Last week, Foursquare upgraded Explore, the tool that helps users find recommendations—for coffee shops, bars, and so forth—based on location check-in data. The tab has been around for awhile, but Wednesday’s upgrade did include one novel and significant feature: a proximity-based finder for maps that lets users search for recommendations within an area other than the one they’re at. It works as a simple and tight radius, which can be pinched, zoomed, and dragged about with ease.
Put another way, Foursquare has created an elegant solution to the problem of searching not just for things around where you are now, but also the area where you will be. If you’re making plans on the move, the latter is arguably far more important.
Location search has always been a huge headache, especially for residents of dense urban areas where venues and merchants riddle every block. GPS might’ve solved the hassle of searching for nearby locations, but what about searching for locations that you’re not close to? For this, Google, Yelp, and other Foursquare competitors have continued to rely on user data entry (zip codes, street addresses) to return results. But Foursquare’s new Explore feature provides a visual solution to the problem, giving users the ability to search by vicinity with just a few quick finger taps.
To take advantage of Explore, Foursquare users must only open up the app’s tab, drag the proximity sensor to the appropriate spot, and search (for, say, "bagels" or "fried chicken"). The map-targeting tool gives a quick overview the neighborhood, and a better sense of what you’re searching than you could glean from a numbered distance, especially in a city as dense as New York where searching within just "1.0 mile" of a location would likely encompass several Manhattan neighborhoods, and even parts of outer boroughs (or New Jersey). Foursquare’s drag-and-select map feature is much easier to navigate than searching "near" a street address; it provides results that have a much more narrow and personal focus.
Other mobile solutions also seem to value quantity over quality. Take Menupages, for example. A simple search for "pizza" in the West Village returns more than two-dozen results dotting the map with pins. Zero in on a location on the map, and the results will automatically update—barely move the map and another dozen new results will pop up while others will mysteriously disappear. Tapping through all these possible pizza joints is a pain, especially with reviews kept mostly separate from the map view. (Most services, including Foursquare, offer the ability to view results on either a map or in list format.)
Google has many of the same issues, only they’re magnified because of how large Google’s search index is. A query as simple as "pizza" can often return tons of irrelevant results or advertisements.
Yelp offers the closest solution to Foursquare—a clean interface with manageable results. Still, that hasn’t stopped Yelp from trying to improve on the search experience with Monocle, the augmented reality feature that overlays results on real-world images—a feature that I’ve found far more gimmicky than it is convenient.
Where Yelp and Google do thrive against Foursquare is data. With tens of millions of reviews, Yelp’s index of locations is nearly unrivaled; Google, after reportedly failing to acquire Yelp, recently purchased Zagat instead. Foursquare, with just 15 million users, sees a fraction of Yelp’s and Google’s traffic. And while its 1.5 billion check-ins from friends, experts, and media outlets do provide arguably much more valuable data (through social sharing, tips and lists, especially), the data often feels limited. The Explore map even has a minimum range of 0.3 miles; it’ll be nice to eventually search within just a specific city block or on a specific street.
But Explore’s data will improve as Foursquare continues to grow. In the meantime, the startup has nailed down the interface. Foursquare’s founders know users don’t want a complicated experience filled with endless results, nor an experience based on census tracts.