Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Google Inc. (GOOG) are trying to reassure iPhone and Android handset users they aren’t tracking their locations. Online dating companies are betting their bottom lines on doing just that.
Meetic SA, the French owner of the European operations of Match.com, is joining start-ups including New York-based MeetMoi LLC in offering location-based dating services. Meetic will introduce features this year that let handset users find out real-time who’s around them and interested in meeting, and match potential soulmates who, for example, frequent the same gym, Managing Director Philippe Chainieux said in an interview.
Taking advantage of smartphones’ location data is a logical step for dating services, whose users are increasingly accessing their matches from handsets. The number of European Web users visiting a dating service “almost every day” through a mobile device rose 49 percent between February 2010 and the same month this year to 2.8 million, according to researcher comScore Inc. The number doing so at least once a week climbed 44 percent.
“As soon as mobile services are made available, uptake is usually faster than on the traditional Internet,” said Luca Benini, vice president and commercial director for comScore in Europe. “You can expect that everything that can be geo- localized will be eventually.”
The boom in mobile dating coincides with increased regulatory scrutiny of location data on smartphones. Germany, France and Italy said last month they are checking whether Apple’s iPhone and iPad products violate privacy rules by tracking, storing and sharing data about users’ locations. Cupertino, California-based Apple said it isn’t tracking users’ locations and plans to cut the amount of data the iPhone stores.
Meetic (MEET), Europe’s largest online-dating service, plans to use geo-location to shore up offerings for its 860,000 subscribers at the “flirt” end of a chart it uses to plot relationship types and the amount users are willing to pay to find them. “Love” and “long-term” matchmaking rely more heavily on existing, Internet-based access.
“Instead of going to find Mr. Right or Ms. Right at the other end of the world, maybe he or she is someone you go by every day,” Chainieux said. “We want to be able to say whether people who correspond to your criteria are in the same place as you.”
Convenient mobile services will give dating sites a chance to boost their “conversion rate,” or the frequency at which users migrate from free to paid services, the executive said.
Meetic offers a range of prices for an online subscription, with promotions starting at 14.95 euros ($22) per month. Mobile access will be free for these subscribers. The company charges 10 euros a month for mobile-only service. Meetic’s profit reached 24 million euros in 2010, an increase of 23 percent a year earlier.
The website operator, based in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, has declined 6 percent this year, compared with a 17 percent jump at Edinburgh-based Cupid Plc and a 26 percent increase at IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns Match.com’s U.S. operations.
In some ways, traditional dating sites like Meetic have lagged more specialized services in bringing location-based dating to the masses, which have tracked the rising popularity of more general location services like Foursquare.
Location-based iPhone and Android app FlirtMaps topped 500,000 downloads last month, with that figure expected to double by the end of the year, according to Marco Franciosa, the chief technology officer of parent Zodiak Active. Grindr, a location-based app for gay men that started operations in 2009, boasts 62,000 users in London alone, according to its website, and is planning a version for straight daters.
Still, safety concerns may slow the adoption of location- based dating. Last month, a Los Angeles woman who said she’d been sexually assaulted by a date she met online sued Match.Com. This and similar incidents may prompt calls for background checks by dating sites that would “incur significant additional cost and time delay,” said Fiona Orford-Williams, an analyst at Edison Investment Research in London.
To ease some of those concerns, FlirtMaps limits geo- localization to a one-kilometer radius, leaving any more specific co-ordinates for users to reveal themselves. Meetic is considering making only men visible on its pending real-time “flirting” service, keeping women’s locations at a given moment mostly off the map.
One major group of sites for singles is holding back from geo-location. Higher-end “matchmaking” sites, which pair partners looking for long-term love based on complicated personality profiles, “haven’t figured out how to make it useful,” said Peter Schmid, the chief executive officer of Germany-based Parship.com. “We have to be very careful about the use of new technologies.”
Even so, matchmaking sites -- which promote an electronic, less expensive version of “concierge romance services” like those offered by London’s Gray & Farrar International -- are moving gingerly toward mobile services. Parship, which operates in countries including Italy, the U.K., and France, will roll out an application for Android devices this year, complementing an existing iPhone app, Schmid said.
Rival ElitePartner, which says it has about 2 million members, is betting mobile applications will push more users to sign up for paid services, rather than sticking with a basic free platform. “Mobile will increase the activity of the member, that’s clear,” said CEO Jost Schwaner. “Our perspective is that when activity rises, you will migrate into that second level. I’m totally convinced.”
In the longer term, mobile dating and matchmaking apps may become hubs for the sort of virtual currencies now common within Facebook games like Zynga Inc.’s FarmVille, with star-crossed daters sending each other virtual roses, for example, Schwaner said. FlirtMaps is already in this business, with features like “FlirtBombs,” a single message sent to the nearest 100 members, available in exchange for purchased “FlirtCoins.”
Although moving dating to mobile devices may involve peculiar challenges, there’s no reason it can’t eventually grow even more than its traditional desktop counterpart, according to FlirtMaps’ Franciosa.
“It used to be Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan falling in love over the Internet in ‘You’ve Got Mail,’” he said. “But we’re in a different era now.”