A Beginner’s Guide to Location-Based Services

Foursquare and other location-based services hold tremendous opportunity for media companies willing to get on board with an unconventional approach to interaction while it is still in its infancy. Following is a very basic overview of these services, including a glossary and tips for those who may not be familiar with these tools.

What are location-based services?

These are any programs or applications that take advantage of the mobile web and GPS capabilities of certain mobile phones to create an interaction based on a user’s location.

An Overview of What’s Out There

Foursquare is a popular location-based app that combines elements of Twitter, city guides and computer games. Users “check-in” to locations via a mobile app, alerting their friends as to their whereabouts and earning points, badges and special offers from local businesses.

Gowalla is the next closest competitor, though it operates on a slightly different system. Here’s an excellent comparison. Gowalla’s best asset is its “trips” features, which lay out a group of destinations in a particular city for someone to trace the path. This has huge potential for media and the travel industry.

Twitter added geolocation to its tremendously popular service earlier this year – and in mid-June they unveiled Twitter Places, which has venues targeted by geolocation that users can append to tweets. One leg up on the others is a feature  where users can explore recent tweets and other venues in their Places location.

Keep an eye on Twitter in this space – they have a lot more users than all the others combined, which could really push geolocation services further into the mainstream.

You can also never leave Facebook out of the equation. They are constantly developing new features to take on other social media – and word is they’ll be launching their own location-based features this summer.

There’s also MyTown, which isn’t as widely used, but has a unique focus on the gaming aspect of these apps. MyTown has a touch of Sim City and Monopoly in its gameplay, allowing users to accumulate and spend virtual cash to buy and rent property.

Early forerunners to these apps are Loopt and Brightkite, which were mobile apps/sites for early adopters of smartphones to find one another. Problem was – there weren’t all that many of us to make it very interesting. Loopt has recently added new features to become more focused on recommendations. Brightkite has, for the most part, remained without a focus on gaming, existing for more of a bare-bones check-in to alert friends as to your location.

Glossary of Common Terms

Check-in: This is where you tell the app where you are. You can check-in from just about any kind of venue – hotels, restaurants, stores, attractions, intersections, etc.

Shout: A tweet-esque message accompanying a check-in on Foursquare (though Gowalla offers something similar). This can be sent out to Facebook and Twitter if you have it set up that way.

Tip: User-added advice that pops up when you check in to a venue on Foursquare. This is what makes Foursquare useful, so tip often!

To-do: Like a tip, but more of a note to oneself.

Badges or Pins: Certain patterns of check-ins can lead to a user earning these virtual rewards.

Trips: Gowalla offers a collection of venues one can check into on an organized tour of a city. You can create these yourself or take public trips.

Mayorships: Some businesses offer exclusive offers for the user who has checked in to their location the most on Foursquare – aka The Mayor.

Do’s and Don’ts of Location-Based Services

Don’t check in at home – not only is it cheating, but it can be dangerous. Don’t check it at someone else’s house without permission and really, don’t check in anywhere you think it might not be wise to share (like where your kids go to school, for instance).

Don’t broadcast your location to Twitter or Facebook unless it’s actually interesting. At least include a shout or message if you intend to share your location beyond the service.

Don’t cheat. Foursquare is a game people take seriously, so don’t check in as you’re walking/driving by a place or otherwise stack your stats.

Note: That said, you can go to m.foursquare.com to leave shouts if you aren’t on the scene but want to update users as to what’s happening at a location. This is good for breaking news when you aren’t on location.

Do know that it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like people knowing where you are, don’t use it. If the only places you regularly go are your home and workplace, Foursquare isn’t made for you (and that’s OK).

Upcoming: Using Foursquare in journalism

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