Foursquare vs. Yelp For Restaurant Recommendations

i’m at my parents’ for Chinese New Year (personally i think it’s a ploy to get me to visit, but i’m more than happy to oblige) and i was trying to find places to have brunch with my brother and his wife. my parents moved here (a suburb of Sacramento, CA) the same summer i went off to college, erm, in 19mumbledymumble, so the only places i know are the mall and the grocery store as i’ve never really needed to explore in the nearly-twenty years since. (wow, twenty years!)

my little experiment

as a big fan of Foursquare while traveling (example), i immediately fired it up to see what it suggested.


The default filtering, sorted by Best Match after using the dropdown “Food” option in the search bar on the main page.

huh. that’s not very encouraging. i’ve always figured anywhere with a green score was worthy of at least checking out, and that the list as a whole was a pretty reliable indicator of what’s around me, but these results made me a sad panda. at first i just resigned myself to the fact that there just really wasn’t that much around me in terms of variety, which played directly into my impression of this city (pretty much suburban yuppieville). also, i knew there were more restaurants but i’m pretty clueless when it comes to their distance so figured they were not shown due to being further away.

curious, though, i opened Yelp to see what it said: (yes, the timestamps are off because i returned to the apps to take screenshots)


After tapping “Restaurants” on the Nearby tab

well now! this is much better!

what does this mean for finding places to eat when you’re traveling?

hm. first off, it’s making me question whether or not Foursquare has been returning the most relevant results. on the one hand, does it know that i am a fast food fiend, the mayor of my local McDonald’s, and a Starbucks drinker — and as such, is returning similar results for me? that might be the case. if i pull up recommendations on the website when i’m not logged in (you must be logged in to use the app on the phone, or i’d have tried it that way), the number one result is Final Gravity (two is The Habit, then Chipotle, then McDonald’s). if i log in and run the same search, though, i get McDonald’s, Chipotle, Jack’s Urban Eats, and La Huaca.

it may be, then, that there are a combination of factors that are affecting the results: exact location (maybe the phone is reporting slightly different than the address i’m using on the website), and being logged in or out. in either case, the search results are drastically different between Foursquare and Yelp. on the one hand, i appreciate the fast food emphasis of Foursquare (at least for me?) since that’s usually my type of food, but the breadth of Yelp’s results is more indicative of what’s actually around and better for exploring.


Yelp is based on human reviews and their outright scores (whether or not those reviews are manipulated is another story), and isn’t available everywhere.

yelp coverage

Foursquare, while reliant on user input, has messier data, though it’s everywhere there is a user base, and for better or worse, relies a lot more on algorithms to generate a score. according to one of their data engineers, there are more pragmatic data points that come into play — not just likes and dislikes, but traffic patterns, user reliability scoring, maybe even some sentiment analysis* in tips that are left, and so on. (* it’s cool to see real life applications of what i went to grad school for since i don’t use it at work. sentiment analysis is basically analyzing text and determining subjective/emotional intent.)

returned results

this is the part that’s really making me think. how relevant are the results Foursquare is returning? are they tailored to what it thinks i want? what if i want to go out of my comfort zone when i’m traveling (as i think we all should do)? if i use Yelp, then, will i have to work through the results list a bit more to find something suitable? (this is even assuming there is a Yelp or Yelp-like option where i’m going.)


it’s clear that neither of these apps are perfect. getting (what we hope are unbiased) recommendations when you’re on your own in a new place is probably better than picking at random since we want to experience the best of what’s around (though i’m also all for just plain getting out there and exploring!). but at what expense? for those of us who prefer not to use guidebooks and don’t have any personal recommendations from people we know, there are a surfeit of review sites out there, and checking Foursquare, then Yelp, then TripAdvisor, then Google Plus, then whatever local sites are out there is just plain impractical.

i’m not sure i have a great answer for this, but i think my plan, now that i know that my previously-thought-to-be-infallible Foursquare does have its limitations, is do a quick round of testing when i first get to a destination to see what review sites are applicable and which one (or ones) returns results that i like to see, then make that my primary source when i’m on the go. i have to balance finding the best place with my often limited time and distance constraints. that said, i’ve never been disappointed with my picks based on Foursquare recommendations, but am i missing out on anything? or is this newly-developed FOMO not worth it? and i should just get out and enjoy?

help wanted

does anybody have any insight or recommendations for app-based recommendations? (yes, i agree that personal tips usually turn out to be the most rewarding, though they may not fit your travel style and you often don’t get a list to choose from in case you’re not happy with the pick, so there are pluses and minuses to that as well.)

(for the record, either i’m going to make my sister-in-law decide, or we’re just going to drive out of the way to get Ethiopian food. heh.)

4 Comments on "Foursquare vs. Yelp For Restaurant Recommendations"

  1. Very interesting analysis. I’m a frequent user of both apps, especially to find dining options while traveling. I seem to lean more on Yelp for food. I really didn’t know how foursquare was presenting results.

    (reposted due to issues with mobile site)

    • Glad you were able to finally comment! Yeah I don’t know why I don’t use Yelp more (maybe overload from being Yelp elite many years ago and burning out on the whole thing?)…but I’m definitely going to in the future!

  2. Simon - Running For Status | January 27, 2014 at 7:10 am | Reply

    Generally yelp is very thin for overseas locations (just about any country outside the US). I generally use Tripadvisor and they have a handy ranking system. Going to the top 10 restaurants (or lower if you want something cheaper) is usually a good bet. I found an amazing mamak Malaysian place in Auckland that way.

    You can also try using google search as they are including Zagat reviews. Google averages reviews from many sites (including Tripadvisor) and can give you a higher number of reviews for a given place if yelp coverage is thin.

    • yeah that’s always been my assumption about Yelp overseas, not a lot of coverage. the couple times i’ve tried TA i’ve been pleasantly surprised at its recommendations. thanks for the google tip, though! they seem to be getting a lot smarter in giving relevant results.

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