Google Hotpot – Yelp Meets Netflix in a Local Recommendation Engine

In August I asked:  Will Reviews Become Google’s First Successful Foray into Social? It struck me at the time that reviews were Google’s strongest and most successful play into the social world. Google had succeeded with Places to garner a significant number of reviews and with the owner review response feature to garner a strong, albeit sometimes, bizarre interaction between reviewers and owners. This dynamic had all the elements of a successful social site.

Google is now building out the strong social nature of their review process with Google Hotpot, a stand alone site and a recomendation engine available in Maps, Places and Mobile. The product, noted as an early release, will offer suggested Places that you will like based on your previous reviews as well as the Places that are liked by your friends.

Since it is a recommendation engine, it will reward the viewer with better information for having written reviews or having friends or both thus making it functional out of the starting gate even without a large friend participation.

If you are friended it will also send you an email notifying you:

Subject: Matthew McGee wants to share recommendations with you on Google Places

Matthew has added you as a friend on Google Places — a smarter way to discover places you’ll love. Add Matthew back to see new recommendations in Google search results, on Google Maps, and on your mobile phone.

Add Matthew as a friend

Google Places is powered by Hotpot, our new local recommendation engine. Every time you rate places on Google, we’ll customize your search results with new recommendations based on your unique tastes. Adding friends whose opinions you trust makes your recommendations even better. Start building your own guide to the world at google.com/hotpot.

— The Google Places team

The recommendations are not just around entertainment or restaurants but around ALL places and are based on your preferred location identifed in Google search. Like all recommendation engines in their early stages without enough real data, results can tend toward the bizarre.

For example it provided me, an staunch non-believer, with suggestions for the local Catholic school and a local church. Perhaps Google is sending me a message. But then what would one think about the recommendation for my own business or a local motel?

This move makes sense of a number of earlier changes that in and of themselves did not make a lot of sense. Hotspot puts their early 2010 addition of Nearby Places of competitors into the Place Page in perspective as well as more recent moves of tightening down privacy in the review process and making your search location choice more visible on the desktop. All necessary to make Hotspot more accurate.

Google has long been working on the separation of Places and Maps. This is as much to give Places a more visible platform as it is to give Maps the freedom to experiment with more social layers without negatively affecting “the franchise”. Latittude, Buzz and now Hotspot are all integrally tied to the Maps platform. Maps offer them an underlying geo awareness for the data as well as a display layer that is visually intuitive.

These social moves leverage Google’s strong Mapping technology AND their successful Places data set without the intense pressure of being on the front page of the Google results. Like Buzz & Lattitude, Hotspot will exist in the relative obscurity of Maps and the Places Pages. Google separated Places from Maps after 6 years of development and refinement. Hotspot, like Places, will have the opportunity to develop in much the same way.

But even the “hidden” nature of Maps has a relatively high profile with 3 times the traffic of Yelp. Google’s every move is compared to Facebook. So while Google is attempting to get these layers functioning at scale they will be under a fair bit of scrutiny.

Will Hotpot succeed? Time will tell. It is clear to to me that Hotspot like Places & Buzz are not perceived within Google as stand alone products but clearly, part of a larger plan that includes local, mobile and at some point the main Google SERPS. Maps is an environment where it can get tested, tweaked and improved.

ReviewBiz – Making Reviews Friction Free

I am a big fan of an ethical review solicitation process that smooths the path between customers and creating reviews. If reviews are going to reflect the overall impression of your business accurately, a broad sampling of your customers needs to participate and it needs to be easy.

I think that the opportunity to easily leave these reviews should be available to all customers not just a select few. In the past, I have suggested that visitors to your website should be provided direct links to leave reviews at a range of popular review sites. I am also a big believer in free tools that make the job of the SMB and their web designer easier.

Brightlocal.com has just introduced such a tool: ReviewBiz. The tool automates the process of locating the relevant review site pages, generating the correct url for leaving the review and creates a widget so that these review links can quickly and easily be included on a website’s testimonial/review page. The tool is an admirable replacement for Michael Jensen’s Leavefeedback.org that unfortunately died in a server crash and was never revived.

The process as outlined on the BrightLocal site to create the widget for your website is quick and easy:

1. Select the country you are in – UK or US (it shows review sites for both countries)
2. Enter your business name & zipcode
3. Review the returned business listing details & confirm that they belong to your business
4. Choose the ReviewBiz widget style that you want to appear on your website
5. Pick the review sites that you want to include
5. Copy & paste the ReviewBiz code into your website

The result is a widget, offered in a choice of widths and two styles; one that offers a window shade drop down and the one shown below that provides a full view of the selected review sites:

Review 'blumenthals.com' with ReviewBiz local SEO tools from BrightLocal.com

As a new product, it still has a few minor quirks but generally works well. For example it sometimes included sites that I explicitely asked it to exclude (like Merchant Circle) and it could do a slightly better job of auto generating the URLs to take a user slightly closer to the actual input screen to leave the reviews. Myles Anderson of Brightlocal has noted that both issues would soon be fixed.

