Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

How Big Is the “Social Discovery” Opportunity?

Want to keep up with family, friends and high-school acquaintances? Want to find the love of your life? Or maybe just someone to hook up with? There are lots of Web sites for that.

But what if you want to meet someone new, with whom you might share common interests or perhaps a location? Web services for that stuff are — oddly — sort of rare.

But they do exist. There’s a category of Web sites and mobile apps that describe themselves as “social discovery” services, aiming to connect us with new people without the assumption that we may want to be in a serious relationship with them.

These include quite a few “pivoted” social networks, such as Tagged and MyYearbook, which tried to compete with Facebook and Myspace and moved to a different niche, as well as sites with more of a flirting orientation, like Badoo. They also include mobile-first experiences like the new LAL People, BuzzMob and Yobongo, which aim to connect users with people nearby.

Some of these sites are already quite popular. Tagged counts 10 million monthly active users and five billion monthly page views, and was profitable with $33 million in revenue last year. MyYearbook, which is in the process of merging with the similarly sized Quepasa in a deal worth $100 million, has four million monthly active users.

However, at least to my eye, many of the existing sites seem a bit cutesy and cheap-looking — not necessarily as clean and well-lit as alternatives like Facebook and Google+. Also, if you sign up for them, expect to receive an excessive number of emailed alerts and promotions aiming to get you to return on a daily basis.

The sites do have different demographics from each other. Tagged says its average user’s age is in the 30s; Badoo says 33 percent of its 51 million users are over 35 and its biggest market is Brazil; MyYearbook is the No. 1 site in ComScore’s teens category, while Quepasa is specifically focused on Latinos.

What unites social discovery sites is they are free and they have an underlying open social network. That’s in contrast to many dating sites that are more transactional in nature and wall off interactions so they can charge for them.

But the various sites and apps are different in many respects; for instance, the way they treat real names and identities. LAL/LikeALittle has a bent toward anonymity — and the troubled Color app even more so. Many of the sites offer more stringent Facebook logins as a registration option.

Meanwhile, some new sites, like Grubwithus, are specifically oriented toward organizing offline meetups. Sonar attempts to fill in the gaps between people who have things in common and happen to be nearby one another.

Many of the services have an overtone or an undertone that encourages flirting and casual hookups; though some — like Tagged and MyYearbook — give their users social games so they have something to do besides make small talk.

Tagged CEO Greg Tseng (pictured) said in a recent interview that he thinks the holy grail of his business will be discovering and employing the sociological predictors of friendship. Tseng said he and his competitors’ current efforts to help people find friends based on interests and locations are rudimentary at best. “We’re at 2004-2005 of social networks in social discovery,” he said.

But the friending algorithm is a problem more difficult than Netflix’s famous recommendation engine. As Tseng put it: “The movie doesn’t have to like you back.”

Meanwhile, Yobongo CEO Caleb Elston says the solution is more about product design. “Collectively we have spent just shy of a decade working to help people connect with the people they already know using the Internet,” Elston wrote in a recent email. “It is now feasible to help people make new connections. This is not a pure technology problem, it is much more about creating a place where people feel safe and comfortable making these new connections.”

Badoo’s director of marketing, Lloyd Price, quibbled with the term “social discovery” in a recent phone interview.

“I think that’s probably a very U.S., North American phrase,” he said. Instead, Badoo calls itself a “meeting network.”

But before we get too business analyst-y here — excited that there’s an underserved quadrant of opportunity in our social Web diagram! — it’s worth saying that social discovery may not be something many users need or want.

The Web is already full of niche communities for every hobby, pastime and location, and they use tools like forums and message boards. And it’s also quite possible to find new and interesting people on a more generic site like Twitter or Tumblr.

But just in case there’s a broader social discovery opportunity to be found, lots of people would like to offer it.

Cartoon via HubSpot.

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