April 5, 2013

Putting my money where my mouth is

Filed under: foursquare — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:26 am

With Mike Dudas: Foursquare will have a Slide-like exit. Winner gets dinner at the place of his choosing. Slide was purchased by Google for $182 million, a come down from the $500 million valuation at the last round. Because we don’t know full cap table with preferences, we’re ignoring those. If Foursquare does worse than Slide, I win. If Foursquare does better than Slide, Mike wins. (No expiration, bet continues until Foursquare has an exit.)

With Alex Lawrence: Foursquare will exit for $1 billion or more by March 23, 2015. If Foursquare hits that target, Alex wins. If Foursquare sells for less, folds before that date or doesn’t exit by that date, I win. Winner gets a donation of $500 to the charity of his choice.

Think I’m wrong about a company? Suggest a bet on Twitter.

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September 8, 2011

Why Google’s acquisition of Zagat matters

Filed under: facebook, foursquare, google, groupon, yelp — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:17 pm

Today, Google announced its acquisition of Zagat, the company that publishes the venerable restaurant and hotel review guides. It’s a terrific acquisition. If Google executes correctly, this deal could be as significant as the YouTube deal has been. (I was also a big fan of that deal.)

Although Zagat is primarily known for its maroon pocket-sized guidebooks, it has long been working with innovators to get its data in the hands of mobile users. I first used Zagat on a mobile device on my Newton MessagePad 110 in the mid-90s. I later used it on a Palm V and Palm VII as part of the Vindigo service. (Vindigo eventually switched to Gayot and other data sources because they didn’t want to pay Zagat’s licensing fees.) There are aspects of those services that still haven’t been replicated by the leading mobile products.

Competition with Yelp

The most direct competitor to be affected by this deal is Yelp.

I love Yelp and use it all the time. But it’s way too much work. Half of each review seems to be about the personal life of the reviewers. Sorry, but I couldn’t care less that your girlfriend dumped you; I just want to know how the food and service was. Yelp has made great strides over the years in making sense of the reviews but its five-point scale that homogenizes food, service, ambiance and cost isn’t very helpful. Add to that the fact that a lot of restaurants are rated 4 stars and quickly discriminating among places is hard.

When it comes to restaurant reviews, comprehensiveness is less important than conciseness. There isn’t a “correct” answer — I’m just looking for a good-enough answer quickly. I don’t want to engage in a 30-minute research project and read 20 reviews to choose where to go to dinner. That’s where Zagat has excelled. Just glancing at the ratings, I can quickly pick a place. (I think my food threshold was 24.)

All that said, I stopped using Zagat when Yelp took off. The primary reason: I didn’t want to pay the fees and Yelp provided a good-enough solution for free. I fully expect that Google will take down the Zagat paywall and offer the ratings for free. (I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already.) I also expect that Zagat ratings will be syndicated across various Google properties, including mobile properties.

Zagat’s team is good at synthesizing information into actionable data. If Google can translate that knowledge into algorithms acting on data collected by Google Places, that could be really powerful.


Mobile has been a godsend to companies like Yelp, Fandango and others that have strong brands. Unlike the Web, they’re not held hostage by Google’s search algorithm for traffic. Google has continually expanded the presence of its own local products on the main search results pages to the detriment of sites like Yelp.

The app-centric nature of mobile devices to data means that companies with strong brands can intercept that traffic before Google gets a chance. Zagat is a brand that carries its own affinity and a free Zagat app would instantly become a strong competitor to Yelp.


One of the biggest assets that Google gets with Zagat is the power of the Zagat brand, which in many circles is synonymous with fine dining.

As powerful as Zagat is with consumers, it’s also incredibly powerful with restaurateurs. Here is my subjective assessment of various local brands, as perceived by restaurateurs:

  • Zagat. Highly positive.
  • Facebook. Positive.
  • Google. Neutral to positive.
  • Groupon. Slightly negative, but heading downhill rapidly.
  • Yelp. Strongly negative.

