Foursquare hopes new mobile apps make it a go-to local resource

While Foursquare started life as a game that encouraged users to discover their world, it has now evolved into a tool that helps users connect to places in more sophisticated ways. The games and the check-ins still matter, but they are increasingly overshadowed by Foursquare’s larger ambitions: to become the primary local resource for users and the prism through which they take in the world.
That’s the driving vision behind the latest update to Foursquare’s iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog) apps, which include a host of improvements to its Explore feature and a much improved social structure that encourages more interaction and discovery of places through friends. Instead of waiting for users to pull information from Foursquare, the new apps help push out smarter recommendations and highlight more ways for people to find new places.

Explore gets more powerful

The Explore tab, first introduced last year, is now less based around search queries and instead delivers a stream of recommendations that cater to the user’s history, their friends’ activities, the preferences of similar users, and what’s popular in that neighborhood — with the time of day a factor throughout. Previously, the top recommended picks for a user were largely based on where a user and their friends have gone in the past. But with 2 billion check-ins — including about 5 million added each day — Foursquare is now putting that mountain of data to work.
“We’re trying to delight the user with new experiences before they know they want to have them,” said Andrew Hogue, Foursquare’s search lead. “Explore tries to make it easier to see the big picture and it tries to pull from all the data across Foursquare.”
Mobile users will see an updated Explore map that displays friend locations and populates the map with nearby recommendations, similar to what Foursquare desktop web users see now. The updated Explore map also obviates the need for a separate friend map in the old Friends tab.

Ratings for places

For the first time, users can like or dislike a place, awarding it a heart or a broken heart icon. That gives Foursquare its own simple ratings system that can also help feed into recommendations. It’s not as complex as the Zagat ratings recently made free in Google+ Local pages (s goog) or Yelp’s (s yelp) 5-star rating system, but it allows users to provide more feedback on places beyond leaving tips.
Foursquare has made the Friends tab a lot more useful by creating a much fuller news stream of friend activities, complete with big pictures and the ability to comment and “like” what your friends are doing instead of just seeing a list of your friends’ latest check-ins. The Friends tab highlights not just check-ins from friends but other activities, such as adding a place to a list or interactions with other users and brands.
There are also improved user profile pages that provide a more organized view of a user’s friends, stats, photos, tips, badges and lists. The profile pages, however, de-emphasize the points and leaderboard, moving them into the stats page. That’s another sign that Foursquare is relying less on game mechanics to motivate people and focusing more on providing recommendations. With 20 million users, it makes sense because games appeal more to new users while the growing legion of veteran users need more useful features to keep them interested, said Hogue.

Speeding up the check-in

But that’s not to say that check-ins don’t matter. It’s still incredibly important for Foursquare to keep people checking in because that is a starting point for so much of the data that powers Explore. Foursquare understands this and it has simplified the check-in process by moving the check-in button to the top right and speeding up the process on the back-end.
What you won’t find in the new Foursquare apps are promoted specials, which is set to be one of the key ways that the company can make money. As we have written before, Foursquare is working on applying its Explore technology to advertisers, who will be able to pay to have their personalized special offers pushed out to relevant users. Foursquare said the sponsored specials will appear later this summer. Also, the maps in the mobile apps are still based on Google Maps, even though Foursquare has migrated to OpenStreetMap for its web map.
With each update, Foursquare is becoming a better tool: not just for consumers but also merchants as well. That increasingly pits it against Yelp, Google, Groupon (s grpn) and many others who are trying to win the local market. The new updates are designed for consumers and will likely attract more users to Foursquare. But that in turn makes the platform that much more useful for merchants.