Desktop Geolocation – How valuable is ‘sort of’ knowing a users location?

I think Geolocation services are hugely important.  Since we’re all now used to the idea that our smartphones know our exact location and can immediately serve up content based on that, it almost seems prehistoric to have to enter your ZIP code into a web form for a website on your desktop computer to know where you are and serve content based on your location.  If my little phone can know exactly where I am, why can’t my big expensive desktop?

So sites are clearly doing geolocation so you don’t have to enter ZIP code.  But they’re doing a fairly bad job of it.  Desktop based geolocation services have 99.9% accuracy within a 25 mile radius.  While certain providers will have different accuracy guarantees and there are different data sources out there, all of them share the 25 mile radius limit.  Think about what that means for a moment.  The desktop knows where you within a 25 mile radius.  Not very accurate.  This is how we serve up “Results from Pleasantville” when you are really 20 miles away from Pleasantville.  Better than having no idea where you’re at but not terribly useful.  There are at least a couple important implications of this to consider.

Implications on Advertising by Geography

If you’ve ever tried to limit your AdWords, display, or other advertising to a geographical location, if you’re trying to limit your reach to areas where your conversion rate is highest or only to areas where you have brick and mortar locations, consider that it’s only going to be accurate within 25 miles.  So you can forget about being accurate down to the city in smaller cities.  You’re accepting that you’re going to allow in some traffic that is not actually in the geographical area you think you are targeting, making it less efficient than it should be.

Implications on Store Location Services

Many e-commerce sites from brick and mortar chains are challenged by having different pricing in different stores across the country.  In most cases before these sites can display a retail price they need to know your location, involving the user to have to enter their ZIP code and select their store, a few extra clicks and user interactions just to be able to see a price.  This can hurt engagement rate and conversion rate.  So a growing trend is to use geolocation services to automatically select the store closest to the user, and present this allowing the user to confirm the location or pick another so prices can immediately be shown.  This is smart but has drawbacks for retailers for lots of stores within a given area.  Remembering that desktop services are only accurate within 25 miles, it is likely that the “wrong” store may be automatically chosen.  While the UI can prompt the user to confirm or pick another closer store, users don’t know about the 25 mile limitation and may assume their desktop computer is as good at knowing their location as their cell phone is and assume that must in fact be the closest store to their home and not bother checking.  This concern can be mitigated with messaging however it is a key concept to keep in mind when employing this tactic.

Will the future be brighter?

Given the way desktop geolocation works to find your location, it is unlikely that the service will improve much unless desktop computers start shipping with new hardware with a cell signal so that location can be triangulated.  In the meantime, more and more Internet use is going to mobile devices including tablets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s