Many singles are placing their faith in algorithms to help guide Cupid's arrow this Valentine's Day.
There's no shortage of unmarried people on the market -- roughly 102 million Americans -- and a lot of them, tired of the bar scene or failed blind dates, are turning to online dating sites, hoping their soul mate is just a click away.
In many instances, the industry -- which market research companies estimate to be worth $1.33 billion and used by 40 million Americans -- is producing results.
Erin Heintzinger, 33, of the East End, a marketing director and a veteran of OkCupid.com, believes that love can spark on the World Wide Web.
"It's an amazing technology advancement for the sake of humanity because the people who might not have been able to find someone are finding people," Ms. Heintzinger said. "Whatever your quirk, fandom or sexual proclivity, there's someone out there."
She joined OkCupid before Christmas in 2010 fresh off a "pretty awful" seven-year-relationship.
Ms. Heintzinger said she was leery of most men at the time, but online dating sites gave her a sense of security.
"I had control because I was looking at a computer screen and not the guy in the bar," she said. "I could screen them really well. I could Google them until I felt really comfortable."
But her mother was not convinced.
"My mother promptly freaked out when she realized what I was doing because all she could think of was serial killers and mass murders," Ms. Heintzinger said.
Her sister-in-law would call on every date to give her an opportunity to fake an emergency and escape (now there's an app for that), but Ms. Heintzinger quickly found herself dating two men she didn't need to be rescued from.
Things got weird when she discovered they worked for the same company. Still, Michael Holodnak, 33, of the East End won her heart because he found the situation comical -- while the other man threw a fit.
Soul mates on Playstation
She credits the site's matchmaking capabilities with helping her find her soul mate, a software engineer. The pair, who got engaged at the Highland Festival in Ligonier this fall, shared a 99 percent compatibility rating on the site and she believes their commonalities- like Firefly, their favorite TV show, playing Skyrim on Playstation 3 and love of the Steelers -- make them a strong couple.
"There are differences, but enough solid commonalities that there is never a dull moment with us," she said.
Now her mother tells her to help single friends get online.
But some families are not as open about meeting on the Web, despite a societal progression that has shed most of the taboo nature of it.
Chris Miller, 35, of Indiana, Pa., said he didn't have any reservations about trying Yahoo! Personals in 2006 as a single in Syracuse, but didn't tell anyone about it.
"It was still a time where people would have made fun of you about it," said Mr. Miller, who works in newspaper advertising.
A few days before Mr. Miller closed his account, Emily Virkler -- whom he had messaged weeks before -- finally responded.
They met at Al's Wine Bar on a cold night in Syracuse and talked for more than three hours.
"From the first day we met I had a feeling she was the one," he said. "She was the only person that I met online."
She recalled that she thought Mr. Miller was cute, but needed help with his style, which has since improved. She said she went into the date not wanting him to walk her to her car, still working on her fear about stalkers. But she ended up taking a more risky route by allowing him to drive her to her car -- she trusted him.
"Maybe a week later I acted like I had a bad day at work and needed ice cream and asked if she wanted to join me," he said. "I didn't have a bad day, I just wanted to see her."
Three months later, Mr. Miller lost his job and to the surprise of their friends and family, Ms. Virkler agreed to move with the Pennsylvania native to Johnstown. They were apart for four months, longer than they had been together, as she finished school and they found a place to live.
"It was a whirlwind and it all worked out," Mr. Miller said.
The couple married on Aug. 8, 2009, and brought home baby Lukas Owen on their third anniversary.
He said his parents didn't find out for a few years that he had met his wife online.
"Some of our family and friends still don't know we met online," he said.
Together since first date
Marcy Gates, 36, of Imperial was exasperated with a series of horrible blind dates when she signed up for a free trial on matchmaker.com.
"Part of the reason I went online was because I am a Christian and I didn't want to be spending every night at the club or the bar," she said. "I didn't think that was the best way to meet the man I was looking for. I wanted someone who was stable and wasn't out partying every night getting in trouble."
She explained all of this in an her profile and didn't include a picture of herself in fear of it getting into the wrong hands. Safety was her top concern: she shared her phone number only after exchanging emails and always met her dates in public places.
"I was always afraid I would end up with some scary guy who would try to kidnap me," she said.
After about four months of email exchanges and another month of phone conversations, Mrs. Gates, then Ms. Spiker, felt confident she had properly screened Donald Gates, then 28, and set off for their first date at Bravos in the North Hills in March 2002.
Mr. Gates, now a general manager of a Ditka's in Robinson, was the first person she messaged when she opened the account and the last one to respond days before her free week ran out.
"I remember the whole time driving there praying 'Dear Lord, please let this go well,' " she said. "I was so nervous. My girlfriend was like 'what are you so nervous about? It's not like you're going to marry him.' "
The couple married in 2005 and now have three young daughters.
"Since our first date, we've been together," said Mrs. Gates, a stay-at-home mother. "We've never broken up or been apart. By the time our first anniversary had passed I knew I wanted to marry him and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him."
Bad dates to blogs
Chelsea Ashe, a 25-year-old Pittsburgh single, hasn't been so lucky.
She joined Match.com fresh off a breakup and has gone on mostly unsuccessful dates with about 20 men in the past 11 months.
She said her first was the most memorable.
Ms. Ashe said she arrived early at a restaurant she had picked close to her house. She knew, based on previous conversations, that they both liked the same drink, so she ordered one for herself and one for him and waited.
She was immediately excited when he arrived with a bouquet of blue flowers, which she had told him was her favorite color.
"But then he starts dropping the F-bomb and asking me if I knew how many stores he had to go through to get blue flowers," she recalls. "Then he dropped the drink and made me buy him a new one."
The date -- her shortest at about 20 minutes -- only went downhill from there.
"He told me he played football in college and couldn't give a straight answer in what position he played," she said. "I showed him a picture of my dog and he told me it was ugly."
After she retold stories about her series of bad dates to her friends, they urged her to write them down. So she started a blog, which is now up to 5,000 unique hits, and writes about the bad dates, but keeps the good ones to herself. She plans to publish parts of the blog as a book this summer.
"Part of the reason I started it was because it's almost a win-win," she said. "That's why online dating for me is fun. You either go out and have a good time or I have material for a story."
She's still single, but hopeful that things with a guy she's seen a few times works out.
"Every girl has hopes to find the one somehow," she said. "I'm not going to be upset if it's not through here. I'm going to go with the flow; if it happens, amazing, if not then it has a lot of good experiences. I'm hopeful and optimistic, but I'm not banking on it.
Taryn Luna: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1985. First Published February 14, 2013 5:00 AM