google and apple movementI remember the last week of October in 2010: there was a flurry around the office when we discovered that Google had merged place results with organic search results. I sat down and wrote an article about it right away. This change was actually really good news for our company and our clients–the more important that place becomes in search rankings, the easier it would be for us to help our local clients compete against big, national competitors. We were excited about it, and we immediately started rolling out maps optimization and other kinds of Local SEO campaigns to leverage these new opportunities.

I thought about that week driving home from work yesterday, listening to people on the radio talking about hearings that Congress is holding to investigate how Google and Apple are using the location-tracking data from smartphones that they (or other parties) might be collecting to build movement profiles of subscribers. I was floored. As place has become increasingly important in search over the past six months, Google has already been moving to capitalize on the SEO renovations that everyone’s been doing.

The Wall Street Journal summed up the mechanism at the heart of the matter succinctly, reporting that, “Android phones collect their location every few seconds and transmit the data to Google at least several times an hour…also transmitting the name, location and signal of any nearby Wi-Fi networks as well as a unique phone identifier.” There are different specs on how Apple would be able to collect location-data from iPhones, but the problem is essentially the same across the board.

If location can be tracked in real-time, marketing can happen in real-time. If movement profiles can be constructed of users there are possibilities for marketing that would resemble science fiction. If marketing companies know your route home from work or where you like to go on Wednesday night and they can toggle that with–say–information from your Facebook account, they’re going to be able to target you to sell you on deals in ways that would be more like telepathy than like Groupon or Facebook Ads. Marketing companies might end up knowing more about you than you know about yourself.

So there is pretty strong motivation for movement profiles to be built up for marketing purposes. Apple and Google assure Congress they’re not collecting location info for these purposes, and there is no evidence to the contrary at this point. However, it seems more or less inevitable that this is going to happen if the opportunity is there–whether Apple, Google, or the apps on your phone are collecting the information, somebody is going to be doing it. And, indeed, they probably already are. As the WSJ reports, “The Google and Apple[‘s Congressional hearings] follow… findings [from] last year that some of the most popular smartphone apps use location data and other personal information… more aggressively –in some cases sharing it with third-party companies without the user’s consent or knowledge.”

The question is: How concerned about this should we be? The IP address of the computer that you’re searching from already informs your search results, which–obviously–shapes the way that marketing forces are approaching you. If you live in Chicago, when you search for ‘Thai restaurants,’ both Google sponsored links and organic search results will be arranged in a manner that is more or less contingent on your location. As far as I know, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ or ‘objective global search results’ that can be accessed on any specific search engine portal accessed from any discrete IP. So there’s nothing new about this trend in marketing strategy. All search results are geographically contingent. The momentum that’s been growing around Place functionality over the past year would tend to indicate that, if anything, they will only become more so over time.

If anything, in the long term, the kinds of informational interactivity that movement profiles would open up would be likely to make local markets more efficient and productive. Social Media Marketing certainly takes location into account–and social media marketing is poised to become the supreme platform for marketing in the next decade. And that’s a good thing. It means that we’re having a conversation with the industries we’re buying from rather than just having commercials and products dumped on us. There will obviously need to be regulations about how this sort of location-tracking information can be used in court, and all of those questions will get hammered out in due time.

The jury is definitely still out on this question. I personally am still conflicted about whether this is going to be a good thing or a bad thing in the long run.

What do you think? Would movement profiles be an automatic negative, or could they make a contribution to market efficiency and adaptability? Please let me know what your thoughts on this subject are in the comment section.