In the final week of October, 2010, Google overhauled the way that they “organize the world’s organization,” giving place a new centrality as a factor determining how their search engine ranks websites and presents Search Results for consumers. Having merged place results with organic search results, red ‘place balloons’ started appearing below listings, rather than being cordoned off in their own section, which meant that organic Search Results and Place information associated with sites were being measured as two parts of a unified whole. This allowed local businesses to become relevant on searches entered by local users in a new way.
Last month, there were a string of revelations about location-tracking on smart-phones, the most dramatic of which involved Google’s phone—the Droid. The Wall Street Journal summarized the kernel at the center of the snafu succinctly, reporting that, “Android phones collect[ ] [their] location every few seconds and transmit[ ] the data to Google at least several times an hour…also transmit[ing] the name, location and signal of any nearby Wi-Fi networks as well as a unique phone identifier”
For the purposes of this post we won’t allow the question of whether these evolving prongs of Google’s strategies are connected [they are], or by what kinds of privacy concerns these developments raise [certainly there are legitimate concerns along these lines]. Instead, let’s talk in term of logistics: what does this new centrality of place mean for the average person?
We’ll assume that, at this point, the ‘average person’ owns a smartphone and searches Google for their quotidian informational needs on a regular basis.
What exactly does it mean when we read that…
Android phones collect their location every few seconds, transmitting the data to Google several times an hour, also transmitting the name location and signal of any nearby Wi-Fi networks as well as a unique phone identifier.
Here’s the breakdown:
- The unique phone identifier sent along with your information is like your name-tag. It may (or may not) allow your location-info to be collated with your location-history. That means your daily patterns of movement, and your proclivities for certain geographical areas and locations would gradually emerge from the data-set, revealing your inclinations and possibly allowing Google to construct a new kind of consumer profile of you—based on axes like:
- Where are you now?
- Where are you likely to be tonight or tomorrow?
- What do consumers who frequent these areas (whether they are Wal-marts or Bar crawls) like?
- Potentially, at some point, this means that if you visit your city’s bar crawl so many nights per week or per month, you’ll become the recipient of more aggressive marketing of drink specials in that area. If you are a frequent visitor to Wal-mart, Wal-mart will find new ways of communicating sales to you in remarkably timely ways.
- When we read that, “Android phones collect their location every few seconds, transmitting the data to Google several times an hour, also transmitting the name location and signal of any nearby Wi-Fi networks,” this means that—potentially— your location is available for marketing purposes in real-time. Any business that has a Wi-Fi network (which is virtually everyone these days) may eventually be able to reach out to you when you’re passing by their storefront, or on their street. A shipping quote might be automatically generated to deliver products to you wherever you are. Furthermore if you enter a business—especially if you enter it more than once— Google will be able to correlate your interest in that business and its product, and integrate that information into your ‘consumer profile.’ Potentially.
I keep writing, “potentially this” and “potentially that.” At the moment, both Google and Apple are denying that that they’re using the location information for any such purpose. But the fact is that they almost certainly will, eventually.
There is nothing particularly new about this trend in marketing strategy. Your IP address already informs your search results. If you live in Indianapolis, when you search for ‘florists’ your search results will automatically include florists in Indianapolis. The new Place functionality that Google rolled out last fall was a way to extend the specificity and accuracy of this aspect of search. As far as I know, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ or ‘objective’ global search results. All search results are geographically contingent. The momentum that’s been built up around place in the past six months or so would seem to imply that they will become more so.
This will be a good thing for local businesses and, to some extent, for the consumer. Businesses and consumers will be able to communicate in ever more efficient and effective ways. The downside involves the presence of more marketing noise in our lives.
Do you remember when you first got a cellphone and suddenly discovered the irritation of never ever being unavailable? But then on the other hand, how could we live without our cellphones in this day in age? They expedite virtually all of our professional and personal activities.
The new marketing functionality likely to be developed around location-tracking will probably become annoying and indispensable in some of the same ways.