Foursquare, the popular location-based social networking service where users "check-in" to earn points, unlock badges and become "Mayors" of their most frequented establishments has undergone some significant changes in recent days.
The changes, made both behind the scenes and to the Foursquare.com desktop user interface, were meant mostly to help the company handle its rapidly growing user base--Foursquare currently has more than 2 million registered users and upwards of one million check-ins daily. Additionally, the changes were designed to alter the way Foursquare users find specific locations to "unlock" hidden badges and make it more difficult to determine those specific venues. And some are simply meant to crack down on folks who feel the need to check in all over the place without actually visiting venues, a.k.a., "cheaters."
I was curious about the new Foursquare tweaks, so I asked the company's PR Manager Erin Gleason for details. What follows are specifics from Gleason regarding the ongoing changes and their impact on "Foursquarers."
Ongoing Infrastructure Enhancements
Foursquare is growing by leaps and bounds, and if the $20 million in VC funding the company secured last month is any sign of what's to come, that growth will only continue. Of course, that's a good thing for the company and its users. But it also means scaling the service to keep up with demand.
So Foursquare has been doing some major infrastructure work. Gleason wouldn't get into specifics, but it's likely the company has been adding servers and expanding databases to ensure it can keep up with users' check-ins. (Foursquare recently hit a 100 million check-in milestone.) During the past month or so, the company has announced scheduled downtime multiple times via Twitter and other outlets, most recently last Sunday, July 25.
Unfortunately, the infrastructure changes were more extensive than just a few random nights' work, and as such, some valuable Foursquare features were disabled for weeks. Which leads to my next section.
Foursquare Tag Search Down But Not Out
Due to the ongoing back-end enhancements, Foursquare decided to disable its desktop-based Foursquare.com "tag search" feature a few weeks ago, but as of today, tag search is reactivated, according to Gleason. (Note: Though tag-search was disabled, users could still add tags and unlock badges.)
Until very recently, searching for venues tagged with specific words or phrase was one of the most effective ways to find, and hopefully unlock, specific badges. Back in May I wrote an in-depth tutorial on how to use tag search to locate hard-to-find badges, but due to some of the new changes, that advice is now somewhat off base.
You can still search for specific tags and types of venues on Foursquare.com. But the majority of tags that signify a badge can be unlocked at a venue are now hidden, Gleason says.
Foursquare Badges More Difficult to Find, Unlock
Foursquare is trying to make it harder to find and unlock badges.
"The majority of our badges are not tied to user-added tags, and many of the tags related to badge unlocks are now hidden," Gleason told me. "[W]e believe it's more fun for users to discover how to unlock badges by exploring new venues."
Many of the newest Foursquare badges are also "sponsored," i.e. companies pay to tie their brands to the badges, and those badges are typically unlocked at venues recommended by the sponsoring organizations. For example, the Independent Film Channel has a sponsored badge, called "Slightly Off," that can be unlocked by checking into three venues listed on its Foursquare.com page.
You can't really locate sponsored badges using tag search, because the "hidden tags" don't show up when you look for them. That means you have to follow a badge-sponsor and repeatedly visit their Foursquare.com page for hints at recommend venues that will unlock badges. And that's probably just how Foursquare wants it. Companies pay for sponsored badges, so it makes sense for Foursquare to investigate new ways to entice users into visiting those companies' pages.
So now the easiest way to find and unlock most of these sponsored badges is not to search for tags, but to visit the sponsor pages and hope to find recommended venues in your area. (Keeping a close eye on a few Foursquare badges lists isn't a bad idea, either. Find quality lists here, here and here.)
Cracking Down on Foursquare Cheaters
Back in April, Foursquare instituted some changes to its check-in system to reduce misuse of the service by people who check-in to venues without actually being there, in hopes of unlocking badges, earning points or becoming Mayors of popular establishments. (Read specifics about those changes here.)
However, the changes had some unintended effects: Legitimate Foursquare users received error messages telling them they were too far away from their intended venues, and they wouldn't receive points or unlock badges, even when they were in the correct locations.
For a couple of weeks in April, I got the dreaded Foursquare error messages very frequently, even though I was always right where I said I was. But over the past month, I've only seen the "cheaters warning" screen once or twice. According to Gleason, that's due to a number of improvements made to the system to "reduce false positives."
"We present a user with the warning message if we detect repeated suspicious check-ins," Gleason says. "We look at several factors, such as distance from a venue, distance between venues visited, and timing of check-ins, to determine whether or not a check-in is legitimate."
My experience over the past month does indeed seem to suggest some major progress has been made since the anti-cheating features were first introduced last spring.
How to Unlock the Foursquare Groupie Badge
"Discovering how to unlock badges is part of the fun of Foursquare, so we don't typically like to state how badges can be earned," Gleason says.
Lucky for you, I do like to show others how to get Foursquare badges.
Here's a quick tip on how to unlock the Foursquare "Groupie" badge, which was originally unlocked at South by Southwest 2010, from any Internet-connected PC--no check-in required. You made it all the way to end of this post, you deserve it.
Surf on over to Foursquare.com via PC and log in to your account. Then jump over to Foursquare.com/bizcard, and select the following six cards: JetSetter (airplane logo); Super Mayor (crown logo); Pizzaiolo (pizza logo); Local (flag with a star); Player Please! (heart logo); and Newbie (trophy with a star).
Voila! The Groupie badge will be added to your badge collection.
For more on Foursquare, read my tips on reducing privacy risks associated with location-based social networks.