Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook Places launched with much fanfare and the requisite “______ Killer” claims. In this case, the proposed victim was Foursquare, having pioneered the check-in feature that was now central to Facebook’s new LBS play.
Besides ambivalence toward knee-jerk “killer” designations, I argued that Places would help Foursquare and competitors more than it would hurt them. That’s because it would not only federate and distribute their check-ins, but generally mainstream the act of checking- in.
“There are a lot of check-in services and Facebook is a platform on which to publish that information,” Gowalla (Foursquare competitor) business development director Andy Ellwood told me at the time.
But it turns out Places neither killed these LBS players, nor propped them up. Before it had the chance do either, Facebook will revamp the whole thing. And the new version could accomplish this “mainstreaming” of location more than the old one ever could.
Instead of being primarily a mobile tool for checking in, it’s now a more broadly defined location tagging feature for all status updates. This makes sense, as location is a key dimension of relevance: “what I’m doing” should include “where I am.”
This is sort of what Twitter Places promised, but didn’t fully deliver. Unlike Twitter, Facebook users can choose any location — not just where they currently sit — to add to a status update. This greatly broadens the idea of location and gives it a lot more playing time.
For example, a place or location can be tagged to anything you’re talking about, thinking about, a place you’d like to be, a picture you took, or any other piece of content that can benefit from spatial context. Think of it like the way you currently tag friends in photos.
It’s a logical move in not only adding context to status updates but creating additional monetizable events. Facebook Deals, the monetization backbone of Places, will follow suit by pushing offers based on place tags – which will now happen with greater frequency.
This could greatly broaden the inventory for deals to be offered, by having the news feed populated with the additional dimension of location. It could even graduate from passive information layer to a centerpiece of discussion and social sharing within the news feed.
In other words, it could cause friends to share and discuss the best local brewery, a good honeymoon destination, or conserving national landmarks. That already happens on Facebook but the structured location layer could bring it to closer to the surface.
That’s all good news for Facebook because the layer represents another set of signals on which to continue building hyper targeted display advertising. Along with zip-code-level targeting, it’s also a step towards better reaching the local advertising market.
As for other LBS services, this is this is the best thing that’s happened to them in a while. By having it more explicit in Facebook’s pervasive news feed, location sharing gains more awareness and acceptance among 750 million potential users.
But rather than an explicit check-in, it’s more passive and automatic — putting training wheels on the populous of non-early adopters that Facebook Places and the Foursquare’s of the world haven’t yet reached. In fact, this is exactly where Foursquare wants to go.
So Facebook still has the chance to mainstream check-ins after all — or at least location sharing more broadly. We’re just starting to see what form it will take. Through all of this, Facebook, as it has the ability to do, will redefine location and how we communicate it.
The companies that succeed in the next phase of social, local and mobile will recognize this early on. That means build tools that support it, plug in to it, or generally comply with the new sharing construct and user expectations that it bears.
Mike Boland is senior analyst at BIA/Kelsey, where he heads up the firm’s mobile local coverage. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0 and others.