Google wants to help you slam a lid on your steaming selection of favourite places with Hotpot, its local recommendation service.
Search for a place -- pubs in Beer, for example -- and Hotpot lays out a savoury table of results. The difference between searching for the same thing in Google Maps is that rather than see a map with suggestions listed down the side, the results take pride of place.
We liked how places were displayed, in a grid which emphasises the photo and the rating of each location. We want more information for each one, however. Restaurants, for example, show the type of cuisine but not the ever-important price range. At least it's easy to click a result to see more details on Google's full listing.
The strength of Hotpot is that it uses Google's search-algorithm mojo to recommend places based on what you've searched for before, and any ratings for places you've given to Google.
We took a spin by rating our favourite, and most hated, pubs and then seeing what it recommended based on those. Hotpot did a very good job of spotting what we like, and we heartily agreed with its recommendations. But you'll have to put in the time to achieve good results -- at least a few dozen reviews in the category before it really gets you.
Hotpot wasn't as successful with restaurant recommendations, however. It often based them on our pub ratings, although a good bar doesn't usually make a good restaurant, and seemed to miss out on showing bistros we'd already rated highly.
Hotpot also uses your search history to suggest places near locations, if you don't recommend a specific place. When we searched for restaurants in London, for example, it served up places in the neigbourhoods we'd previously searched for. But this can have an odd effect on the results, if you're not specific about where you're looking, or if Google doesn't understand the location you've entered.
Also, because they're automatically aggregated, Google's listings can be flaky. For example, photos are often unhelpful shots of people partying, or in the disturbing case of one pub, step-by-step photos of someone making a Scotch egg. Some things, you should never see how they're made.
On the plus side, it's handy to see reviews from Qype, Zagat, Fancyapint and various other sites all sucked into one place and extruded like a five-star sausage. But that means there's often no consensus about whether a place is awesome or awful, and star ratings hover around the high end for almost everywhere.
Inevitably, there's also a social-networking angle to it all, and you can connect with your friends to see their ratings too. But Google's history of social-networking flops, from chat to, haunts Hotpot too. The list of friends Google recommended we connect with was terrible, including a hotel we emailed once, three years ago.
As professional megalomaniacs, we think our opinions are more valuable than anyone else's, and that's why we've got high hopes for Hotpot. Google's number-crunching robots definitely have the potential to revolutionise recommendations based on your preferences, rather than sifting through other people's reviews, especially if you can convince your friends to get on board. For pubs in particular, we'll be going back to Hotpot when we feel the thirst.
But you must be willing to invest some serious time rating places before it gives good results -- and even then, it makes robotic errors like confounding pubs and restaurants. If you're dedicated to creating your own little world of reviews, it's worth trying, but if you want a quick tip to the best place nearby, we'd stick to your review site of choice.