Facebook Places vs. Yahoo’s Who, What, When, Where (W4) Communications Network Patent?

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A new location-based service from Facebook is rolling out this week, known as Facebook Places. The announcement on the Facebook blog, Who, What, When, and Now…Where, describes Places as a way of letting your friends know where you’re at and what you’re doing in realtime when you check in.

The Facebook blog post title caught my attention because of a patent granted earlier this month to Yahoo which collects “Who, What, When, and Where” information about people and the devices they use to connect directly or indirectly to the internet, including mobile phones, TV set top boxes, desktop and laptop computers, fax machines, radio frequency ID (RFID) tags, sensors, and other kinds of devices.

Real World Entities and the W4 COMN

Imagine that Yahoo started paying attention to information on the Web that isn’t normally crawled and indexed by search engine spiders, such as emails and TV set top box searches, location and application usage of mobile phones, social network interactions and physical and online locations, and many other kinds of devices and information flows that connect to and use the internet.

The Yahoo patent presents a framework for collecting information from devices connected to the internet, for the search engine to learn about specific people, places, and things, or what Yahoo refers to as “Real World Entities” or RWE. You are one of these real world entities if you connect to the internet in some manner, or if information about you is communicated across the internet. The framework is referred to in the patent as the “W4 Communications Network,” or the “W4 COMN.” The “W4” in the name refers to information collected about “Who, What, When, Where” about any subject, location, or user. A screenshot from the patent illustrates some examples:

An illustration from the Yahoo patent showing examples of Who, What, When, and Where information that might be collected under Yahoo's Communication Network

As opposed to present location based services like Foursquare or Facebook Places, where people have to explicitly check in to different locations, this system might collect location information for individuals when their mobile phone isn’t being used. It might track the locations of others in your immediate vicinity, note the time and frequency of messages sent to other people online, and pay attention to activities on social networks.

The W4 COMN creates profiles for people, locations, devices, and user defined data. It can map information about Real World Entities, and create a micro graph for each entity, and a global graph that “interrelates all known entities against each other and their attributed relations.”

How’s that for a location-based service?

Real World Entities (RWE) and Information Objects (IO)

Each real-world entity would be assigned a unique W4 identification number to absolutely identify that RWE within the W4 communications network.

Real World Entities can include such things as people, states, cities, buildings, roads, animals, cars, airplanes, works of art, smart credit cards, business entities, sports teams, satellites, computers, phones.

The W4 Communications Network allows associations between RWEs to be determined and tracked. So, a person might be associated with other RWEs such as a mobile phone, a smart credit card, an email account, a cable TV set top box.

These associations may be made explicitly by a user, such as the set up of a mobile phone account, or the registration of an email address. The associations may also be made implicitly, like when someone passes near a weather sensor that is connected to the internet.

Information objects (IO) are objects that may store, maintain, generate, or serve as a source of data used by RWEs or the W4 Communications Network.

Information Objects can include:

  • Communication signals,
  • Email messages,
  • Transaction records,
  • Virtual cards,
  • Event records,
  • Sporting events,
  • Phone Recordings,
  • Calendar entries,
  • Web pages,
  • Database entries,
  • Media files (songs, videos, pictures, images, audio messages, phone calls, etc.),
  • Other electronic files with any associated metadata,
  • Email applications,
  • Calendar applications,
  • Word processing applications,
  • Image editing applications,
  • Media player programs,
  • Weather monitoring applications,
  • Browsers,
  • Web server applications

IOs may also be provided with unique W4 identification numbers to absolutely identify the IO within the W4 Communications network.

Each Information Object has at least three RWEs that can be associated with it:

  • An owner or controller, who could be a creator or rights holder
  • An RWE that the information object relates to, which could contain information about the RWE or identify the RWE
  • Any RWE that access the IO to obtain data for some purpose

Yahoo’s patent appears to cover everything that can be found on the Web as well as anything (any real world entity) that can be connected somehow to the internet that can communicate across the network in some fashion. Another screenshot from the Yahoo patent shows information from Real World Entities being entered into the W4 Communications Network, and being sent out to other Real World entities through the Network:

An illustration from the Yahoo patent showing information entered into the W4 Communications Network and sent out by the Network via methods such as messaging, APIs, and applications

The patent is:

Systems and methods of ranking attention
Invented by Ronald Martinez, Marc Eliot Davis, Christopher William Higgins, and Joseph James O’Sullivan
Assigned to Yahoo
US Patent 7,769,740
Granted August 3, 2010
Filed: December 21, 2007


The disclosure describes systems and methods of ranking user interest in physical entities based on the attention given to those entities as determined by an analysis of communications from devices over multiple communication channels.
The attention ranking systems allow any “Who, What, When, Where” entity to be defined and ranked based, at least in part, on information obtained from communications between users and user proxy devices. An entity rank is generated for entity known to the system in which the entity rank is derived from the information in communications that are indicative of user actions related to the entity.