Where Zagat is viewed as a friend of restaurants, Yelp is often viewed as an enemy. Part of the problem is that Yelp has sold advertising to restaurants and many restaurateurs view Yelp ad sales people as extortionists. (I believe Yelp management’s claims that they separate editorial from advertising, but that doesn’t change the widely held perception.)

If Google can use the Zagat brand as an in-roads to better engage with restaurateurs, that alone would be the price of the acquisition.

Facebook — and why all this might not matter

The biggest problem I have with local reviews as they’ve been done to date is that they largely ignore the social layer that has been built up over the last four years. When it comes to matters of taste, I’d rather get recommendations from people I know than random strangers.

It bugs my friends at Yelp and foursquare that every time I go on a trip, I post a Facebook status message asking for restaurant recommendations. Bill at Yelp will tell me to check Yelp. Tristan will tell me to check out foursquare Explore.

Yelp has its own social layer, but the people in my Yelp friend graph aren’t my real friends. The few that are rarely write reviews. Foursquare has my real friends, but for the most part doesn’t have enough data density to suit my needs. (A recent trip to Chicago was an exception.)

Even without any optimization, Facebook has both. Most of my status updates generate 3-4 restaurants, which is all I need. There’s another important benefit: I know how my tastes compare with the tastes of my friends. There are some friends that I know have a positive affinity with; if Dariusz offers a restaurant recommendation, I’ll go there without thinking about it. There are others with whom I have a negative taste affinity; if they recommend it, I won’t go.

A lot of people have looked at Facebook’s recent public announcements in local — killing its Deals product and removing the Places product from mobile — as a sign that Facebook doesn’t care about local. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’ve seen Facebook testing product concepts that point at its future direction in local. One test asks you to compare recent places you’ve visited. Another feature lets users contribute data on restaurants and other venues. Facebook realizes that most average people won’t go to the trouble of writing long reviews like those on Yelp. It’s better to collect small nuggets of data from massive audiences. See my post, Heading toward the Facebook recommendation engine.

Ironically, Ted Zagat, son of Tim and Nina Zagat, works at Facebook. That should make for some interesting dinner conversations. The question is how they’ll decide where to eat.

See also:

August 20, 2010

Facebook Places is at the beginning of a long road

Filed under: facebook, foursquare, geotagging, lbs, maps, mobile, twitter, wireless — Tags: — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:39 am
Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook’s much awaited Places product finally launched this week. It’s the first step toward bringing friend finding to the masses.

People have been using Facebook to do this for years; posting their location in freeform status updates that their friends can read and comment on. (e.g. “heading to Cambridge for dinner.”) By turning that freeform text into structured location data, Facebook can make that data more useful.

From an iPhone or HTML5-capable mobile device, you can check in to a place, such as a restaurant, bar, movie theater, airport. You can also leave a message with the check in. The check in is posted to your wall and may appears in friends’ news feeds. On the mobile side, you can see a list of your friends and where they’ve checked in. Clicking on a place will show you details of the place, including a map and who has checked in.

The initial release is fairly simple. In fact, it’s not that much more useful than the freeform status updates.

Facebook is entering a very crowded space with competitors such as foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Google Latitude, Whrrl and Twitter. Many of those products are much more robust. Facebook’s key advantage is the size of its social graph: within the past 24 hours, 18 of my friends have checked in.

There are many opportunities for improvement to Facebook Places:

  • Basic UI. Check ins are sorted by time, not distance. A friend checking in 2,000 miles away 2 minutes ago is less relevant than someone checking in 2 miles away 5 minutes ago. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the city isn’t shown. Considering that many people use Facebook to keep track of friends all around the world, this is a significant issue. Foursquare has a separate bucket of “Friends in other cities.” Update: Facebook now has a separate grouping of nearby friends.
  • Map view. Often, visualizing your friends on a map is much easier than scanning a list. Foursquare already offers this.
  • Visiting friends. Out of town friends who are in town aren’t indicated. One of the big potential values of social friend finding is discovering when friends are in town. If a friend from far away is visiting, I’m more inclined to want to get together than someone who lives in town.
  • Pictures. There is no way to associate a picture with a check in. Given the difficulty in typing on mobile devices, often a picture gives a lot more information. These pictures could also be used to build a much more robust Place page.
  • Pushing location. Sending people your location via SMS is tedious. You have to address the message, type out where you are. If they don’t know where it is, they have to pull up a map or text you back for directions. With Places, it would be easy to push a notification to friends with where you are, complete with map. This could be sent as a push notification on iPhones or as an SMS with a URL for other phones.

As with most Facebook product launches, questions of privacy come up. In general, I think Facebook has done a good job with the default privacy settings on Places. You must explicitly check in; there is no background tracking.

Only your friends can see where you’ve checked in. Unfortunately, my social graph on Facebook wasn’t designed with location in mind. When I decided whether or not to accept friend requests on foursquare, I used a tighter filter than on Facebook. Now, I’ll have to go back through Facebook friends and create a list of who should have access to location. (See Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro’s piece on how he classifies his friends.) Yes, old high school friends have been known to burgle homes based on Facebook updates. If that worries you, watch Rob’s video on how to adjust your privacy settings for Places.

The one big complaint I have with the privacy defaults is that your friends can check you into a location without your permission.

See also:

June 24, 2010

Checking in with foursquare at SFO

Filed under: audio, foursquare, geotagging, lbs, local search, maps, mobile, social networking, twitter — Tags: — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:57 pm
SFO is a hotbed of foursquare activity

SFO is a hotbed of foursquare activity. Creative Commons image by Håkan Dahlström.

With the increasing use of mobile applications such as Yelp and foursquare, it’s becoming possible to pull ideas from thin air. Users of these apps can leave tips for others to find that are linked to a specific location.

In most places there aren’t enough tips yet to make filtering an issue. San Francisco International Airport, with more than 57,000 checkins on foursquare, is an exception. It offers a glimpse of what we can expect as these services become more popular. The airport is the perfect petri dish for tips: it serves a technically savvy audience and people often find themselves there with plenty of time on their hands.

The SFO tips page contains dozens of notes including places to eat, complaints, ground transportation, wifi and power availability. Mixed in to all of this are ads, other spam and random observations. Some examples:

have a corned beef sandwich at max’s if you’re flying southwest. the best! well, really good

When you enter short term parking do it as far to the right as you can (lvl 2) & then immediately head to lvl 1. There is always parking next to gate and that is the lvl that connects to the terminal

Free wifi at the Continental lounge in Terminal 1- be warned, it’s located outside Security

Smoking hot brunette woman at gate 20. Stop by and smile at her. She is so lovely!

Bart to Millbrae gets you within 1 block of an in n out burger. Great for 3+ hour layover!

Heading to wine country? Take a moment to stop by St. Supery in the heart of Napa on Hwy 29. Mention this to get a 2 for 1 tasting.

Sorting through the volume of tips can be overwhelming. As the volume increases, we’ll need ways to filter them. Among the ways to filter:

  • Timeliness. Some of the tips, such as wifi at the Continental lounge, are evergreen. Others, like the smoking hot brunette are very timely. Tipsters should be able to flag their tips to self destruct. As I wrote earlier, being able to identify tips by timeliness would allow for new applications, such as sharing rides. (“Anyone want to split a cab to Moscone?”)
  • Social network. Among the tips were tips from people I follow on Twitter, including Danny Sullivan and Adam Lasnik. Being able to surface these would increase relevance.
  • Ads vs. not ads. Sometimes people want ads, especially if it can save them money.
  • Keyword search.

Places like airports are especially complex because they’re really collections of places, sometimes with other groupings and physical restrictions. Being able to filter tips by terminal would also be useful. But then maybe that’s best left to GateGuru.

