Google to Provide Better Accuracy in Location-Based Services?

Chances are that you’ve seen or even used location-based services from the Web, such as Facebook Places, Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl, Scvng, and including locations in your tweets.

Google offers a number of location-based services, such as:

Google likely has other location based services that they may target in the future, such as the kind of system described in Google’s patent filing Dynamic Exploration of Electronic Maps, which I wrote about in Smarter Google Maps Would Add Movement and Templates for Tasks

A recently published pending Google patent describes one of the limitations of location-based services – the accuracy of locations information for people using those services, and provides an approach that Google might follow to improve upon location information for users of location-based services.

Three of the technologies that are often presently used for those location-based services include:

Global Positioning System (GPS) – Often accurate within 10-20 feet, but can become unusable in indoor environments such as shopping malls, office buildings, and subways.

Cell Tower Triangulation – estimates location based upon distance from multiple cell towers, but could be off by hundreds or feet or even miles based upon things like signal strength, tower placement, and interference.

IP Geocoding – Associates the IP address of a device with a physical location, and could sometimes be off by a considerable amount.

An alternative approach might be to use signals like those, but to also augment that information with user specific information, such as:

  • Web browser history
  • Search History
  • Maps History
  • Address books
  • Email Archives
  • Calendar entries

Information about locations from sources like these might be captured, including times associated with the information, to create heat maps that can help estimate locations that someone might be interested in, and may be helpful in estimating the location of someone using a location-based service.

a screenshot from the patent filing showing how Google might identify locations from different sources, such as web search, browsing, history, address books, and calendars.

The patent filing is:

Refining Location Estimates and Reverse Geocoding Based oon a User Profile
Invented by Chris Lambert, Michael Chu, Rohan Seth
Assigned to Google
US Patent Application 20100287178
Published November 11, 2010
Filed: May 8, 2009

Abstract

The present invention pertains to enhancement or refinement of estimated locations based upon user-specific information. Upon user authorization, geographical information is extracted from a number of user-related sources, including the web browser history, search history, maps history, address book, e-mail archives and calendar entries.

Such information is used to build a spatial index of specific physical locations for a geocoded result set. From this, heat maps identifying particular locations from the user-related sources are created for different periods of time.

The heat maps may be used to refine an initial location estimate of the user. This may be done by determining whether one or more positions in a given heat map provide a more accurate position of the user than the initial estimate. If so, a best position is selected. This can be used to provide enhanced driving directions to the user.

So, Google might use GPS or Cell tower triangualation, or even IP addresses to create an initial estimate of the location of someone using one of these services, and then look at heatmaps of locations from data collected about that person to refine an estimate of where they might be located.

For example,if you used your actual address in Google Maps when getting driving directions in the past, and GPS or cell tower triangulation indicates that you may be at or near that address, Google might believe that your Google Maps driving starting point is where you are presently located. If you performed a search earlier in the day for a specific coffee house, and you are very close to that coffee house when you use one of Google’s location-based services, it might use information about that search to refine your location.

The patent filing does provide examples of how it might safeguard this kind of location data, such as asking for permission for the use of certain kinds of information, such as email or addressbook or calendaring services. It would also secure the data in such a way as to prevent unauthorized access.

Location information used to create heatmaps may be scored based upon a number of factors. For instance, if the information is old, it might be considered too stale to be useful. Some types of searches might be more helpful than others, such as a maps search carrying more weight than email information.

The patent filing also details some examples of how this location information might be used, from providing enhanced driving directions, to presenting more accurate information when searching for businesses or people, or broadcasting the user’s location to friends or geocoding images taken from cell phones

Does Google have an advantage over many other providers of location-based services because they may be able to use information such as web searching and browsing history, previous map searches, and other information specific to an individual who might use a service like this?

It’s possible.

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23 thoughts on “Google to Provide Better Accuracy in Location-Based Services?”

  1. This is becoming far more important very quickly in getting your sites picked up by google’s new integrated serps, thanks for some more tips. Like everybody with a brain has said before, seo will just adapt to this from more traditional methods.

    Thanks.

  2. Bill – I agree, Google definitely has an advantage over other providers of location-based services. With all the data and information they have at their fingertips such as Web browser history, Search History, and Maps History it will be hard to imagine other location based services being better. Like you said, Google has the ability to use information specific to an individual which is definitely helpful.

