Foursquare’s Crowley: Our Users Are Real-World Google Crawlers

Check-in service reorienting itself around local search

Foursquare is in the midst of a fundamental paradigm shift, stepping beyond its reputation as the check-in king and toward the more functional (and potentially lucrative) location-recommendation market. Speaking Monday at South by Southwest, Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley made it clear that the business does more than just dole out badges.

“We build software for mobile phones that helps people find the best things that are nearby,” Crowley said, by way of summarizing Foursquare’s utility. 

Last fall Foursquare redesigned its home page, improving its algorithm and introducing a “logged out” homepage with a conspicuously displayed search engine. Its Android app already features a higher-profile search function and soon that will be the case for Foursquare’s iOS app. “When you put search front-and-center, people start to think of it more for local search. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Crowley said.

That places the four-year-old startup in the company of Google, Apple, Facebook and Yelp, among others. That’s dicey territory, but the data unearthed by users as they navigate the real world is helping Foursquare map out the marketplace.

“We have people out there in the world crawling the real world just like Google’s spiders are crawling the web,” Crowley said. So far those 30 million users have mapped out 50 million points of interest, or locations, through three trillion data points.

Conceivably Google could do similar data mining through its Google Maps apps or Android mobile operating system, but Crowley sees Foursquare’s data as being particularly proprietary because so much of it is user-vetted. “Because it’s curated by our users, it gets updated a lot quicker and stays a lot cleaner,” he said.

And that’s why the check-ins aren’t going anywhere. Those user hand-raises are the vertebrae of Foursquare’s data backbone—at least until the app can passively and accurately track users’ locations—so the 160-employee company won’t do away with them entirely, “but the most exciting stuff we’re doing is recommendations, everything around data, maps,” Crowley said.

Foursquare’s aim isn’t to build its own maps, but to provide the social layer that lives atop those maps. That might sound a bit goofy, as though the New York-based company just wants to be a compass rose for friends. But Foursquare is aiming higher; it wants to socialize maps for each user, pinpointing places of interest derived from his or her check-in history and comment/liking behavior blended with Foursquare’s aggregated social and interest data.

“We use this analogy all the time. Harry Potter has his Marauder’s Map [that shows where people and places are in real-time, including information not readily available without the magic map]. We have enough data at Foursquare that we should be able to build this Marauder’s Map,” Crowley said.

And in so doing, Foursquare can build out its business model. Last summer the company rolled out Promoted Updates that allow merchants to promote special offers on the platform for a fee. But Crowley wants to get past ushering anyone into someone’s restaurant or retail store and into ensuring that those people are likely to become return customers, something with which daily deals sites like Groupon have struggled.

“We should be able to help merchants identify who their best customers are going to be,” Crowley said. “Based on the places people are going, who are the 50 best people that have never heard of your business? …We have enough data to start connecting those dots.”

In so doing, Foursquare would be able to tailor deals to specific users to make sure the merchant’s offers don’t go to waste. “Now we’re thinking maybe not every customer should get the same deal,” he said. For example, while someone who frequently dines out may earn a $10 discount, a consumer who eats out less but tends to go to places similar to the merchant’s might receive a free appetizer.