Foursquare: still mobile-focused, but with more love for the web

Foursquare’s been engaged in a big transition as it evolves beyond simple check-ins into a more robust service that allows people to discover the world around them. But it’s also been undergoing a more subtle shift as it opens up more functionality on the web, instead of on its mobile apps, which have been the focus from the beginning.
The latest example is the introduction of its Explore recommendation and search function to the website. Now users can get personalized search results and recommendations on places to go based on their preferences, tastes and those of their friends. I’ve used this a lot and found it’s a helpful way to discover new places that are connected to restaurants I already like or have been recommended to me because of my connections to friends. Foursquare uses the 1.5 billion check-ins of its users as well as their tips to guide suggestions.
Explore, which debuted in March last year on Foursquare’s mobile apps, can search beyond your immediate area, so users can plan ahead. And there’s more real estate on screen so users can see venue information and also add places to their to-do list. Users can conduct in-depth searches for particular things and also search Foursquare tips for specific references to items. There are also filters that let people refine their search. People can search by:

  • “I haven’t been to yet”
  • “I have been to before”
  • “My friends have been to”
  • “Have Foursquare specials”

Explore is part of Foursquare’s larger goal to become more than just a repository for check-ins, but a powerful tool for discovering the world, something co-founder Dennis Crowley has talked about a lot in the past. Check-ins are the first step but now people are understanding Foursquare as a place for tips, recommendations and deals.

But what’s interesting to me is that Foursquare really began as a mobile-first start-up, with the website more of an afterthought. But in November, it redesigned its site, building in a big map that allowed people to discover things nearby and creating updated venue pages. That followed improvements to the list feature, which allowed people to build their own lists from the website. The site also started recommending things for visitors based on the time of day they stopped by. And it added a tool for discovering lists, not just creating them.
Increasingly, many web services are finding big business in moving to mobile. But for mobile apps like Foursquare, there’s also a lot of opportunity in beefing up their desktop web presence. Foursquare now gets 1 million visitors a day to its website.
“We’ve always been a mobile-first company,” said Alex Rainert, Foursquare’s head of product. “And most of the new stuff we’ve launched until mid-last year was mobile first or mobile only. But there are things that we want to do that are better suited for the experience on the desktop web.
“We like to design for people, place and time and location will be no. 1 for us. By and large most of those things will be mobile-first, but certain things like curating and creating can be easier on the web. We don’t want to treat the web as an afterthought.”
Rainert said users really responded well to the redesign of the website in November, particularly to the local map function. While the activity on the mobile apps is still far more than on the web site, he sees a way for mobile and the web to work together more closely, as people get alerted to things through mobile and get referred to the web version.
By becoming more of a web tool, Foursquare can help become a trip planner for people looking to travel or just head across town. It also pits Foursquare against other big web properties like Yelp or Zagat, which is now owned by Google (s goog). And it also shows how Foursquare can become more than just a check-in service. Sitting on top of so much data and becoming a resource for people looking to find where to go can ultimately open up new business models for Foursquare, which has to turn a profit.
The world is still going mobile but for companies that were mobile to begin with, there’s still plenty of opportunity improve the desktop web as well.