Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places: Practical Uses for Location-Based Services

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3. Get Tips

Location-aware services like Foursquare allow you to get the straight dope about nearby businesses that you’re considering patronizing. When Foursquare users check in from a given place, the app asks them to post “tips” about their experience. These tips usually contain information specific to the place and its product, but can also provide invaluable real-world looks based on actual experience. Like this: “This place is packed and the wait staff can’t keep up.” Or: “It’s Saturday night at 7:30pm and this place is almost empty.” Or: “The grilled cheese sandwiches here truly live up to the hype, but I am now $15 lighter. Sigh.” This type of information can be very helpful when you're trying to decide whether to patronize this place or that one.

If you’re walking around in a city that’s new to you, such tips can be invaluable--for instance, enabling you to avoid taking a chance on a business that looks good from the outside but serves horrible food. A bad experience like that can be far worse if you happen to be entertaining clients.

Scattered among the tips are notes about deals that only local people know about. One happy visitor to Austin, Texas last year found a tip about a barbecue joint that serves large $2 margaritas from 5:00 until 7:00 every evening (yep, it was me). Another tip identified the correct way to order at a local joint to earn the reward of a discount on the food. I’ve also seen tips warning about specific items on the menu that are a bad bet: “This place is OK, but don’t even THINK about trying the sushi.”

4. Location-Based Advertising

One future payoff of location-based services will be their ability to help small businesses deliver mobile advertisements to potential customers in the area. For instance, a pizza joint might run ads to mobile users as they enter the area at around lunchtime. This type of ad uses combines the location element and the time element to target ads to uniquely qualified prospects. The location element finds mobile users who might already be within walking distance of the business, while the time element finds people who might be hungry.

Not only will these location-targeted ads become more valuable to mobile advertisers, but their increased relevance could be a good thing for you and me, too. If you’re in a new neighborhood around lunchtime it might not be bad to see ads for places nearby that serve killer Philly cheesesteaks. Of course, you don’t have to take the ad’s word for it; you can click on the business’s Foursquare entry and read tips left by users who have actually eaten there, to see whether the joint is really all that.

5. Earn Real Rewards

Starbucks has taken the lead in partnering with a location-based site to offer free stuff and discounts to loyal customers, and you can bet many other businesses will follow suit. If you check in at five different Starbucks on Foursquare you get a “barista” badge. Earlier this year, Starbucks launched its rewards program on Foursquare by offering the Mayors of all Starbucks a coupon for a buck off a Frappuccino, which normally costs around four bucks.

As more businesses participate in location-based rewards programs, you could end up reaping rewards just by checking in at many of the stops that you make during the day anyway. Foursquare and sites like it could become your traveling coupon drawer. For places that you frequent, like office supply stores or restaurants, the savings you could realize through rewards programs could add up to a substantial amount over the course of a year—enough to offset overhead.

Location-based services are still a relatively new phenomenon. When they first hit the scene they were geek novelty apps--fun but not very useful. But location-based services As they mature, they will have to provide real-world benefits in order to keep growing. The announcement earlier this year that Facebook has added a location-based element—Facebook Places—seems to strengthen the legitimacy of the whole business. It also puts a lot of pressure on smaller service like Foursquare and Gowalla to innovate or die.

I’ve provided some ideas about how to use location-based services as they exist today to your advantage or to the advantage of your business. But expect location-based services to develop new functionality in their apps that will make them much more than just novelty apps, saving you time and money in the real world.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I couldn’t think of any practical uses for Google Buzz.

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