“A lot of unsavory dating sites will try to capitalize on our brand, and that’s not ok with us.”

How Ron Sarian defends matchmaker eHarmony’s trade secrets in the expanding field of online dating

When online match-making came into existence, it was all about the ability to search for other singles by location, age, appearance, interests, and other criteria. That changed in 2000 with the launch of eHarmony, which sought to remove the trial-and-error inherent in searching for matches. Instead, it used proprietary algorithms to suggest the most compatible couples.

The service is the brainchild of Neil Clark Warren, a marriage and family counselor with a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Chicago. After surveying 800 couples, he identified the 200 happiest and the 200 least happy, and he looked at the factors that came into play. The result was what eHarmony calls “29 Dimensions of Compatibility.”

“Matching on these dimensions creates couples with fundamental things in common, from intelligence to sense of humor, and that helps create long-lasting relationships that hopefully end up in marriage, which is our mission,” says Ronald Sarian, the company’s general counsel since 2013.

Married for 30 years, Saraian has never used an online match-making site, but that doesn’t diminish his passion for eHarmony.

The advent of online dating was significant because it began the age of the algorithm—and the algorithms have only become smarter. Recently, a professor at the University of Iowa led a team to develop an algorithm that uses a person’s contact history to recommend partners with whom they might be compatible, much like Netflix recommends movies that users might like by tracking their viewing history.

“I think online match-making is the single greatest resource out there for meeting partners,” says Sarian. “When I got married in 1985, there was no such thing as online dating; there wasn’t even any such thing as online. You can look at [other users’] pictures to determine if there’s chemistry, but at least you know that science has taken care of the foundations.”

Today, online match-making might seem simple—especially with the advent of swipe-and-click approach services like Tinder. Even as much of the market gravitates toward instant-gratification services like Tinder, Sarian says there is a demand for what eHarmony has to offer.

“[Tinder’s] users tend to be younger and want a quick and easy match for free. It’s really a different demographic,” Sarian says. “In fact, I think they help us, because as people mature and want to get serious, they come to eHarmony, spend the time it takes to complete our questionnaire, and hopefully find a good match.”

Those good matches are generated beneath the surface of eHarmony through a complex apparatus, the stewardship of which Sarian takes seriously. He is responsible for compliance with privacy, data protection, and advertising laws in the United States and multiple foreign jurisdictions.

Often, the stakes are enormous. Under Canada’s antispam legislation, for example, a company could be penalized up to $1 million for each unsolicited e-mail it sends into the country.

Intellectual property is essential to eHarmony’s business. The company holds multiple patents, including those for its matching algorithms, which have proven tremendously successful. “We did a study, and our divorce rate over a seven-year period was 3.86 percent—well below the average for that period of time,” says Sarian. “We’re really proud of that and want to protect it. We’d like to get it as close to zero as possible.”

The company’s trademark is valuable and, therefore, requires additional protection. “If you walk up to anyone in the country and ask for the name of an online dating company, more than 90 percent say eHarmony unaided, and if you aid them, it goes even higher,” says Sarian. He adds that brand recognition didn’t come by luck; marketers worked diligently on eHarmony’s branding. The return on that investment is good for eHarmony, but it also presents a constant threat. “New companies that do matching sometimes want to rip off our brand and put ‘harmony’ somewhere in their name,” says Sarian.

He says that practice not only creates confusion, but dilutes the original brand. “We’re in the long-term matching and relationship business, and a lot of unsavory dating sites will try to capitalize on our brand, and that’s not ok with us,” he explains.

The company is active in policing its trademark. It does so not only among up-and-coming dating sites, which have saturated the market, but among other matching companies, such as those that match car-buyers with cars or pet-seekers with animals.

“If they’re a matching site of any kind and have ‘harmony’ in their name, we may go after them, because they’re very likely trying to take advantage of the good will we’ve worked so hard to establish,” Sarian says.