Add Some Hotpot to your Maps with Google Places

Google’s most recent foray into the iOS platform is Google Places (somehow suffixed with “hotpot”), a location-based recommendation app with a web backup.

Google Places is one of Google’s ventures that is aimed at both businesses and consumers. The former being able to increase their exposure and the latter able to make more informed decisions on where they visit. Whilst location-oriented features have been available in Google Maps for a long time, this is one of the first proper offerings in the App Store.

Coffee, Bars and ATMs

On your first experience with the app, you’ll see a 3×3 icon grid displayed in a similar way to the Facebook app. Just as on the Facebook app, you can customize this screen with your own custom searches. Not a pizza fan? No problem, just replace that icon with a link to your nearest McDonalds listings.

When you launch one of these sub-screens, the nearest locations that fits into that category shows up, complete with average five-star rating, distance and image, if applicable. This is a great way to browse through your options for dinner tonight, or to the next gas station. After selecting one location, a contact-like display allows you to see the location in text or on a map, get directions, phone them and read reviews.

Reviews are aggregated from across the web and those that have been rated on Google Places. Aggregated reviews come from some popular sites such as Qype in addition to those from Google. These reviews are from Places users who have rated the establishment in stars, text and in simple good-bad ratings for things such as value, food, atmosphere and service (for a restaurant).

Google Places has a functional web version (in addition to Maps).

I live in the UK, away from the hustle and bustle of the major cities. I’m not totally out in the rural country, but certainly not inner-city. Even here, almost every establishment is listed with fairly extensive reviews on most.

Real World Usage

Google Places is all about real world usage and the app does this very well. It’s easy enough to bring up the app, tap “Restaurants” and find the nearest chinese takeout within half a mile. From here, you can either use the GPS-generated distance or head to the map view to work out how easy it is to get there.

Services like this are a testement to the increasing consumer usefulness of smartphones, offering users support in making their decisions for a planned, “structured” night or simply to find the cheapest gas station while on the road (of course, not when you’re driving!).

It’s a Google App

The app is what you’d expect from Google. It’s polished, it’s functional and it links in with their other products. Places is pretty much just an extension of their Maps functionality. This is apparent both in terms of it’s actual functionality and it’s connection with the main service. My in-app review of my local McDonalds appeared on Google Maps, both it’s five-star review and the like-dislike values we discussed before.

Google Places offers the same clean yet functional interface you'd expect from a Google product.

As much as it’s great that this is a professional app coming out of a credible company, it’s also coming out of a rival company with a rival OS: Android. Google’s “native” version of the app that is supplied with their downloadable Maps app. The counterpart app is pretty much the same with some added ads. However, the app fits a little further into Google’s ecosystem in this instance, with features like Street View and even Buzz being accessible on Android, but not on the iPhone.

Advertising as an Advantage

This is one of Google’s products where the advertising potential to businesses is to the advantage of the consumer. Businesses that are, and always have been, on Google Maps maintain their prescense on Places, but are generally encouraged to entertain premium offerings from Google.

As mentioned before, Places is just an extension of Maps and the same business features are available. Photos are generated from Google’s exisiting Street View service. However, establishments in select cities can grab a free Google photo shoot to increase the professionally of the photos shown on the Google service from the default Street View shots.

Conclusion

As we covered in “Real World Usage”, this is a strong testement to the usefulness of smartphones even for those not connected like most the readers of this site will be. Google Places is a nice, functional app and unlike some of Google’s recent ventures (*cough* Buzz *cough*), this is integrated into an already popular service.

It’d be great to see Places integrated directly into the Maps apps rather than it be a separate app, and the lack of native iPad support isn’t great either. However, it’s a free app that fits into the Google ecosystem very well and it’s a strong contender to services like Yelp.


Summary

An app full of real-world features that's particularly useful in places you've never been before. Plus, the hotpot feature apparently tailors results to you. Plus, it's built on Maps, so there's no limits during rollout.

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