The world’s most popular dating site, Vancouver-based PlentyofFish, has seen “crazy” growth on mobile this year, CEO and founder Markus Frind says. In 2011, only 3% of visits to the site were through smartphones; today, it’s 60%—a sea change in just 18 months. Frind, who founded PlentyofFish in 2003, has never seen anything like it, and he’s not alone. According to web analytics firm comScore, one in five smartphone owners visited a dating site last September, compared to one in 10 Internet users.
The nature of online dating changed almost overnight, especially in Canada, which Frind says came late to the game—“because there are so many BlackBerrys here”—then grew exponentially as we abandoned our Pearls and Bolds for iPhones and Androids. The big, bright screens of modern smartphones are ideal for browsing would-be lovers’ photos. Mobile dating apps also have real-time notifications, so you hear about matches without logging in—it’s like getting a text message. These instant notifications can use the phone’s GPS as well, meaning you’re occasionally notified that someone nearby is interested in meeting you right now—it’s almost like real life, without the risk of face-to-face rejection.
That, at least, is the idea behind what’s been called “geo-dating”: two people arrange an impromptu date (or hookup) when they’re in the same neighbourhood and mutually intrigued. It started with Grindr, a mobile app for gay men, but now sites like PlentyofFish and OkCupid, another popular free dating site, include location-based features in their explosively popular apps.
Of course, monetizing free apps is tricky business. The PlentyofFish app currently displays no ads, but industry insiders posit a future full of subtle, location-based messages. Imagine this: you’re booking a date on the fly and see recommendations for nearby cafés. This type of advertising is still young, but could be worth US$5 billion by 2016, according to a report by Strategy Analytics.
There are roadblocks: women have understandably proven hesitant to meet strangers they have just met on their phones. And geo-dating only works well in big cities, with a large population in a small area.
Hurdles aside, there are considerable benefits to speeding up the meeting process, explains Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies online dating. “We strongly recommend people move to the meeting stage very quickly,” he says, since the algorithms that match people online are mostly nonsense. Real chemistry can’t be pixellated—at least not yet.
Luckily, we’re already spending about as much time browsing profiles on our phones as we are on computers, according to comScore, and the meaning is twofold: online dating will both continue to grow in terms of popularity, and shrink as a barrier to meeting people, ahem, offline.