How To Find What You're Looking For On the Apps (Before the First Date)

The dating game is more complicated than ever. We're here to help.

Back in the day, online dating meant filling out an exhaustive survey with the intention of finding a forever partner. When and if you did, you probably agreed to lie about how you met. Digital matchmaking was both an entry point for traditional partnership and a source of shame. Today it's a billion dollar industry with 7,500 plus dating apps and well over 50 million active users who spend an average of 10 hours a week just swiping alone. And thankfully, the stigma of meeting someone through digital means has gone the way of personal ads. We are here for the apps and down for fun, for love, for friendship, for self-examination, for short-term monogamy, long-term polygamy, for meeting consenting adult strangers and having adventures. In other words, we're DFW.

For all the criticism about dating apps, the mixed bag of human intentions has helped us realize that, as a culture, there's more than just one roadmap to happiness and that love can mean different things to different people at different moments in their lives. On the flip side, with so many people congregating in a virtual world for various reasons, finding what you're looking for on the apps can be a challenge.

It requires both a measure of self-reflection and some mobile hacking to truly find matches worthy of meeting face to face. So, no matter what or who you're looking for, here are some ways to narrow down your search and get results.

Be honest with yourself

Margaret E. Morris, the author of Left To Own Devices, conducted a kind of anthropological study of the apps and how people use them. Surprisingly, she found that not everyone was looking to hook up or find lasting love. "Since Tinder's release on college campuses, it has been taken up not just for convenient casual encounters but also for establishing ongoing relationships and meeting friends," she writes, adding many users turn to dating apps "to explore their sense of self and place in various social worlds."

This is all to say, there's no singular "right" way to use the apps—it all depends on what you personally want and what you're really looking for. The first thing you need to do is get real with your intentions. Are you telling yourself you're down for whatever but really in search of a long-term monogamous relationship? Do you feel like you have to find a long-term monogamous relationship but you're actually into short-term hookups? Maybe you're just looking for a rebound, maybe you want to explore your sexuality in a deeper way, maybe you want to discover what it is you want in the first place. There is no wrong answer as long as consent and safety are involved.

Road-test your app options

With thousands of dating apps out there, it's hard to know which one is your go-to. Some of the most popular apps have tried to define their brands to attract certain kinds of users. Hinge, for example, recently updated their platform to make profiles easier to delete. The idea being that Hinge is where you go to find lasting love rather than endless hookups. That may be the case, but don't rely solely on marketing to find your groove. You may simply prefer the format of Hinge, or find that you meet more people in your area on Bumble, or prefer the messaging options on Tinder. Set up profiles on a few different apps in order to find your comfort zone and expose yourself to the larger landscape, before narrowing it down. And no, you don't need to spend a fortune to play the app field. "The data suggests that finding the right site and persevering with it is more important than whether or not that site happens to be free," writes Popular Science's David Neild. "So test out a few services (paid-for apps often offer free trials), and then commit to the one you like best."

Play with settings

While most apps ask to use your current location as a variable to serve up matches, that doesn't mean you need to stick with their suggestions. One of Morris' subjects, Caroline, "set wide location parameters purposefully to avoid meeting anyone from campus or university circles." Additionally, Morris writes, "she focused on low-income suburbs a good distance from school" as a way to "visibly reject her family and the high value that they, especially her mother, put on wealth as a criterion for selecting a husband." On the flip side, if you're looking for instantaneous hookup partners, narrowing your location settings to those within a short distance allows you to meet people who share, if nothing else, your neighborhood bar. Similarly, age settings don't need to reflect social norms, but rather your personal preferences in the moment. It can also be a valuable tool to assess, from the safety of your home, what you're really looking for—or hoping to avoid. Consider this personal intel that's as much about your interests as it as about those of your potential matches.

A/B test your profile

Tinder already offers SmartPhotos using an algorithm to track which of your profile pics is most popular among users. But there's a lot to be learned about your personal preferences by conducting your own experiments. Switching around primary photos manually gives you more insight into the kinds of swipers you might be attracting. Sure, an overtly sexy pic might get more matches, but the pic of you wearing a fake mustache might attract users with a sense of humor—which may matter to you more. Similarly, try switching out your bio, adding to it, or simplifying it. Contrary to popular belief, people do read bios and a clever one might just be the kicker that attracts the kind of match you're looking for.

Play the bio game

Style matters, but substance is everything. If all we had were bios without photos, which ones would you really swipe right on? If one of your goals with the apps is to change your dating patterns, bio-swiping is a great place to start. It allows you to be more open to different "types," judge beyond the physical and possibly connect with someone who has more in common with you than you think.

Kick Up the Conversation

Matching is one thing: messaging is another. "I'm personally of the opinion that your best bet is an opening message clearly meant for the person you're engaging with," writes The Verge's Megan Farokhmanesh. "If you want to be more than a bubble in someone's DMs, you need to treat them like more than a face in your matches. If there's a reason you've swiped on a person (besides obviously finding them attractive), start there." Be inquisitive, ask honest questions and look for honest, non-canned responses. You'll know if you're grooving with someone a few messages in. Just don't be afraid to let them in a little. If someone asks how was your day, tell them about some sweet exchange you witnessed on the train. Test how they respond (or don't respond) to your interests by dropping examples and hints along the way.

Do your research

Before you meet with someone in the flesh, it's important to do a little background check. In addition to plain old safety, it helps to know a little about someone to determine if you're on the same wavelength. If you have already moved from the app to texting, you could try a reverse search of their number. Another snooping method once you've gathered their job, first name and general location is to search for them on Linkedin. If you only have their photo, a reverse image search on Google might detect their social media accounts. If you're searching for deets on safety as well as crimes of the heart, EliteDaily enlisted a cybersecurity expert to aid in your investigation. If you're looking to see whether you're going to be attracted to someone, search their name on Google Video, Youtube and Vimeo for more three-dimensional intel. Don't forget how elemental voices and mannerisms are when it comes to attraction.

Of course, there's only so much you can learn about someone else in the digital realm. Then again, maybe you're not ready to meet someone new, maybe you're just looking to learn more about yourself, your preferences and where you're at. The beauty of the apps is that it's all okay. You don't have to find the love of your life on your iPhone. All you need to do is enjoy yourself—and if you don't, you have total permission to delete your profile. Trust, the apps will be there if you ever decide to come back.