The entity ranks are then used to modify the display of information or data associated with the entities. The system may also generate a personal rank for each entity based on the relation of the entity to a specified user.

This system would collect an incredible amount of information about online and offline entities and communications, but what exactly would be the purpose?

Here’s a description from the patent itself that cuts to the heart of the reason to create such a communications network:

In the world every RWE can be considered to have a natural rank based upon popularity and the nature and quality of the attention given by users to the person, place, thing, event, etc. In every city, there is a number one pizza restaurant, a number seven dry cleaners and a number 22 oil change place, and yet this data is neither captured nor modeled effectively to be includable with web data about the same real-world stores online. For example, the pizza shop may have a website, and it may be reviewed well by users on that site or other city guide sites, but it’s ranking in search results through search engines does not take into account that it has the most traffic, the most revenue and/or the most repeat customers of any pizza place in the city.

Combining the actual data that is picked up through the W4 COMN, a model of information objects is created that maps web objects/web pages to RWEs to combine data from both worlds (i.e., the online world and the real world) in order to increase the efficiency, accuracy and dynamic evolution of matching users to other RWEs including other users, businesses, things events, etc.

Everything in the world can be assigned an attention rank by combining and weighting the online data about that RWE with all known data obtained from offline sources about the same RWE. Attention is recorded in the real world by devices, activities, communications, transactions and sensors while attention is recorded online by browsers and devices and carriers and Network operators, activities, communications, transactions and instrumented pages or networks.

This system would provide a ranking system that would not only take into account information found on web pages and the web, but also information collected from the “Who, What, When, Where” communications network about entities that might be mentioned on the Web.

The patent provides a very detailed look at the communications network, how entities might be ranked, how that entity rank might influence web rankings, and how the associations between people and other entities might be tracked.

An overall attention rank might also be used to:

  • Select content, either online or offline, to be shown to someone
  • Determine which ads to display
  • Identifying user interests
  • Compare user demographics
  • Identify valuable real and intangible property


Facebook Places just begins to brush the surface of what the Yahoo patent would provide in terms of a location based service. Yahoo’s W4 COMN sounds very ambitious, and there’s a question about what happens to Yahoo’s search-based patents with Microsoft taking over search from Yahoo.

The W4 Communications Network also sounds like it could be a potential privacy nightmare.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Not Brands but Entities: The Influence of Named Entities on Google and Yahoo Search Results, another recently published Yahoo patent application which described how being able to identify entities in search queries can influence search results referred to the possible use of Yahoo’s W4 COMN.

I’m questioning how I feel about being considered a Real World Entity. What about you?

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24 thoughts on “Facebook Places vs. Yahoo’s Who, What, When, Where (W4) Communications Network Patent?”

  1. I’m not sure exactly where the bridge connects, though I foresee a future where this type of information can be used to better Artificial Intelligence. Human interaction with a search engine will be more personalized than ever before. Could AI start bearing similar resemblance to the most popular demographics of user search and browsing?

  2. Howdy Mr. Bill,

    I think Yahoo’s proposed system would cause a significant amount of fear in the general public. Perhaps enough to cause search engines NOT to purse the strategy. Additionally, I believe we would see a tremendous amount of new spam attempts every device involved. However, it would seem to make genuinely “good” companies stand out, and rewarded. So perhaps it widen the gap between naturally reputable companies and not-so-naturally popular companies. In other words, I think it would make it harder for the bad guys to act good 🙂

  3. I agree with Andrew. I see many risks for privacy and i don’t like this.
    I know that many people don’t care about privacy and share everything on social networks but there should be some limits on what search engine can see.

  4. I feel that W4 is really an invasion of privacy. Personally, I wouldn’t want my email or my phone indexed by search engine spiders. I am into helping search engines improve but there’s a limitation to it.

  5. There was an example of this earlier in the year with a deal between Yahoo and Nectar (a multi-retailer rewards scheme in the UK) – allowing access to shopping data. Using these methods to triangulate data should allow highly targeted marketing but is so open to abuse that surely is unlikely to avoid privacy legislation of some sort.

