Google Hotpot Smartens Up Local Search, But It’s No Yelp Killer
Google has unveiled the awkwardly-named Hotpot, which is a kind of ratings tool and recommendation engine for Google Places.
As you review restaurants, music venues, stores and the like, Hotpot’s recommendation engine learns what you like and suggests other places you might like. Throw in recommendations from friends and Hotpot starts to sound very useful. Indeed Hotpot is useful, bringing location-based searching, algorithms that learn what you like and friends’ recommendations together in a single place.
But, perhaps because of that combination of features, it’s also awkward to set up and poorly integrated with the rest of Google’s services. It has some features that trump its main competitor, Yelp, like the awesome search tool. But the social and community aspects of Hotpot — features Yelp handles well — are too difficult to get set up.
Which isn’t to say that Hotpot isn’t useful. You just have to clear its awkward silo-style hurdles first. If you head over to the new Hotpot URL, you’ll be asked to sign in with your Google account and then to pick a nickname for use on Google Places.
Once that’s done you’ll need to find your friends and “add” then to your list of Hotpot friends. Setting up Hotpot feels a bit like you just slipped back in time five years to a web where every social service is an island.
It could be that Google was worried about another Buzz-style backlash if it made Hotpot’s social features automated. Instead, everything is manual — you’re presented with a list of friends that you can add (follow might be the more familiar verb here) much like the process Google Reader uses.
However, with Reader the sharing notices are sent inside the Reader web app. With Hotpot, the notices are sent to your friend’s Gmail account for approval. Worse, there doesn’t seem to be an “Add all” button — if you’ve got 300 friends, you’ll be click “Add” 300 times.
Once you’ve made it past the initial hurdles of setting Hotpot up, its results are actually pretty good. Having only tested Hotpot for a few hours, it’s hard to judge the quality of recommendations, but as a simple Google Places search tool, the interface is clean and easy to use.
Hotpot is also integrated into normal Google searches as well. Just click the Places option in the list of filters and you see reviews and ratings from your friends alongside the familiar Yelp, Urbanspoon and other aggregated ratings.
The aggregated reviews are a win for Hotpot. The big difference between Yelp and Google Hotpot is volume — Yelp has hundreds of reviews for all the restaurants in my neighborhood written by individuals from its loyal users. Google has a big enough database of user reviews, but it’s not as vibrant or extensive as Yelp’s.
But Hotpot gets around that limitation by culling reviews from around the web — in the case of restaurants, there’s Zagat, OpenTable, Gayot, Yelp, Blogspot and WordPress food blogs. Some places have a lot of Google user reviews, but Yelp usually always has more.
Though there needs to be a way to keep reviews from Insider Pages from showing up in Hotpot. They are universally worthless and presumably written mainly by YouTube commenters.
It’s interesting to note that Yelp is all about community, and Hotpot’s mapping and searching features are more advanced, but its community and social features are lacking. The two would be a perfect match if they were combined. Yelp reportedly screwed up a chance to be bought by Google last year — consider it salt on the wound that Google is pulling reviews from Yelp to beef up its own competing product.
Where Hotpot may find its big mojo, which would save it from the same fate as Google Wave, is inside Google’s mobile apps. For now that means Android 1.6+, though an iPhone app is in the works. There’s no word on a Windows Mobile app.
The new features in the Google Android app mean that, if you’re in an unfamiliar part of town, you can quickly find a nearby restaurant that your friends love, or an out-of-the-way music store you didn’t know about.