Google's Promotion of Mayer Puts Location Front And Center

The latest career move by Google's Marissa Mayer demonstrates that location-based services are strategic to Google. And a good thing too, because location services are the Next Big Thing on the Internet. Google has already stumbled big in that area, and faces tough competition.

Mayer headed up user interface for Google search, making her the most visible person at the company. Go to google.com and you're looking at her work. Now, in addition to heading up location services, she's moving to Google's operating committee, an advisory group that counsels CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

"Marissa is moving over to an exciting new role covering geo/local, which is crucial to our users and the future of Google," Google said in email. "Marissa has made an amazing contribution on search over the last decade, and we're excited about her input in this new area in the decade ahead."

Mayer's promotion comes years after Google wasted its early lead in location services. In 2005, Google acquired Dodgeball, a service that let users check in to locations and see where their friends are. Google let Dodgeball wither, and closed it last year. Co-founder Dennis Crowley left Google and co-founded a similar service, Foursquare, which is now one of Google's top competitors in location services.

Foursquare became popular doing what Dodgeball did, allowing users to check in. Users are awarded points and badges for visiting locations, frequent visitors to a place become the "mayor" of that place, and Foursquare is working with local businesses on joint promotions. Facebook launched its own check-in feature recently; while not as rich as Foursquare, it seems to be popular with users (judging by my own friends' list).

Google has nothing to compete with Foursquare and Facebook check-ins. Its Latitude service has failed to gain popularity in the market.

I think the focus on check-ins has led many observers to conclude that Google is losing badly in location services. But I think skeptics are underestimating Google.

The search company can do something with location that Foursquare and Facebook have been bad at; Google can give you information about your location. When I type "hardware" into Google search, the first screen of results shows a list of local hardware stores. "Weather" shows me the weather where I am right now. Foursquare and Facebook can't do anything like that. Check-in services like Foursquare and Facebook Places might turn out to be fads, but you're always going to need to know what the weather is and where you can buy a new faucet.

Still, the potential for location services are just beginning. Federated Media's John Battelle describes a possible future in a blog post he calls "The Gap Scenario." You walk into a Gap store for a little recreational shopping, and your smartphone in your pocket checks you in automatically -- with your permission -- and communicates with the Gap's servers. The phone reminds you that your daughter can use a new blouse, it identifies you to the store salespeople, and when you're looking at pants that the store doesn't have in your size, the phone lets you know you can buy online and have the right pants arrive at your home the next day.

All of this might be creepy (to use one of Google CEO Eric Schmidt's favorite words) or it might be great. It all depends on how it's implemented. Does the retailer get your knowledgable permission before collecting your information? Is the salesperson friendly and helpful, or are they pushy and heavy-handed?

It's situations like the Gap Scenario that make Battelle argue that location is the Next Big Thing on the Internet. He's right. Search was the Big Thing Google rode to prominence. Social was the next Big Thing after search, and Google took a beating there. Location is the Big Thing that's starting to peak right now, and Mayer will be a in a good position (so to speak) to help Google take the lead.

Mitch Wagner

is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

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