Foursquare Takes on Yelp With Recommendations. Our Verdict: Good Start, Not There Yet

Today location check-in app Foursquare unveiled a new design for its iOS and Android mobile apps. It now focuses on recommending places for you to go, based on your current location. It's also more social. This is a sensible pivot, but Foursquare is not yet at the place it needs to be.

My usage of Foursquare dropped off markedly over the past year. It was one of those apps that was addictive for a while, being the mayor of my local cafe and so forth, but then it just became a drag. That's because there weren't enough real world rewards for checking in - too few retailers offered incentives such as discounts. Today's redesign aims to entice people like me back to the service. Not to mention hook the many millions of mainstream users who haven't yet tried it. 

With this release, Foursquare becomes a direct competitor to the current recommendations leader, Yelp (whose tagline reads: "Real people. Real reviews"). This means that Foursquare will need to beef up its database of real world reviews, even though it will rely mostly on the implicit recommendations of check-ins. Foursquare is also aiming to beat Yelp on the social part, hence social functionality has been enhanced in the new version of Foursquare.

The Pivot

This is quite a change in the core use case for Foursquare. Previously, you opened up Foursquare to "check in" to a place. When I was a more regular user, I tended to use it in one of two ways: 1) to check into exotic locations when I was traveling, or 2) to keep my mayorship at my favorite local cafe. That check-in use case is still a big part of Foursquare, but it's been augmented with the "Explore" functionality. This enables you to search for something, like "sushi" or "cafe", and Foursquare will recommend places nearby.

The goal then of Foursquare has moved from checking in (where, as mentioned, the real world benefits turned out to be small), to discovery (where the benefits are potentially bigger, in that you could find great new places to visit).

More Social

The redesigned app feels more social. Comments are more to the fore now and you can see more check-ins when you visit a person's profile. You're also encouraged to "share your adventures", with the help of larger images and maps that display faces. The Facebook integration has been tightened: when you first open the new app, you're prompted to add Foursquare to your Facebook Timeline. Also your check-in history is more accessible now - you can now search through your check-in history, similar to how Timeline works in Facebook.

Overall, there are a lot of neat feature upgrades in the new Foursquare. There's less focus on the gimmicks (mayors, badges) and more focus on places, people and colorful images.

Another similarity to Facebook is Foursquare's renewed focus on brands. For example, the History Channel is on Foursquare and has so far recommended nearly 1,500 places with interesting histories.

Things To Improve On

It's not all beer and skittles. The user interface feels a bit crowded now and I got confused several times when tapping around the Explore section. So the design needs some work - especially to make it more intuitive to new users. But these things will get smoothed out over time.

Also if Foursquare wants to compete with Yelp, it needs to find a way to encourage more of its users to leave "tips" (aka reviews). Currently when you check in, you're asked "What are you up to?". That's a Twitter-like prompt, but really Foursquare needs to be asking something like: "What do you think of this place?". This would encourage more people to leave useful tips/reviews.

Will The Pivot Work?

Overall, this feels like a great move by Foursquare. The commercial aspects of check-ins didn't work out, but along the way Foursquare managed to amass a valuable store of data about places and where people go. Also, where they spend their money. So switching to recommendations, a la Yelp, is a smart move. That said, I think Foursquare needs more than just implicit check-in recommendations. It needs to increase its explicit recommendation database (= tips).

Will Foursquare be able to entice a mainstream market to "explore" the world using its app? Let us know in the comments.