Google HotPots – As tasty as it sounds?

November 23rd, 2010 by Julia Ramsey

I love Vietnamese food. The word “love,” as a rule, gets thrown around with some degree of carelessness. I doubt, for example, that my International Relations grad-student roommate is romantically enamoured with Nelson Mandela despite proclaiming her undying affection for his “dreamy” social policy, but there’s just no other verb to describe my all-consuming desire for bánh mě sandwiches and bánh bao steamed buns.

I wanna marry it...

When I heard about Google’s new HotPots feature, I immediately (possibly because it was close to lunchtime) started envisioning a sour soup, maybe canh chua tom, redolent of tamarind, spicy shrimp, pineapple and enough bean sprouts to keep me chock-full of phytochemicals for a month. Oh baby.

HotPots, despite its deliciously misleading name, is Google’s new location-based “recommendation engine” that spells big news for both consumers and businesses looking to optimize their location-based advertising. Much like the soup I’m now craving, it’s an amalgamation of several complementary features– user reviews combined with a less subjective star rating system, location and preference-based recommendations and a social networking aspect.

Google had already edged in this direction in late October with its new streamlined integration of content from review websites like Yelp and Zagat, but the addition of HotPots content to Places pages may prove the most relevant factor for searchers. Users are now encouraged to directly rank and review businesses from their own Google profile, but are given the option to create a unique HotPots handle that is not linked to their general Google information.

Social results are relevant results here– there are options to display only reviews from friends, and places will get bumped up or down users’ search rankings depending on how said friends have rated in the past. The interface is a streamlined grid without an overabundance of information, making the feature remarkably user-friendly and available to consumers of all technical proficiencies. One feature I particularly like in the initial search page is the display of neighborhood or intersection in lieu of specific addresses; when I’m trying to decide if Cafe Minh is too far away to justify a sudden envie for summer rolls and beef pho garnished with lime and bristly Thai basil, I’m far more likely to immediately pick up on “Canal & Harney St.” than a context-less street number, and obtaining details such as phone number and address is as simple as clicking through into the establishment’s Places page.

To be honest, I initially wasn’t sure what to think about HotPots– Google has already done a great job integrating external reviews into their results pages, and I’ve never had a complaint with the location-based rankings they’ve provided me with thus far. Having poked around the application, though, I’m impressed. Google has done an admirable job adapting what could have been an unwieldy and overcomplicated tool to its potentially enormous audience, and I love the different levels of detail the user is allowed to provide– from simple smiley/frowny faces to detailed verbal reviews. There’s also potential for it to be incredibly useful to travelers, as the service by its very nature promotes businesses that make their customers happy. Quality rises to the top, and local word-of-mouth promotion has suddenly gotten a whole new venue.

HotPots is still in its beginning stages and it remains to be seen whether Google users will start providing rankings in earnest. However, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed poking around the interface and reviewing some of my own favorite (and least favorite) joints. I’m excited to see what interesting locales Google will suggest for me in the future, and will watch the service with interest as it accumulates more user data. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if any of my friends have suggestions for the best noodle house in town.