookup has a vibe kind of like what you might imagine from its name – though the people seem earnest and aren’t just looking for “hookups”. It’s just got a loose, social, slightly meat-markety feel to it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The profiles here tend to be pretty short and sweet, and stylistically, there is a bit of a myspace-like decorative feel to some profiles. (Probably less so if you’re surfing guys’ profiles, I assume.) You will probably get the highest percentage of bathroom-mirror pics at DateHookup compared to the other two.

OKCupid is really great. I have nothing bad to say about it so far, and it has a lot of features that make it stand out from other dating sites, paid or free. It’s pretty aggressive in terms of trying to introduce people to each other, both directly via email match alerts, and indirectly via suggested profiles that run alongside the person you’re viewing. The interesting thing about these suggested folks is that OKCupid characterizes them in comparison to the person you’re viewing, with things like: “more conservative”, “more desiring”, “less spiritual”, “more adventurous”, “less organized”, “more pure”, “sloppier”, and so on. I’ve never seen anything quite like that, on the 10 or so dating sites I’ve scoped out over the past decade. Pretty neat. I’ve been using this site the least amount of time, but I’ve been more impressed, and have gotten more responses, than with any other site.

I could describe more of what makes OKCupid stand out, but it’s easier just to go and get a feel for it yourself. They seem to have tapped into the next wave of online dating sites in some way. Exactly the opposite of where Plenty of Fish is at. (with DateHookup being almost exactly between the two on that spectrum.) However, all three sites do have active memberships, with some overlap but not a ton. And OKCupid can’t match you up with someone if they are only a member of one of those other sites. So you might want to just try all three anyway. I’d be curious to see what happened if someone signed up for all three at once with the same exact profile–how the responses would compare. If anyone has a clean slate and tries that out, please let us know how it goes.

Do you of another good free dating site? Post a comment and share it!