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Facebook says its dating service is hot—but experts say it’s probably not

February 14, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

It may be Valentine’s Day, but Facebook Dating isn’t getting much love.

About two and half years after it first debuted, the social network’s dating service has shown limited signs of progress. Instead, indicators suggest the service may be having difficulty challenging major dating rivals and rolling out in certain countries.

Facebook Dating, which the company first introduced in Colombia in 2018, debuted in the U.S. in September and is currently available in 20 countries. The social network aimed to capitalize on the growing use of online dating, hoping that some of its 2.5 billion users would tap on the match-making tab on its service. And while the company announced Facebook Dating with much fanfare at its F8 developer conference in 2018, it hasn’t provided many details about it since.

“I don’t think we have any specific stats to share on this, but it’s going well,” Mark Zuckerberg said during Facebook’s latest earnings call in January. “I think we’re already one of the top dating services, and we expect to continue growing.”

Facebook declined to make an executive available for an interview with Fortune about its dating service or to answer written questions about it.

Facebook’s entrance into the dating comes as regulators across the globe are cracking down on the company for its mismanagement of user data. Trust in the service has been on the decline after a series of embarrassing failures to protect user data from third parties.

Facebook Dating functions much like other big online dating sites. Users get can scroll through the dating profiles of potential suitors and “like” the ones they want to connect with. Facebook uses its social network to match users to friends of the people within their own networks. It also allows users to create a list of friends who they have secret crushes on. If the other person also adds the admirer to their secret crush, the two are notified.

Facebook Dating recently hit an unexpected roadblock when it tried to expand to Europe. The company had planned to introduce the service there on Feb. 13, according Ireland’s Data Protection Commission. But the commission, concerned about data collection practices for the service, “conducted an inspection” of Facebook’s offices in Dublin on Feb. 10 and “gathered documentation,” according to a statement from the commission on Wednesday. Following the inspection, Facebook postponed its European premiere.  

“It’s really important that we get the launch of Facebook Dating right so we are taking a bit more time to make sure the product is ready for the European market,” the company said in a statement. “We worked carefully to create strong privacy safeguards, and complete the data processing impact assessment ahead of the proposed launch in Europe, which we shared with the IDPC when it was requested.”

Roadblocks aside, Facebook Dating, which caused the online dating market leader Match Group’s stock to drop more than 20% when it was first announced, has had little effect on the dating industry, says Benjamin Black, an analyst for Evercore ISI who covers Match Group. Black says Evercore ISI’s models show little to no change to Match’s numbers in the countries that Facebook Dating has entered. 

“If you asked me two years ago, my fear would’ve been a large competitor moving into the space,” he says about the competition for Match. “Who’s larger than Facebook? But yet it hasn’t affected user or subscriber trends.”

And apparently Match Group agrees. Former CEO Mandy Ginsberg, who announced plans to step down last month, says the company hasn’t seen Facebook Dating impact any of its brands, which in 2019 collectively attracted an average 9.8 million subscribers across services including Tinder, Match.com, Hinge, and OkCupid. “We just haven’t seen it,” she says on a recent earnings call.

And Gary Swidler, Match Group’s chief financial officer who recently also took over the role as chief operating officer, reiterated that sentiment to Fortune at Goldman Sach’s Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco this week.

“You can’t underestimate them,” he says about Facebook. “But the reality is they’re in 20 countries, and when you look at our numbers, there’s no impact.”

Facebook has some built-in advantages—a large user base, brand familiarity, and a dating service the company said it plans to keep free of cost and ads, says Ali Mogharabi, analyst at Morningstar. And while he says it’s too early to judge the dating service’s traction, he says it’s not one of the businesses that poses a big threat to rivals.

“Facebook is basically trying to provide additional apps and features to maintain all of the users it has,” Mogharabi says. “For that reason, we don’t think it’s going to be aggressively marketing the dating app.”

Though Facebook has not released any numbers about use of its dating service—and third parties can’t track it because it’s an in-app feature—that doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t using it, Black says. But Mogharabi and Black point to several other challenges that Facebook has in the dating space.

First, many people are reluctant to trust Facebook with their data, Mogharabi says. And online dating, in particular, involves users revealing sensitive information about themselves. Second, users join Facebook, more often than not, to keep in touch with old friends rather than to find new ones, Black says. So even if Facebook improves the features and experience of its dating service—Black says it still lacks many capabilities that rivals have—users may not want to use the service for dating.

“Generally speaking, folks like to separate their dating life and their social life,” he says. “This is too close for comfort.”

But Black says the biggest giveaway that Facebook’s dating service may not be going as well as the company initially planned is simple: They never talk about it.

“They have endless amount of resources, so it’s not like they’re running out of cash” for the dating service, Black says. “It could be modestly successful with more product iteration, but I don’t think it’s one of the priorities for the company.”