How Does Google Build a Social Network?

Google recently rolled out their Places app for iPhone – it’s about time! The Places app has been on Android for nearly six months and will surely pick up many users on the iPhone platform. With geo-aware suggestions, ratings, and built in directions for walking and driving, “Places” is one of the most-used apps on my phone. Along with announcing the Places app, Google drew some attention to its related Hotpot service, which, according to their website, allows you to “connect with your friends and find out the right place to go near you.” Sounds like another attempt by Google to gain some footing in the Social space, but my take on this is that Google is again coming up short in this category. For me, the bottom line is this: If Google wants to get social right, it has to start doing social.

Here’s an example: The service, it turns out, is not baked into the standard Places app on my Android phone, so I took this opportunity to sign up and learn more.  When signing up for Hotpot, I was surprised to see that Google is asking me to invite specific friends on an almost one-by-one basis. Seems like a slow way to build my social network, especially when you consider that Google could probably discern my network (that is, recommend friends) based on my email patterns through Gmail and with some basic geo location knowledge. In fact, I question why I have to explicitly sign up for Hotpot at all. As an Android user who already has Places, why put me through a special process and app to connect with friends? I’m wary of Hotpot becoming yet another abandoned service on the Google highway, in particular like Latitude.

Facebook has no problem in recommending friends when I’m on their site. In the same vein, I think that Google has to start speaking Social in the active voice if it wants to be successful here. They have no shortage of information that could be used to connect me to my friends and start weighting Places reviews, for example. If they were to take one or two bold moves to gain critical mass in terms of social data, I don’t doubt that Google would quickly become a recommendation engine in a way that I suspect that Facebook never could be. Facebook (and Foursquare and Gowalla) make what I would term “soft recommendations” by virtue of letting me know where my friends have been – in itself a tacit seal of approval of some sort. Google, however, has the opportunity to bridge the gap to the more formal recommendations that we see in Yelp, for example, along with star ratings. While I still have believe that the best recommendation platforms should be based on taste graph instead of social graph, there is utility in the latter and Google could get to the top of the geosocial checkin game very quickly if it only made the decision to behave like a social platform.

Today’s post has a specifically focused look at Hotpot as related to Google’s social media efforts. The picture for Google is much bigger and more complicated, of course -- in particular when you consider significant potential backlash fueled by privacy concerns and their failed attempt to woo Yelp, for example. Nonetheless, I think it is time for Google to set up a firm center of gravity for social media in an effort to counterweight its traditional tentacle-like grips on the web at large. What do you think? Are you using Hotpot? Is it better/worse than Yelp's great mobile app, for example? Please share below!

By Aaron Zwas -- Director of Emerging Technologies at Digital Marketing Works.