WEB REVIEW: Goodreads helps readers find their next favorite novel

March 29, 2012

As people head out for spring break and summer vacations wait around the corner, questions about reading material abound. Everyone, it seems, is looking for trusted sources to help them find the next great thing to put on their e-reader or in their travel bag.

There are several ways to do this, of course. Amazon (www.amazon.com) has a deep review system that seems to have information on nearly everything ever published. Other book sellers offer similar services on their websites.

But while the information is there, the problem is knowing whom to trust. Even reviews that aren’t anonymous afford only a small degree of comfort in the opinions. The issue is that we don’t have a context we can use to appreciate the point of view of the reviewer. This is precisely why word-of-mouth is the most reliable way to find your next favorite book to read.

Problem is, you can’t be certain anyone will have the time or availability to discuss these things when you’re ready for a recommendation. Which is exactly what Goodreads (www.goodreads.com) is trying to fix.

Goodreads is an online community for people who love to read. It compiles the ratings and reviews from users everywhere and has a powerful ‘recommendation engine’ that will help you find new things to read.

The recommendation engine is awesome. When you add a book to your shelf, you give it a rating and can write a review or add comments. Each time you rate a book positively, the site provides a short list of others you’re likely to enjoy based on this data. I found it to be pretty accurate: When I rated “The Killing Floor” by Lee Child, Goodreads suggested “Point of Impact” by Stephen Hunter, a book I had previously read and liked as well. Other recommendations felt similarly useful.

In some cases, Goodreads will recommend books you’ve already read. One click adds these to your shelf and improves the next recommendations. You can also identify books you’d like to read by adding the “To Read” label.

Once you’ve rated enough books, the engine begins offering suggestions in the form of a personal recommendation list, sorted by genre. The list presents five books at a time from each genre with a link to get more. When you hover over a particular recommendation, you’ll learn why it was selected, see a brief synopsis, and get some additional stats to help you decide if you’re interested.

The only drawback I experienced was an uneasy feeling that it might be promoting some books based on a marketing arrangement, but these seemed fairly obvious and easy to remove from the other, more useful suggestions.

One of the interesting features of the “Explore” area of the site is the trending statistics. With these, you can see which books are currently popular and are receiving the most activity—an interesting way to see emerging hits before they completely break out. 

All these features, while nice, don’t really seem to separate Goodreads from the competition. That’s where the social aspect of the site comes into play.

At its heart, Goodreads is a social network, providing you tools to connect with your book-loving friends by giving you the opportunity to integrate with your e-mail, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Once you have them connected, Goodreads helps you find your friends who are also using Goodreads. Connecting with them is a simple, one-click procedure. 

The real benefit to this is being able to supplement the site’s recommendation engine with the opinions of people you know and trust. So instead of just seeing statistics on what the general public thinks of a book, you can see what your friends think. For example, while I may agree or disagree with a friend’s claim that “The Godfather” is one of the best five books ever written, I understand the context and can use this to help make better decisions about what he recommends.

And just like a recommendation for a plumber, these personal opinions are far more valuable.•


Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.


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