June 14, 2010

iPad puts on its business suit

Filed under: apple, foursquare, ipad, iphone, local search, mobile, social networking — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:40 pm
An iPad used in place of a cash register at Sightglass Coffee. Photo courtesy Tony Conrad.

An iPad used in place of a cash register at Sightglass Coffee. Photo courtesy of Tony Conrad.

Most of the discussion around Apple’s iPad has been about what a great consumer device it is. It’s a book reader, movie player, newspaper, photo viewer, RSS reader and more.

But the iPad has a lot to offer businesses as well. Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco is using an iPad, with Square’s payment system as a point-of-sale system. A restaurant in Australia is using iPads in place of printed menus and wine lists. Patrons can drill down on items that interest them for more information. Mercedes Benz is using iPads to allow customers to start their credit application while still intoxicated by the new car smell. The Plaza hotel in NYC will soon use them for concierge services and room service ordering.

As companies like Twitter, Groupon, Living Social, foursquare and Yelp focus on the small business market, it’s easy to see the iPad becoming an essential tool for small businesses.

I cringe every time I go to a business with a Groupon and see the clerk pull out a binder and manually cross out the Groupon on the list. An iPad app would reduce the transaction time and provide the business key metrics such as how many redemptions are outstanding and how much people are spending beyond the Groupon value. It would also reduce mistakes and fraud.

Other possible applications:

  • Reputation management with live feeds from Twitter and Yelp, with the ability to quickly respond to applications.
  • Check in information from sites like foursquare to show who is visiting right now and keep track of frequent customers. An alert could appear when the mayor/duke/etc. checks in.
  • Frequency programs to replace traditional punch cards.
  • Real estate agents could use iPads to show off alternative properties and keep track of reactions from buyers.

iPads could also interact with mobile devices such as iPhones to receive payments.

Of course, all of these things can be done with a computer. But the iPad offers a number of advantages:

  • It takes less space. All of this power takes less space than a computer monitor, much less a PC.
  • It doesn’t create a barrier between you and the customer. The tablet feels more collaborative versus using a laptop.
  • Fewer maintenance headaches due to viruses and malware.
  • It shows innovation and forward thinking.

See also:

August 27, 2009

Twitter and foursquare: the tipping point to getting local business online

Filed under: foursquare, lbs, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:48 pm
Crepe cart in Seattle

Crepe cart in Seattle

Getting small local businesses to go online has been the holy grail of the Internet. I’ve written before about some of the reasons local business don’t go online and suggested several ways that they could use emerging technologies to get online with minimal effort.

That finally seems to be happening. Whether it’s a crepe cart in Seattle, ice cream store in San Francisco or a restaurant in Sedona, businesses are using the simplicity of Twitter for their virtual presence.

Most local businesses are too busy running their business to exert a lot of effort maintaining an online presence. If it’s not easy, it won’t get done. My favorite example of a small business reusing their existing work is the Webcam pointed at the wall of Beachwood BBQ where they list the pints on tap.

The challenge is that these businesses are only announcing their presence to existing customers or passersby. While this can help drive repeat visits through specials, notices of new arrivals, etc. it does little to bring in new customers.

That’s where foursquare comes in. This location-based social game allows users to “check in” to places they visit. Check in often enough and you become the “mayor” of that place. Savvy businesses have latched on to this and begun offering discounts to their mayors.

It has also been incorporated into the foursquare check in process. When I checked in at a restaurant in Seattle, I was presented with an offer at a nearby bar: happy hour all day for the mayor or $1 off well drinks for anyone else who checked in. (Checking in updates your social network status, providing further exposure for the business.) It’s one of the first examples of location-based mobile advertising that works. The process is a bit cumbersome now, but it provides a glimpse into where the technology is headed.

In addition to providing exposure to businesses, it solves a user problem that local search has long failed at: discovery. People often don’t know what they’re looking for when they’re out. Suggestions, even if they’re sponsored, help fill the discovery gap.

Foursquare offer

foursquare mayor offer

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