Big News/Small Surprise: Facebook Flips the Geolocation Switch

ScreenHunter_07 Aug. 18 22.07

As widely speculated over the past couple of days (even months), Facebook has officially turned on geolocation capability. This has come in the form of a new feature called “Places,” announced today from a press event at its Palo Alto headquarters.

Here are the biggest takeaways:

— Much like Foursquare, mobile users will be able to check in to any place in Facebook’s database (powered by Localeze), or add places that aren’t there.

— In the iPhone app and touchscreen enabled mobile site, this will be available starting tomorrow in the form of a “places” tab that lists nearby businesses and locations.

— Also like Foursquare, a corresponding places section will be available on the desktop site and in mobile to exhibit details of the location, news feed, pictures and a list of people who have checked in lately.

— These place pages can be claimed by businesses, much like Google Places (advertiser guide here), having lots of implications for SMBs … more on that below.

— An API will be available for third parties to integrate the check-in functionality and send updates back to Facebook (think of it as a geo-aware version of Facebook Connect). Foursquare, Gowalla, MyTown and Yelp are launch partners.

— Check-ins will publish to users’ profiles in addition to these place pages. Users can also “tag” friends (much like Facebook photos) who are also present.

— For privacy reasons (sensitive issue for Facebook) those friends will have the opportunity to approve their inclusion in these tags.

— Also for privacy, all check-ins can only be seen by friends by default, and can be dialed back further — much like privacy settings for other tags, posts and mentions on the network.

Getting Real

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on to describe three key drivers for this: to help you share where you are, who’s around you and what’s going on nearby. This is a key evolutionary step for Facebook which it’s been working on for months, coming close with the near acquisition of Foursquare.

    In other words, it solidifies Facebook’s presence in the offline (real) world. The irony of Facebook, and most social networks, is that they generally work toward creating virtual social interaction, sometimes at the cost of the real life version. Linking digital and physical worlds is conversely what makes Foursquare so interesting (if overexposed).

    Speaking of Foursquare, much of the speculation of the past few days and months (including ours) has centered on whether Facebook’s forays into location will be a Foursquare killer. We’ll continue to hear this, but what was announced today convinces me more than before that this is not the case.

    One of the challenges for Foursquare and other upstarts in the budding social/mobile/local space is lack of mainstream penetration. Foursquare, despite its tech media adoration, only has about 2.7 million users (compared with Facebook’s half a billion users).

    Facebook’s entrance to the space, in addition to directly partnering with Foursquare, Gowalla, MyTown and Yelp, will also indirectly rise all boats by shedding mainstream light, awareness and education on mobile geolocation services and the act of “checking in.”

    Taking Over the World, One Location at a Time

    As we discussed yesterday, this also puts Facebook in an interesting position with respect to local commerce.

    That’s an interesting concept if you think about “where I am” adding a dimension to the “what I’m doing” that has become a centerpiece of the Facebook experience. It’s especially relevant for the 100 million mobile users.

    Viewed in light of 1.5 million local business fan pages, Facebook is suddenly in an interesting position to put together buyer and seller in locally relevant ways. This has a ways to develop and Facebook’s privacy scrutiny will force it to tread carefully (especially with all things location), but you can start to connect the dots.

    That’s still true but an additional touch point to local establishments through the Places pages will further solidify the social network’s positioning with SMBs. Monetizing Places was suggested during today’s press event but Mark Zuckerberg dodged the question by saying it’s premature to discuss.

    Still, more is revealed in the landing page that Facebook has set up to explain Places to businesses and encourage them to set up and even advertise. Quoting Facebook’s explanation:

    Places creates a presence for your business’s physical store locations — encouraging your customers to share that they’ve visited your business by “checking in” to your Place. When your customer checks into your Place, these check-in stories can generate powerful, organic impressions in friends’ News Feeds, extending your brand’s reach to new customers.

    Once you claim your Place, you’ll be able to advertise it just as you advertise your Facebook Page. To advertise your Place, click “I want to advertise something I have on Facebook” in the ad creation flow and choose your Place from the drop-down menu.

    There are lots of implications here based on Facebook’s positioning and scale. In the meantime, it’s certain that the social networking giant just got a lot more interesting — especially for those of us in the local media space. This will continue to unfold.

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