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Social networking giant Facebook has unveiled Facebook Places, its long-anticipated, location-based feature.
The service invites users to check into the social network by marking their location with a mobile device, offering the ability to connect with friends who might be, for example, at the same coffee shop or bar.
The new Places feature brings Facebook closer to direct competition with dedicated location-based social services like Foursquare and Gowalla, which are attempting to build a business around users checking in to the service. At the same time, those startups, along with the local listing and review site Yelp, are on board as early partners with Facebook in its new venture.
The move also positions Facebook as a more attractive forum for local advertisers, allowing small businesses to target messages to users in their vicinity.
Research firm eMarketer estimates that Facebook's global ad revenue will reach $1.76 billion in 2011, a 165 percent increase from the 2009 mark of $665 million. Earlier this year, Facebook reached a major milestone as it announced that it had signed up more than 500 million members.
Facebook is rolling out its location service as an app for the iPhone, or for other smartphones with geolocation capabilities that support HTML 5.
The company is also pushing the feature out to developers, inviting them to add the Places functionality to their websites using the Graph API. Foursquare, Yelp and Gowalla are each signed on as initial partners.
Facebook, which has long been dogged by controversies surrounding its privacy policies, took pains to remind developers that the new location-based feature adheres to the same strictures that users set for their general profile.
"It's important to remember that all access to location information through the Graph API respects a user's privacy controls," Facebook engineer Ben Gertzfield wrote in a blog post. "Developers cannot share location information without a user's express permission, and every user has control over what their friends can share via the API."
Facebook Places hosts a repository of locations that will offer suggestions to users as they check in, populating a list of businesses or local attractions and inviting users to add new ones.
Users' check-ins will post their news feed, and surface on the recent activity updates of the local business' Facebook page.
The service extends Facebook's tagging feature, commonly used in photos and status updates, to locations. The first time a user's location is tagged by a friend, Facebook will send out a notification, prompting the user to confirm whether or not to allow friends to check him in on the site.
Facebook launched its location-based feature in the United States, but soon plans to expand internationally.