How is location data gathered?
Have you ever opened a map on your phone and you know you are standing in your favorite coffee shop, but the little blue dot puts you across the street at the ice cream parlor? You think, “I’m lactose intolerant, this cannot be!” Luckily, the dot will usually re-orient your location if you wait a minute.
The problem is, marketers don’t always have a minute. Location signals are transmitted on the fly, and oftentimes before devices can properly figure out where they are. Why is this the case? What causes this frequent variance in your phone’s location signal? Before we can answer these questions, it’s important to first understand how a mobile device determines it’s location.
How Do Mobile Devices Determine Their Location?
Location data is influenced by many different factors to provide an accurate location reading. When a mobile device is given time and has the right environmental conditions, various data sources work together to provide a higher degree of accuracy. These sources include:
Cell Triangulation: Cell triangulation is the simplest and quickest way to determine location. Multiple towers “speak” to each other about a mobile device’s location by measuring the time delay that a signal takes to return back to the towers from the phone. However, this is not the most accurate source of data and relies on other sources to enhance its accuracy.
WiFi Referencing: WiFi signals are more accurate than cell towers, since WiFi is closer in distance to the mobile device. However, this data collection method is slower than cell triangulation and is not an option if WiFi is not active – notice how you don’t always “have WiFi.”
GPS Satellite Signals: GPS signals are arguably the most accurate way to determine the location of a device, given they were built for location and have higher resolution. However, these signals can be easily blocked by trees and buildings, so they aren’t as reliable in urban areas. This notion of GPS signals being obstructed is referred to as “the urban canyon effect”.
Bluetooth Beacons: This technology is the most accurate method for a business to tell whether someone is within the specific boundaries of their location. However, beacons need to be manually installed, and are overall still in early stage development.
What Factors Affect Location Data Accuracy?
Mobile devices are constantly seeking the best avenue to obtain their location points. Despite this, there are factors beyond our control that prevent a mobile device from returning the most accurate location data. For example, a consumer may check an app in a coffee shop, where the various location sources can thrive, but then quickly turn their phone off when their name is called to get their latte. The external factors that can affect the accuracy of location data can be divided into two buckets:
Consumer actions affecting location accuracy revolve around apps:
— Turning location services on
— Time spent within an application
— Whether or not a consumer has opted-in to apps that have background data running
Environmental conditions affecting data accuracy revolve around density:
— Density of location (i.e.: too many buildings or trees blocking GPS signals)
— Amount of cell towers (too many or too few in an area can affect accuracy)
How is Location Affected By External Factors?
All the external factors mentioned above affect a mobile device’s ability to accurately define where it exists in the world. This means there is almost always a variance between a device’s understanding of its location and its actual location. To uncover the average variance a marketer might expect, PlaceIQ commissioned an industry-first study with Findyr. The key takeaway? The average distance between where a phone location is shown and where that phone is actually located is approximately 93 feet. This fluctuates depending on the external factors that come into play.
Although marketers cannot completely stop external factors such as consumer actions or environmental conditions from occurring, they can better equip themselves with knowledge about when and why these factors occur to help them choose the best location intelligence solutions for their campaign goals. This knowledge enables marketers to reach, analyze and measure their marketing efforts more effectively, positioning them for success.
In the next and final blog post in this series, we’ll share some tips and tricks for how marketers can combat these data discrepancies and use location to enhance their marketing initiatives. For more information, download our whitepaper: Location Data Accuracy Revealed.