At the risk of making a technically redundant statement, location is all around us. That much is clear alone from Techcrunch's enthusiastic (if repetitive) coverage of the "location wars" that took hold of the iconic South by Southwest conference this week.
It seems everyone is doing and thinking about location targeting and mobile. The poster child of late, Foursquare, just passed 500,000 users and announced on Wednesday it has added 100,000 in the past 10 days. Meanwhile, it continues to shatter its own daily usage (check-in) records.
Twitter has been doing it for months with a geolocation API, and last week went live with location enabled tweets on its own domain. Loopt has also been doing it for years, while Facebook and Google loom quietly with the ability to take over the space at any moment.
Facebook has implied that its upcoming F8 conference will be the place where it "turns on" automatic location tags for status updates, while Google – the consummate category killer – has dabbled in location with Latitude and MyLocation. Implications for the space are huge.
The Grandmother Test
As someone who has spent most waking moments of the last few years thinking about location and search, this is a welcome trend. We've grappled with the question for years about inferring users' "local intent" in search queries – an important monetization factor.
Mobile in general boosts local search intent, as we've covered, but many of the location services now blowing up take it to another level. Based partly on privacy, the check-in (a form of opt-in) has replaced pervasive location tracking as the standard unit of social mobile measurement.
Realizing this, leaders in the mobile local space such as Loopt and Yelp have integrated check-ins, while others keep coming out of the woodwork. For local search, this is relevant because check-ins happen around physical places – often a business – rather than a meaningless lat/long reading.
But is there a business case here, or is it just urban foodies talking to each other in closed symmetrical networks? Are we struck once again by the Silicon Valley effect, defined by coverage bias that lauds products most used by the analyst corps and tech media?
Foursquare is standard issue for the mobile elite in cities like New York and San Francisco, but my parents, for example (and tens of millions of Americans), have never heard of it.
It's pushing to become more of a household name though. A partnership with Bravo places local restaurant recommendations within the app, and even gave it a TV ad. These could bring it closer to the mainstream, while also providing a revenue stream.
But driving users into local bars and restaurants is the real value the company sits on. It's already launched "nearby specials" which local businesses can sign up for free. Anecdotally, after first seeing this a few months ago, specials are popping up nearly every time I use Foursquare.
Reaching Mom and Pop
The key question is the value of a lead that results from someone raising his or her hand and saying, "Here's where I am, and here's what I'm interested in."
Similar mobile check-in services MyTown and Brightkite geotarget ads for franchise-based brands like Best Buy and Quiznos. But geotargeting is the easy part, as is signing up national advertisers. Selling to the millions of mom and pops that will benefit most? Not so much.
The answer could lie in bundling these ads with other sales efforts at the SMB level. Google is moving down market with mobile ads by applying simplicity and bundling. Mobile-only ad networks like MoVoxx, WHERE, and LocalAdExchange are likewise making a run at SMBs.
The model hasn't come together, but will likely involve a mix of local and national advertisers. The value will lie in contextual relevance and deep local targeting that demands premiums over the run of network advertising from the likes of AdMob and Quattro.
Meanwhile, the moving target of mobile engagement could involve local "check-ins" as a new standard. It's showing signs to not only be a new form of social communication worth paying attention to, but more importantly, a new form of currency in mobile local search.
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