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W3C Browser Geolocation

How does geolocation work?

If you’ve looked at an iPod, iPhone, or other smartphones, if you’ve used the Firefox, Chrome, or Opera browsers, or if you’ve used Google in the past couple of years, you’ve probably seen something that points out your location. Indeed, Google has long been able to target local results to your searches based on where you are in the world – geolocation technology is behind the increased push toward localized search. The web is becoming local, as it is increasingly the case that people want to use the Internet not to reach far afield, but to deepen their understanding of their own backyards.

How W3C Geolocation Works

W3C Geolocation is the World Wide Web Consortium’s attempt to standardize this technology for use in any web-related application for a client-side device. Standardization isn’t as easy as it seems, as geolocation isn’t so much about a single program as it is a collection of several disparate programs, each of which provides an imperfect solution to the problem. The imperfections in each solution overlap with the geolocation capacities of the others, so the combination is a sort of perfect basket that allows for any computer connected to the Internet to find where it’s located. The technologies used are: IP Geolocation, GPS, Wi-Fi Positioning and Cell Tower Triangulation. Each technology adds a level of certainty to W3C geolocation.

IP Geolocation

IP Geolocation is easily implemented into a website, but it suffers from limitations of specificity. Each IP block corresponds roughly to a geographical area, so you can usually figure out what city someone is in. However, it often produces false positives, and the data should be checked against other forms of geolocation.


Using GPS satellites to track location allows for maximum accuracy and specificity, especially in a low, flat area. In rural areas, the geolocation accuracy by a technology using GPS is nearly 100%. However, if you are trying to track people who live in cities, the “valleys” of the urban landscape and the tall buildings often throw off GPS sensors. Additionally, GPS satellites typically take a long time to “fix” a user’s location, and if a user is indoors, the whole system is thrown off.

Wi-Fi Positioning

In any given location, there may be dozens of Wi-Fi routers or providers. Wi-Fi positioning triangulates your position based on how many Wi-Fi networks are in range of your computer. Skyhook Wireless maintains a comprehensive database of wireless access points, and this database allows for highly accurate location gathering, particularly in urban environments which may hold thousands or even millions of wireless networks. It takes a short time to fix a user’s location, and all it requires is a single software installation – ideally part of a web browser package – since most computers and mobile devices come with wireless radio. The only problem is that in rural areas, Wi-Fi positioning isn’t very useful due to the relative lack of wireless networks.

Cell Tower Triangulation

A lot like wi-fi positioning but on a larger scale, cell tower triangulation figures out where a user is based on the cellular signals the user is getting from towers. This is mostly useful for mobile devices which have built-in cellular radios, and serves to fill in any gaps from the above three sources of geolocation information. Cell tower triangulation by itself is, however, very non-specific and inaccurate.

Why Geolocation is Important

As mentioned before, the web is shifting to a more local set of interests. People are more interested in their own neighborhoods and backyards than they are in non-localized ideas or things around the world. As a result, the Internet and the burgeoning e-commerce fields have to adjust and accommodate. Google made waves when it emphasized local directory search results from websites like Yelp and CitySearch, but as the dust settled it was clear that this was what search users wanted. Users want the web to augment their reality, which is why web technologies have to be able to gather information about a user’s reality. Geolocation allows a website to figure out exactly where the user is located and to provide timely and relevant information. By including geolocation services in your website, you can become a trusted part of your visitors’ lives. In the fields of e-commerce and web development, that capacity is as good as gold.

Browsers Supported by W3C Geolocation

Even if you include geolocation in your website, you have to be sure that users can utilize its functionality. Thankfully, most of the major browsers have gotten on board with including geolocation capacities. These are the browsers that currently support W3C geolocation functionality.

  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 9.0 and up
  • Mozilla Firefox 3.5 and up
  • Apple Safari 5.0 and up
  • Google Chrome 5.0 and up
  • Opera 10.6 and up
  • iPhone 3.0 and up
  • Android 2.0 and up

Sources and Specs for W3C Geolocation API

If you’re interested in the more hard-coding aspects of W3C Geolocation or if you want to include geolocation capabilities into your website, visit some of these sites. Geolocation is the future of the Internet, and if you want to localize your content and make it relevant to users visiting your site, it is highly recommended that you include geolocation features.


While 2009 was said to be the year of geolocation in the browser, analysts are predicting that 2011 will be the year of geolocation across the World Wide Web. The increased popularity of the W3C Geolocation API only confirms this, and the sky is the limit when it comes to potential uses of the technology. Because nearly every popular browser now allows for this technology, marketers and web developers will begin to see the value in utilizing geolocation scripting in their websites.

Whether you’re looking to market your content or whether you want to create new and interesting ways to dynamically engage with visitors, geolocation is sure to play a huge part in the best web development and design to come.

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