September 12, 2013

Location-Based Services

Main Report

Overview

The rise of smartphones has brought real-time location data into many aspects of Americans’ lives. Some mobile services use the smartphone’s location to offer directions, targeted recommendations, or other location-specific information to the user. Other services incorporate a location “layer” into other types of functions, while still others exist specifically to share the user’s location with friends or the general public.

To date, our surveys have tracked two types of location-based services: those that use people’s whereabouts to provide location-targeted information such as directions or recommendations, and geosocial services that let users “check in” to certain locations or share their location with friends.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to delineate these two categories, as social media services incorporate location as an element of user activity and as location-centric services embrace varying degrees of social functionality.

Foursquare, a geosocial service that originally focused on location-sharing and points earned through “checking in” to locations, is now beginning to de-emphasize its system of points, badges, and social location-sharing.12 Instead, it is mining its previous check-in data to offer real-time location-triggered suggestions that incorporate friends’ and other users’ activities and recommendations. On its blog, Foursquare offered examples of the new approach, such as sending a user a note about a “can’t miss dish on the menu” when she arrives at a new restaurant, or suggesting “a few places that your friends love” in a new neighborhood or city.13

Meanwhile, social media services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have added an optional location layer (in many cases built on Foursquare’s API) so that users can show where they are when they post material on the sites. And many information-focused services, from activity-tracking apps to rating sites such as Yelp, incorporate location-sharing and other social aspects as well.

As of May 2013:

  • Some 74% of adult smartphone owners get directions or other information based on their current location. This works out to 45% of all adults.
  • Some 12% of smartphone owners use a geosocial service such as Foursquare to “check in” to certain locations or share their location with friends. This works out to 7% of all adults.

74% of smartphone owners get real-time location-based info, and 1 in 8 use geosocial services

Use of location-based info and geosocial services among smartphone owners

Location-based information services

Many web services and apps incorporate a user’s location in order to offer relevant information. For instance, driving directions may rely on the user’s location to offer detailed turn-by-turn directions to another location, or a to-do list app might offer “geo-fenced” alerts, such as reminding the user to buy milk when she is near a grocery store.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of smartphone owners say they use their phone to get directions or other information related to a location where they happen to be. This percentage has held steady in the past year, but the increasing popularity of smartphones means that among all adults, the proportion who say they access location-based information has risen from 41% in 2012 to 45% in May 2013.14

Most smartphone owners access location-based info

Smartphone users under age 50 are significantly more likely to say they get location-based directions and information than older smartphone users, and college graduates are more likely to do this than adults who only completed high school.  There were no statistically significant differences among smartphone owners by gender, race or ethnicity, household income, or community type.

These adoption patterns are generally similar to those we found in early 2012, though at that time whites were also more likely to use these services than African Americans, and adults in higher-income households were more likely to use these services than those in lower-income households.

Who uses location services

Geosocial services

As of May 2013, 12% of smartphone owners use geosocial services such as Foursquare to “check in” to a certain location or share their location with friends. This is down from 18% of smartphone owners in February 2012. For all adults, this represents a change from 10% in 2012 to 7% in 2013.15

Geosocial services over time

There are few clear differences in geosocial use between demographic groups, though Hispanic smartphone users are significantly more likely to use geosocial services than whites or blacks, and suburban adults are more likely to use these services than rural adults.

Finally, there were no statistically significant differences in geosocial service use among smartphone owners by gender or educational attainment.

Who uses geosocial services

Which geosocial services people use

For the first time, we also asked users of geosocial or “check-in” services which location services they use. We found that a plurality of geosocial users (39%) say they use Facebook, while almost one in five (18%) say they use Foursquare, and 14% say they use Google Plus; several other services were mentioned as well, such as Instagram and Yelp.

What location sharing or check in services do you use

Location Tagging Among Social Media Users

Adult social media users and location tagging

Many social media sites enable users to set up the service to automatically “tag” their updates on the site with the user’s current location. Our May 2013 survey found that 30% of adult social media users say that at least one of their accounts is currently set up to include their location in their posts, up from 14% who had ever done this in 2011.16

Social media users under age 50 are the age group most likely to tag their location on social networking sites, and those living in suburban areas are more likely to say they do this than those living in rural areas. Among social media users, there were no significant differences by gender, education level, or household income.

The demographics of social media users with automatic location-tagging have changed since we last asked about this activity in May 2011. At that time, we found that men, African Americans and Hispanics, adults in households earning less than $30,000 per year, and those who have not gone to college were significantly more likely than other social media users to use automatic location-tagging, and there were no significant differences between different age groups.17

Location tagging among teen social media users

Teen social media users and location tagging

Previous surveys have also asked teens ages 12-17 about their social media practices, including location tagging. Our recent report on how teens share personal information and manage privacy settings on social media, “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy,” found that 16% of teen social media users said they set up their profile or account so that it automatically includes their location in posts.18

Boys and girls and teens of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds are equally likely to say that they have set up their profile to include their location when they post. However, teen social media users living in suburban areas are significantly more likely to say they tag their location on social networking sites than teens living in rural or urban areas, as shown in the chart below.

