So, the worst kept rumor in the valley was finally confirmed. Facebook now has a location offering called Places. However, this was not a simple check-in application announcement, it was much different. First, they announced partnerships with many of the major location-based applications:

We’re working with an initial set of partners including GowallafoursquareYelp and Booyah‘s InCrowd to enable users to share check-ins on Facebook.

Booyah has an application soon to be released already, and Gowalla is already talking about building on top of the Places platform. So, Facebook has started with some good third-party adoption. Assuming that these partners get access to the write API, integration will probably be swift.

However, having partners does not mean you don’t get to make fun of them. The funniest part of all this was the inclusion (or exclusion) of Foursquare:

Facebook has now “helped” out Foursquare by making them wonder what’s next. They also welcomed the company up on stage to announce that they would … GASP … consider what to do with Facebook Places! Wait, so their launch partner didn’t have early access to the Places API? Nope! Instead, Holger Luedorf of Foursquare was brought on stage to announce nothing, just stand there.

That is a nice slap in the face, but the public API is read-only for now so there is little that a third party can do. Of course, this gets more interesting as Facebook opens up the write API, which would make Facebook a location sharing platform. As a platform, Places becomes much more interesting.

First, look at the Places API that is currently available. You can lookup a specific check-in by ID, all the check-ins for a user ID, or all of the check-ins for a “place page” ID. What is a place page? Well, the API documentation has a short note about that:

Check-ins are associated with locations represented by Facebook Pages; the location must have a Facebook Page ID, whether the Page was created on Facebook directly or using the Open Graph protocol.

So, this location database is being displayed and stored as Facebook pages. If you look at the main help page for Places, they have already answered some basic questions like “How do I claim a Place I represent?”. This is interesting because it unifies the painful location database merges that other services have needed to deal with. Because Facebook has 500 million potential Places users, they will quickly become the defacto standard for location databases.

There is one major problem with Places, it is very limited in functionality. You can search a little, and you can check-in. They are only providing a platform for third-party developers to fill in the details. I think this was done for a reason. They want the users to determine who has the best application. The winner gets purchased by Facebook, in what I call the Facebook Places Sweepstakes, so that they can integrate the most mainstream application that their users already wanted. This is market testing at its best.

Of course, it would be easy to just say Foursquare is king, but the location applications are very immature still. My personal favorite in the Facebook Places Sweepstakes is Groupon. The main reason is that Groupon has a significant application that is not based solely on check-ins. We have seen that businesses like the idea of giving discounts to the “mayor” or people that check-in. Yelp is another interesting possibility as it has a significant number of user reviews that can not be ignored and it has check-ins too. Adding discounts for frequent diners or even new visitors would be simple to add if it was integrated with Places.

What this all points to in the end is search. Facebook is becoming a major player in search because of its size. If you look at Facebook Questions, that is a way to create a knowledgebase on Facebook. If Places does gain adoption and starts to include more content from Yelp and basic check-ins from Gowalla and Foursquare, Places could be the business recommendation service everyone has been looking for. As an example, John Battelle complained about Google yesterday when he tried finding a yogurt shop a mile away. At the end he mentions the obvious:

What if Foursquare or Facebook had Places search? Man, that’d be great! I could search for yogurt shops in Edgartown, and I bet, without a doubt, I could find what I’m looking for.

Yep, that is what this is about, relevance and location in searches.

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