Foursquare & Local Search – Ignore the Warning Signs at Your Own Peril

Hey folks!

This is a post that I had originally drafted up for SEOmoz back in September but given recent confirmations about the major search engines (Google and Bing) using social data as a ranking factor I think the likelihood that something like foursquare (or Facebook Places) could be used as a ranking factor for local search has greatly increased so I thought now would be a good time to start the conversation again.

Today we’re going to have a chat through Foursquare. Not so much it’s features – because you’ve all undoubtedly already have decided whether or not you like it- but how it is already being used for local search, how some companies have already optimised their product offering for the tool, and finally how it might be used as an indicator for local search for Google and other engines in the coming months.

Apologies to the Ecommerce folks among us, I’m afraid this isn’t going to do much good for you at the moment, but local has always been a bit of conundrum for the ecommerce gang, so don’t shoot the messenger!

Local Search on the Go And Other Reasons for Foursquare’s Success

Foursquare is effectively a user-generated map of all the best (and worst) restaurants, bars, shops, gyms and so forth that you can carry in your pocket. Unlike Google Local, it doesn’t take forever to load on your phone, you don’t need to be looking for anything in particular (short of an idea for something to do locally), it can save you money, and it’s a game.

Whilst the numbers of foursquare users (just gone 5 million) is nowhere near the number of folks making use of Google Places, it is still a sizable market upon which you’d be foolish to miss out.

It may sound cheesy, but having this game in my product has helped me “unlock achievements” all over London. Playing around with Foursquare has got me out finding new restaurants, music venues, and galleries in my neighborhood upon the recommendations of people that I’ve never met. It’s also incredibly addictive for the competitive among us and AskMen has got me going to places I never would have set foot in all for some silly virtual badge.

It would be a lie to pretend I’m not slightly embarrassed by this, but the thing is, so far, AskMen has got it right. And so has everyone else who has been smart enough to embrace we nerds, offer up special offers and discounts for mayors: because here’s the kicker, most people social and shameless enough to announce their whereabouts at all times are likely to know a lot of people online and can spread the word even further.

After first downloading the app I spent several days playing Foursquare Roulette getting off the tube at random stops and looking for interesting “places”, “to-dos” and “tips” and actually have had a lot of fun.

Foursquare accomplishes many of the location-based marketing aims Twitter promised and has failed to capitalise on.

How To Optimise for Foursquare

Just as with Google Local, Facebook, PPC Campaigns, crappy directories and with Twitter there are ways to get yourself promoted to the top of the search results. The beauty (and the limitations) of Foursquare are in the simplicity in finding this top spot on the rankings and in getting referrals.

1. Anyone can submit a tip or a “to-do”.

It’s easy to do and for anyone in the right area of your company/client they can see the feedback on your company. I realize I’m only going to hate myself for pointing this out, but until something is done to monitor these a bit better it’s fairly easy to get something in here and it’s not dissimilar to having an indented listing in Google.

My favorite entry thus far: “Buy a pint of beer, then sit and drink it”

My least favorite: “XXX is a top design agency in East London” (it seems I’m not the first to think of this).

2. Treat your Foursquare customers right.

It’s fairly simple to set up a business account and run campaigns (though, unfortunately not available unless you are a social venue or place folks can meet up locally). Once you’ve got a special in place, not only will your venue get an orange “special” label in the “places” results, but it will also show up as a “Special Nearby” any time the user tries to check in or look at a nearby venue.

3. Give an incentive for users to return!

Setting up specials allows you to give reason for your customers to return. Whether the reward is “free coffee for the mayor”, a “free tea every nTH check-in”, or whether you replace your loyalty cards all together with a Foursquare based rewards system, there’s no better way to help solidify brand loyalty than with these sorts of awards and quality customer service.

4. Become a venue partner.

This may not be an opportunity for everyone (least of all for smaller local businesses). However, becoming a venue partner allows you to give your users more than just specials: it allows you to create the ever-coveted badge! With this sort of flexibility and a bit of creativity you could create a serious campaign.

E.g. Create a treasure hunt around your venue. Create a badge for visiting multiple locations. Create badges based upon the number of visits.

There’s no price listed on the cost of this sort of thing but judging by the brands presently participating this probably isn’t the best choice for smaller brands.

5. Encourage your customers to review your venue and add tips!

Whilst there is nowhere near as much data available for the impact of these sorts of insights they certainly can’t hurt. And with the growing use of the platform it would probably be smart to be an early-adopter on this front.

