Google’s Hotpot Launches — But Will Anyone Use It?

Google (s goog) has launched a local recommendations service with a rather unusual name, and a huge disadvantage. It’s called Google Hotpot — presumably a reference to the traditional Chinese “hotpot” or communal dining experience — and the disadvantage (apart from the weird name) is coming late to a market Yelp already dominates. Google’s effort is interesting in some ways, and has some strengths others may not because it’s part of a giant search company, but the reality is that the odds are stacked against it.

To Google’s credit, the new feature is relatively simple to get into: You log in, search for a place and theme (i.e., restaurants, nightclubs, etc.) and it presents you with a number of suggestions, which you can then rate — and you can see the ratings of others. Once you have rated five places, you get Google’s attempt at personalized recommendations, which based on my initial use are pretty predictable, and not much different from flipping through the Yellow Pages. The idea, though, is that over time it will learn from you, and also that your friends will start using it and their recommendations will influence your choices as well (Hunch is also experimenting with local recommendations).

Coincidentally, I recently looked at a very similar service — right down to the “flash-card” style interface that Google also uses — called In The Mo, which recently launched out of beta. Like Hotpot, you rate a certain number of locations and then you start to get personalized recommendations (to be fair, In The Mo also features video of local attractions, which makes it a bit different). The biggest problem for both this new startup and Hotpot is simple: at the moment, they are ghost-towns (although Google has access to your friends from your profile, if you allow it).

Obviously, every socially-based service is going to be a little sparse to begin with, but how many make the leap from that status to viral success? Not many. Google’s presence as a giant web company doesn’t make its odds any higher. If anything, it makes them lower. To be blunt, Google doesn’t have a fantastic track record with this kind of social app.

There’s the ill-fated Wave and its cousin Buzz, of course (which tried to get to viral success by adding all your email contacts), but even in the geo-location and recommendation area, Google hasn’t really been able to come up with something magical. Latitude, which could have been Foursquare — particularly after Google bought Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley’s previous location-based startup, Dodgeball — doesn’t seem to get used much (at least not by anyone I know) and Google’s user reviews via its Place pages don’t seem to have gotten much traction so far either (they are now incorporated into Hotpot).

About the only thing Google has going for it is pulling data from your search history (if you have that enabled) as well as your Latitude history (if you use it) and potentially make suggestions that are better than the run-of-the-mill ideas you will find via Yelp or some other local recommendation app. These still aren’t going to be recommendations from your friends, which likely have the most power; Google Hotpot isn’t going to be able to do that until your friends start using it, or until it offers some kind of connection with Facebook. That still arguably gives Facebook a leg up in terms of getting traction for such a service once it rolls out recommendations via Facebook Places.

When it gets right down to it, Google doesn’t have either of the things that Yelp or Facebook have when it comes to competing in this space. Yelp has built up a substantial database of user reviews, which gives it the depth that’s going to take Google a long time to reproduce, and Facebook has the social graphs of 500 million users, which means it has the network effect and the personal aspect that is also going to be difficult for Google to reproduce. If there was a bet on whether HotPot would be more like Google Maps (i.e., a big success) or more like Buzz, I would put my money on the latter.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):