Looking for Location-Based Love

13 Mar

The rise of location-based services like Foursquare and Groupon have truly changed the way people explore cities and find deals on the things they’re looking for. But what about the people they’re looking for? With the rise of mobile location services comes new ways for singles to meet people, and new ways for dating apps to find customers. According to Juniper Research, the mobile dating market is expected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2013, and startups are poised to take advantage of that growth.

Location-based features are popping up in new and existing dating services. Users can take advantage of the GPS capabilities of today’s smartphones to show nearby singles who meet their dating criteria. Apps can make recommendations, enable people to digitally flirt, explore users’ profiles on other social services like Facebook or LinkedIn, and of course arrange to meet-up.

A recent study by online dating site Skout noted that 69 percent of people were comfortable meeting up with someone they met on their iPhone, and 40 percent were using a mobile dating service while out at bars, clubs and restaurants. Recently, location-based dating apps for those looking for local love have flooded the iPhone and Android markets.

One such app is Blendr – which allows users to network with other locals and check in at venues using their phone’s built-in GPS. The U.S.-based app also lets romance-seekers view “hotspots” on Google Maps as a fiery glow, representing what locations are currently trending.

With a slightly different spin is Grindr, the original app from the team behind Blendr, a mobile dating app targeted primarily at gay men. The app comes in both free and subscription-based versions (Grindr Xtra). It uses geolocation to enable users to find other men within close proximity. This is accomplished through a user interface that displays a grid of user pictures, arranged from nearest to farthest away. Tapping on a picture will display a brief profile for that user, as well as the option to chat, send pictures, and share one’s location.

Last month industry powerhouse Match.com acquired OKCupid for $50 million in cash. OKCupid has over eight million users, had previously raised $6 million in funding, and recently added a new Locals feature in their mobile apps. Locals shows users matches nearby. Members can then indicate that they would like to meet those locals, and the users they pick will get a notification.

Sharing location-based data brings up the question of safety. Ian Bell is the founder of Tingle, a dating app for iPhone. He said the idea of using location in a dating app can make users (especially women) wary. “When we talked to women we discovered, predictably, that the notion of having their exact location plotted on a map for the scrutiny of strangers was a no-go,” Bell said in an interview. “Still, that’s how the vast majority of mobile dating apps work today.” Though the app asks users to check in at specific locations they’d like to share, Bell says it doesn’t happen often enough to be useful for discovering new people. Tingle tracks a user’s location and shares their proximity, as opposed to a specific location, when users pass near one another. “In Vancouver, where we have our most densely-concentrated user base, this happens hundreds of times a day.”

Another challenge for these services is that users in smaller markets might not find as much value from location-based services, since population density directly impacts how many active users will be nearby at any given time. But if companies can incorporate real-time location-based features as value-add elements rather than a core product, while still offering members in more sparsely populated regions other alternatives, the downsides are considerably diminished.

Dating is obviously changing and with the penetration of smartphones and GPS-enabled devices on the rise, users can expect to find their next love interest no matter where they are. And for companies that are looking to tap into the dating industry’s expected $1.4 billion growth next year, integrating location-based features will be key, but so will be making sure users feel safe.

With additional reporting from Erin Bury.

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