Facebook Inc. on Wednesday introduced a service called Facebook Places that makes it easier for users to share their whereabouts with other people, making a deeper push into a fast-growing market pioneered by Foursquare Labs Inc.
The feature is aimed at helping users of the social network find friends and disclose their own location, said Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. Places works with existing location-aware tools offered by Foursquare, as well as Gowalla Inc., Zuckerberg added.
Facebook Places is available immediately in the United States through the latest version of Facebook’s iPhone app and, for other advanced mobile phones (see the official Facebook’s Places page), through the company’s site for advanced mobile devices, executives announced at Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California.
Users who wish to announce their location to their friends on Facebook would tap a “check in” button to see a list of places nearby, and then choose the place that matches where they are.
“After checking in, your check-in will create a story in your friends’ News Feeds and show up in the Recent Activity section on the page for that place,” Places product manager Michael Sharon wrote on Facebook’s blog.
Facebook staff also said the feature will be useful not only to let friends know where they are, but also to learn if their friends are nearby at the same time, and to write down what they are doing at the location and what they think about it – creating a trail allowing friends to see what the writer did there days or even years ago.
When users check into a place, they also can “tag” any Facebook friends who are with them, essentially letting other friends know that the person is there, too. To cut down on the potential for users to falsely tag friends to a place, people can tag friends only if the taggers themselves check in to the location, too.
Sharon, speaking during Wednesday’s announcement, said Places has other safeguards to address potential privacy concerns. First, check-ins will appear only to users’ Facebook friends as a default, and users can further trim the recipients list to specific friends. Users also can remove check-ins by phone or web at any time, Sharon said.
Facebook staff said the company planned to let Foursquare, Gowalla and other services enhance their current integration with Facebook. Executives with Foursquare and Gowalla were at Wednesday’s announcement in Palo Alto, previewing plans to ramp up how their users will announce their locations on the social-networking site.
The past year has seen big growth in the relatively new mobile check-in space. Fo example, Foursquare, which essentially made its debut in 2009 at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, was one of the combatants in a so-called “Location War” at this year’s festival, going heads-up with Austin-based rival Gowalla.
Since then, Foursquare has become the clear favorite of the two — and a darling of tech media, even as it looks for ways to turn a profit. Boasting a half-million users at the start of SXSW, Foursquare doubled that in about a month then needed only another three months to hit 2 million last month.
On mobile apps like Foursquare, users “check in” at restaurants, bars, movie theaters or just about anywhere else they visit. The idea is twofold – to let friends know what you’re up to, while racking up points and earning virtual badges in the application’s gaming element.
Services that help Web users share their whereabouts and find nearby friends could generate as much as $4.1 billion in annual ad sales by 2015, according to Borrell Associates.
The features can help marketers more easily target customers — say, by reaching shoppers when they’re close to making a purchase. In the future, Facebook may include an advertising component to Places, Zuckerberg said at an event in Palo Alto, California.
“As of tonight Facebook has become the most important location-based service out there,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at technology research firm Altimeter Group. “Facebook is already the hub of my social network for many activities and this becomes a natural feature to add.”
Places fits with Facebook’s strategy of adding tools and advertising options that may help it make money from a user base that surpassed 500 million this year.
While Places is compatible with Foursquare and Gowalla, it may also lessen the need for Web surfers to depend on alternatives, Gartenberg said. [Facebook Blog and Facebook Places via Huffington Post, Forbes and Inside Facebook]