Location based services (LBS) are still in their infancy, but they are quickly growing in popularity. That’s because location capable mobile devices have finally hit critical mass thanks to widespread adoption of smartphones like Blackberry, iPhone and Android.

Two of the most popular consumer LBS apps are foursquare and Gowalla. Each of these services work on basically the same premise. Using your phone, you “check-in” to various locations throughout the day. This lets your friends (or in Gowalla’s case, everyone) know where you are. To encourage more check-ins, each of these apps also add a gaming element to their service. Users who check-in are rewarded with various incentives. Foursquare awards points and badges, Gowalla uses pins, stamps and “items”.

I recently spent a week comparing these two location apps. Here’s what I found.

Check-in Incentives


  • Points – Checking-in and adding new venues earns you points. You get more points for checking into a location you haven’t visited before or adding a location that isn’t already in the system.
  • Badges – You get a badge the first time you check in (appropriately called a Newbie badge). Badges are also awarded for checking into a variety of locations, checking into several locations in a single night, etc. Lalawag has a list of badges here.
  • Mayorships – If you’ve checked in to a location more than anyone else, you become the mayor. This honorary title can sometimes have real world benefits with some locations offering free beer and the like to foursquare mayors.
Having used foursquare for a while now, I can honestly say that the check-in incentives are reasonably compelling. Badges and mayorships have to be earned, so they have meaning and provide an odd feeling of pride. The points you collect allow you to compare your activity to those of your friends using the leaderboard. The leaderboard (pictured below) promotes friendly competition which, in turn, is surprisingly effective at promoting check-ins.
foursquare Leaderboard
Whereas foursquare puts a strong emphasis on competition with friends by way of points, Gowalla puts its emphasis on locations.
  • Passport – Gowalla’s passport keeps track of all the placed you’ve been.
  • Stamps – Much like a real pasport, for each location you check into, you get a stamp.
  • Pins – These are basically like foursquare’s badges. You collect pins as you check in. Different pins are associated with different types of activity. Again, like  foursquare badges, you get a couple pins right away.
  • Items – You can drop or pick up items when you check in at a location. Items are icons that you can collect in your “pack”. There seem to be dozens of different items available (perhaps more). If you drop an item at a location you become a founder and your name gets listed at the location. If you pick up an item, you’ll have to trade it for an item in your “pack”, though sometimes Gowalla just gives you an item when you check in. Get it? Me either.

Gowalla’s check-in incentive model is muddy and confusing, thanks largely to the introduction of Items. It’s unclear why you would want to collect Items and it seems to dilute the value of pins. Items have pretty icons, but is that enough of a reason to want to collect them? They are not earned, you just stumble upon them. As a result, they have less perceived value.


All check-ins and locations are public. This alone is a deal breaker for many people.

foursquare uses the familiar “friends” model. Only friends can see each other’s location and friends must be approved by you. foursquare also lets you check-in to locations without telling your friends where you are. When you do this, foursquare says that you are “offline” which is a nice way of telling your friends you’ve called it a night.

Creating Locations

Both Gowalla and foursquare allow users to create new locations and as of a couple weeks ago, both services allow you to create a location anywhere (foursquare was previously limited to certain geographic areas).

It’s very easy to create a new “spot” using Gowalla. Apparently it’s a little too easy because one of Gowalla’s biggest issues is the large number of duplicate locations.

Before creating a new location, foursquare requires you to search existing locations. While this takes a little longer, it seems to result in fewer duplicates.


These apps are meaningless without check-ins. That’s why it’s disappointing that each app had frequent and repeated problems finding my current location. foursquare’s latest iPhone update seems to have solved this issue for the most part, but Gowalla continues to regularly suffer from an inability to load nearby locations. Gowalla says they are working on it. Let’s hope so.

Also, Gowalla is a stickler about location. It only lets you check-in when you are within 200 meters of where the location was created. This sounds reasonable in theory, but in practice it’s kind of a pain. If someone created a location in an inaccurate spot, it can be hard to check-in. foursquare doesn’t have this issue.

Tips, Trips and ToDo’s

Tips allow users to share bits of information with other foursquare users about a specific location. For example, I’ve let people know that Jeffrey’s Hamburgers grinds their own burgers (and they’re delicious).

ToDos allow users to specify places they haven’t visited, but would like to. For example, I’ve set ToDos to visit various coffee shops in the City including Sightglass, Four Barrel, and Ritual.

Gowalla lacks tips and todos, but it does have trips. Users can create or view trips which are basically collections of locations. For example, a London Pub Crawl. Trips are a nice differentiator for Gowalla and seem to have a lot of potential. I could see trips becoming a very compelling feature, allowing users to create city tours or scavenger hunts using the service. It will be interesting to see how this feature develops.

Look & Feel

Gowalla is clearly winning on the look and feel front. Their website and iPhone app are both much friendlier on the eyes. Their location and items icons look great (even if they don’t always make sense) and the Web pages are well laid out.

Foursquare, on the other hand, lacks Gowalla’s polish, but I suppose maybe that’s part of its charm? Still the site could benefit from better information layout. For example, why not put those hard earned badges front and center?

And the winner is… foursquare!

For my money (actually both of these apps are free), foursquare is winning the race. It’s a close one, but foursquare has more users and a lot of momentum, their iPhone app is more reliable, their incentives are more meaningful. But Gowalla shows a lot of promise and if they can fix a few issues, it may yet become my LBS of choice. Your own decision will have a lot to do with which of these services most of your friends are using.

P.S. Looks like  there is a new LBS feature in Yelp. We’re just getting started.