Last updated
February 22, 2024

Geolocation vs GPS: Understanding the Differences

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Shipton

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Geolocation data has become crucial to apps and websites that want to tailor the user experience, provide real-time location-based updates and services, serve localized content, and target advertising.

But what exactly is the difference between geolocation and GPS? If you’ve researched geolocation services for your app or website, you’ve probably come across both terms. In this article, we’ll talk about geolocation, how it differs from GPS, and how geolocation can be used to improve your app or website.

Key Takeaways

  • Geolocation and GPS are distinct technologies used for determining a device's location, with geolocation offering a broader range of methods including IP addresses and GPS relying on satellite signals.
  • IP Geolocation uses a device's IP address to approximate its location, suitable for targeted marketing, content localization, and enhancing security.
  • GPS provides more precise, real-time location data by connecting with satellites, ideal for applications requiring high accuracy like navigation apps.
  • The choice between IP geolocation and GPS depends on the specific needs of an application, such as the required precision and whether real-time data is necessary.
  • Real-world applications of these technologies include pet tracking, telehealth services, and environmental conservation efforts, demonstrating their versatility and impact.

Introduction to Location-Based Services

“Location-based services” refers to a whole suite of features that use a user’s location to provide information or services. Location-based services (LBS) include things like maps, trackers, apps like Uber, and anything that relies on knowing a physical location.

Some less well-known applications of LBS are autocompleting web forms, serving webpages containing currency conversions or language translations, delivering targeted ads to users in particular geographic regions, improving customer support, or helping emergency services find a caller’s location more quickly.

A user’s exact location can be determined through several means: GPS satellites, an IP address, Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi, or cellular networks.


The primary difference between GPS (Global Positioning System) and geolocation is that geolocation is the process of converting data obtained from a device into a physical location. GPS is a method for obtaining location data.

There are several ways to do geolocation. Two of the primary methods are IP geolocation and GPS geolocation. Let’s talk about those now.

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What is IP Geolocation?

Every device connected to the internet has a unique IP address. An IP address is a string of characters that identifies that device to the network. IP geolocation is the process of using a device’s IP address to obtain location information for that device.

How IP Geolocation Works

IP addresses are assigned by internet service providers. All IP addresses fall within a geographic range, i.e. the ISPs assign groups of similar IP addresses to certain regions. By looking up an IP address in an IP geolocation database, we can figure out the approximate location of that device.

IP geolocation cannot give you a precise location - it can’t give you a user’s home address, name, phone number, or any identifying information. It can tell you the country, state, city, and zip code where that particular IP address was registered.

Applications of IP Geolocation

The three primary applications of IP geolocation are targeted marketing, content localization, and security.

Targeted Marketing

Knowing your users’ geographic locations allows you to tailor advertisements and marketing campaigns to those regions. If you have brick-and-mortar stores, you can use targeted digital ads to drive foot traffic to those stores. If you have users in different countries you can highlight limited-time promotions happening in those regions.

Content Localization

Content localization is the process of translating content for different locales. This includes showing users prices in the correct currency, showing users webpages written in their native language, and serving different images based on the specific cultural conventions of a region.


You can improve the security of your apps - especially e-commerce apps - by knowing the geographic locations of your users. For example, if a user is registered in the US but your app receives a transaction request for that user from China, it may indicate that the user’s account has been hacked, or their credit card has been stolen. Catching transactions originating from suspicious locations allows you to flag these transactions for users and prevent fraud and identity theft.

What is GPS-Based Location Service?

GPS geolocation relies on GPS satellites to determine geographical information rather than an IP address. GPS location is often more accurate or precise than IP-based location because GPS signals happen in real time.

How GPS-Based Location Services Work

The Global Positioning System consists of a network of satellites that constantly transmit GPS signals back to Earth. To receive these signals, a mobile device must be equipped with a GPS chip.

The mobile device must receive GPS signals from at least 4 GPS satellites. Once it has those signals, it can use trilateration (similar to triangulation) to figure out its position by calculating the distance between itself and each satellite.

