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Foursquare: Worth Checking In Again?

Posted on 18 April 2011

It was Foursquare Day (really) over the weekend, so I’m going to jot down some quick thoughts on what has fully emerged as the dominant player in geolocation– and why I’m still using it.

It’s not about mayors and badges anymore:

A large part of Foursquare’s early hook was the game aspect. If you checked-in at some place more than anyone else, you took the mayorship. If you checked in at a certain number of places at certain times with certain frequencies, you got badges. That was enough to gain some early traction, but frankly it’s not a fun enough game to get people to continue using it (at least, it’s not enough to get me to use it).

But it was enough to get an early start on adding metadata to more locations than anyone else, which brings us to:

Tags for real-life:

What Foursquare is doing, and doing well, is building tags for real-life locations. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, tags are keywords  used to quickly categorize different things. For example, I might tag this post with “metadata” “foursquare” and “geolocation.” Then, when search engines like Google visit this site, they know what it’s about– and when you search for “foursquare”, it might come up in the results. It helps personalize recommendations.

I think the best example of metadata/tags for personal recommendations is on Last.fm. I’ve been listening to “The Asteroids Galaxy Tour” and liking them, so if I want to hear similar artists, I might look at their tags: indiealternativefemale vocalistspopsoul. Artists who match those tags will be similar to the band, and give me a similar sound.

Taking that to real life, Books and Company on Foursquare has been tagged with “books” “music” “live music” “coffee” and more. It’s metadata applied to a physical place. And this gives Foursquare the ability to give you more nuanced exploration and recommendation tips. In fact, that was a major part of their latest version. Point three:

Exploration

Building up this combination of metadata and users has positioned Foursquare to be a powerful travel tool. It’s still early days, but you can see it getting better all the time. From their blog:

For years we’ve wanted to build a recommendation engine for the real world by turning all the check-ins and tips we’ve seen from you, your friends, and the larger foursquare community into personalized recommendations.

You’ll see our first pass at this in foursquare 3.0′s new “Explore” tab. The idea is pretty simple: tell us what you’re looking for and we’ll help you find something nearby. The suggestions are based on a little bit of everything – the places you’ve been, the places your friends have visited, your loyalty to your favorite places, the categories and types of places you gravitate towards, what’s popular with other users, the day of the week, places with great tips, the time of day, and so on. We’ll even tell you why we think you should visit a certain place (e.g. popular with friends, similar to your favorite spots). You’ll find it’s helpful for general things like “food”, “coffee”, “nightlife” (we built in quick access to these searches) and you’ll be surprised by what you get when searching for really specific things, like “80s music,” “fireplaces,” “pancakes,” “bratwurst,” and “romantic.” The more random you get, the more interesting the results get (though be patient with this first release… sometimes we can’t find every random thing).

And outside of the “Explore” tab, you’ll see some of this thinking starting to surface on the “Me” tab as well. As we started to tinker with our recommendations algorithms, we started to see “expertise” starting to emerge from the data – we’re seeing friends that have been to every karaoke place within 10 miles or tried every burger in Los Angeles. The new “Me” tab surfaces some of this, letting you seek guidance from your friends on the categories and places they explore most.

So, a combination of your history (places you like) plus data from your friends and people similar to you, it gets easier to surface places you might like in other cities. I like Books and Company. Foursquare knows this. So when I visit some new town, it finds places that have been tagged similarly to Books and Company, or places frequented by people with similar preferences to mine. Again, it’s early days, but the more people use it and the more you use it, the better it gets.

Conclusion:

Foursquare is one of those things that started off looking kind of stupid, but is building into an actual useful tool– one that can supplement and possibly even replace the guide book by bringing personalized recommendations no matter where you go. Obviously there’s a long way to go still, but it looks a lot more like something worth trying than it did when it was basically just a game.

Further Reading:

Fred Wilson: Exploresquare

Read Write Web: 2011: The Year the Check-In Died

Marshall Kirkpatrick: Why We Check In

Foursquare Blog: The Vision for #Fsq3 and beyond

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