  3. Aloha Bill,
    First off thank you for yet another insightful post on Local. It’s a shame that some of the search engine reps don’t engage commenters on posts like this because they could greatly improve their location-based services if they were interactive. Keep in mind that I am just talking out loud and as an owner of a brick and mortar. But in my opinion a foundational flaw in location-based services is that they don’t give us businesses any viable tools for clearly defining OUR preferred geographic areas in local and other GEO related stuff. To me it’s like they all placed the cart before the horse, though Goog is still miles ahead of Bing.

    I know that I am losing you and fast, but maybe a look at Googles adwords geo utility may shed some light on waht I am trying to spit out. If you go into campaign management you will see “In what geographical locations do you want your ads to appear?”. When you go to define that you get a very nifty map with an overlay of the geo location your ad will be served. While that too somewhat sucks because you can’t “lasso” your preferred areas (yes, I would like to exclude places like the Borrego desert which really has zero conversion potential), a GEO feature such as the one in adwords plugged into say Webmaster tools would greatly help us help them with delivering more accuracy, as well as offer more value to the end user.

    But hey please apply a happy tone to all that, I am just a bit perplexed about how a California based company can know so little about the geographic and population demographics of southern California.

    Charles

  4. … and of course, most importantly, Adwords replies on Geotargeting for delivering advertisements. A DUI Lawyer search geotargeted to a certain small town USA is worth $20 a click, while a nationally targeted ad would be worth just a fraction of it.

    The more accurately Google can geotarget – the more confidence advertisers will have in their advertising programs.

  5. Hi LinkMünki,

    I’m not really too convinced that Google’s interface design change, from seven-box type results to Google Place Search results is all that revolutionary or transformational. What I tried to focus upon with this post is that Google has been steadily adding more location-based services to the services that it does provide, and that they make also take advantage of the user-data and user-behavior data they collect to improve the quality of those services.

  6. Hi Kerry,

    I think we’ll have to wait and see – some of the location based services that Google provides haven’t received the publicity and fanfare that services like Groupon and Facebook Places have. Will what we might perceive as an advantage for Google be enough for their services to succeed? It didn’t happen with Dodgeball after Google acquired them.

  7. Hi Charles,

    It would be great if Google took a more active role in providing feedback on both posts like this, and on the services that they are developing.

    There does seem to be two different approaches that Google takes to location based services, as you note. One involves Adwords, and the other involves how location-based services might be developed for search and maps.

    There are ways that site owners can take some control over how geolocation information might be perceived by the search engines, such as verifying business listings in Google Maps, and making it clear to visitors and the search engines on the pages of their websites where they operate, and what they percieve their intented audiences to be located. Google also lets site owners geotarget on a country level scale in Webmaster tools. These methods aren’t as direct or in the same level of granularity as the tools in Adwords, but there does seem to be a method to the madness. Google seems to want to maintain more control over what they might display in search and in maps, and are willing to cede more control to advertisers over how and where their ads are seen.

  8. Hi Danny,

    A good point. I wasn’t really intending to explore Google’s strategies regarding geography in Web search vs. paid search with this post, but I know the topic is both important, and to a good degree relevant. I think it may be right to say that paid search is also a location-based service, allowing advertisers to target searchers in specific locations.

  9. I was thinking that these sudden changes with Google’s Local search may perhaps inspire a much refined and accurate global search in time (any time soon I presume), and could also be based on how they’ve changed local search. I’ve been seeing a lot of irregularities with global and ncr search these days, and it seems that many online complaints boost pages/sites in SERPs rather than getting penalized.

  10. “There are ways that site owners can take some control over how geolocation information might be perceived by the search engines, such as verifying business listings in Google Maps, and making it clear to visitors and the search engines on the pages of their websites where they operate, and what they percieve their intented audiences to be located. Google also lets site owners geotarget on a country level scale in Webmaster tools. These methods aren’t as direct or in the same level of granularity as the tools in Adwords, but there does seem to be a method to the madness. Google seems to want to maintain more control over what they might display in search and in maps, and are willing to cede more control to advertisers over how and where their ads are seen.”

    And there lies the double edged sword, maintaining presence for a physical store that is highly dependant on local traffic and a website that needs global traffic because it sells globally. I hate to be the one that dons the tin foil hat today but I am not convinced that location based stuff is something all businesses should engage in. :)

  11. “Hi Danny,
    A good point. I wasn’t really intending to explore Google’s strategies regarding geography in Web search vs. paid search with this post, but I know the topic is both important, and to a good degree relevant. I think it may be right to say that paid search is also a location-based service, allowing advertisers to target searchers in specific locations.”