These are minor criticisms. It is valuable product that is presentable, facilitates customers leaving reviews and it is free. For the web designer it is a useful, readily usable product that significantly shortens the time to get the job done. For the SMB that is maintaining their own site, it automatically generates the necessary code and makes the job adding these links to your website easily doable.

As designers and small businesses let me know what you think of the tool. To test it simply select my Google link above and leave a review. 🙂

Google Coupons Joining the Witness Protection Program as Google Offers

You won’t have Google Coupons to kick around anymore. It appears that they are joining the witness protection program under a new name: Google Offers.

Google Coupons Become Google Offers

Google Coupons had been the Rodney Dangerfield of Google local products, always hidden, never talked about and for years, after an optimistic start in 2006, they languished.

Until Google removed the ability to easily search for coupons, it was obvious from my annual coupon survey that their y/y usage was declining and by early 2009 Google coupons seemed to be on life support.

They were hidden not just from my research efforts but from the eyes of consumers as well. Here is what I told an SMB poster in the support forum that was searching for his own coupon:

Coupon location is one of the best kept secrets of Google Maps. Even Maps Guide Jen has been known to have trouble locating them. The only entity totally capable of finding them after they have been posted is the GoogleBot. Occassionally they are spotted by humans but only after they have drilled into Maps quite deeply.

Over the past 16 months, the traditionally moribund coupon program has started seeing a slow and erratic rebirth, apparently speeding up over the past few months.
Continue reading Google Coupons Joining the Witness Protection Program as Google Offers

Goog-411 R.I.P. – I’ll Miss You

Update 10:43 EST: Perhaps I am in ever hopeful denial or perhaps someone at Google forgot to turn out the lights but when I just dialed 1-800-Goog-411, it answered and was still working!

I have followed Goog-411 from its seriptitious inception masquerading as a non-Google service called 520-find, to its bizarre rural advertising campaign, to the announcement last month of its ultimate demise. I have been writing about it and using it since October, 2006, well before it was announced as a Google product in April, 2007. It clearly demonstrated for me, the reach that Google Local would have.

Today, it has officially shut down.

Goog-411 billboard

It did one thing and did it well…. retrieve business phone numbers and complete calls for you with a simple voice interface. It worked on every cell phone ever made.

It was (and still is) Google’s best mobile product and one that most closely reflected the spartan, utilitarian ideals of the original Google search engine. It was simple. It worked. It was device independent and it was free. It was the absolute safest way to complete a call while driving down the highway…. no fiddling with the phone, no visual interaction. You talked, it listened and then it dialed.

It came out at a time when 411 services were all the rage and every company was trying to develop a successful business model. Unfortunately none ever succeeded at creating both a successful income stream AND a useful product that achieved mass adoption. Goog-411 was no exception. Despite its razor sharp focus and utility, Google never found a great way to monetize it (nor promote it- sheesh billboards in Olean? Maybe they just wanted to hear phonemes from Northern Appalachia 🙂 ).

After a while, it was repositioned as a way for Google to learn and acquire phonemes to improve their speech recognition.

Apparently it has done that admirably. Google suggests replacing it with their iPhone or Android voice search which do a great job (if I am standing still). It seems though that every time I try to use it the way that I used Goog-411, I nearly get in an accident.

As much as I like Google’s (and others for that matter) current mobile voice search products none can do what Goog-411 does. I will miss it.

Google Places Upgrades Owner Review Response Feature

Owners responding to reviews is a volatile arena where most anything can happen. Despite discretion being the better part of valor, silence rarely is the option chosen.

When the Google Places owner response feature was not functioning this week, this owner responded to a negative review with a review of his own:

It appears that Google, in an effort to encourage cooler heads to prevail has recently (not sure when) upgraded the owner response feature to provide guidance in responding (not that I think most owners will read it). Continue reading Google Places Upgrades Owner Review Response Feature

Google Places: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google Employee Stephan S has just posted this in the Places Forum post to report “missing” reviews confirming that Google has started to remove reviews (bold is mine):

As mentioned in this forum previously, we’re currently experiencing an issue that is preventing us from showing some reviews on Place pages. We’re working to correct this issue as soon as possible, and apologize for the inconvenience and frustration this has caused some of you.

However, please remember that there are various reasons why reviews may not appear. We’re continuing to do our best to ensure that the reviews in our system are legitimate and high-quality. To protect both business owners and customers, we have systems in place that may remove individual reviews, and with the revised review policies we released a few months ago (see below) we have taken a stronger stance against spam and other forms of abuse. So while some of you are seeing less reviews because of the aforementioned error, many of you are experiencing removed reviews because they have been removed by our systems. We acknowledge that sometimes our algorithms may flag and remove legitimate reviews in our effort to combat abuse, but believe that overall, these measures are helping to ensure that the reviews appearing on Place pages are authentic, relevant and useful.

