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Facebook Places takes aim at Google

Forget about Foursquare: Facebook is thinking big with Facebook Places, targeting Google's work in building a database of local data and advertisers.

If Facebook Places catches on with the company's 500 million users, Facebook could be sitting on a gold mine of local business listings that advertisers and users will love and Google will hate.

Will visitors to Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters use the very young Facebook Places feature to find legendary watering hole Antonio's Nut House...(click for full size)
Will visitors to Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters use Facebook Places to find legendary watering hole Antonio's Nut House...(Click on image for full size.) Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

As part of Google's quest to pack useful answers into search results pages, it has built out a database of local business listings tied to its Google Maps service that gives someone searching for "pizza san francisco" a wealth of results to browse. Businesses are encouraged to claim their listings in Google Places to add their Web sites, hours, menus, or other information that searchers might value, in hopes of encouraging more people to think of Google as the place to find information about what's around them at any given moment.

Facebook Places is a similar idea with a social-media twist. Facebook users can "check in" to an existing list of nearby locations from their mobile phones or add new listings themselves, sharing that activity with their friends. But this isn't just about social butterflies: this feature will give Facebook a treasure trove of local business listings, the same prize that Google, Yelp, Foursquare, Gowalla, and others aiming for local advertising dollars are chasing.

Simply put, Facebook Places is the latest example of how the ways information is being sought and presented on the Internet are changing. Will Internet users continue to type queries into trusty old Google? Or will those users prefer to discover information through social networks like Facebook, where soon they'll be able to get much of the same information Google provides with the added bonus of reality checks from their friends.

Advertising dollars will follow whichever company manages to figure out the best blend, as neither approach will be enough to satisfy all the people all of the time. Small local businesses with limited advertising and marketing budgets for the Internet and social media will still probably have to hedge their bets across several sites, but Facebook's decision to add location data to its product immediately creates a Google-scale competitor that can't be ignored.

...or will they use Google's local search features (click for full size) to choose a happy-hour destination? The stakes are high for both companies.
...or will they use Google's local search features to choose a happy-hour destination? The stakes are high for both companies. Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

Already Facebook is getting word out to local businesses about the launch of Facebook Places, as Techcrunch noted. Lots of businesses have already invested time in making a Facebook Page, and are in some cases being prompted to merge their Page and Place to avoid confusion.

Google has certainly noticed Facebook's intent. The company put out a blog post Thursday (a representative claimed the timing was pure coincidence) declaring that 100 million people a month are using Google's Maps for Mobile product and reminding business owners to "help millions of people find you by claiming your free Place Page available in Google Maps and our most used mobile 'app' -- Google Search."

It's just another sign that Facebook and Google are increasingly butting heads as two of the top five destinations for U.S. Internet users. It's not just because so many ex-Googlers are running the show over at Facebook, but because social media has emerged as an important way to navigate through the Internet, a task that for years now has been synonymous with Google.

Social-media success remains elusive at Google, although the company has put a lot more attention to the problem this year and is getting ready to launch its most ambitious effort yet, according to reports. The unquestioned leader in online information provided by computers, Google has been unable to develop a system that lets Internet users efficiently find information provided by friends or colleagues, which is Facebook's claim to fame.

It will take Facebook some time to build out its local database, and it remains to be seen how popular Facebook Places will prove among its users: especially if privacy concerns once again rear their head.

But for all the talk about how Facebook is squashing smaller services like Foursquare and Gowalla with this announcement, it's clear from Facebook's statements, and Google's response, that the stakes are much higher: Facebook is little by little trying to redefine the way people find information and cash in on the desire of big businesses to get their message alongside that information. That used to be Google's thing.