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Google tries its hand at social networking – again!

Undeterred by previous missteps in the social media space, Google this week unveiled Hotpot (yes, that’s Hotpot, not Hotspot), a ratings and recommendations service that combines its expertise in maps and search. Hotpot currently works with the Places feature in Google Maps on Android devices, although Google promises that it will soon release a similar app for the iPhone.

The idea behind Hotpot is two-fold. First, every time you rate a place, your own personal “recommendation engine” gets a better idea of what you like. Express a preference for tapas bars or Mexican restaurants and you’ll start to see similar places listed whenever you check in on Google Maps.

But Hotpot doesn’t stop there. If you add friends in Google Places, you will start to see their recommendations as well. If you are travelling to a city and you know people who have visited or lived there, then you can ask them to rate the places they like, so their recommendations pop up when you’re there. Used often enough, Hotpot can become a trusted travel guide for hotels, restaurants, bars or businesses of any description.

To get the benefits of Hotpot, Android phone users will need to download Google Maps 4.7. That comes with the Rate Places widget, which can be accessed right off the phone’s home screen by going to Menu > Add > Widget > Rate Places. You can also post ratings and reviews from any Places page accessed through Google Maps.

Like all mobile location-based services, Google Maps works better when the Wi-Fi service is activated, which can be a significant drain on the phone’s battery when used over a long period of time. Also, there is a real danger of information overload – my phone gave me the option of rating every imaginable location within about a one mile radius, including the local high school, a park, and a cemetery!

If you think the Hotpot service sounds similar to other social networking tools, then you are right. It borrows heavily from Yelp and Foursquare, although without the gimmicks and “rewards” of that latter network.

Whether Hotpot takes off is largely dependent on whether people start to see Google as a viable social network and not just a Gmail and search service with a bunch of fancy apps. Unfortunately for Google, recent history doesn’t offer too much encouragement.

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