NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Imagine walking into a bar and asking 20 potential dates for their personal stats, and without thinking twice, they hand over the information. Five minutes later, you've discovered that 15 of them aren't worth your time. But 5 sure are.
Sound too good to be true? It's not, if you seek love online. Besides, who's got time to spend all night sitting at a bar?
"You can search hundreds of people while sitting in your pajamas eating Krispy Kremes," said Guillermo Fernandez, a New York City single. "You can even find out what the other person's hobbies are without having to ask."
Fernandez, a 33-year-old marketing director for a national women's magazine, said the Internet is where he found some promising dates after a four-year relationship came to an end over a year ago.
The newest kid on the block
You may have heard of Match.com, the most popular dating site, followed by MatchNet and Yahoo! Personals, according to Media Metrix, which measures Web site traffic. But these days, the king of online matchmaking is keeping a close eye on Friendster.com, the red-hot Internet new comer based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Friendster may not ring a bell with some older daters. But if you're a single under 30, one of your friends probably already has sent you an invitation to join.
Membership offers a reservoir of opportunities for users to meet friends and potential dates online through friends you already know in real life, and the site now boasts 5 million users -- spectacular growth, since it launched less than a year ago.
"The number is unprecedented," said Jeetil Patel, senior analyst at Deutsche Bank North America. "We've probably never seen anything like this."
When Match.com opened its door to singles back in 1995, it took almost a year to register its first 60,000 members. Friendster's success is coming a lot faster, partly because most people are more Internet-savvy today and more are open-minded about online dating.
The sucess of the site has spawned copycats in recent months, such as MySpace.com, Tribe.net and Orkut.com, a new service from Google. Friendster's popularity has also caught the eye of some wealthy investors.
Late last year, Friendster, privately held by founder and president Jonathan Abrams, welcomed aboard some new friends with deep pockets.
Former Yahoo! CEO Tim Koogle, former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, and Google board member Ram Shriram collectively have invested more than $1 million, Abrams said.
Koogle has also joined Friendster's board of directors, he confirmed through an e-mail to CNN/Money.
Does this friend have what it takes?
Some 40 million Americans visited personals/dating sites monthly, according to a report published last autumn by the Online Publishers Association and comScore Networks.
Match.com, a unit of Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp (IACI: Research, Estimates), reported $125 million in revenue in 2002, just 3 percent of its parent company's total revenue of $4.6 billion, but more than double the year before.
Consumer willingness to pay for online dating helped convince Abrams to turn part of Friendster into a fee-based site. "We don't have a date set for when it will start," he said. "Most of the site will remain free, but if you want to contact someone you don't know, that would require a small fee."
Abrams said a monthly charge will be minimal and under $10, but Match.com President Tim Sullivan said that is when Friendster's true popularity will be tested.
A subscription-based service on Friendster will not be perceived well by his peers, said Fernandez, the 33-year-old New Yorker who has used both Match.com and Friendster.
Friends in doubt
Most Friendster users are in their 20s or early 30s, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, while Match.com attracts more affluent 34- to 49-year olds.
"Younger people would be less likely to pay for this type of service," said Abha Bhagat, senior Internet analyst for Nielsen/Net Ratings.
Match.com's Sullivan agreed. "Friendster is sort of a fun and very free voyeuristic service, and that's a very different value proposition," he added.
But Abrams said Friendster's method -- which offers opportunities for people to meet through friends and not random strangers -- will work better than the traditional method.
"I found most online dating to be very creepy, because it is random and anonymous," Abrams said. "But by meeting people through friends, it's less creepy," he said.
But the brand name and credibility is what drives Match.com to success, Nielsen's Bhagat said. "When you think of Match.com, you don't really think of anything sleazy about it," she added.
"We knew online dating even just two, three years ago, had some stigmas attached to it," Sullivan said. "So we made a very conscious decision to invest heavily in mainstream advertising, like television, radio and outdoor advertising. Now we just wish those who think it's OK to give it a try."
Even though Match.com currently charges $24.99 a month for its services, Fernandez said he would use Match.com when it comes to serious dating.
"I don't think I would pay to meet people my friends already know, " Fernandez said. "But I would pay to use a real dating site for dating."
"Some folks at Friendster speak somewhat negatively about the traditional concept of going online and meeting other people, but I think 8 million people using Match.com would beg to differ," Match.com's Sullivan said.
Abrams said Friendster has no immediate plans to go public.
Meanwhile, Fernandez thinks his chances of finding love online are good, but for now he said he's "happily single."