arrest 10 300x199 The Case for Cracking Down on Geo CheatingI recently had a fairly heated conversation with some colleagues on the subject of false check-ins / geo cheating. The discussion went something like this:

Person #1: We WANT people to cheat with our apps.  It means they care.  It means they’re using the app.  It means that we’re making a difference.

Person #2: Yeah, but if we let people cheat, what does the geo part even mean anyway?  If we allow cheating we become just another social gaming company where the pieces just happened to be named after the real world.

Person #1: Social gaming is a pretty big business in case you haven’t noticed.

Person #2: Right, but it’s not GEO.  It’s not useful.  And all the monetization stuff won’t work if users aren’t mapped properly to venues.

And so it went, without clear resolution.

Yesterday, Foursquare announced a few changes to make it a little less rewarding to “cheat” the game aspects of the app (see my colleague Alex’s post on the subject).  Basically, while you can still check in at places from a distance, you will no longer be as likely to receive points, badges, and ultimately, financial rewards for doing so.

Trying to cut back on cheating is not as much of a no brainer as it might seem.  Draconian enforcement of arbitrary rules is a dangerous business.

Prolific cheaters also happen to be prolific users of your app.  As a rule, it’s not easy to get users for your app.  And if your users find unexpected ways to use your app (including cheating), it can be a risky proposition to lay the hammer down on those people.  Does anybody remember the Friendster example when they cracked down on fake profiles chasing away users in droves?  To simplify a complicated story, Friendster never recovered.

But as somebody who is building geo apps for a living, here is why I think that some enforcement of rules for location apps make sense:

– Location, by definition, is about the real world.  If you allow people to blow off the real world component, you may as well be building software for the desktop.
– If you have things like mayorships and leaderboards, your app is a game.  Games have rules.  Competing against cheaters makes you not want to play the game anymore.
– If you want a piece of the $15B yellow pages market, the graph you are building needs to accurately map people to merchants.  Merchants have no interest in offering deals to folks who have “checked in” from their couch, hundreds of miles away.
– Local merchants are very excited about the ability to use geo apps as frequent flier programs.  You don’t see a lot frequent flier programs where you don’t actually have to fly to earn the rewards.  There’s a reason for this.

As I said in my post about MyTown:

MyTown could very well turn out to be a big hit with lots of players and a profitable virtual goods business. But the location component of MyTown is more a simple way to customize the gameplay for each player, than it is a hook into the real world. While Foursquare and Gowalla are location based apps with some gameplay, MyTown is gameplay with a dash of location. Their check-in and user data should be judged accordingly.

My thought is this: if you’re going to use geolocation to make a real world app, take steps to ensure that it reflects real world behavior (check out my colleague Chad’s suggestions for how to do this).