Checking In With Foursquare

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foursquare_smallADOTAS – Ever dreamed about becoming mayor one day? Just join Foursquare, and watch that dream come to fruition.

If you’re unfamiliar with Foursquare, that probably sounds ridiculous. But being unfamiliar with Foursquare might actually be more ridiculous. With sky-rocketing usage numbers, lots of industry buzz and some very serious competition, Foursquare has become a service to watch.

The question is, how closely do you need to watch it?

Foursquare for Beginners

To understand Foursquare’s potential, you have to understand how it works. In short, it’s a mobile social-gaming application based on the concept of users letting other users know where they are and what they’re up to — all while being able to rack up points for doing so.

To break it down further, when users arrive at certain “venues” (typically bars, restaurants or stores), they will “check-in” on their mobile devices, thus alerting their friends. Users can also see who else is at the venue, view nearby venues and peruse or leave their own suggestions, or “tips,” about a venue.

So how does this become a game? Users earn points, or “badges,” for their total number of check-ins, for checking-in to the same place repeatedly or for checking-in to many places in a single night.

For instance, the Foursquare user who has checked-in to a single venue the most frequently becomes the “mayor” of that venue. I am currently the proud mayor of my office and two parks in my hometown where I spend almost all of my weeknight and weekend activities playing Dad and #1 fan. My over- competitive nature kicked in recently when I was unseated as mayor at one of the parks.

The incentive for users to check-in goes beyond the gaming aspect, though. Through its business platform, Foursquare provides businesses the opportunity to engage their Foursquare customers with discounts or prizes for checking-in. Some examples: “Free coffee for the mayor!” or “Show you’ve checked-in and receive a 15% discount on your meal.” Through a self-serving tool, businesses can create, manage and track how Foursquare specials perform.

Competition

Foursquare doesn’t stand alone in the location-based services landscape. Its biggest competitor is Gowalla, a similar application with more of a focus on gaming (think geocaching). When both applications launched at last year’s South by Southwest Interactive, it sparked what some industry insiders dubbed the “location wars.”

In terms of usage numbers, though, Foursquare is winning the war. In January of this year, Foursquare was estimated to have around 200,000 users. Then at the end of March, Foursquare’s CEO reported an estimated 750,000 users. Gowalla’s membership falls within the mid 100,000s.

Before anyone declares Foursquare the all-out location war victor, it has to be noted that Foursquare has hit some speed bumps along the way. It received some heat for users being able to fraudulently check-in, meaning users would check-in at a venue without actually being there. Foursquare has since developed a “cheater code” that prevents users from earning points for fraudulent check-ins.

However, the cheater code only identifies fraudulent check-ins from users with GPS-enabled phones. And even then, the fraudulent check-ins can still occur — users just don’t earn points for them.

Foursquare — along with Twitter — also faced controversy in February when people began questioning the privacy of its users. The site pleaserobme.com was created to demonstrate that users were, perhaps, too willing to share their exact location with too many people.

Foursquare users can set how public or private their check-ins are, but that doesn’t mean restricted check-ins don’t end up out in the public (many users relay their check-ins to their public Twitter accounts). Before you get any ideas, I have a vicious dog at home.

Foursquare’s Role in Local Search

Because Foursquare and other location-based services are so relatively new, their impact on the local search world is still unfolding. But location wars and privacy controversies aside, it’s obvious to see their impact is going to be big.

Some claim the business-related content in the tips left by Foursquare users will dominate organic search results. This really doesn’t seem all that far off when you consider Foursquare has already entered into the land of SEO. Bing Maps launched its “Foursquare Everywhere” application (that pulls Foursquare data into Bing Maps results) in March.

And if the number of Foursquare users continues to rise as quickly as it has been, so, too, will the number of businesses engaging their customers on Foursquare. So while Foursquare in and of itself is not a huge revenue-generator right now (its business platform is free), that could change. The possibilities are essentially limitless.

The final verdict is that Foursquare introduced us to the idea of making location an action. It’s not so much about Foursquare itself, but the concept behind it.

So while, yes, the possibilities for Foursquare right now are endless, there is one very crucial consideration to keep in mind. And that is that both Facebook and Twitter are looking to enter into the location-based world. Earlier this month Facebook announced it will soon launch a location-based feature that will employ users’ status updates much like how Foursquare users check-in.

Considering Facebook’s monumental reach and sheer volume of users, it’s hard to fathom Foursquare — or Gowalla — being able to maintain their growth rates if users will be able to streamline their location-based gaming goals with their normal Facebook activities.

Foursquare gets credit for pioneering the location-based movement and making it a game. But there’s a strong possibility it will peak fairly quickly… depending on how far Facebook will take its location-based feature.

In the meantime, enjoy it, and if you are interested in finding me on my various travels, you can find me @mikeflanny.

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