  6. Hi Donnie,

    I think you’re right that the approach that Yahoo outlined in the patent might potentially cause some fear in the general public. Yahoo does have a location based service in Fire Eagle, they purchased an Asian location based service (Koprol) in May, and there were recent news reports that they were interested in either acquiring Foursquare or engaging is some kind of data sharing arrangement with them, so Yahoo does seem to have a strong interest in this kind of technology.

    What they might do with this patent, I’m not sure of.

  7. Hi Nathan,

    I don’t think search engines are quite at the point where they might be using or advancing Artificial Intelligence, but the 4W communications network from Yahoo would definitely make search more personalized then ever before.

  8. Hi Andrew and Alex,

    I agree with you both. A system like this would definitely be very intrusive from a privacy stance, and it could potentially create a considerable amount of risk in terms of private information, in exchange of some amount of convenience. It goes beyond a lot of what we are presently seeing in location based services, and there are many pointing out potential harms associated with those services.

  9. Hi TwentyEleven,

    He did say something like that, didn’t he?

    Here’s a longer recent video statement from him on Privacy:

    Eric Schmidt On Privacy (VIDEO): Google CEO Says Anonymity Online Is ‘Dangerous’

  10. For me, it is only a matter of time before this is implemented. The general public hasn’t had much of a say in any location based services. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as to what people are willing to share on the internet, even if they don’t know the full implications of their actions. As long as users have the opportunity to opt-out, or better opt-in then I don’t see a problem with this.

  11. Hi Bill,
    I agree with you, Andrew and Alex. The implications of the invasion of privacy are alarming. The general public has no idea how much has been gathered about them already… This does go beyond what we are presently seeing in location based services.

  12. Hi Joe,

    I think we’ve been evolving towards something like this for a while. What’s a little frightening about the Yahoo patent for me is that it seems like such a complete conceptual framework covering everything and everyone that can be connected to the internet, and a monitoring of information from people and devices, as well as information that can be mined and derived from many different types of communication and datastores.

    Does Yahoo have the ability to build the W4 COMN? I don’t know. But it’s possible that we might see such a network come about regardless of whether Yahoo are the ones behind it or it’s developed piecemeal, by many different companies, and even competitors, putting different parts of it together.

  13. Hi R&R Web Design,

    I think we’ll start seeing even more location-based services as mobile phones and the applications they run continue to evolve. Those will likely bring us conveniences that we will find useful, but I’m not sure if we’re thinking much about the costs of those conveniences.

  14. the new facebook things feel like an invasion of privacy, I don’t think others should be able to tag me if I’m not comfortable with people knowing where I am

  15. Hi Mark,

    Good point. We can often control whether to opt-in or opt-out of using some location-based service that might identify where we might be at present, but we have a lot less control over others sharing that information about us in some way. And yet, there are many people who are optimistic about services like this one. See the link in the comment above this one, for some thoughts from someone who worked on a number of location based services at Yahoo.

  16. as much as it is a privacy issue you can always opt out of it. personally i like all these location services as it makes it easier for people to offer me deals or services that i am interested and relevant. the advertising is going to be there anyways so why not help make it more focused.

  17. Hi K. Clarke,

    There’s definitely a choice that we all have to make as to how much convience we are going to allow at the cost of how much privacy we are willing to concede. I’d rather work a little harder myself in finding what I want on the web, and in the services offered to me, then to give a Facebook or Yahoo too much information about me.

    As for opting out, sometimes that isn’t always helpful – especially when others share information about you that you don’t want them too.

  18. Social media plays an important role in promoting a website as well as create a large amount of traffic to website. This post is really very useful and informative.

  19. I totally agree, there is REAL traffic to be gained from Social Media. I think there is little doubt about that.

    But what gets me are the claims that your search engine rankings will be lifted by Social Media. That one is not at all clear. I know that a few people have been running experiments to see if your twitter links or facebook activity can impact SERPS. But everything I’ve reviewed has been inconclusive to say the least. And many bloggers just assume that it helps SERPS – which is a big leap of faith.

  20. Hi Adam,

    Representatives from Google did recently state that they are experimenting with ways that social media annotations, mentions, and links might influence organic search results. We have no definitive statements from them that those are being used, but it’s possible that they could eventually be used in some ways.

    For instance, a link from a tweet might not work to increase the Pagerank of the page being linked to, but a large number of tweets about that page around the same time might indicate to the search engine that the page should be boosted, at least temporarily, in search results because it’s caught the attention of a large number of people for one reason or another. I’m not saying that this is happening now, but I wanted to point out a possibility. Chances are that if Google did something like that, it might use an algorithm to rank the reputation of the people doing that tweeting, to try to avoid people manipulating that kind of boosting.

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