They say that money can't buy love. But online, love sure is making money.

Internet dating is a booming industry -- one of the few online financial success stories. Some of the top contenders, like Match.com, are even turning a profit.

“This is a massive business,” said Roben Farzad, a writer for Smart Money magazine (www.smartmoney.com). “It’s hit an absolute homerun.”

The Online Publishers Association (search), a trade organization of online media companies, recently released a report showing the growth in the Internet dating business. Consumers spent $302 million on paid personals and dating content in 2002, more than three times the $72 million they doled out for the same services the previous year, the study found.

“For the full year of 2002, the personals and dating category was the largest single paid content category overall,” said Michael Zimbalist, executive director of the OPA. “It’s making a lot of money.”

The leader, Match.com, reported a 154 percent growth in revenue, from $49.3 million in 2001 to $125.2 million in 2002, according to Trish McDermott, the company’s vice president of romance. Earnings for the first quarter of this year have amounted to $40.9 million; profits were $36.1 million in 2002 versus $2.7 million in 2001, she said.

Match.com charges $24.95 for a monthly membership, which allows subscribers to send e-mails to potential dating partners. Match.com (search) visitors can post profiles or search the database for free.

“People will pay for content that contributes meaningful value to their lives,” McDermott said, by way of explaining the success of online personals. “Online dating is efficient and affordable. The Internet can offer single people more romantic opportunity that’s easier to get to 24-7 than any other experience in their day-to-day offline lives.”

Match’s biggest competitor is Yahoo! Personals, which charges $19.95 a month for a subscription that also gives members the ability to communicate with people they’re interested in. As with Match, Yahoo! visitors can search the database or post profiles for free.

Yahoo! Personals Vice President and General Manager Katie Mitic said the company doesn’t disclose revenues of its individual businesses, but added that its online dating services are “a contributor to the top line and bottom line of Yahoo!

“The social stigma is really beginning to wane for online dating,” Mitic said. “It’s becoming more and more mainstream.”

Zimbalist said that the attitude change toward Internet dating -- and its subsequent growth in popularity and revenue -- have been largely thanks to sites like Match and Yahoo! Personals.

“Match.com and Yahoo! Personals have done some great marketing to erase the stigma that used to be attached to this,” he said. “It’s not just for desperate people on the fringe -- it’s for you and me and the people next door.”

Online dating also suits the busy lifestyles of many singles -- another reason behind its success.

“As their lives get more and more hectic and their social networks change, it offers a really efficient way to get into a very broad and diverse community of singles,” Mitic said.

And it’s a service that allows singles to pick and choose some of the basic qualities they’re looking for up-front.

“This allows you to cut to the chase,” Farzad said. “You go on, find what you want and make your pitch. You know a significant amount more about that other person up-front than you would just trusting a friend to set you up.”

The most successful online dating sites have been those with the largest databases -- and industry experts predict that will continue to be the case.

“The ones that do the best are the ones with the biggest membership lists,” said Farzad. “You are clearly looking for the best selection.”

He also attributes the financial success of the online dating industry to the fact that it fits in well with the interactive nature of the Internet.

“You can’t just sell anything online -- it has to be something tailored to the online experience of click and pay,” said Farzad. “When all these other businesses on the Internet failed, this really worked.”

Ultimately people will spend money on services they consider valuable and life-changing -- and that is largely why the online personals business has done so well.

“Information that can affect your life is the kind of information most people are willing to pay for,” Zimbalist said. “What is more intimately connected to your life than finding a match? That’s the bottom line.”