NEW YORK — Gary Gervitz wanted a girlfriend, but with stipulations.
She had to be smart.
She had to be politically conservative, but not religious.
She had to be a redhead.
Gervitz, 30, a busy investment manager, knew it would take a lifetime of scouring bars and college campuses to find such a woman -- especially in the Bible Belt.
So, the resident of suburban Dallas fired up his computer and joined an Internet dating service. Within days, he began corresponding with Susan Crowell, a businesswoman who lived nearby. These days, her name is Susan Gervitz.
"I happened to have found the one girl who is a redhead, who is politically conservative, who has a master's-level education and who is not religious," Gervitz said. "I got her and I married her."
For many businesses, moving onto the Internet has been disappointing. Not so for the business of matchmaking.
In perhaps the biggest boost for dating since the telephone, the Internet has allowed companies to compile databases of single people in search of love, then, for $10 to $50 per month, efficiently match the lonely hearts.
"It's a no-lose situation," said Richard Isaacs, a 60-year-old New York private investigator, crunching on a tempura shrimp at a Japanese restaurant. His date, Nuz, a slender 34-year-old Pakistani fashion designer, nodded in agreement. The pair met in May through a dating site called Lavalife.
"The worst thing that could happen is the person you meet is totally horrendous," Isaacs said. "You say, 'Thanks very much. Goodbye.' "
More than a dozen Web sites are now cataloging and matching eligible singles, straight and gay.
With a potential market of 85 million singles in the United States alone, several firms are grappling to lead the industry.
Jupiter Research figures that the 15 million Americans who use online personal ads this year will grow to 24 million by 2007.
Growth in online personals far outstrips that of personal ads elsewhere, Jupiter analyst Stacey Herron said. "It's become a hip thing to do."
According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the largest site is Match.com (www.match.com), owned by Ticketmaster. Yahoo! Personals (personals.yahoo.com) is No. 2. Other major players include Lavalife (www.lavalife.com), Date.com (www.date.com), Dream Mates (www.dreammates.com) and Kiss.com (www.kiss.com).
The Internet's global reach and anonymity fuels the businesses, eliminating time and distance from the dating equation while easing the awkwardness of trying to meet someone in, say, a bar.
"It speeds up the evolutionary process, if you will," said Steve Duininick, 51, a TriBeCa furniture dealer, divorced twice and the father of four kids. "You can literally do romance on an instant basis. I could go out with one gal on Friday and another on Saturday."
The more people use online dating services, the better they get as databases of singles grow.
"It might take me a month to meet 100 single women" in the normal fashion, said Al Cooper, director of a San Jose marital clinic and editor of the forthcoming book "Sex and the Internet: A Guide for Clinicians." "On the Internet, you could look through 100 people in an hour."
The sites include share far more information than any newspaper personal ad, sharing details such as body type, education level, age, income, hobbies and interests -- and features desired in a mate.
Most of the sites allow visitors to browse pictures and profiles for free but levy a fee when a browser wants to contact a client, usually done by e-mail. Clients reveal their identities and contact information to each other when they feel ready.
In this manner, Internet dating turns the regular courtship process on its head.
"The good thing about meeting online is that you get to know each other on an intellectual level first, then you see if you're attracted on a physical level," said Tim Sullivan, chief executive of Match.com.
And it's not just young professionals who look for dates online.
The Web sites corral lonely seniors, single moms who have little time to troll for dates, disabled people -- including the blind, who use text-to-speech software to read their correspondence -- and those like Gervitz, with strict criteria in looks, wealth, religious belief or personal habits.
"If you want to find Jamaican midgets, you can find them," Cooper said. "If you want one-legged women, you can find them."
Once a search turns up a few "hits," you fire off an e-mail or an instant message. If the correspondence bears fruit, the couple meet for coffee.
After that, it's purely analog love. The human mating dance -- unpredictable even by computer -- takes over.
Anna Sheffield, 31, has dated 22 men in a year of online introductions. Two of them broke her heart.
The first was an Australian who e-mailed her rapturously for months. When they finally met, he wasn't interested.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't necessarily want to cry, but I am so sad,' " said Sheffield, an actress and part-time lifeguard who lives in New York City.