    @Danny Based on your experience do you feel that the GEO targeting in PPC offers a level playing field? Personally I do not. (sorry Bill don’t mean to move so far off topic)

  12. @Mr Aloha – it depends on what you’re advertising – but in general, if you’re offering a true local service (DUI lawyer, for example), you should be able to knock out any national competition. On the otherhand, if those clicks are truly valuable, there would certainly be a lot of competition from other local competitors, which would bid up the click prices.

    With that being the case, the more precisely Google lets you geotarget your ads, the better results you’ll be getting from your ad budget.

  13. Hi Jason,

    While there might seem to be some overlap between local search results, and web search results that show up for a particular query, I’m not sure how much there actually is based upon some kind of overlap in the algorithms themselves.

    There’s an interesting story that appeared in the New York Times very recently, that Google responded to on the Official Google Blog with Being Bad to your customers is bad for business, which discussed how a particular merchant’s abuse of his customers lead to a large number of negative reviews. The post discusses how reviews (even negative ones) might have the potential to boost a page in web rankings, though there are a number of indications that the reviews themselves probably didn’t do too much to increase the merchant’s site for web queries – even though things like online media coverage might have had that effect.

    For web search, the focus isn’t upon matching up an organization or point of interest (POI) with a specific query as much as it is identifying whether or not the organization, or POI is located at or near a specific location – even if the location is implied in the query rather than explicitly stated.

    A geographically orientated query in web search, rather than local search, may instead be geared towards finding more information about a specific entity (a business, nonprofit, landmark or some other entity) such as contact information, or if that entity was somehow related to or involved with a specific area. So, if you want to find whether a specific architecture firm designed buildings in a certain city, your intent isn’t to find a business location from that firm in that city, and a local search result isn’t the best thing to display to you.

  14. Hi Charles and Danny,

    Location-based services may not be appropriate for many businesses, but they may potentially be helpful for some that want people to visit a physical storefront or office.

    There are a few barriers to entry for small business owners when it comes to paid search.

    One is that they may be much more comfortable with offline advertising methods such as print, radio, signs, and local television.

    Another is a lack of comfort and technical knowledge with it comes to using online paid search.

    The simplicity of something like Foursquare might be easier for many merchants to handle. No keyword research, no competitive analysis of other businesses and their advertising strategies, no tutorials on the differences between broadmatch and exact phrase and what that might mean to your budget, and so on. Instead, I see things like a local bakery offering $1.00 off on each loaf of fresh baked bread.

    Location-based services may not be ideal for every business, but for some they may be better than paid search and organic search.

  15. Location based search is definitely a hot topic. It will be very interesting to see what Google does with it in the future.

  16. Hi SteveF,

    Google seems to be expending a lot of effort in both providing more social-based services and location-based services (and often some combination of the two).

    Given the growing number of mobile services that they offer, I do think these hot topics will continue to be hot for a while.

  17. Hi Bill,

    Owning a local business, which depends mainly upon local web searches makes this post very useful. I’ve never heard of services like Google Latitude (note: the link needs checking) and one or two other services which I need to know all about if I want to rank highly for local searches, as the algorithms appear to be changing every month lately.

    What are your thoughs on the new Local Business Rating / Review service, Google Hotpot?

    Regards,

    Martin.

  18. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for letting me know about the broken link for Google Latitude. I fixed it.

    I don’t think participating in Google’s location-based services will help your rankings in Google’s local search, but at some point it’s quite possible that having your business verified in Google Maps may help some of those services find your business, and show it to potential visitors.

    I think Hotpot was a good idea for a few reasons. The one that stands out to me the most is that it’s more likely to influence people to leave reviews, by showing places nearby that it’s possible they might want to review. It also adds an interface for reviews that was sadly missing before and makes it easier for people to see reviews from people that they know – if a friend leaves a positive review for a place that you haven’t visited before, it’s possible that you might.

  19. Google seems so far ahead of everyone else in the local search niche, Latitude, Places and Maps or so dominant that I wonder if anyone will ever seriously challenge Google’s dominance, they just keep making them better and better.

  20. Hi Johnathan,

    Eric Schmidt noted a number of times last year that Google only tries to enter markets where they think they have some chance of providing innovation. They’ve had some successes and some failures (Dodgeball, Wave, etc.), but it does look like they’ve been pushing hard to be dominant in many areas. For instance, just think of what went into streetviews and the map data collection behind it to provide information to Google Maps.

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