Online dating services may be convenient, but they're not the most personable way to meet a potential mate.

What's been lacking, Match.com Chief Executive Jim Safka believes, is a way for would-be couples to hear each other talk.

A new service from the company called matchTalk aims to do just that.

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Free for basic subscribers beginning Thursday, matchTalk will let users go online and signal if they're interested in speaking to each other anonymously over the phone.

The system protects privacy by assigning the couple a unique number that they can use to talk to each other without fear of giving away their real telephone number or other personal details. People with caller ID will see the matchTalk number instead of their actual listing.

Safka described the technology — an industry first — as an important step in the development of Internet-based matchmaking services.

"It's one of those back-to-the-future features," he said. "We're really starting to weave in the natural way people meet."

Safka said such features are important to the future growth of Internet dating services.

He said there are more than 90 million single adults in the United States actively looking for a relationship, yet only 3 million people join an Internet matchmaking service.

"That voice is really critical in determining whether you have chemistry with someone," he said. "What we hope to do is get people spending less time online and more time talking to each other and meeting each other."