Love: Digital dating

If you've never experienced an internet match up or used one of the many introductory agencies around, then it will all seem a tad alien and more than a little bizarre.

But for those who have dipped their toe in the water they know there's really nothing to be scared of. Well, not really.

A rapidly increasing band of the population know this too. In the UK alone the industry will, within three years, be worth 150m annually and there are now over 1,400 online dating websites. An estimated seven million of us are now signed up with one organisation or another.

Of the top 10 most popular websites the number of monthly visits more than doubled from 1.66m in 2009 to 3.65m in 2010.

The reason? There are an estimated 16m single people in the UK, a substantial chunk of whom may be looking for 'no-strings fun', while others want to find Mr or Mrs Right.

At one end of the scale are sites like forgetdinner.co.uk which suggests users skip all the usual formalities of wining and dining and head straight for the bedroom.

This rather merciless mode of operating is one being exploited by internet entrepreneur Howard James who has enjoyed huge success catering for niche markets.

As well as attracting sex-hungry men and women online he has set up websites for a curvy

clientelle and even one for the aesthetically challenged.

"It's a sad fact that up to half of the United Kingdom is made up of ugly people," he said. "Yet amazingly nobody has ever thought of providing an online dating service for them. "Our site allows people who aren't attractive, to engage with others like them without fear of ridicule for being ugly or excessively overweight."

Whether James acts through philanthropy or if he's just business savvy – either way his online dating sites work.

theuglyball.co.uk recently celebrated its first engagement – thirtysomething couple Tom Clifford and Janine Walker from

Gloucestershire.

Meanwhile funpie.co.uk launched just five weeks ago and almost 1,000 people signed up within 12 hours of it launching.

The biggest new member was Trevor who tipped the scales at 28 stone.

He's from Leeds.

There are more conventional sites, of course, for those open-minded about their own appearance and whom they might be looking for.

Match.com and eharmony.com are among the high-profile market leaders.

But then there are an array of other sites aimed at specific groups

within society. They include maturedating.co.uk for older people, parentsalready.co.uk for single mums and dads, and gay people have their own websites such as Gaydar.com which has six million members from around the globe.

Another interesting site is mysinglefriend.co.uk set up by Channel 4's home renovations expert, and Property Ladder host Sarah Beeny.

She has even released an accompanying book,

A Guide to Dating and Dumping, Flirting and Flings

Beeny said: 'The website's been so successful. The idea is your friends post you on the website so it avoids that awfulness that people have of not knowing what to write about themselves.'"

But has it produced results?

"Oh yes, there have been mysinglefriend marriages and babies. I love that."

The list goes on and on. Sporting types will love rugbylover.co.uk or the rather more elitest athleticdating.co.uk.

The most notorious, however, has to be beautifulpeople.com which is infamous for ejecting members if it's felt they don't meet their exacting aesthetic standards.

But for some people there is a deeper, more serious side to making an online match.

Adeem Younis first thought of creating a very specific site when he was a student at Leeds University.

Now in its tenth year singlemuslim.com was set up specifically to facilitate marriages for followers of Islam.

"At first there was some stigma surrounding the idea of an online matching service, which I think has been the case for similar sites.

"But it was particularly difficult for the Muslim community which has very strong traditions.

"Very quickly though they came round to the idea because we aren't about dating, we are simply about finding husbands and wives for people.

"Families like it because they get to see all kinds of people and decide whether they would be a suitable match, but what's great is that individuals also have some choice about who they feel they would be compatible with on a personal level."

From a base in Wakefield they now have over half a million people on their books from 18 to 60 years old . Every day they score six successful unions.

Among them was Salim Tobera, 32, from Armley who signed up to the service a year ago. During the last 12 months he met his wife Zohra, got engaged and they have just tied the knot.

Salim converted to Islam two years ago and was determined to find a suitable partner.

"I liked it because it has very strict rules of how to conduct yourself." he said. "And it gives the women more choice as well, so you put yourself on there and they can approach you.

"Because I converted to Islam I don't have the same network of family and friends which could introduce me to a suitable wife either, which made things difficult.

"And if I were to approach a woman in real life it would also be awkward. Should I do it in a supermarket or a library? And how do you know if someone is already married or not?

"But with using the online service everything is very clear and it's very private as well.

"I'm very happy with how everything turned out and I'd really recommend it to anyone."

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