Watch Out Yelp and Foursquare — Facebook Starts Flexing Its Local Muscles Again

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FacebookFacebook has remained relatively quiet about its local search capabilities since launching Nearby a year and a half ago, but that’s starting to change. Last month, Instagram reportedly tested an integration with Facebook Places, and now the social network is proselytizing its local database on the conference circuit.

During a presentation at Internet Week in New York on Thursday, Justin Moore, an engineering manager at Facebook, offered a full-throated pitch for the company’s local data initiatives. Moore, a former Foursquare engineer who joined Facebook in early 2012, says a team in the company’s New York office has spent the past two years turning the 32 billion pieces of location-tagged content, which have been created on the social network, into a sprawling database of places that spans the globe.

“Facebook has the largest and richest crowdsourced database in the world,” he told an audience Thursday. “If you’ve ever used Facebook and tagged location in status updates, or interacted with location anywhere on the site, you’ve interacted with the product we’re building in the New York office.”

For Facebook, the place database is a critical prerequisite to building a more advanced local discovery product. In order to tie more discovery-driven content — say, a user’s post about a restaurant — to a physical location, the company needs to make sure the more basic information such as the name, address and phone number are correct.

Traditionally, publishers relied on third-party data companies such as Neustar and Acxiom, which aggregate telecom and private data to compile business datasets. But over the past decade, consumer-facing companies such Yelp, Foursquare, and Waze have used the crowd to augment, and eventually, leapfrog these original data sources.

Moore says the company has taken a hybrid approach to building its dataset, using machine learning techniques in conjunction with more direct user involvement as well as third-party data to expand and improve the quality and accuracy of the data.

In the New York office, he says the company now has ten engineers working exclusively on location-related data science problems, building algorithms to automatically identify and fix problems within the dataset. These algorithms identify inconsistencies — say, three McDonald’s in a given mall — and automatically adjust the dataset based on a indicators such as a frequency.

But when the algorithms fail, the company often turns to its users. Like Yelp, Moore says the company depends a number of power editors who can edit and up information about places directly, as well as more typical users, to report bugs.

The social network has also partnered with a number of third-parties to expand the data on the platform. In a separate release Thursday afternoon, the company announced a new deal with Constant Contact-owned SinglePlatform to bring millions of restaurant menus into Facebook’s places product. The deal follows a looser integration with Yext, which allowed Yext customers to automatically update their business information on Facebook through the startup’s product.

Moore also made an effort to highlight the advantages of building a location product in New York — a troubling sign for his former employer, Foursquare. Dennis Crowley’s crew has excelled in part because of the company’s ability to draw the cream of the engineering crop in New York, and a push by Facebook to grow its geo-team in the city could spell trouble for the startup. The moment Foursquare hits a more acute rough patch, one could easily see Facebook poaching the engineering and design talent which has helped Foursquare build one of the more exceptional local search products in the market today.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

To find out more about Facebook’s plans for local, join us on June 3rd at Street Fight Summit West, where Ted Zagat, the company’s Product Marketing Manager for SMB will talk about Facebook’s SMB strategy and partnerships. Click here to buy tickets.