“Atlas Shrugged, Quo Vadis?, The Fountainhead, The Robe, and The Godfather.” My friend John was ticking off his list of “Best Books Ever Written”. “Including The Godfather will likely raise some eyebrows,” he said, “but it deserves to be there.”

Almost immediately, the debate began. This is what friends do: we share likes and dislikes, we debate the merits of almost everything, and we make recommedations to each other in an ongoing effort to improve each others’ lives. The power of word of mouth conversations and referrals is likely obvious to anyone who has ever needed a plumber or mechanic or handyman. In fact, this type of conversation can make or break a business — or a book.

Now, as people head out for Spring Break and Summer waits 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 has a very deep review system that seems to have information on nearly everything ever published. Other booksellers offer similar services on their websites. But while the information is there, the problem is knowing who to trust. Even reviews that aren’t annonymous only afford 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 conversations like the those I’ve had in the last few days are the most reliable way to find the next great book to read.

The only drawback to relying on these conversations is timing. You can’t be certain that anyone will have the time or availability to discuss these things when you’re ready for a recommendation. This is exactly what Goodreads 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 that 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 you 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, a brief synopsis, and 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 acitivity; a interesting way to see emerging hits before they completely break out.

All of these features, while nice, don’t really seem to separate Goodreads from the competition. That’s where the social aspect of 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 email, 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 John’s recommendations, 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.