Social features have been a core element of many of the local search applications in the iPhone’s AppStore, such as WHERE, Whrrl and Loopt (WHERE is in the top 20 downloaded free apps so far).
Each of these not only tells you where to find things locally (each features different categories to search), but also utilizes the iPhone’s location awareness to tell you where your friends are. Building on this, they all have different ways of connecting users with friends around local businesses, or the reviews and recommendations thereof (mobile/social vision explored in an earlier post).
Could this be the way local search manifests in the mobile environment? Location awareness enables it, and demand among mobile demographics could drive product innovation at the intersection of mobile local and social. This pertains to the the early adopter iPhone user to an even greater degree — supported by recent comScore figures that show iPhone users in Europe are much heavier consumers of mobile data than smartphone users.
But ironically, the incumbents of the social media world, MySpace and Facebook, haven’t utilized the iPhone’s location awareness in their respective mobile apps. Techcrunch posits this could be because their size exposes them to legal scrutiny around privacy issues, more so than the above upstart apps. But are they dropping the ball on building the most marketable social apps for the mobile environment? The industry standard is clearly moving toward local + social + mobile.
Facebook and MySpace will no doubt get there, but will these other applications gain enough of a foothold in the meantime to have a significant early mover advantage on the iPhone? Probably not. To do so, they would have to overcome the momentum and user base that the incumbent social networks have amassed. This of course is a sizable feat given the social networking fatigue we’ve examined in the past.
This becomes a larger issue with all the mobile local social apps that will gain exposure through the iPhone: They’ll each require a registration process, login and account management for new users. Facebook and MySpace mobile apps conversely build on a decidedly larger existing user base and social graph.
Of course there are different use cases between a pure social network like Facebook and a socially driven local app like WHERE. But if the local + mobile + social is indeed the winning formula, Facebook will integrate more local search tools to its mobile app (it’s already moving in that direction online) and indeed be in direct competition.
Meanwhile, it’s starting to look like we’ll see fragmentation in mobile search similar to what we’ve see in online local search — both for users and advertisers (once a location relevant ad serving ecosystem arrives in earnest).