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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