Nearing A Million Users, Gowalla Moves Forward On The "Social Atlas" Path

A few weeks ago, we noted that with a few subtle changes being made to their service, it seemed as if Gowalla was starting to connect the dots on travel. That is to say, it seems like they’re starting to use all the of location information they have in ways beyond simply sharing where your friends are at any given time. Some changes being made today further connect those dots.

Gowalla has just rolled out a batch of updates to their website today that enhance usability when it comes to finding interesting things about a city. Venue (called “spots”) activity, people view, and photos are all now easier to see. The mapping feature is improved. And it’s easier to share and bookmark spots. But the biggest additions come by way of the Highlights feature.

Not only can Highlights now be added directly from a spot page, but there are a ton of new categories for you to add spots to. In fact, there are now nearly 40 different Highlight types that you can use. These range from “Burgers We Love” (assign it to your favorite burger place in a city) to “My Happy Place” (assign it to your favorite overall place in a city) to “WTF” (assign it to a weird, random place).

Gowalla first added the Highlights feature late last year in an attempt to turn the world into a “social atlas”. It’s a nice feature and a good idea. The problem was that there weren’t nearly enough Highlights to go around with the limited categories and the restriction of only being able to assign one place per category. Now there are all these new categories and you can assign multiple places to a Highlight category.

And starting next week, Highlights will become a part of your check-in experience on the iPhone. After you check-in, you’ll see Highlights added by friends on your check-in receipt. And soon you’ll be able to browse nearby spots filtered by Highlight categories. This should help create a “best of the city” (as curated by your social graph) experience.

We’re now just a month away from SXSW which is held in Gowalla’s home turf of Austin, Texas. It was there, two years ago, that the service launched alongside rival Foursquare. In those two years, Gowalla users have created and visited over 2.5 million locations around the world, co-founder Josh Williams tells us. They expect to hit one million users some point this month as well. It’s not Foursquare big, but it’s still big.

Version 3 for Android is also expected to drop soon, and you can bet that Gowalla has some other big things planned for SXSW. One thing we know for sure is a party featuring the band Matt & Kim.