Will Location-Based Services Ever Go Mainstream?

Do you use a location-based app or service like Foursquare or Gowalla? Then you are a member of a tiny minority of Internet users, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. The survey found that only 4 percent of online adults use any service that allows them to share their location with friends, and on any given day, just 1 percent of Internet users are making use of such services. The multimillion-dollar question is whether the launch of Facebook Places, and particularly its recent mobile Deals feature, will change those numbers and make location services go mainstream.

It’s not surprising that a small percentage of Internet users overall have made use of a location-based app, but what about those who typically go online via their smartphones? According to the Pew report, only 7 percent of those adults who go online via their phones make use of a location-based service regularly. The study found that a larger proportion of younger users — those between 18 and 29 — use such services, but still only 8 percent. Men use these services far more than women do: twice as much, in fact, with 6 percent of men using them regularly and just 3 percent of women. (Interestingly, the survey also found that significantly more Hispanics use such services: 10 percent, compared with 3 percent of whites and 5 percent of blacks.)

The study’s overall conclusions are not a surprise: a Forrester research report in July came up with similar numbers. It also found that only 4 percent of U.S. online users had ever used a location-based application, and almost 85 percent of those surveyed by the research company said they were not familiar with location-based apps at all. As the Pew report points out, it wasn’t that long ago that Twitter reached a similarly tiny proportion of Internet users, and it has effectively achieved mainstream status, with almost 25 percent of survey respondents saying they use it.

One thing that could help catapult location-based services into the mainstream is the arrival of Facebook Places. The new feature is only a few months old, but according to a statement by CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, it already is “multiples bigger” than any other location service. By way of comparison, Foursquare has about 4 million users, although it’s not clear how many of those are regular users of the service. And Facebook has just launched an add-on to Places for mobile: a service called Deals that allows retailers and other merchants to offer discounts to users who “check in” to a specific location. The social network has already signed up several major advertisers for the service, including The Gap (s gps), Starbucks (s sbux), American Eagle Outfitters (s aeo) and McDonald’s (s mcd).

Getting a discount is a great incentive to check in somewhere, but it’s not obvious it’s going to convince large masses of people to adopt location services. The biggest issue for many users, including some friends I have spoken with, is that sharing one’s physical location breaches a personal privacy barrier that many people are uncomfortable with, even if it is only being broadcast to one’s friends — and the fact that your friends can tag you at a location through Facebook Places just adds to that uncomfortable feeling. Facebook may have 500 million users, but even that kind of reach may not be enough to move location-sharing into the mainstream.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user William Hook