Why check-ins and like buttons will change the local landscape

Map pins and Yellow Pages aren't as fascinating as valuable connections.

Notable advancements in the geo sector — GIS, GPS, slippy maps — punctuate an otherwise steady equilibrium; progress in the geo world is subtle, and tends to sneak up on us without our at first knowing its significance. I think we’ve just passed one of these stealth milestones whose importance will be realized only after the amplitude of the ripple effect shakes the local landscape. I’m talking about the humble check-in and the like button.

On first blush the idea of a “check in” is unworthy of note — broadcasting publicly that you are at a particular venue is neither technologically sophisticated nor particularly novel. However, the driving impulse here is what’s interesting: the check-in is much more about who you are than where you are. The passion driving the uptake of Foursquare, Gowalla, and their ilk is sociological rather than geographical.

People check-in to venues for the same reasons they consciously display swooshes on shirts, Coach emblems on handbags, and glowing apples (or penguins for the more enlightened) on computing devices: these emblems communicate a facet of one’s identity to the world in a facile, shared language. Checking into “Zeitgeist” in San Francisco tells the world you have roguish good looks (surely), plus a penchant for beer, outdoor smoking, and tamales. Checking into “Costco” tells the world that you own a car, and have an apartment or house in which to store large bulk items; checking into “SFO Long Term Parking” tells the world that you check-in too much, and should maybe ease-off a bit.

What logo or symbol can say so much, with such brevity, about an individual? The venue makes the man.

The magic here is the expression of affinity with a business, which is where the idea of the “like” has similar power in the local space (here I use “like” as any systemic convenience to express affinity, not exclusively Facebook’s). In many ways liking a local business has significant advantages over a check-in: you do not have to be on-site, you like only once in perpetuity, and your affinity for the business is not measured by the number of times you visit. Check-ins, however, measure on-site presence, a hugely important metric for any business that values feet-through-the-door.

Thus the check-in holds the most potential for point-of-sale, in-the-moment marketing (“I see you are next door; come try a free latte at our place instead”), while Likes may offer greater potential for geo-relevant demographic targeting (“Here are deals for restaurants, similar to the ones you like, in areas where you are commercially active”). Likes and check-ins are really two sides of the same coin, but unfortunately share the same curse: there is no way to realize this user-to-business affinity and the value it represents uniformly across platforms.

Where previously this lack demanded only a frustrating duplication of effort, the problem has become more serious: the advent of likes and check-ins drive a semantic necessity to open and aggregate — the problem is no longer one of mere inconvenience.

Gary Gale calls this problem “Geo Babel“, and the local landscape has all the hallmarks of the eponymous tower. Without a common means, our likes and check-ins will continue to be bound to the platform on which they were created, hamstringing their potential. Elbowing my way into Tim O’Reilly’s metaphor, I would propose that this is a critical, missing component of the Internet Operating System. It seems outrageous that we find ourselves in 2010 without the means to refer to a business in a unique and unambiguous manner. Developers are left holding the bag for a number of reasons; here are my big three:

  1. Focus on listings data as end rather than means: Local search as we know it today is the parthenogenous child of the Yellow Pages industry. Many local search sites, and the data vendors they rely on, remain grounded in YP-era thinking, where the value was found in owning the listing data, making them discoverable in alphabetical order, and advertising against these listings. Local search for ages focused on being an electronic version of the Yellow Pages. Few organizations have looked above the horizon and considered carefully what value could be realized if listings were viewed as a means to connect users to businesses, rather than only advertise against their search.
  2. Attempts at distinction with common data: With peripheral exceptions, every local site out there has the same data. Boil these listings down to their hcards and you’re looking at dupes across the board. This is of course known by all the big players, which is why they focus on differentiation with ancillary data such as ratings and reviews, or making their listings the most inclusive or the most current. This strategy drives competitors to attempt the “one ring” approach, where each tries to climb above the other in an effort to become the premier source of online local listings. It is a bugbear for developers because efforts to differentiate a commodity are always frustrating and rarely carry the sector forward.
  3. Over-fascination with pins on maps: The advent of GPS-enabled devices and Wi-Fi positioning gave us the ability to show people’s location on the map; this has proved hugely distracting while the sector over the last four years has attempted to make buddy-finding interesting. We’ve since learned, I think, that people do not navigate by Long/Lat — Foursquare and Gowalla succeed in part because they use business listings or venues as mechanisms of personal expression within a shared social landscape. Social location is best referenced by place not space; the coords tell me nothing.

This lacuna can be resolved one of two ways — either one will do the trick but I am hoping for both:

First, we can work together toward an open database of places. Erick Schonfeld’s post on TechCrunch a few weeks back is the most recent clarion. This is not an insignificant undertaking, but is certainly the preferred outcome. However, even with OpenStreetMap at our back, realizing this goal will take an eon in Internet time unless we see an unanticipated outbreak of altruism on the part of a data supplier. Of course, the ‘new’ players in the game — those whose businesses use listings as a conveyance of value — understand this need and are best positioned to deliver against it.

The second alternative — one that is much more realistic in the short term — is an open and accessible Local Listings Crosswalk, essentially an API that takes your URI and translates it to my URI so we can ensure we are speaking about the same business (I am less concerned about geographic place-names because such services already exist); Placecast’s Match API went live as I was writing this post, so I hope that theirs will be the first step in getting us to where we want to be. The outcome,of course, will be achieved when we have a number of these services crosswalking via callbacks and hcard/og-aware crawlers, perpetuating listings data and ensuring they are up-to-date and uniformly accessible.