Key Differences Between IP Geolocation and GPS

These are the primary distinctions between IP geolocation and GPS geolocation:

  • IP geolocation relies on a static IP address, which is assigned to a device by your ISP. This IP address is looked up in a database to find an associated geographic region.
  • GPS geolocation relies on a network of GPS satellites that constantly transmit location data back to the device via GPS coordinates.
  • IP geolocation can give you a general area for the device (for example a city or state.)
  • GPS geolocation can give you more precise, real-time accurate positioning.
  • IP geolocation works anywhere while GPS geolocation can be hindered by tall buildings or being indoors

Case Studies and Real-world Applications

Let’s take a look at how a few companies are utilizing IP and GPS geolocation to improve the user experience of their apps and websites.

Pod Trackers

Pod trackers are GPS-based pet trackers that allow you to easily track the location of your pet at any time. By utilizing both GPS satellites and WiFi networks, Pods show pets’ real-time locations even when they are indoors.

The tracker itself attaches to the pet’s collar and transmits updates to an app on your smartphone or mobile device. The app offers location updates, activity monitors, escape alerts, and a mode that allows users to record their pets’ activities.

Doctor on Demand

Doctor on Demand is a geolocation-based healthcare solution that connects users with US-licensed physicians via video chat and allows physicians to prescribe medication at the correct pharmacies.

Doctor on Demand uses geolocation to connect users with local doctors in their area, and to determine where the nearest pharmacy is for that user to pick up their prescription. This allows millions of people to talk to a doctor in 3 minutes or less, rather than waiting the 2-3 it usually takes to see a doctor in person.

Ecology Action

The non-profit Ecology Action partnered with geolocation platform Geopointe to help implement a plan to reduce water waste in drought-ridden California. They were able to use geolocation to draw polygonal shapes of flood zones using geographic coordinates. This meant they cut down a lot of footwork and drastically focused their efforts.

Choosing the Right Location Service for Your Needs

There are many business applications for geolocation, and the geolocation service you choose will vary greatly depending on your needs. When it comes to deciding on whether to choose IP geolocation or GPS geolocation, consider the following questions:

  • Do you need accurate real-time GPS data or location tracking?
  • Do you want to serve targeted content via your website or a mailing list?
  • Do you need to know the specific locations of your users, or is a general radius enough?
  • Does your company primarily deal with mobile applications or websites?
  • Do you need to send real-time notifications based on an updated location?

If you require real-time, accurate positioning, you should choose a GPS-based geolocation solution. For serving localized content, protecting user transactions, and targeting advertising, IP-based geolocation is usually enough.

If you’d like to try out IP geolocation on your own, take a look at the AbstractAPI Free IP Geolocation API. It’s easy to get started and free to use up to 1000 requests per month.


How accurate is IP geolocation?

IP geolocation is more accurate at a large scale and becomes less accurate as you narrow down the radius. You can expect 95% - 99% accuracy when looking up a user’s country by IP. At a region or state level, you can expect IP geolocation to be accurate 55% to 80% of the time. At a city level, you can expect 50% to 75% accuracy

How does indoor geolocation work compared to GPS?

Indoor geolocation uses technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth beacons, and indoor mapping to provide location data, as GPS signals are often weak or unavailable indoors. These methods triangulate a device's position based on the strength of nearby WiFi signals or proximity to Bluetooth beacons, offering a viable alternative to GPS for indoor environments.

Are there privacy concerns associated with geolocation services?

Geolocation services can raise privacy concerns due to the sensitive nature of location data. Users may worry about unauthorized tracking or data breaches. Developers must ensure transparent data usage policies, obtain explicit user consent, and implement robust security measures to protect location data and address these concerns.

How do geolocation services impact battery life on mobile devices?

Geolocation services, especially those relying on GPS, can significantly drain a mobile device's battery due to the continuous use of location sensors and data transmission. To minimize impact, developers can optimize location update frequency, use less precise location methods when detailed accuracy isn't necessary, and encourage users to disable location services when not in use.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Shipton
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