Geo-tracking: Opportunity Knocks

Published: May 19, 2008, iMedia Connection
by: Craig Walmsley

Location-based targeting is on the verge of exploding — find out what this technology will soon enable you to do.

In 2005, Microsoft launched a Location Finder as part of its Live Maps service. The application examined the networks a person was connected to, cross checked his IP address, and then predicted where the person was on a map. It was far from 100 percent accurate, but when it was right, it was ever-so-slightly terrifying. Coupling a person’s location with 3D aerial map views, it showed the person a picture of the building he was sitting in with a big “X” on top of it — giving him the simultaneous sensation of being the CIA agent locating a target, the target expecting an incoming cruise missile, and the viewer of a sophisticated, futuristic spy-movie.

Microsoft re-assured users that no personal data was captured, and that everything was completely secure. Nonetheless, it required nerves of steel to retain this application after seeing your location determined with such apparent ease, speed and accuracy — perhaps explaining why Microsoft quietly withdrew this beta after a few months of testing.

This is a shame. Location is a very useful piece of information. Such location-based techniques are a staple of online advertising targeting. Search engines use IP address to determine geography to a very detailed level. New Yorkers searching for “PlayStation” or “Jewelry,” for example, may have much more disposable income than people in Albuquerque, and be much more likely to buy.

Display advertising networks like DoubleClick offer similar services, allowing for detailed geographical targeting down to the level of ZIP codes. So, whatever your qualms about location-based targeting, it is already a significant part of the internet experience. Brands can reach just the highest value customers, who, in turn, see ads that they are more likely to be interested in.

The usefulness of location also explains why people are very willing to share the details of where they are with others. Anyone who has worked in a multi-national company will have noticed people customizing their Instant Messenger to note their location. People who work in different offices will often note their office as part of their name, or, if they are on a trip, update their name to indicate that they are somewhere else. It’s not built into most IM applications, but people find it helpful, so they just do it themselves.

As people work remotely more often, such information becomes more and more useful. This is precisely the thought behind “Dopplr” — a Web 2.0 service that enables users to note their location and share it with friends to determine when they will overlap in a location with any one of their contacts. A smart web platform, it enables users to share location data across services, and create clever mashups. So, for example, someone could map all her trips across the world on Google Earth. Or she could enter an individual trip and then use a web service to create an estimate of the trip’s carbon foot-print.

All of this, however, is only just scratching the surface of location’s utility. Mobile phones have also long had basic location-based services, derived from the cellular networks that they use to transmit signals. These services have generally been limited in usefulness due to the inaccuracy of location, and the lack of an eco-system to support location-based services. Gradually, however, the conditions are changing and three key developments are likely to propel location-based services into the mainstream.

First, the iPhone is revolutionizing use of the mobile web. In February, for example, Google reported that it had seen 50 times more web searches on Apple’s iPhone than from any other mobile handset. People are getting much more used to using the internet from their phones. Google Maps is now available for many different mobile phones, providing a simple way to find information based around a certain location. Google’s mobile search is rolling out city by city, adding local businesses into a mobile search query, so that the results are more relevant.

Second, real-time location determination will shortly become a standard feature of all cell phones. The January iPhone software update added basic location-determination using cell phone towers and WiFi networks to place users roughly on a map. The next generation iPhone is widely expected to include GPS, providing pin-point determination of a person’s location. Indeed, GPS will become a standard feature on mobile phone handsets in the next 12 to 24 months. This plethora of location-based devices will create the opportunity to build all sorts of new location-based services on a powerful platform that people carry in their pockets.

Third, the evolution of Web 2.0 services means that there is a great deal more geographical data available for mobile phones to tap into. Location data can be integrated into available services — for example a portable version of — where Craigslist real estate listings are overlaid onto a Google Map — very helpful for anyone looking for a house in a certain area. Equally, an accurate location, coupled with a restaurant booking service like, would enable someone to access all the restaurants nearby that have bookings available right that minute. Feed that information into Google Maps, and you could have a set of directions to the restaurant, with a picture of what it looks like before you get there — very helpful for the user, and perfect for driving footfall. Indeed, American Express is now launching a Mobile Concierge service, which uses a phone’s location to alert customers to Amex offers, discounts and exclusives in their immediate vicinity.

It is just such opportunity that is driving Yahoo’s new Fire Eagle service — a smart piece of cross-platform web-plumbing that enables users to securely share their location with different applications and services. It can tell any application the user permits where the user is and when, allowing the person to connect together location-based services like Dopplr with social services like Facebook and data from any Web 2.0 service like Google Maps, Flickr or Wikipedia.

Web 2.0 technologies will ensure that location can be used in innumerable different ways, enabling people to innovate to create new, previously unimagined services. By giving the user complete control of how and with whom they share their location information, Fire Eagle should also remove some of those unsettling feelings that scuttled Microsoft’s Location Finder.

Location, therefore, is going to become an increasingly important part of the connected consumer’s life. This is doubtless why Nokia has recently acquired Navteq — a location-based services provider. This is probably also part of the reason Google is looking to develop its own phone. Location will be a major determinant of advertising relevance on the mobile platform, and advertising relevance is Google’s stock-in-trade. It is only a matter of time before longitude and latitude become important variables in the keyword bidding process. In short, “location” may well be the “Next Big Thing” in digital media, technology and advertising.

There may no longer be gold in them there hills, but knowing that them there hills are where you are — that might yet be a gold mine.

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