Google Hotpot: a New Recommendation Engine

Google Hotpot represents the search engine’s latest attempt to mix search with social networking. If you’re looking for new places to try, and you have a lot of friends online, it could help you make some new discoveries. Let’s take a look at how it works.

Google Hotpot is tied into Google Places. If you want to use it, it helps if you have a Google profile (but it doesn’t need to be public). You definitely need a Google account, which you already have if you have Gmail. You can get to Hotpot by following the link.

Once you’re signed in, Hotpot gives you a public nickname, just as a way to help keep track of your reviews; you can change it if you want. Click through the opening screen, and you get a page with a search box at the top, with the word “restaurant” already entered. I performed the search, and was greeted by restaurants in my local area, which I was asked to rate.

These restaurants were not listed in the usual way you see search results listed. They appeared in rectangular boxes, about three and a half inches long and two inches wide on my laptop’s screen. At the top of each listing, you can click a star that says “Save for later,” which will presumably let you rate it later, or an X that says “Not interested,” which will presumably remove it from the listing.

Below these two options you’ll find the name of the restaurant, with a link. The link takes you to the Google Maps listing of the place. If you’ve never seen one of  these (and if you haven’t, what rock have you been living under?), it includes the address, phone number, fax number, a map that shows how to get there, a list of categories for the place, its specialties, reviews from around the web, reviews from Google users, and a whole lot more. If you like to do research on a company before you patronize them, it’s not a bad place to start.

But back to the Hotpot listing. Below the name of the restaurant, you’ll usually find a picture (sometimes they’re “camera shy”) of either the exterior of the restaurant or a sample dish. Below this image you’ll find some indication of where the restaurant is located; this can be either the town name or something more specific, like the intersection. Below that, you’ll find a brief description of the cuisine, such as “Traditional American” or “Ribs.” That latter was applied to a local Outback Steakhouse, though, so it’s not always perfect.

The most interesting part is just below this, however. That’s where you’ll find the place’s rating. This ranges from one to five stars. Next to the rating you’ll see how many people have rated it. You can click on this number; it will take you to the Google Maps page for the place, which also shows you reviews from around the web, and reviews from other Google users.

And right below the place’s rating is your opportunity to rank the place. There’s a row of five stars; just click on one of them to give it the rating it deserves. (It goes without saying that you should have actually eaten there first!). In this row you’ll also find what looks like a star attached to a medal. That’s there so you can award a place a “Best Ever” rating. As a Hotpot user, you get 10 of these to give out, so use them sparingly. (You can always change your mind about a place later, though).

After you’ve ranked a place, you’ll be asked to “share a tip.” The image of the restaurant and everything else that was in that box goes away. Instead, you get your rating reflected back to you, and in a small box under this it says (for example) “What do you like about [name of restaurant]? Share a tip.” Click on this box and you can type in a brief review. Below this box, once you’ve typed in your review, you can click Publish or Cancel buttons. At least in some cases, you’ll also be shown a list of four things to rate with either smiley faces or frowning faces: food, service, atmosphere, and value.

Once you’ve ranked 15 or so restaurants, Hotpot can make recommendations. Each recommendation will include a reason (i.e. you ranked a similar restaurant very highly). You can send emails to friends through the program, asking them to sign up, so you can all see each other’s recommendations. You can look at a list of places that you’ve already ranked. You can even click on places from your history – places that you’ve searched for before – to rank.

In addition to seeing recommendations from your friends and turning them up in Hotpot, they follow you when you search for places on Google: in Maps, in Place Search, and even on your mobile phone. You’ll also see places that your friends have recommended in your search results. By the way, the system isn’t just for restaurants; it covers other businesses as well. I saw a local sewing shop pop up for a rating; while I didn’t rate it myself, I noted that it received a poor review. When I clicked to read the review, I felt oddly reassured that it confirmed my own sense of the place.

The system isn’t perfect. I was saddened to see a restaurant listed that had gone out of business a few months ago. Actually, I was doubly saddened. It was a good restaurant; I’d eaten there several times, and it had received a good review in Hotpot. Then again, restaurants have a short life expectancy just about anywhere. A service like this could help you make sure you catch the good ones before they disappear, especially if you share with friends.

Does this mean that Google is finally getting the social aspect right? That remains to be seen. Part of the problem is that some of these services need more people to participate to really take advantage of a “network” effect. If Google comes up with a way to make this easy to use through Facebook, that could be a good first step. Whether that makes sense given Google’s current approach is another question entirely.

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