frankie-roberto[This week’s guest post is written by Frankie Roberto, Experience Designer, Rattle]

It’s said that a week is a long time in politics. Right now, in the few days after of a General Election, that’s even more the case. What does the result mean for the UK’s cultural heritage sector? I haven’t a clue. However, it was good to be reminded recently of policy of the re-introduction of free museum entry for the national museums (implemented in 2001). Even with big spending cuts apparently on the horizon, I can’t see this policy being reversed any time soon – and for that, we should be thankful.

Meanwhile, lets have a quick review of the week in cultural heritage.

Blog post of the week goes to Ian Edelman, who has written a review of the introduction of a ‘reviews’ function for museums on the Hampshire County Council website, titled What if they say something bad about us?.

I won’t bother to repeat Ian’s findings here – you can go and read the blog post for yourself – but it did get me thinking about other places in which you can read and post reviews of museums.

One key destination where you can find information about museums, including reviews, is of course Google. They’ve been steadily evolving their search engine, so that searches for museums and other attractions no longer just return a list of links to external web pages, but instead often include a link to Google’s own web page for that destination. These pages started out as part of a ‘Local Business’ search option, but have since been renamed “Place Pages” and feature prominently in regular Google searches, as well as on their Maps search and on searches from a mobile phone.

Whilst Google Place Pages are managed by Google, you can ‘claim your business’ (via a few different means, such a postcard that’s physically posted to you), which gives you a certain amount of control over the page, including the ability to add extra contact details and a short description.

More significant though is that Google Place pages include reviews. These are aggregated from sites such as Qype and TripAdvisor, as well including those posted directly to the page. Each review is associated with a star rating (out of five), which are used to calculate an average. Google’s magic software even automatically picks out a few key ‘themes’ from the reviews in a section called ‘what people are saying about’ – for example, the British Museum’s page picks out ‘collection’, ‘food’ and ‘setting’, each of which get a percentage-based ‘positive’ score.

I thought I’d do a quick review of these pages for the UK’s top national museums. You can see the results in a simple Google Spreadsheet. The good news is that all of the museums I looked at had an average score of either 4 or 4.5 stars out of 5. There were also over 1931 reviews, with four museums having over 200 each. Finally, there are some common themes which the reviews touch upon, such as the ‘collection’, ‘food’ and ‘service’. To get the most out of these reviews, however, you’ll have to read through them individually to get a sense of people’s visit experiences.

As well as the reviews, Google’s Place Pages also support ‘user content’ in the form of photos, videos and relevant web pages/blog posts. Google have also started to offer to take panoramic photos within certain select locations via its Business Photos free service, currently only available in a few cities in the US, Japan and Australia. It sounds to me almost to be a re-run of the dot-com era boom for ‘360 degree photo walkthrough’. (I wonder how many museums still have these available online?)

All of this activity points towards a race amongst the big US media companies to become ‘the’ destination and source for geographical and business information. In this race, if Google is the incumbent (who is rapidly trying to add ‘social’ features in order to remain relevant), the the up-starts are Gowalla and Foursquare.

I’ve only experienced Gowalla, but I believe that Foursquare provides a similar service. Both use apps installable on mobile phones to allow people to ‘check in’ to locations and attractions that they visit, with ‘leaderboards’ and ‘badges’ to reward regular check-ins. Whilst both are ostensibly game-like, they clearly also hold huge value as socially-driven databases of places to go and visit. Personally speaking, I’ve found Gowalla’s photo feature to be the most compelling. Each day, I walk through the Winter Garden in Sheffield, part of the Millennium Galleries. It’s a beautiful spot – a kind of miniature Kew Gardens – and so I’ve taken to the habit of capturing a new photo each day, which then gets virtually ‘dropped’ in the spot, for others to discover (see the photos). You might think that this isn’t that different to Flickr, or other existing services, but something about the located-ness of it makes it somehow more interesting and immediate.

Museums are well-represented on Gowalla – take a look at the British Museum spot, for instance – but I’m not sure yet what the opportunities for museums to directly interact with it are. (Given that Gowalla hasn’t announced a business or revenue model yet, I guess it’s still early days).

If there’s a conclusion to all this, it’s that users are interacting with, reviewing, and sharing content about museums in ever-newer destinations. Museums would do well to take note of these destinations, to interact where there is the opportunity to do so, and to monitor and read the reviews at the very least.

However, I also offer a brief cautionary note. Whilst the fact that these destination pages offer less control to museums and business owners isn’t new (this is the way that the web works), a bigger potential issue is that these destinations all offer ‘generic’ user experiences, whereas museums themselves can offer more bespoke, tailored user experiences. There’s a trade-off here between the power of the big media brands to achieve audiences and scale, and the ability of the museums to do something special and unique. I suspect the answer is that we’ll need both, but the question of where to spend resources is never far away.

If Google were to announce that it was going to photograph museum collections and create a page-per-object connected to its Place Pages (which isn’t unfeasible) – would you accept?