""In the past few years dating has become very big business indeed - largely thanks to the Internet. search for UK dating sites on Google and you'll find almost 9 million responses. There are hundreds or even thousands of dating sites out there, all trying to tempt you to join. They range from highly reputable sites offering excellent features and service through to extremely dodgy 'adult' sites, sites purporting to offer you cheap foreign brides and partners and sites that are simply bogus and exist purely to take your money.

If you do want to give online dating a go, the best advice is to stick to one of the best-known ones. You'll find a list of some of the better sites below. But before you rush off to explore, a few words of warning ...

What you need to know about dating sites

Free - as long as you don't use us ...

Almost ALL online dating sites use the same trick of pretending to be free. They are not free at all - in fact they can be quite pricey. All they do is allow you to sign up for free. How generous of them! It's most unlikely you'll be allowed to use the site until you have produced the credit card. The idea, of course, is to get you excited by the prospect of meeting some of the cuties or hunks that are prominently displayed on the site. At this point you are more likely to make a spontaneous decision to part with your money, rather than making a cool and calculated decision.

Our members are better looking ...

As mentioned above, dating sites often appear to attract more than their fair share of exceptionally good-looking and desirable members. This is of course nonsense. You will soon find that the members are by and large just ordinary folk, with the regulation number of wrinkles and the same complicated personal history as anyone else.

Handsome flute-playing A-list astronaut and art collector seeks like-minded female

For a variety of reasons, the Internet does seem to encourage the people to be ... economical with the truth. Both genders often knock a few years off their age, tidy up their past and reveal a fondness for great literature, opera and philosophy that they have hitherto hidden from those that know them best. Some may even overlook the small detail of their husband/wife or children.

Dating sites don't run any checks whatsoever on the bona fides of their members. So do be very careful, in the early stages at least, about giving away too many personal details such as your identity and address. Read advice on dating safety and make sure you heed it. One Single living member joined a dating site and had a very enjoyable couple of months chatting and flirting with a very charming American man. After two months, she gave him all her contact details and they agreed he would fly over for a visit. to her surprise, he then went quiet. Imagine her distress a few days later on receiving a call from the man's wife. It turned out he was a felon who had been sent back to prison, and the wife had only now stumbled across evidence of his online activities. And recently, not one but two of our members started dating men they met on Faceparty, only to be contacted later by their new boyfriends' wives.

Act in haste, repent at leisure

The online dating industry is about immediacy and the promise of instant gratification. At the click of a button a whole bunch of interesting-looking people instantly appear before you. Sometimes you can even see if they are online and you can send them an instant message or invite them to chat.

While this is great, surprise, surprise - there's a downside. Dating site members often get carried away and abandon all rational thoughts of a gradual get-to-know-each-other approach. A few quick flirtatious exchanges and suddenly it's 'Hey, what's your phone number?' People who under normal circumstances would describe themselves as sensible suddenly find themselves throwing caution to the wind and flirting with or exchanging confidences with virtual strangers.

However, dating sites really do work ...

In spite of the caveats listed above, online dating can be both fun and rewarding. We know of many people who have found partners online and gone on to get married and start families.

If you do decide t go the online dating route, do take it seriously. Although it's easy to sign up with one or more sites in a matter of minutes, you don't want to end up feeling ripped off, and you certainly shouldn't take any risks at all concerning your personal safety. If the whole thing goes well, it could change your life forever and you'll think it the best thing you ever did. But you could also end up out of pocket and with dented self-confidence.

There are hundreds - if not thousands - of dating websites. These fall into several categories, including:

  • market-leading fully-featured sites such as match.com and datingdirect.co.uk
  • smaller independent sites, often filling niche categories - such as mysinglefriend.com
  • 'white label' sites operated by dating site companies on behalf of newspapers, magazines, radio stations etc.
  • pile-em-high sites such as plentyoffish.com and datingagency.com
  • sites that are generally best avoided such as Russian / Thai bride sites

Very few dating sites are genuinely free to join, although many (possibly the majority) imply strongly that that are. In fact, they are only free as long as you don't use them. The sites would claiim that this is so that you are able to get a feel for what's on offer, but of course it also happens to help them lure you in so they can tempt you to hand over money for a proper subscription. At the same time, it massively boosts apparent membership levels.

How to choose a site

It's not easy to choose a dating website. if you look at the big players, you'll find they all seem to provide the same kind of features and service, backed up with boastful claims about their effectiveness and the size of their membership.

What about reviews?

Using any search engine will bring up various 'reviews' and review websites - but always bear in mind that they are not necessarily as objective as they'd have you beleive. Look out for repeated mentions of one particular organisation, or the parroting of claims made by the dating sites.