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Facebook Gets Location-Based Talent With Gowalla Buy

Facebook Gets Location-Based Talent With Gowalla Buy

Facebook probably wasn't swayed by Gowalla's technology, which doesn't appear to be very novel, or its user data either, which isn't part of its deal to acquire the location-based service. Instead, what Facebook no doubt wanted, was its crew of engineers and other specialists to help advance its own location-based projects.

By Rob Spiegel
12/05/11 12:05 PM PT

Gowalla CEO Josh Williams acknowledged on Monday that the location technology company has been acquired by Facebook. Rumors had been swirling over the weekend.

Gowalla will wind down its service by the end of January. However, user data will not make the trek to Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters with the rest of Austin, Texas-based Gowalla. Instead, both companies will work to make it easy for users to export their data from Gowalla to Facebook.

Gowalla declined to provide further details.

Buying Talent, Not Technology

Gowalla, which launched in 2009, was having difficulty competing with Foursquare, which also runs a social location service. Gowalla revamped its offering, emphasizing its scrapbook-like Passport service, in an effort to gain more traction.

However, Facebook's interest in Gowalla may not have much to do with the company's technology. Instead, it may be seeking the talent to continue location development within the four walls of Facebook. That would also explain the plan to bring Gowalla to Facebook's headquarters.

"Gowalla has engineers that are focused on location-based services," Azita Arvani, principal of the Arvani Group, told the E-Commerce Times. "The engineering talent, along with their experience in creating location-based services, are what Gowalla would bring to Facebook."

Because Gowalla has executed a few strategy pivots in trying to find the right offering, its current service "is probably less interesting to Facebook," noted Arvani.

Facebook will likely use Gowalla's talent in the company's emerging location technology, she suggested. "The Gowalla engineering talent could be refocused on Facebook Timeline -- as speculated -- or another location-based service. Of course, any location-based service will ring privacy alarm bells. Hopefully, Facebook will not be as aggressive as in the past, allowing folks to opt in on their own terms."

The Story Behind Location

Facebook is likely to be most interested in Gowalla's Passbook, which creates a record of all the places the user has visited. This is less a simple tracking of movement and more a story of the user's comings and goings.

"It seems they're not quite looking for the technology," Kimberley Maul, analyst on the social media team at eMarketer, told the E-commerce Times. "It's more about the idea behind Gowalla -- the storytelling, the ability for users to show where they've been and what they've done. Gowalla has positioned itself over recent months to tell the story and become more of a travelogue. That's what Facebook is focusing on."

Facebook was very interested in the approach Gowalla took as the company came up against the much-stronger Foursquare -- positioning itself as an aid for its users in building a personal travelogue, noted Maul.

"I've always been impressed by Gowalla, so I think this is a good move for Facebook," she said.

No Secret Sauce?

The acquisition of Gowalla is just one more in a string of companies Facebook has purchased. In just the past two years, it has acquired or invested in 15 firms.

"It's not remarkable for Facebook to buy things," Steven Savage, technology project manager and Geek 2.0 blogger, told the E-Commerce Times. "They've got a kind of throw-it-at-the-wall-see-what-sticks strategy."

Gowalla is "probably a useful bit of technology" for Facebook to pick up, he said, but the acquisition isn't likely to affect the social networking market because its technology is not particularly remarkable.

"The location tracker, however, may have some privacy impact," said Savage. "Depending on how they use Gowalla, it may bring in concerns about location privacy again."

Facebook did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

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