Yelp, Foursquare, and the Downsides of Mobile-First

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multiplatform-desktop-mobile-phoneIn an era where the “mobile-first” motto borders on dogma for tech companies, the virtues of the desktop internet often are overlooked. Technology folks wax poetic about the mobile revolution but often ignore the fruits of the previous era.

It’s a point Mark Suster made in a post two years ago. The outspoken entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist urged startups to invest in a web presence, reminding the tech community that certain products still thrive on the internet. “I loved the idea of ‘mobile first; but something always bothered me,” Suster wrote. His post primarily focused on product scenarios. The web, he argued, was still better than for comparing restaurants, or collecting photos, or using Pinterest.

But the value of the web goes well beyond the form-factor of the device. The web remains far more interconnected than the app-dominated mobile environment in which each property stands more a less as an independent city-state, visible to the consumer only as a sum of its parts.

Google helped Yelp grow
Say what you like about Google, but the search giant swung the door open for the content industry in the 2000’s. It created a platform on which a small content company could reach a massive audience without an established consumer brand. Today, the search-dominated environment of the web continues to provide the best platform through which new technology companies can get their content and functionality in front of consumers.

The local search industry has thrived since Google introduced its local product in 2004. Google would handle transactional searches, while the content critical to discovery — reviews, tips, ratings — was generated by a community of smaller listings sites, which relied on the search engine for large portions of traffic.

One of the most profitable beneficiaries of the search-dominated web of the mid-2000’s was Yelp. The company has weaned itself off of search due in large part to the growth of its mobile application over the past few years, but Google still plays a critical role in its business. The company said in 2013 that roughly half of its 108 million monthly unique visitors arrive through Google, down from nearly 75% when the company went public in 2011.

Was Foursquare too early to mobile-first?
Meanwhile, Foursquare has struggled to sustain the explosive growth it saw early on. The company told me that it’s still adding “a lot” of new signups each month, but data from AppAnnie, a mobile analytics firms, suggests the number of users downloading the app each month has dwindled since April 2013.

The company brought its search feature to the web a few years ago, but its influence in the web ecosystem remains relatively weak. According to SEORush data pulled for Street Fight by Andrew Shotland, Foursquare listings averaged 8th position (8.3) in a sampling of 30,000 local Google searches in the U.S. compared to Yelp, which averaged 4th. Shrink the sample size to only the 1,000 most competitive search terms, and the average search position of Foursquare listings moves to 10th (10.6.)
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Part of the problem for Foursquare is that the effectiveness of a Google search results decreases exponentially as you move down the page. A study from Chitika found that users on average clicked on the first result four times as much as the fourth result on the page. By the time a result makes the second page, the link might as well be non-existent. Foursquare listings tend to appear most frequently in the 11th position — the last link of the first page. Meanwhile, the median position for Yelp listings, on the other hand, is two.

In investing primarily on its mobile app, Foursquare is more ready for the future, but ill-equipped for today. With poor SEO, the company misses out on a huge traffic driver in search, and more importantly, a way to introduce the company’s content to a wider audience without requiring them to be users. Yes, the web search ecosystem, as it were, is on its way out. But the value of the web as platform for growth extends well-beyond a time-spent metric. In local search, it still plays an critical role as a way to introduce a product to new customers. It’s lightweight, effective, and does not require a long-term commitment.

I asked Moz’s David Mihm whether he thought Foursquare should invest more in search, and he said yes, but no: “At this point Google’s boxing out more and more non-Google properties from the SERPs so if you don’t have the established brand like Yelp or TripAdvisor already,” he told me in an email. “It may not be worth investing much in pure SEO tactics as a publisher.”

As predictive search gains steam, the value of a direct user relationship — and the data generated from that relationship — will start to play a more important role in the product experience. To predict where someone might go, a company needs to know that user extremely well. The importance of consumer data, and not just business content, will drive up the barriers to entry in the local search industry. The question for Foursquare is which side of the barrier it’s on.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.