Focus group data suggests that many teens find sharing their location unnecessary and unsafe, while others appreciate the opportunity to signal their location to friends and parents.

Location tagging among adult social media users

Turning Off Location-Tracking Features

Over a third of adult cell app users have turned off the location-tracking feature on their cell phones

Even as most smartphone owners use their phones’ geolocation abilities to get location-specific information, data from earlier surveys also shows that many mobile users of all ages say they have turned off location-tracking features at some point due to privacy concerns.19

Among adult cell phone users ages 18 and older who have downloaded apps to their cell phone, 35% have turned off the location tracking feature on their phone at some point because they were worried about other people or companies being able to access that information. This works out to 19% of adult cell phone owners overall as of April 2012.[13. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Mobile-Privacy/Main-Findings/Section-2.aspx] For more information on cell phone owners’ activities, see our 2012 report “Privacy and Data Management on Mobile Devices.”

Almost half of teen cell or tablet app users have turned off the location-tracking feature on their cell phone or in an app

In a different report exploring teens’ mobile privacy practices, we asked teen app users ages 12-17 a similar but differently worded question. We found that as of September 2012, almost half (46%) of teen app users say they have turned off the location tracking feature on their cell phone or in an app because they were worried about other people or companies being able to access that information.

Yet as our earlier report on teens and mobile app privacy noted, some of the people those teens are concerned about may be their own parents. As early as 2009, the Pew Internet Project found that about half of parents of teen cell phone owners said they used the phone to monitor their child’s location in some way.20

Girls are significantly more likely than boys to say they have turned off location-tracking features, though there are no differences between younger and older teens. There are also no differences in the likelihood that a teen apps user will disable a location tracking feature according to household income, parent’s education level, or race and ethnicity (not shown in the chart below).21

Almost half of teen app downloaders have turned off location-tracking features

Cite this publication: Kathryn Zickuhr. “Location-Based Services.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 12, 2013) http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/09/12/location-based-services/, accessed on July 22, 2014.

  1. Vindu Goel, “With New App, Foursquare Strives to Be ‘Magic’ in Your Pocket.” New York Times, August 29, 2013. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/29/with-new-app-foursquare-strives-to-be-magic-in-your-pocket/
  2. “A smarter Foursquare, so you don’t miss a thing.” Foursquare blog, August 29, 2013. http://blog.foursquare.com/2013/08/29/a-smarter-foursquare-so-you-dont-miss-a-thing/
  3. Slight change in question wording over time. February 2012 and May 2013 question wording was “Get directions or other information related to a location where you happen to be.” May 2011 question wording was “Get directions, recommendations, or other information related to your present location.”
  4. Slight change in question wording over time. February 2012 and May 2013 question wording was: “Use a service such as Foursquare or Gowalla to 'check in' to certain locations or to share your location with your friends.” May 2011 question wording was: “Use a service such as Foursquare or Gowalla to “check in” to certain locations or share your location with friends.”
  5. Change in question wording over time. May 2013 question wording was: “Thinking about how you use social networking sites... are any of your social networking accounts currently set up so that they include your location on your posts?” February 2012 question wording was: “Thinking about the ways people might use social networking sites... Do you ever set up your account so that it automatically includes your location on your posts?” In May 2011, question was asked as an item in a list question with the following question wording: “Thinking about the ways people might use social networking sites... Do you ever... Set up your account so that it automatically includes your location on your posts?”
  6. More: “28% of American adults use mobile and social location-based services” (2011): http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Location.aspx
  7. “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” (2013): http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-Social-Media-And-Privacy.aspx
  8. A separate study in July 2013 found that 54% of internet users said it was “very important” that only they and those they had authorized should have access to their location when they use the internet. For more information, see: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Anonymity-online/Main-Report/Part-4.aspx
  9. This parental location monitoring could take many forms—including the use of calling, texting or GPS to keep track of a child’s location. The question wording did not specify what tools parents had used. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Teens-and-Mobile-Phones/Chapter-4/Parents-and-limits-on-cell-phone-use.aspx
  10. Focus group participants understood that apps can access various data on their smartphones and tablets, such as their pictures, contacts, or location. In many cases, they reported that they did not allow an app to access their location, unless they thought it was necessary. http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-and-Mobile-Apps-Privacy/Main-Findings/Teens-and-Mobile-Apps-Privacy.aspx