Lauren Goode

Checking In Again With Foursquare

When Foursquare first came out, I didn’t like it. In an early review of the app, I wrote that “check-ins” felt invasive, that the app was buggy, and that it wasn’t mature enough to offer real benefits. And I felt that earning badges and becoming “mayor” were sort of silly.

But the company has rolled out a new design over the past several months, and has introduced new features that have made it more than just a check-in app.

So, I decided to check out the whole checking-in thing again.

To my surprise, Foursquare has become my go-to app for finding local restaurants. Now it truly is the “local discovery” app it claimed to be from the beginning, with an Explore button that helps people find restaurants and other places nearby without needing to check in, and a Lists feature that lets you follow your friends’ lists of favorite places.

The app still has its quirks, and I still haven’t experienced a ton of deals or discounts or serendipitous run-ins with friends. But in many instances, I’ve found the app’s distilled, personalized approach to finding restaurants to be more helpful and less cluttered than Yelp’s mobile app or even Google search results on my smartphone. This has been the case whether I’ve been in my own neighborhood or in a foreign country.

If you’re not one of Foursquare’s 25 million registered users, here’s the basic premise: It’s a free mobile app for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry that lets you send out a blast of information to your friends about your current location. You can choose to share this with your Facebook and Twitter accounts, too.

The check-in icon is in the upper right-hand corner. Tapping this brings up a list of various places, like markets, or bars, or concert halls. Foursquare says it currently has 40 million venues in its worldwide database. From there, you select which venue you’re at; you can add a short message or a photo to your post before you share it to Foursquare. And there you have it: You’ve checked in.

In order for the app to work properly, you will have to turn on location services. You can, however, opt out of push notifications, which can be both irritating and battery-draining. Foursquare has said that it’s working on ways to make push notifications relevant and more useful to users, but for now, I still don’t feel the need to see everyone’s check-ins.

In the latest version of the app, there are three main tabs at the bottom of the home screen: Your own profile, your friends list and Explore, the app’s standout feature.

Explore is also a Web app, but my tests of it have been almost entirely mobile.

A couple of months ago, I found myself searching for a snack after a not-remotely-successful surf lesson in a remote beach town in Costa Rica. So, naturally, I pulled my smartphone out of my geeky waterproof pack, found a spotty Wi-Fi network, and opened a few apps.

What happened next surprised me. Searching for “lunch” in “Playa Guiones” or “Nosara” on Yelp brought no results. Google’s search app fed me a few TripAdvisor threads that were helpful, but long-winded.

Foursquare Explore gave me exactly what I needed. It pointed me in the direction of a place called The Gilded Iguana, just about a kilometer away. Foursquare users that had gone before me had left behind a few short tips recommending that I order chimichangas there.

In another instance, back home in New York, I tried to take a friend out for his birthday, only to discover upon arrival that the restaurant I had in mind was reserved for a special event that night. I pulled out Foursquare and tapped Explore, then typed in “dinner.” Not only did a list of reputable restaurants quickly appear, but it told me that five of my friends had eaten at one of them — and since a few of these friends are discriminating foodies, I knew it was a good choice within walking distance.

This week, while searching for a grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood in San Francisco, I saw on Foursquare that four of my friends have been to the local Safeway, which made me more inclined to go to that one than the other stores on the list. Finally, the value of check-ins was becoming clear: If my friends hadn’t taken the time to actually check in to a grocery store — something I personally would never have considered doing before — I wouldn’t have had that information at my fingertips.

Check-in features aren’t new. They abound in dozens of other mobile apps, as do search buttons and tips from friends.

Yelp shows short tips in its mobile app, in addition to much longer reviews, and it has a check-in feature, too. There’s also a “Nearby” tool that will help users find places in close proximity. The Google+ app offers users the ability to check in to local places, and Google now shows results from its acquired Zagats restaurant-rating system, which I like. And, of course, Facebook lets friends check in to places, too, tagging other Facebook friends alongside them; many users, when seeking advice on which restaurant or coffee shop to go, might simply post a Facebook status update for this.

But Foursquare makes finding things fast and frictionless. The tips users leave are more digestible than wordy online reviews of a place. I like the layout of Foursquare’s app now, too. Explore results include large photos of venues, but always with a map above the results; you can easily tap on the map to get directions to a place or see how far away it actually is.

Foursquare still isn’t a perfect app. While the Explore tab is excellent for finding places in close proximity, it’s not great for searching restaurants in a different location. A few days ago, I tried to use Explore to look up sushi restaurants in San Francisco when I was south of the city. All that came up were nearby places in Silicon Valley. I could pinch and move the map in Foursquare, then tap a button to load a map in that area, but it was a lot easier to use the Yelp or Google apps in that case.

And while Foursquare is still touting the deals it offers, I haven’t redeemed many of those. After more than eighteen months of sporadic check-ins, I finally received a Foursquare deal that I liked: A free bottle of water at a yoga studio. American Express users can get discounts by linking their AmEx accounts to a Foursquare account and checking in at AmEx-friendly businesses, but I currently don’t have an Amex card.

Lastly, users concerned about privacy should be aware that unless you adjust your privacy settings so that nobody can see your check-ins — which will limit the full experience of the app — check-in information can be shared with the businesses you are checking into, or with other app developers who have access to Foursquare’s open platform.

Still, if there was ever an app worth a second chance, for me, that would be Foursquare.

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— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work