Tying Foursquare into your Online Marketing Plan

The good news is, Foursquare shouldn’t be too costly in terms of direct costs. The general business account is free and it shouldn’t take too much extra time to monitor and control the account. The costs should mainly be indirect (including opportunity costs for any work put into a campaign) and any losses as a result of overly-generous “specials”.

One easy way to sell this tool is both the minimal expenses it creates AND the added reporting metrics it generates. By registering as a business user you will get insights (beyond just normal sales insights) about the popularity of the venue, the number of check-ins and the time of day people tend to check-in. This information will be particularly valuable in measuring the impact of any new specials.

There are a number of smart API-based apps that tie-in to Foursquare quite nicely. Of particular interest to businesses are the PlaceWidget for any business with a social media presence on Facebook, the fiddMe app seems a no-brainer for any restaurant wishing to encourage repeat attendance, Geotoko to run location based competitions… or better still, use the API to create your own that benefits your business.

Problems with Foursquare

Now, unfortunately, it’s not all raindrops-on-roses and whiskers-on-kittens. Foursquare isn’t perfect and Google doesn’t appear to be using any of this data yet.

In an interesting article written back in August, Matt Sawyer took a look at some of the problems with Foursquare at present. Whilst a number of the problems have been recognized by the Foursquare gang (fake check-ins, app crashes, its inability to find your friends, and so forth), there are some other problems that I think really create more of an obstacle to how beneficial Foursquare could be in its contributions to Google and other Local Search.

Some of Matt’s problems can also allegedly be solved by some of the Apps created using the API.

Some of these limitations also stem from the amount of data that is made freely available, as well as the ability to rate venues. However, some of the more traditional indicators for Local search are already pretty well ingrained in the product.

There is also a distinct inability to use the web app to plan ahead. As much fun as playing “foursquare roulette” is, it would be a lot more fun to plan ahead for an upcoming trip by getting the lay of the land and looking for things to do. The web app seems the most logical (and easiest) place to make this sort of information available.

How Google Could Use Existing Foursquare Data


It seems fair enough that a “tip” or a “to-do” might be treated similarly to a “citation” in Local search.

This information is generated manually by users and offers up an opportunity for people to find a new restaurant when looking for things to-do in the area or find a quiet/romantic spot within a building. And it’s logical that (until the system has been gamed to oblivion) that the higher the number of tips or to-do suggestions for a given venue, the more attention it deserves in any local search.

Distance from City Center:

It seems as though undue weight has historically been paid to distance from city center when searching for venues. It makes sense that from a simple convenience standpoint this would be the default. However, if the most popular ice cream shop on Foursquare is miles away from the city center (and let’s assume it’s in an area that would never have that many locals) why should the venue rank last for “London Ice Cream” just because it’s out in Greenwich?

With more information about the general popularity of the venue, this information could be used to help balance out the bias paid towards companies and services right in the center. Heck, I’d go out to Brooklyn for the “best beer in New York” if I had to.

This has not, historically been as big a problem for some industries and some cities. However, with urban sprawl as it is, if I’m looking for a “Surgeon in Raleigh”, I’d probably be willing to drive to Chapel Hill or Durham for a surgeon with ten 5-star ratings before I’d go to a surgeon in Raleigh with ten 0-star ratings.


Claiming a property or venue in Foursquare could be used (to a lesser extent) alongside the “claimed/verified” listing metrics within Google.

Next Steps?

In order that Foursquare data feed into Local search results, it would seem as though it would need to improve upon a couple of factors.

First, the ability for people to “check-in” without being anywhere near a venue needs to be improved. The Foursquare team seems to be fairly well aware of this problem, though they’ve not fixed it yet.

Secondly, adding the ability to rank or rate venues seems as though it would greatly increase the number of metrics that could be used to contribute to local search.

Finally, if the Foursquare gang wants to impact local search they’ll need to make a decision about what data they are willing to make publicly available through their API and their willingness to continue making this data available as the number of users increases.

As with any massive social network or search engine, privacy concerns will continue to be at the very center of the issue for Foursquare and they’ll need to be careful about finding the balance here. However, even if Google never makes use of this data, 5 million people and counting are already making use of it and finding new venues and local businesses in their city (and this is up from 2.6 million when I started writing this article just three months ago!). So long as the app is working properly, it’s a whole hell of a lot more fun than using Google Maps as well.

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