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Foursquare 8.0 review: the ultimate food-finder

The check-in is dead, but Foursquare is alive

It’s almost 11. If I don’t make a move soon, I’m going to hit the brunch rush and have to wait two hours for a decent breakfast. The problem is, I don’t know what I want. I’m not in the mood for anything. I just want something good.

There’s so much food out there, but few services to truly make sense of it all. Google can direct you to the nearest Chipotle — that’s great. Yelp can show me the best Mexican spots around town, sure. But there’s only one app that knows where I’ve been, understands my carnitas obsession, and shows the best places nearby based on that information.

Yet Foursquare hasn’t broken through to the masses, and it has just a fraction of Yelp’s 138 million monthly users. The check-in feature that Foursquare’s best known for has obscured its useful recommendations engine, so the company had to make a change. In early May, Foursquare offloaded check-ins to a new standalone app, Swarm, and rebranded around a new vision for intelligent, personal recommendations.

To beat Yelp and Google, however, Foursquare’s going to have to do more than educate the masses about the virtues of its technology. It’s going to have to prove that the 5 billion check-ins and 55 million tips it’s gathered are enough to fuel the best recommendation engine. This is the goal of Foursquare 8.0, launching today for iPhone and Android. The new app cuts through Foursquare’s massive corpus of data to answer one question: what if your food-finding app knew your favorite restaurants, but also your favorite foods?

When you open the new Foursquare, the first thing you’ll notice is that all signs of check-ins are gone. There’s no social feed, no map of friends’ faces, and no big blue button begging you to check in. Instead you’ll find suggestions for places to go grouped into various "intents" like coffee, brunch, dinner, shopping, fun, dessert, and nightlife. Foursquare automatically picks an intent based on the time of day, but you can also choose one on your own. Below each intent, like "brunch," you’ll find recommendations for where to go.

But unlike most apps (and the Foursquare of old), the new Foursquare doesn’t just show a simple list of good places tagged with "brunch." It guesses at what you might be in the mood for, like a brunch place that takes reservations, or a brunch place with bottomless mimosas. These guesses form categories like "boozy brunch," "romantic dinner," and "fancy coffees with Wi-Fi." Foursquare is cleverly taking cues from Netflix, which offers sub-genres like "cerebral thrillers" to help users find content.

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Foursquare still offers more generic ranked lists like "great dinner places nearby," "places you’ve saved," and "places recommended by people you follow." But by breaking down intents even further into specific scenarios, moods, feelings, and cravings (like "chocolate fix" within the "dessert" intent), I’ve found that the new Foursquare, like Netflix, takes a lot of the work out of finding the right thing for the right moment. These categories acknowledge that pretty often when you search for "dinner," you’re actually searching for a romantic date spot.

The new Foursquare also factors in your favorite foods, drinks, and vibes

Foursquare’s generally excellent recommendations are informed by a variety of factors, like where you’ve been before (if you check in), how you’ve rated places around town, places your friends have been, places the users you follow (like Esquire) have liked, and where lots of positive tips have been left. In version 8.0, however, Foursquare also factors in your favorite foods, drinks, vibes, and more. These "tastes," which you can add by tapping the pink F in the top corner of the app, will range from "arcade machines" to "bimbimbap" to "corner booths" and "cortados," and are meant to represent the entire range of stuff you love. There are 10,000 tastes, all sourced from Foursquare’s collection of 55 million tips.

Once you’ve picked out a few tastes, Foursquare begins weighting its recommendations towards places where people have left positive tips about the things you like. Pink taste keywords pop up below the names of places in search results, inside tips at places you’re looking at, and even on your user profile. The big idea, according to Crowley, is that no two users’ apps will ever look the same. "If five people are standing in the same place, they shouldn’t get the same results," he says. While he was walking around San Francisco the other day, Crowley says that the app pushed him a notification that a bar nearby had an old Street Fighter machine.

Foursquare-8-tastes

Tastes are kind of like your favorite search terms. In fact, when you search for a specific word, Foursquare offers to add it as a taste. Tastes go hand in hand with "expertise," another theme in the new app. If you’ve written several well-liked tips at Japanese restaurants around town, Foursquare might award you with Japanese Food Expertise. If so, your tips will be show up at the top of venue pages flanked by yellow stars. Yelp has found great success incentivizing users into posting more reviews using a similar mechanic.

Tastes and expertise create a recommendations system that’s customized just for you, but also rests on those with tastes more developed than your own. The system, in combination with the data Foursquare already had, works very well. When I open the app looking for ramen noodle places, it spits out a list of highly ranked spots nearby, but also highlights the places with especially good tonkotsu ramen (one of my tastes). A big portion of the data backing Foursquare’s new tastes and expertise comes from tips, which Foursquare really hopes you will post. But it takes longer to write a tip than check in.

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Foursquare’s data has traditionally leaned heavily on check-ins, which it will likely have far fewer of now that they’re no longer part of its main app. Swarm has made checking in incredibly fast and simple, but begging users to download one more app might be too much to ask — if early App Store and Google Play reviews are any indication, at least. I for one still check in to remember where I’ve been, and to help Foursquare learn more about what I like. But now that checking in is separate from Foursquare, it’s harder to remember to do it.

Foursquare's ace in the hole is its Pilgrim tracking engine

Those 55 million tips sounds like a lot, but not when they’re distributed across the 65 million points of interest on Foursquare. Foursquare’s data feels fresh for now, but if check-ins do indeed decrease substantially, you can see the company’s rankings getting stale. The company’s ace in the hole is its Pilgrim tracking engine, which lets Foursquare and Swarm monitor your location even when they’re not open. In an interview a few months ago, Crowley said that Pilgrim was powerful enough to pin people down to specific locations, even without using GPS. In other words, the new Foursquare is checking you in without you knowing, except nobody will see these check-ins but Foursquare [which will use the data to improve its recommendations].

You can find Pilgrim at work in Foursquare’s new "here" tab, which aims to instantly pop up tips about where you currently are. Foursquare plotted me at the right place about 75 percent of the time — I didn’t even have to search for Culture Coffee to find out that I needed to try the Kyoto iced coffee.

After spending the better part of the last year rebuilding its app from scratch, and even launching a new one just for check-ins, Foursquare is finally ready to start telling a new story, starting at chapter one. That new story revolves around personalized recommendations — something Crowley says Yelp can’t do. After all this talk, now it’s time for Foursquare to deliver on its promise.

Now find me that spiked root beer float, stat.

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