Foursquare this week launched its Explore feature on the web, an effort termed as: "Personalized search for the real world."
Previously available via its mobile apps, the launch of this feature as a section on the Foursquare website shows the company is making a serious push into local search on the web.
But more than that, the company may have finally nailed the "holy grail" many travel planning startups have been yearning for: utilizing your friends’ behaviors and preferences to recommend things for you to do.
How it works
Let's take a brief look at how the feature works. Upon loading, you're presented with a simple dialog asking what you're looking for:
Note the options in the bottom right. In addition to being able to simply explore new places you haven’t been to yet, you’re also able to easily search for places your friends have been to.
Here’s a quick example of a search for coffee shops in London:
You’re quickly shown a map with places your friends have visited, how often they’ve been there, and what they’ve had to say about them. Of course, this feature exists on countless other travel planning sites.
But Foursquare has a secret weapon that no other travel startup can come even close to matching: Over 1.5 billion checkins worldwide, a truly massive amount of data on past consumer behavior. Each of these checkins has tracked:
Utilizing big data technology
- Where the user is
- The time of day the user checked in
- Whether they’re with a friend
- Any comments the user has left via Foursquare’s “Tips” feature
- Any photos the user chose to attach
, Foursquare has been able to analyze this data on an aggregate level and extract value from it by determining a plethora of useful patterns such as:
- What places my friends like going to at specific times of the day, eg: "Your friends prefer these lunch spots".
- Where my friends like to stay, eg: "Your friends stay at these hotels when visiting New York".
- What my friends like to do, eg: "Your friends love doing the Eiffel Tower tour when in Paris".
What’s different about Foursquare’s effort is that unlike most travel planning sites, Foursquare hasn’t had to ask users to recommend things post-facto or bribe them into having to manually enter this data -- this data was shared in real-time, giving it authenticity and lacking the sort of bias towards popularity frequently seen on other sites.
But Foursquare hasn’t stopped at just allowing you to search for places: Explore also now searches the massive amount of data contained in Tips and Reviews left by users, enabling a user to free text search for places and recommendations such as "chic boutique hotel" and really dig into what users think about particular places.
The power of this is perhaps best demonstrated when combined with the ability to follow brands on Foursquare.
Imagine you follow The Travel Channel on Foursquare - now, when searching Explore for places to eat, you might find places with recommendations left by popular Travel Channel personalities such as Anthony Bourdain.
Enabling users to easily find things they’ve previously expressed interest in is another important feature of Explore.
Utilizing the "Save for later" feature, a user can easily bookmark spots in a city they wish to visit in the future.
When visiting that city, Explore would allow the user to easily find spots they’ve bookmarked. This is in addition to Foursquare’s Radar feature, which can automatically alert you when you’re near a place you’ve saved.
Why planning startups should worry
It’s easy to dismiss Foursquare’s efforts as yet another attempt at a problem countless other startups have failed at.
But Foursquare has what many travel startups don’t, including over 15 million registered users, approximately half a billion checkins in the last six months alone, and buy-in from some of the world’s largest brands including a recent deal with American Express. In a word, traction.
But beyond traction, Foursquare’s massive data trove will be hard for most startups to catch up with.
By demonstrating true value to users (such as the recent American Express Small Biz Saturday which saw users who linked their card receive a $25 statement credit), the company will likely continue to accelerate its adoption and usage rates.
This will give it an even bigger trove of data with which to work with and launch new features.
And finally, Foursquare has one of the best startup teams out there. Its discipline in growing the company from a simple location-based game to where they are today shows incredible depth and vision.
Foursquare hasn’t won yet. There are of course other companies with even more data making efforts in the local space, including the recent launch of Google’s Schemer.
Facebook can’t be ignored in this space either, tracking the location of its users everytime their mobile apps is launched. The fact that only 5% of US adults use location-based apps can’t be ignored either.
Will 2012 be the year that this changes? We’ll see.
One thing is for sure: By moving Foursquare Explore to the web, Foursquare has a serious contender in the battle for the travel planning crown.
It’ll be interesting to see how other startups respond.