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Making Sense of Facebook Places
One of the questions that came up after the formal launch of Facebook Places last night was: how will this affect Google Places (among others)? As an aside, I have to say it’s really strange that these products have nearly the identical name. It’s almost like Honda offering a car with a particular name and then Toyota coming out with a car with the same model name.
Of course Google Places and Facebook Places are currently different animals from a consumer perspective. You don’t “check in” to Google Places. But Google has other products that perform a similar function (Latitude, Buzz) that it may feel compelled to merge into Google Places at some point. Facebook’s long anticipated move into location does, I think, put some pressure on Google to “socialize” its Places in one or more ways.
However from a local business standpoint the two Places are conceptually if not practically quite similar. Local businesses can claim their Places pages on both sites and use them as promotional tools in several ways. I’m not going to enumerate the relative merits or practical aspects of this comparison here; I’ll leave that for another article or articles plural.
For now, the screen below shows a coffee house not far from where I live on Google Places and Facebook’s iPhone app (Places):
Google is shown on the mapping icon in the Facebook iPhone app, but Bing is the mapping provider for Facebook Places online.
In my example above, it’s a bit of apples to oranges because this particular local coffee house doesn’t have a Facebook Fan Page or Places page online in Facebook (that I could find anyway — a key point). Facebook’s Chris Cox told me that the company has created Places pages for local businesses (hundreds, thousands?). Eventually Fan Pages and Facebook Places will merge in a majority of cases. And, as mentioned, Facebook Places pages will live on the Web as well in mobile, though the locus (so to speak) of activity is bound to be mobile.
Facebook Places will replace Facebook Fan Pages for local businesses once a business has claimed its Facebook Place page. All of these pages and the product itself relies on the Localeze database, which is also at the core of the much-less-developed Twitter Places.
There will apparently be nearby discovery and “local search” capabilities surrounding Places, yet Facebook doesn’t currently know how it’s gong to surface all the information that its users will create via Places. Places is very much a “here, now” product that is about being out and about. It’s not about planning or the future at present: this weekend, next week.
If you search for a business name in the Facebook search box you’ll be able to find it and its Places or current Fan page. But you can’t currently perform common local searches such as “best Caribbean food.” This lack of search options and capabilities is a weakness for the product. The same holds true for Questions, an otherwise very useful and potentially “killer” offering.
Indeed, Facebook is building an amazing collection of local search content assets in the Like button, Questions and now with Places. How it will bring all this rich content together and make it discoverable very much remains to be seen. Several people at Facebook didn’t have clear answers for me when I talked about questions surrounding very common local search or travel planning use cases involving the immediate or near-term future. They will need to think through and work out all these things. The larger point, of course, is that Places is the first stop on a longer location odyssey for Facebook.
For now at least Google and Google Places are not threatened by Facebook Places. There is, however, a local SEO scenario where Facebook Places start to show up in Google results for local queries, which has competitive implications for third parties such as Yelp or Citysearch and yellow pages sites. But that’s speculative at this point.
Speaking of which, I was surprised to see all the companies that are arguably most directly affected by this launch present in the room as partners (Yelp, Gowalla, Booyah, Foursquare). Foursquare is, of the group, probably the most directly affected in a competitive way. Facebook has the power to mainstream “check-ins” in a way that these other companies (save Yelp) do not because of its size and visibility.
Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley some time ago predicted that check-ins would become a “commodity” and said that the company was moving well beyond that feature. Check-in commodity day has now officially arrived and Foursquare must accelerate its product evolution because most people are not going to simultaneously check in to multiple services (Check.in notwithstanding).
In terms of Privacy, the “tag your friends” feature that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pointed to as a unique dimension of Facebook Places is somewhat controversial. The privacy “backlash” for Places, however, is going to be nothing like what it was with social plug ins a few months ago.
Facebook will monetize Places in time, after it has a chance to see how people interact with these pages and it tunes the product. That time may be a year from now or more.
However, in the near term Places could become a quite effective marketing tool for local businesses (and national ones with local stores too). Approximately 1.5 million small businesses had or have a presence on Facebook (the statistic has come down off the site). Places will no doubt boost that figure by more closely bringing together the consumer and business use cases around location.
Before, Facebook Fan Pages offered some savvy businesses a great promotional tool if they knew how to “work it.” But Places brings consumers much closer to local businesses in a way that is similar to what Google is doing with its Places.
In fact, Facebook Places may actually help Google Places rather than harm it. By raising awareness of the need to “claim” your listing generally Google Places may see an increase in local business activity on its pages. Claiming your listings at both Places will be on the list of must-do local online promotions for small businesses going forward.
There’s a great deal more to discuss and think through in terms of all the implications and future scenarios. I haven’t explored all the angles here but if you want more there’s a great deal more reading on Techmeme.