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Facebook Places: Fit for Local Search or Hype Incarnate?

boland-michael
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As non-cave dwellers have likely heard, Facebook has launched its own location check-in service called Places. The monthly schedule of this column precluded a more newsy (and timely) take, but there is still much to examine.

Essentially, this Foursquare-like feature lets mobile users check in to any place in Facebook's Places database (powered by Localeze). Check-ins are blasted back to users' walls and their friends' feeds.

In addition to the mobile facing feature, corresponding Place pages will exhibit details of the location, news feed, pictures, and a list of people who have checked in lately. Businesses can claim their places, much like Google's identically named local product.

Facebook Places Notifications

Beyond the details of what Places is -- covered to death over the past couple weeks -- what exactly does it mean?

Getting Real

"Where I am" now adds a dimension of relevance to the "what I'm doing" that has become a centerpiece of the Facebook experience (Twitter has done similar). This is especially relevant for its 150 million mobile users.

In other words, it solidifies Facebook's presence in the offline (real) world. Viewed in light of Facebok's 1.5 million existing local business fan pages (will be phased in to Place pages), it's suddenly in an interesting position to put together buyer and seller in locally relevant ways.

This can start to be seen in the landing page Facebook set up to explain Places and encourage businesses to claim them as an entre to Facebook ads:

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.

For those in the search racket (especially local), this may sound familiar. Facebook isn't doing much to set this value proposition (and its name!) apart from the comparable Google Places. Not only does the latter have a check-in API, but it urges businesses to claim and manage pages.

The irony is that this could end up helping Google Places. Facebook's reach could shed mainstream awareness on the general idea of claiming a profile and spending limited time and resources there, versus traditional advertising. This is a big market education push for Google.

Facebook Places

Stop Saying "Killer"

Much of the speculation in the wake of the Places launch has in fact centered on whether it will be a "______ killer" (insert Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, MyTown, Yelp, etc.). We'll continue to hear that but it likely isn't the case.

The main challenge for social/mobile/local companies is mainstream penetration. Foursquare, for example, only has 3 million users despite its tech media adoration. But Facebook's entrance to the space pushes the idea of "checking in" to half a billion users (and lots of advertisers).

The Places API is also available to these players to pull in and push out check-ins. Gowalla has already taken advantage of both "read" and "write" API's and sees Places as more of a platform to aggregate content and users, rather than the hyped "k" word.

"There are a lot of check-in services and Facebook is a platform on which to publish that information," Andy Ellwood of Gowalla told me this week. "A check-in is just saying 'I want to engage and here's where I am.' Our job is to build more engagement and interaction around that."

Facebook has indeed commoditized the check-in, but branding, design, local data and features will be the things that save these smaller players. Foursquare is big on this idea, and Gowalla just launched "Highlights," which joins the Comments, Photos, and Trips features that have come to define the product.

Facebook Check-in

The Great Experiment

Facebook Places will likely take the role of platform and audience aggregator. It will bring check-ins to the mainstream, but the question is whether they will be met with open arms or collective "meh" (privacy issues notwithstanding).

In other words, check-ins have become standard issue for the mobile elite of San Francisco and New York, but will my mom ever get in to it? And if she won't, is it because a major Internet brand hasn't made her aware of it, or simply because she thinks it's stupid.

It's a classic "if you build it, will they come?" scenario. And the check-in's fate as a mainstream currency of local search hangs in the balance. It could be the ultimate experiment of the Facebook mainstreaming effect; and more importantly, the wide scale appeal of the local check-in.

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