Who knows what if anything will come of it, but Apple has reportedly been reviewing Foursquare for the past couple of weeks with a view toward a possible partnership or data integration deal. Though the cachet of the Foursquare name might make this idea sound appealing, my sense is that it could only be executed successfully if handled very carefully by Apple. With prominence already given to socially driven results from Yelp, Apple would risk becoming a search service dominated by social content.
On the surface, of course, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all. We often talk about the convergence of social, local, and mobile as an inevitable trend with a positive outcome for consumers and businesses. Social features like tips and reviews help consumers make decisions and add value to local services. But that general notion doesn’t mean that all services are created for the same purpose. In fact, Apple probably faces a choice here about whether it wants its mapping service to be thought of as a toy or a tool.
Foursquare debuted as a “social game.” It is not often spoken of in these terms anymore, but the Foursquare app still operates in the context of entertainment. By this I don’t mean that the majority of venues on Foursquare are restaurants, cafes, nightspots, and other leisure-oriented consumer destinations (which is true) but rather that the app is used for purposes of entertainment rather than information.
If I open the app right now on my phone and check what’s nearby, I see several local businesses but I also note that several prominent examples closer to me — like the CVS pharmacy down the street — are simply missing. They are missing almost certainly because these venues simply haven’t been visited by Foursquare users or haven’t attracted enough attention in the form of check-ins and tips to reach the top of Foursquare’s ranking algorithm. If I search for “CVS” it comes up, but so do odd results like “ride share for CVSR,” which is apparently a meeting place for a ride share group.
The same type of user-generated content is present when viewing all venues nearby; I see examples including the name of the town I’m in, the break room and manager’s office at the local movie theater, a men’s Bible study group, and at least one business that clearly operates out of someone’s home. In other words, a world of content that makes perfect sense in a social network but is exactly the kind of thing one wants to weed out from a local search app meant to provide definitive local directory listings. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is precisely the type of content Google does its best not to show consumers.
To be fair, Foursquare has released a local search front end on its website that delivers more targeted listings primarily because it is designed to show keyword-oriented search results rather than passive content tied to a user’s location. But the results I’ve seen show that Foursquare data performs less well in this more traditional search setting, with the same CVS not appearing as a result in a search for places in the town it’s in. The GPS tagging that accompanies a Foursquare check-in is one of the app’s greatest assets, guaranteeing that real check-ins will pinpoint a venue’s exact position, despite any carelessness on the part of users when entering address information for the venue.
These criticisms are not meant to undermine the value of Foursquare as a recommendation service, which is precisely what the company wants it to be. Rather, I’m trying to imagine how Foursquare might sit within Apple Maps in a way that doesn’t further muddy search results that are already split between base listing data and Yelp content. If Foursquare is meant to recommend nearby businesses I might be interested in, Apple will have to build another type of interface alongside its very keyword-driven primary interface. If Foursquare results are meant to appear alongside Yelp and base listings in a keyword-driven search result, I would anticipate even more frustration from consumers who want their go-to mapping service to be a reliable reference for canonical information about local places.
So it all comes down to how Apple wants to define itself in the local marketplace. Just because replacing Google Maps didn’t work out so well initially, that’s probably not a good reason to let the default map for iOS mutate into a social discovery tool rather than a true search service. If Apple takes that mission seriously, as I’m sure it does, the challenge is not to be distracted by feature implementations that might appeal to some consumers but do nothing to improve the core service offering. The hard work of achieving parity with Google should be the company’s main and perhaps only focus.
Damian Rollison is VP of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached on Twitter.