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Facebook’s (s fb) upgrade to its Nearby mobile feature was framed as a Foursquare killer by some with its ability to provide local search, recommendations and information. But in trying out Nearby, Foursquare still comes out on top for me as a local search tool. That’s to be expected when you consider all the investments Foursquare has made in local but it shows how much Facebook needs to do to get competitive in local search. And this is not even considering comparisons to Yelp (s yelp) and Google (s goog), which are also strong local search tools.
This might be comforting for Foursquare but the location-based service doesn’t have Facebook’s reach and many people still don’t see it as a local search tool. Foursquare’s will have to work to stay ahead of Facebook and more importantly, turn people on to its local search and recommendation engine Explore.
Here’s a look at how the two stack up as local search tools:
Facebook Nearby, a menu tab within Facebook’s mobile apps and websites, offers a tool for finding places, both nearby and across a larger area. It loads up recommendations first with venues that friends have visited, recommended or liked. With Facebook’s much bigger user base, that should provide a lot of signals over Foursquare, which has just 25 million registered users. But it’s not that big of an edge in most cases because a lot of people haven’t tagged their updates with locations or interacted with businesses on Facebook.
You can browse for nearby stuff or look across different categories like restaurants, coffee, nightlife, shopping, outdoors. But it’s when you start actually searching for stuff that you realize Facebook still has more work to do. I searched for “sushi” in my neighborhood and the second listing was for a steakhouse and barbecue restaurant. On my map, I was only shown two restaurants within ten blocks of me. On Foursquare, I found ten restaurants in the same area including my favorite, which didn’t even show up on Facebook.
A business needs to have a Facebook Page to show up on Nearby. Some listings appear to be automatically generated but others businesses will need to get on Facebook to make Nearby really useful for users. Facebook also sometimes struggles with multiple pages for one location and doesn’t pick up new restaurants that fast. The company said that it will also be incorporating more third-party data so this should improve soon.
Facebook’s local data also has less depth. When you visit an actual page for a business, you get the ability to see information like hours and address and you can call the restaurant up, check in or “like” it. There’s a user-based rating systems as well as recommendations left by users. This is nice but it doesn’t provide the same richness you can get on Foursquare.
For example, a popular Peruvian chicken restaurant in my neighborhood had two recommendations on Facebook. On Foursquare, the same place had 28 tips and 50 pictures. Also, with Foursquare pages, you can save the place on a list, get directions, book a table and see a menu. And if the place is part of a saved list, you can check out what other users also like similar to that restaurant. Foursquare also provides a rating on a 10-point scale for locations, based on popularity and user interactions with more weighting given to local experts. I appreciate that more than Facebook’s simpler five-star system which can often lead to a lot 3.5 star ratings.
Again a lot of this has to do with Foursquare’s experience in local search and its refinements over the years including one earlier this week. But the differences aren’t just manifested on the surface.
Foursquare has been using its more than 3 billion check-ins and other interactions to tune its Explore recommendation engine. That input helps Foursquare come up with more unique and personal suggestions. While Facebook recommends local businesses based on friends who have liked a business, checked in, rated a restaurant or left a recommendation, Foursquare looks at tips, likes, dislikes, overall popularity, user loyalty to a location, and the local expertise of top visitors. It also factors in whether a place is listed on one of its user-created lists. And then it looks for matches for users based on their tastes or people like them. It also considers the time of day, so the recommendations change more frequently throughout the day.
Facebook has its advantages too like its more than 600 million mobile user base. That can be helpful because it potentially means more input from real friends. And for some users, what Facebook currently provides will be enough; they may not be looking for the level of detail that Foursquare provides. But the challenge is to get people to think of using Facebook’s mobile apps and website as a local search engine, something most people aren’t trained to do. Facebook isn’t helping by hiding the Nearby tab inside the menu bar. That’s going to take a while for people to discover.
Facebook should be more competitive once businesses start running local ads that appear in the main news feed. That’s not happening yet but when it inevitably does, it will encourage people to check out the Nearby tool. And if Nearby starts displaying local deals like Foursquare does, it will be another reason to take it for a spin.
As Nearby grows, it could steal away existing Foursquare users and pick off others before they give it a try. That’s something Foursquare absolutely needs to defend against. But right now Facebook has just dipped its toe into the market and has a lot more to do to get competitive.