References:
Review Posting Guidelines & Policy (Help Articles)

Google has finally released a public statement about their stance on reviews. It is not clear to me, as David Mihm pointed out, that they have either the PR machinery or customer support structure in place to deal with the coming fury….

Here are some other recent articles that have dealt with the review issues on Google Places… Continue reading Google Places: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google Places: Selective Reviews Now Being Removed

Update: Google Confirms New Review Removal Practices

Google appears to be actively removing some reviews from Places listings.

Some of the recent problems of reviews being lost are clearly algo based and reports of lost reviews continue to pile up in the forums. But my poking around in Places indicates that there is more intentionality than bug in the behavior (although never underestimate the bugs in Places :)).

Yesterday I noted that Google is favoring reviews that were written by reviewers that have a public presence. Clearly, they are now not displaying the names of “private” reviewers. Have the changes gone deeper than that?

I  wanted to go back and see if any suspicious reviews had been removed. This is harder than it seems as very few people keep track of individual bogus reviews… where and when they saw them, who posted them… those details are usually lost.

However, I did remember that both Miriam Ellis and I had done articles about reviews that seemed suspect; me in Do Positive Only Review Services have a place? and Miriam in her great piece Are These Reviews Authentic? You Be The Judge. Serendipitously both pieces had identifiable screen shots of obviously faked questionable reviews as a basis for a limited test.

Surprise! (or maybe not) In both cases, all of the questionable reviews in the screen shots are no longer showing in Google Places.

Miriam’s blog showed reviews from Goodson Honda West’s Places Page that were dated between July 23 and August 2:

Questionable reviews in Google Places

While Goodson still shows 32 third party reviews and 20 reviews from Google, there is not one review from the timeframe from July 23 to August 2  still visible on the Places Reviews by Google User page.

The screen shot from my article showed reviews for a Cahuenga Pet Hospital from March 16th through March 24th:

Questionable reviews on Google Places that have been removed

Like in Miriam’s case, those reviews have been excised from a Places page that still includes 14 additional reviews.

Clearly, the disruptions that we are seeing in the Google Places Review environment are more than bugs, quirks and algo twitches. While two Places accounts are not a significant sample and may not totally reflect the new reality, these two cases are not accidents.

It appears nearly certain that Google is starting to clamp down on the fire hose of review spam.

Google 7-Pack Heatmaps & User Behavior Study

While Google has shifted the typical Places layout from the 7-Pack to the blended organo-local results, these 7-Pack heatmaps and research from ionadas local still hold a lot of value. This snippet is of particular interest:

And our most surprising finding certainly still applies. The conventional wisdom has been that the map itself should be one of the greatest draws on the page. Our research found that the map actually receives very little attention. Most people hardly notice its presence at all.

Google 7-Pack Heatmaps

Google Places – Are Reviews Now Being Filtered?

Last week I wrote an article, Google Places – Reviewer Names No Longer Showing. Feature or Bug?, where I highlighted the fact that reviewer names were not showing on reviews on a business’s Places listing.

I and a number of readers noticed that some names were showing and some were not. I received two reviews yesterday, one with user name and one without, which forced me to dig into the issue more fully:

After some digging (Andy only had one review on Google), I tested what seemed the obvious choice. If the user was publicly showing their name in the profile, the review would show and if they weren’t it wouldn’t.

This review was made on a Google account with no previous reviews that included a public profile & the option to display their name. The review was immediately visible with the reviewers name:

The second review was made on a Google account with no previous reviews in the same time frame, without a public profile and the option deselected to display their name.

Initially it was showing on the Places page without the name but has subsequently disappeared from view. Whether the review will ultimately display on Google Places is not clear. Perhaps it will show up sooner or later or perhaps, Google, like Yelp has started to not show some less trustworthy reviews… That is still to be determined.

The scenario reminded me of a comment made in March by Daniel Tunkelang, a tech lead at Google, in his article about review solicitation:

Still, my hope is that consumers will start placing less stock in the aggregated opinions of anonymous strangers and shift their trust to people who are more transparent about their identities and motives. The more that reviewers stand behind their opinion and put their own integrity on the line, the less it will matter whether those opinions are solicited or spontaneously expressed. We’ll see how the opinion marketplace sorts this out.

Regardless, it seems clear that this move is not a bug in Google Places but rather an intentional change. Minimally, it seems an effort on Google’s part to create a distinction between public and private reviewers. Perhaps though it is more….it remains to be seen whether they are filtering reviews and/or removing them algorithmically for violations.

It appears, that the review game is afoot.

Developing Knowledge about Local Search