Foursquare grows 3,400 percent, showing strength of location services

by Phil Hornshaw

Social check-in service Foursquare released some numbers today on its blog -- including the fact that the company has grown around 3,400 percent, showing that despite stiff competition in location-based services, the company isn’t going anywhere.

A big spiffy infographic on Foursquare’s blog shows some other interesting, choice data. The biggest news, however, is the fact that there were 381,576,305 check-ins made in 2010 last year, and that someone has used the service to check in to every single country on the planet -- and one location off of it (not to leave you in suspense: it was the International Space Station).

Not up to speed on the whole location-based services (LBS) bandwagon? It’s basically a group of apps for mobile devices that use GPS technology to let you share your location with others. It’s called “checking-in,” and you push a button in the app when you patronize a business or arrive at a certain location (Dodgers Stadium, for example, but anywhere, really). You can share the information with friends who use the service, as well as through other social networking sites. With Foursquare, checking-in to a location more than any other user results in your becoming “mayor” of that place, and using the app can earn you virtual rewards in the form of badges, commemorating your “achievements” -- like checking into three locations in a single night, or traveling more than a few miles in a certain time limit to make check-ins.

Needless to say, that’s a whole lot of check-ins. And Foursquare is just one service; it has a big competitor in Gowalla. Facebook also allows check-ins with its “Places” feature through its iPhone app, and Google (GOOG) recently launched Google Places with the same idea. Foursquare has been pushing to work with local businesses to offer deals to people who use the check-in service, and especially to people who take the time to become mayors of certain locations. Starbucks offers deals to mayors, and some Fat Burger restaurants where I am in Los Angeles offer discounts for Foursquare.

But while Foursquare is getting a lot of people using it to check-in, the business-to-app connection seems slower. Meanwhile, Groupon offers basically the same service -- driving customers to local businesses, only by providing group-buying deals and coupons -- and is raking it in, purporting to be worth $15 billion. And Google is looking to compete in that space, as well, along with a bunch of other services, like LivingSocial, that carry similar services to Groupon.

The point? All these services live and die by their apps, which are the GPS-enabled mobile interfaces for the services. LBS apps allow for check-ins and group-buying apps use GPS to show users where different deals are taking place near them, or to allow users to flash their coupons without having to print them.

If LBS was a big deal last year, you can be sure that it’s about to become a huge deal, given how much money Groupon has available to it, and how much interest there is from big players like Facebook and Google. Foursquare and its competitors might have a different focus from the group-buying guys -- they’re more about social networking, it would appear -- but as the market becomes more flooded, they’ll need cool new ways to stay competitive, or to diversify their services from the ones that are more about linking up with local businesses.

Foursquare, for its part, seems to be doing a pretty good job of it -- the company released an update that allows for persistent check-ins not long ago. Still, expect to see the service looking to further revolutionize itself this year to stay differentiated from, and ahead of, Google and Facebook. There’s going to be even more competition between LBS services for space on your iPhone, so expect some great new features to come out of these apps, as well as more money to be saved for downloading them.