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Google mixes local and social reviews in Hotpot

In a new crack at a social technology, Google launches a service to review businesses and find what your friends recommend. Google Maps for Android dovetails with it.

Hotpot will present recommended businesses based on search terms and your previous ratings.
Hotpot will present recommended businesses based on search terms and your previous ratings.
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

If at first, second, and third you don't succeed, try, try again.

Google is taking another crack at a social service, this time with Hotpot, a tool designed to capture local knowledge and recommend establishments such as restaurants or stores you might want to visit. Google unveiled an early version of Hotpot in a blog post yesterday, and I think Hotpot has some attributes that could help it achieve modest success.

"With Hotpot, we're making local search results for places on Google more personal, relevant, and trustworthy," product manager Lior Ron said in the post, calling the service a "local recommendation engine powered by you and your friends."

As with many attempts to make something useful and commercially relevant out of social networking, Hotpot attempts to convert the recommendations of your connections into advice for you. Your own recommendations and warnings will be used as signals to determine which establishments are presented to your friends when they search--and, of course, vice versa.

So yes, that means if Hotpot attains any level of success, you'll be enduring yet another round of invitations from your online connections. I just inflicted some on my own friends and family in an attempt to try out Hotpot, and it pained me to do so.

But here's a nice thing about Hotpot: you can play it in solitaire mode, too, so to speak.

Google wants people to join Hotpot to rate local businesses and see what others have rated.
Google wants people to join Hotpot to rate local businesses and see what others have rated. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Based on what you've liked and disliked in your own reviews through the service, Google will tailor recommendations based on the broader pool of ratings of establishments in Google Places. This means that, although you'll be deprived of the wisdom of your local-savvy friends, the service still provides a human-filtered answer.

Hotpot, it should be noted, is eminently suited for making money. It's got search terms for entities that likely are related to commercial transactions, a tasty combination for Google's automated ad auction system.

If this all sounds a little familiar, it should: Yelp, whose local business data once fed into the Google Places service on which Hotpot is based, has been working for years on the idea of local reviews and socially influenced recommendations.

"Yelp is all about the power of word-of-mouth amplified," Yelp tells its new members. "Our growing online community wants to hear the real story about everything local, from you and your friends."

One advantage Yelp has going for it is integration with Facebook, which can ease the painful process of trying to construct yet another social graph out of your online connections.

Facebook, too, is trying to cash in on local business dealings. Facebook Places, for example, lets merchants offer deals to people who electronically "check in" to a particular spot using the company's geolocation services.

Google has been trying to build social networking into its business for years now. Orkut caught on in a couple corners of the world--Brazil and India--but not beyond that. Google Latitude gives people a way to find their friends on Google Maps, but it has languished too. Google Buzz, the most recent effort, grafted onto Gmail for easier social graph construction, but it's faltered as well. (That's too bad, in my opinion, since I prefer its user interface to Facebook's any day.)

Google isn't one to give up easily, though, and location services have new prominence at the company with Marissa Mayer now spearheading Google's location-aware services and local markets work.

The company has some assets on its side in this competition. Here are three big ones: search, Android, and Google Maps.

Ready for another social service? Sign up for Hotpot. The service uses your ratings both in a mostly anonymous way and more personally with your social connections.
Ready for another social service? Sign up for Hotpot. The service uses your ratings both in a mostly anonymous way and more personally with your social connections. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Search, which is Google's cash cow, could theoretically give Google an advantage if its algorithms do, in fact, produce relevant results.

But with Google Places, there is a garbage in, garbage out problem: why, when I searched for car repair businesses in my home of Old Windsor, England, did Hotpot show me Clewer Mill Stream, a haunt where (Wikipedia informs me) the Knights Templars of Bisham granted a license for a fishery in 1198 and 19th-century schoolboys from Eton were penalized if caught shooting waterfowl? On the flip side, Hotpot's recommendations for New Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe--a subject in which I have some modest if somewhat outdated expertise--were spot on. I immediately added some ratings of my own for restaurants I liked with the nice Hotpot interface that flips over the cards on which the entries appear so you can enter the information.

Android and Google Maps are related: each is a tremendous boon for the other since knowing where you are is so important when you're out and about. Version 4.7 of the Google Maps app for Android just arrived, and it's plugged into Hotpot.

When you launch the new version, you'll see this update message: "Rate places to get personalized place recommendations. Add the 'Rate Places' widget to your home screen to rate a place quickly while you're there."

It's not clear how many people will leap to supply Google with this user-generated content. But certainly there's a fair amount already in Google Places, and making it easier to add more will undoubtedly help. Amazon, Yelp, and others have given people a mechanism to have their say about their customer experiences, and Google might have an easier time plugging into that impulse than into the more serious commitment of participating in some new social service.

Here's one more thing I find fascinating about Hotpot, Google Places, Google Maps, and Street View: the idea that Google is building a virtual overlay to the real world. Search results are a virtual phenomenon that has relevance to the real world, but Places is essentially a layer of information stitched directly to the real world.

Augmented reality, which aligns closely with this concept, has plenty of hype from overenthusiastic advocates, but it's not just sci-fi silliness. The navigation app on my Android phone is a very here-and-now example of what can be done.

Finally, I find Google Places and Hotpot intriguing due to who owns its content.

A lot of what Google has done in its mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible" is index what's already available online--Web pages, books, and Twitter, if not Facebook.

With Places--as with photos in Panoramio, streets and 3D buildings in Google Maps, and the ill-fated Knol--Google wants us all to add the information directly to Google. The company has been better than most about sharing such data with others through application programming interfaces, but there's no doubt that information Google controls is more valuable than that it skims from the rest of the Net.