One or both of these services will allow us to put the bother of business listings management behind us, so we can get on with what’s really exciting about local: connecting consumers with businesses they love, and providing genuine value to both.

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  • OnTheGo

    Localeze is probably the best positioned for universal database of places… Pretty much everyone already uses them…

  • Gary Gale

    “Localeze is probably the best positioned for universal database of places… Pretty much everyone already uses them…”

    Really? No, really?

    They’re new on my radar (pun fully intentional) and they appear to be taking the approach of improving local search with extant search engines, which takes them perilously close to SEO territory.

    There’s no API (that I can see), it’s not aimed at the developer (that I can see), there’s no attempt to address GeoBabel (that I can see).

    So unless they’re poised to unleash an open active database with an API I don’t see the relevance.

    … and relevance is what this all boils down to at the end of the day.

  • Ben Allen

    very interesting post Tyler… apologies if this is straying into the highly abstract… and I am not a developer so am thinking about this from a different perspective but I have been trying to pay attention to this area for a while and I think back to the early days of web content… and Yahoo trying to manually organize all that infomation into one comprehensive directory… and how they were successful for a while in providing that service, but how down the road the web simply grew too large and complex to be organized well in such a way. So I’ve always wondered if expecting the industry to create a single comprehensive directory would ever really work even if it the basic listings could ever be effectively brought together and kept up to date.

    While the number of “places” is somewhat more finite than the content of the Internet, there are many layers of information tethered to those places which makes it significantly more complex… not only static facts like hours and categorization of the type of business, but potentially more dynamic dimensions like
    items held in stock, service offered, special events or offers, a customers loyalty card swipe, a credit card charge,propensity for customers of one establishment to visit others, etc etc. Yes social bits like check-ins or a ‘like’ vote are are in there too, but not sure they’re significantly more game changing than anything else.

    The logic of many seems to be saying that we need to fully define all the “places” before we can start layering around it so lets get a move on, and I am just not sure thats the case here. I think that if there is enough geo tagged information pushed out and publicly available, defining the existance of a Stop and Shop somewhere in a database will be no more important than documenting the existence of a site called
    cnn.com in a database of websites somewhere.

    Things like the placecast Match API and initiatives like it seem like a great idea and helps to solve some tactical implementation challenges to better make connections across the network of places, but in the big picture I wonder what will be more successful, constantly chasing after the creation of a definive and
    unambiguous directory, or like we’ve seen on the web, never really achieving that but solving the bigger problem of connecting people with the information they want and that is most relevant to them.

    I don’t see a definitive list of POIs as a foundational missing component of a web OS any more than a comprhensive list of websites inhibits users from finding websites. In my mind its really just yet another piece of content to be published by authors and content/data owners in need of a method of organization or way to aid discovery. What we could really use is a huge wave of geo tagged information hitting he public network so someone can innovate around it and help develop ways to sort and organize… Google has done it well for websites using html, text and links… someone else needs to do it well in Geo using digital and POS data as well as spatial behavior. Check-ins and likes are a great start in starting that wave with social geo tagged data, but alone I don’t think they’re game changers.

  • Tyler Bell

    Thanks Ben. I agree that a definitive list of POI is not an essential component of any Internet OS. I argue that what _is_ essential is the ability to refer to places unambiguously in machine-readable format — a definitive directory is usually seen as the only answer, one which I believe that that is neither likely nor the best solution. These places have already been enumerated; we do not need to do it again. Just give me a hook on which you and I can hang our identical local business: a babelfish for the world’s locations. Like buttons and Check-ins are not world-changing in themselves, but have turned what was formerly an annoyance into a pressing need.

  • Jon Ziskind

    Great post Tyler.

    Is it actually possible to get to a universal listing is an ever changing physical and digital world?

  • Tyler Bell

    Jon – Thanks. I do not argue for a Universal Listing, but rather the ability to reference unambiguously the concept of that place. This is indeed possible and circumvents the need for anything resembling a ‘Master Record’ in the more traditional sense. (‘There is no spoon’).

  • Andy Leff

    “Few organizations have looked above the horizon and considered carefully what value could be realized if listings were viewed as a means to connect users to businesses, rather than only advertise against their search.”

    my company http://www.7mainstreet.com is doing some very different things in the local search space. We came at this not coming frm the YP space and hae added things into the product mix that you wont find on other local search sites. Sure we have reviews and all that stuff but we are actualy the only online directory that allws local bizs to set up an ecommerce storefront in their listing page and sell their prducts when the consumer hits their actual listin. We also allow them to cusotmize their listing with info they put it, not info that isscraped off the web or from our listing database.

    When we display our search results we also rank by businesses that have put more info on their listing pages rather than by the typical alpha listings. We do this to encourage business users to really add info about themselves so they hav a better chance of selling goods ro services to the consumers they service. So as more bizs sign up in a specific area their rankings actually change their psitioning in the search results. check otthis page as an example, http://www.7mainstreet.com/bks/philadelphia-pa/lawyer, so if any of these lawyers added more content they could push themselves up the list. We havent seen too many directory sites doing this. So there are defiitely some good opportunities in this market, you just have to look at it with different eyes.