Accuracy in Location-Based Apps

This past Tuesday I attended the Official Geo-Loco Networking Event at Simple Geo’s HQ in San Francisco. I met some great people and had some very interesting conversations. One item discussed was accuracy of location-based apps, and the affect this can have on user experience.

Over the past month I have been using Brightkite, Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl and Yelp to check-in almost everywhere I go. While much to the chagrin of my friends, the point is to compare each service on game play, offers, usefulness and a few other metrics. While each app varies on these aspects, I am going to focus on Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp with regards to accuracy. Let’s get into my experience.

The Apps

Foursquare: For the most part Foursquare is accurate. My actual location usually appears in the first three venues listed. And to improve accuracy, the app ‘learns’ from your previous check-ins. If you are close to a location where you have checked-in before, Foursquare collects those venues under ‘My Favorites’ at the top of your search results. Foursquare will also highlight locations near you where several people are checking-in.

Gowalla: It just feels off. I do not have any empirical data to enforce this, but on the whole my actual location tends to be five, six or even ten entries down the list. They also have a trending feature called Hot Spots

Yelp: By far Yelp is the most accurate of the three with my actual location appearing first in most instances, if not in the top three. Most major venues, stores and the like are present, but event specific check-ins are not.

Foursquare, Gowalla & Yelp Venue selection screens

I do not know the differences in how each of these apps is coded to behave, but there are some features that can attribute to the some of the discrepancies.

User Submitted Venues

Foursquare and Gowalla allow users to submit their own venues. I took advantage of this when I added the Boing Boing Picnic to both services earlier this month and then compared the results the next day.

While this has helped both companies to increase the number of venues and engage their users, it has also caused ‘bloat.’ Users have added their homes, bathrooms and even streets, which create clutter.

Silicon Ally Insider recently published “Your Mom’s House” And Other Places You Should Not Be Able To Check-In To On Foursquare. In they article they quote a user who compares the service to the early days of MySpace.

“One of the reasons MySpace was able to grow like a weed is because it had an “anything goes” attitude towards users that led to the creation of a lot of disposable joke accounts, fictional person accounts, and total freakshows like Tila Tequila.

After the hype died down, MySpace experienced a population crash because (in part) the non-freak users got tired of the freakshow and started fleeing to better-managed sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.”

While that is an extreme position, it does raise the question of which strategy will work best in the long-term. Yelp stands steadfast by their decision to keep locations limited to what is on their site: real businesses. And this is working from an accuracy standpoint.

So What’s Best?

While the space is still in its infancy and there is room for several players, decisions made now on venue submissions and editing will affect these companies down the road. I believe first adopters and younger users will favor the openness (and craziness) of Foursquare and Gowalla, while older users will favor the more controlled and defined environment of Yelp.

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