Google Does Geolocation

One of the early logo treatments for GoogleI like geolocation.

At first, it seemed pretty creepy, but now, there’s a lot of potential for geo-based features that are both and good for you.

I write about geo-services quite a bit, and I’m a fan of services like Fire Eagle and Shizzow and BrightKite and all the others. They all have one problem for me though. I never remember to update them with my location, rendering the service useless.

This is why I’ve nagged the Shizzow folks for a Twitter bot, similar to Firebot, which was a side project that has since died. I use Twitter a lot, as you probably know if you follow me, and even though I’m not that regular about tweeting when I’m out and about, having a Twitter bot would push me to remember to update my location.

Well, Google has been quietly adding geo-features to its services, and I’m pretty happy with how they’re doing it. Even though, in typical Google fashion, their methods will definitely raise some privacy eyebrows.

First, at least the first I noticed, was the GMail Labs feature Location in Signature. It’s pretty much as advertised. GMail appends your location, which it determines by your IP address, to your mail signature.

Location in Signature GMail Labs feature

Easy, breezy.

Not by any means a game-changing feature, but it’s nice if you travel frequently and want people to know where you are, which is also a solid use case for all geo-services. And even though Location in Signature only shows your city, it doesn’t require additional steps from me.

So, this week Google announces that search is becoming more local.

This means when you execute a search Google thinks might be a local one, e.g. “bbq”, the results are shown on a map based on where Google thinks you are, very similar to what you can do on the iPhone with Google search.

Like so.

New local results based on your location

I don’t know about you, but I use Google all the time for local search. I’ve moved around a lot, and each time I moved to a new city, I had to find new businesses. Local search is big business, and Google has been moving that way for years.

So, this is a big win for me.

There are a few points in the announcement that are worth noting. First, how does Google know when I’m searching for something local, e.g. a search for “pets” gives local results, but “birds” and “parrots” do not. Go figure. There’s some mad science going on in the background there.

And of course, there’s the geo-location bit. Described thusly:

How do we guess your location? In most cases, we match your IP address to a broad geographical location. You can also specify your likely location using the “Change location” link on the top right corner, above the map.

Sounds simple enough, and this isn’t new either. Lots of services use Skyhook to determine location based on IP address. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is Google has something of its own in this area. Seems more logical and controllable, which will allow them to roll geo into other services.

Initially, I thought this would only work if you were logged in with a Google account, but turns out, it’s there for everyone, logged in or not.

Anyway, I love this because I don’t have to do anything. Of course, if you’re using VPN, you’re out of luck, unless you happen to be in the place where the VPN concentrators are.

While testing this out, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition with the Twitter search results Greasemonkey script.

Local results from both Google and Twitter?

We’ve talked here before about Twitter as real-time and human-powered search. It’s an easy fit, which is probably why rumors of Google in talks with Twitter about an acquisition are probably based in truth.

Google’s geo-based local search takes away one use I have for Twitter. I have a large network of Portland people on Twitter; we use it a lot here, and when I’ve had local questions, I’ve asked them on Twitter. Lots of other people do this too.

So, have you noticed Google’s geo features? You might be using them already without even noticing. This may be the future of geo-services because of the lazy factor, but how do you feel about Google owning your location data?

Find the comments.




  1. I was expecting the loki findme to be about 500 miles off based on my IP, but it just failed, icon going around and around and around. All hail corporate hardware firewalls.

    They seem to make this blog go bonkers sometimes though.

    Geolocation is cool until your SO turns into the pissed off Amazing Colossal 50 Foot Tall Woman and starts ripping the roofs off everywhere you've been.

    Or someone clones your phone and kills a liquor store clerk they found using the “nearby” app.

    “To protect user privacy, the Gears Geolocation API server does not record user location. However, third party sites may do so, and we recommend that users only allow web sites they trust to access their location. Gears will always tell a user when your site wants to access their location for the first time and the user can either allow or deny your site permission.”

    That sounds about like certain operating systems continuously and annoyingly asking for the admin password… people will want to turn it off. People are even worse evaluating trust than they are at evaluating risks in general.

  2. Heh, geo isn't for everyone 🙂

    Why would a hardware firewall make this blog go bonkers?

    As you say, security is only as good as the annoyed users it's trying to protect. Funny world.

  3. I dunno. It looks like it is reloading and reloading and reloading and reloading…. but only sometimes. Since I don't see that when outside the firewall, I assume that is what is doing it. It definitely slows down the crappy jive used on (which seems to send every page twice). Might be a proxy problem, I wouldn't know. Always blame the stuff out of your control.

  4. Not sure about Jive on, but that behavior here is definitely caused by the Social Bar, which you can see down there from home 🙂

    I'm not sure how much longer I'll keep that around; I'm waiting for more features, but if you encounter iterative fails like I did. Let me know, and I'll go back to the widget or dump it entirely.

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