Foursquare Explore is amazing. But only for a very small group of people

By Erin Griffith , written on June 28, 2013

From The News Desk

The other night something pretty awesome happened. It's been happening with increasing regularity. I used Foursquare Explore, and it was really, really great. Like, made-my-night great.

I'm quickly wising up to the fact that Foursquare has built something excellent with Explore, but I am not convinced it will be enough to save the company. I'll get to that in a minute.

First, here's why Explore has become one of my favorite tools: It never lets me down. Normally, when I'm in an unfamiliar neighborhood and want to find a restaurant, bar or coffee shop, I walk around until I see something suitable and take a chance. With Explore, I get a consistently great recommendation. It would be easy to hate on Foursquare (the company has always been equally hyped and hated on), but I am surprised each time at how good it is.

Take the other night. Instead of walking around Times Square at 11 pm and eventually giving up, or worse, resigning to a lame meal at an Applebees, I followed Explore's directions four blocks out of the tourist melee to a yakitori place hidden at the top of a poorly marked staircase. Six of my Foursquare friends had been there. The tips were incredibly positive. And it was included on a list called "Japanese restaurants approved by Japanese people." Authentic! I'd have never just stumbled in, and yet it was packed at 11:30 on a Wednesday night, clearly a place you have to know about to find. My boyfriend and I loved it.

I compare that to Yelp, which offered hundreds of results, all rated 4.5 stars or higher to sift through. None of them really appealed to me. Something about knowing my friends had been to the place we chose, and reading their tips, and knowing Foursquare had found it specifically for me, made me trust the recommendation more.

That experience, which I've been having over and over with Foursquare Explore lately, was exactly like getting a great recommendation from a friend. We found ourselves saying things like, "man, GOOD CALL, Foursquare." It is also exactly what Dennis Crowley talks about when he talks about his vision for Foursquare. It's the app version of the spreadsheet of restaurant and bars Crowley and his friends kept.

However, this doesn't mean Foursquare is going to succeed. There are two problems.

1. Explore only works this well for me, and a small subset of people like me.

I have been a Foursquare dork from the beginning, accumulating almost 2,000 check-ins, 100 badges, 80 friends and four mayorships. Even when most of my personal friends stopped checking in -- sometime around 2010, "the year check-in died" -- I kept doing it, because my professional contacts in the tech scene still did it, and because I love getting Timehop updates on check-ins from one year ago.

Because of all the check-in data I've given Foursquare, the app can serve up some pretty solid recommendations. It knows I love Asian food and dive bars. It knows I rarely go to clubs. It knows where all my friends have been.

For new Foursquare users with only a few friends on the platform? Not so much. My boyfriend and I searched for restaurants on Explore simultaneously. I got the awesome yakatori. He got Applebee's.

The same thing happened with "time machine," the beautiful data visualization of check-in history that Foursquare recently launched with Samsung. For long-time users, watching an animated map of four years worth of check-ins felt incredibly personal. It was borderline emotional. For people with 20 check-ins, it was 2 seconds long. Yawn.

And how many of Foursquare's users still check in? The company has been mum on that figure, eager to declare that Foursquare has moved beyond check-ins; it's "maps with people." Foursquare investor Fred Wilson emphasized that at our recent PandoMonthly.

If you're just joining Foursquare, Explore will serve recommendations based on what's well-rated nearby. That's fine. But it's not nearly as good as the highly personalized (and therefore highly accurate) recommendations a user like me gets based on check-in history and a long list of friends. Without personalization, Explore is no better than Yelp. Check-ins are just as vital to Foursquare's success as ever.

This is the rub for Foursquare. It desperately wants to move beyond check-ins, but all of the things that make Foursquare so exciting still rely on check-ins.

2. There is still the problem of monetization.

Foursquare's difficulties with monetization were well-documented amid the recent round of fundraising. At PandoMonthly last year, Crowley said company is still in experimentation mode with monetization. He talked about the challenges of selling merchant platforms to local restaurants. More recently, the company brought in seven figures with the Samsung time machine campaign. It was cool but not particularly repeatable (and again, reliant on check-ins).

The most promising experiment so far is with sponsored search results in Explore. (Restaurants can pay to appear in search results.) But this runs the risk of ruining the best thing Explore has going for it. I wrote about it before: When I used Explore on a trip to Vermont, I was served sponsored recommendations for Taco Bell. Likewise, last night, amid my awesome recommendations for the yakitori place and other nearby gems, there was a promoted recommendation for Olive Garden.

Obviously big chains, not mom-and-pop restaurants, are the ones that'll spend money promoting themselves inside an app. But we really don't need Foursquare to remind us, amid all of its great recommendations, that there's a Taco Bell nearby. There is always a Taco Bell nearby.

Bad ads doesn't necessarily mean Foursquare is doomed. Just look at banner ads. They're the least useful thing on the web; they're also a $36 billion business. And as Sarah Lacy recently pointed out, the $1 billion sale of Waze shows that there is some inherent value in the 50 million people that go to a month, and the 35 million people have downloaded its app. Waze only has 12 million more users than Foursquare.

But perhaps more importantly, Foursquare's value lies in the 40,000 developers that are building things with its API. That is the company's hidden gem. Where it doesn't have check-in data, it has tags from its many API partners like Path, Instagram, Uber, Evernote, Garmin, Vine and Waze. So yes, check-ins are dead for the average user. Sure, that makes Foursquare less personalized and useful. But if Foursquare has to give up on people interacting socially with its own platform then, in order to personalize, it may just have to pull data from an app where they are.

[Image courtesy Sean Munson]