By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News
"The UK is the battlefield for the World War of dating," according to Marc Simoncini, the Frenchman who set up the online dating business Meetic.
His company has just bought the UK dating website Dating Direct and is going head-to-head with the world's biggest dating site: Match.com.
Mr Simoncini says it is not just a clash of companies. He reckons it is about whether the British date in a manner more similar to people elsewhere in Europe or like the Americans.
"If you use a US website they promise you will fall in love," he says.
"They promise you to be married in 6 months, which for a French guy or a Spanish guy or an Italian is crazy.
"So the difference is whether you promise love or you promise dates."
'Make love happen'
The home page at Match.com is indeed stamped with the guarantee that you will find someone special within six months.
Jason Stockwood, managing director of Match.com in the UK, says the difference is not necessarily between a European approach and an American one.
"We think there is a French approach and the rest of the world's approach," he says.
And he makes no apologies about the "make love happen guarantee".
"We do focus on the people that are serious about relationships," he says.
"Mr Simoncini took a stance of the date as an encounter, but I'm not sure that's what online dating is necessarily about.
"We're very much about serious relationships and people that are looking to find love."
Love and war
All is fair in love and war, off course, so no wonder the battle turns catty at times.
Mr Simoncini insists it is not just about who is on top in the UK.
"If Meetic is able to take the UK, Meetic will have won the war. If Match.com is able to keep the UK then they will have won the war," he says.
"It's the French vision against the Texan vision so we will see. I'm confident, but I'm French."
"That sounds a bit Napoleonic," responds Mr Stockwood.
"I wonder if he remembers what happened at Waterloo."
Now, history suggests the events surrounding Waterloo were complex. Not compared with this battle, which goes well beyond a head-on battle between two firms.
TOP UK PERSONALS SITES
Source: Nielsen NetRatings
For starters, neither of them is a market leader in the UK, according to Nielsen Net Ratings' figures for May.
In Nielsen's "personals" category, FriendFinder is top dog, although it is not a pure dating site. Second comes LoopyLove, which is funded by advertising.
Hence, Match.com and Meetic are laggards coming third and fourth, though they - unlike the top two - are funded mainly by subscriptions.
And both insist that makes them superior, since having signed up paying punters provide them with more stable sources of income.
In the May figures for the whole of Europe, Match.com is number one, followed by Meetic.
'Same game new rules'
Both sites also claim they have helped remove the stigma attached to online dating: Ten years ago, online dating agencies were considered the preserve of the desperate few and many young people would have been embarrassed to use them.
Now it seems to be less of a problem and there are tales of young, French singles going around in Meetic-branded t-shirts.
Mr Simoncini tells a story about one group of single women who are approached by a single man. The man tries to talk to them but is told to e-mail them instead.
The guy asks "why should I send you an e-mail to your nickname when it's so easy to talk to you?" and the girl replies "because if I don't want to read your e-mail then I won't", Mr Simoncini laughs.
On this basis, Meetic uses the slogan "Same game, new rules", and it is not the only site to use such tactics.
The UK website wannaflirt.co.uk gives members stickers to put on their cars so that if you see someone you fancy in a traffic jam you can contact them later.
But beyond such psychological warfare, the key weapon employed on this battlefield is technology.
Dating Direct has just announced a deal with Vodafone to provide its services on mobile phones, and Match.com will soon follow suit.
And while Dating Direct allows you to use Instant Messaging, Match.com has just launched Chemistry.com in the US - which has gone one step further by bringing in a wildhaired scientist approach. In fact, Chemistry uses a "world-renowned biological anthropologist" to find matches using psychometric testing.
There is more: In America Match.com has used a string of specialist dating sites to cater for divorced people, or fit people, for athletes, or Hindus.
Secure the website
Yet, despite this impressive array of strategies and hardware and shrewd strategies, both sites know they'll get nowhere without manpower.
Online dating is unusually labour intensive for an internet business.
A third of Meetic's staff spend their time staring at screens, monitoring what goes on on the site.
"The cost is one third of our salaries," says Mr Simoncini. "The profit is that we have women on the website.
"If you don't secure the website, if you don't control the content, if you don't ban all the guys who are not correct on the website the result is that you don't have any women," he explains.
"And if you don't have women you don't have a dating website."