Jeremy Phillips

An article on +TECHNOLOGY, “A revolution in location-based advertising?”, comments on the announcement by search engine and internet-based services giant Google that it plans a new feature: whenever a user searches for a specific restaurant, museum or other place of interest in a certain area, Google Maps will suggest a list of nearby attractions which that user might also enjoy. The article asks:

“How do the nice folks at Google know what I, the searcher, might enjoy? It is not entirely clear. The press release stresses that suggestions are not limited to places sharing a “specific characteristic”. Rather, the feature makes use of a “broad set of signals” to come up with the “most interesting suggestions”. These signals may well include the browsing history of the user’s IP address, and thus constitute another outlet for Google’s online behavioural advertising techniques.

Whatever the signals, are we seeing here a revolution in location-based advertising? Not really. For a start, suggestions are based not on the searcher’s present location (even if searching on a phone) but on the location of a defined other place (the destination searched for). In the same way, the suggestions which Google Maps will deliver are not in any way connected with where the relevant user has physically been in the past. The feature is much more akin to Amazon suggesting an interesting book or DVD than to location-based advertising proper.

That’s not to say that Google isn’t involved in advertising based on user location. Google recently launched an application for the iPhone and its Nexus One smartphone which allows the user to search Google using his or her real-time location (ascertained through GPS) as a filter. So, a search of “coffee shop” would provide a list of the nearest cafés, ordered by location, complete with reviews.

Plenty of other companies are working in the field. … Inevitably, all such developments are likely to bring with them major concerns in relation to user privacy, especially given the potentially sensitive nature of information about location, and to the reality and sufficiency of any consent given.

The logical next step for location-based advertising might be the combination of the Google Maps-style knowledge of the searcher’s browsing habits with information based on a user’s real-time and past physical locations and movements (using GPS) to create ultra-targeted location-specific adverts. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report envisaged billboards which scan the retinas of passers-by and direct at them customised messages about products. Perhaps even more sophisticated is the advert that pops up on my mobile phone to tell me that the product I searched for online last Monday can be found even cheaper if I take the next right. It remains to be seen whether such ads would be either desirable or tolerated”.

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