User Review Sites
While professional critics can be great guides, there's much to be said for the wisdom of your neighbors--if you can tap that wisdom. Sites such as Citysearch and Yahoo Local have struggled for years to get people to submit reviews of restaurants and local venues, with mixed success. But a newcomer may have solved that problem by striking the right note with users and thereby generating the needed participation.
Winner: Yelp, a San Francisco-based startup with a focus on food reviews, seems to have figured out the magic formula. It combines a pretty interface; social networking features that, for example, let you send kudos to other reviewers; and a sense of community that brings food lovers together. Each listing displays a map and, in the cases of popular restaurants in major urban areas, 50 to 200 detailed reviews with star ratings.
Anyone can read the site's reviews, but registered users (membership is free) can bookmark their favorite restaurants and assemble a network of reviewers with tastes similar to their own.
Though mostly focused on restaurants, Yelpers have started to add reviews of mechanics, furniture makers, dentists, and even car washes. Even smaller cities like Poughkeepsie, New York, now have some local reviewers.
Runner-up: Angie's List, by contrast, charges users $6 a month to read and write reviews of home contractors. The number and quality of reviews varies in the 80 cities Angie's List covers, but larger metros have some very good recommendations, and the $6-a-month fee can easily be recouped if you save $100 on a plumber.
The site feels dated and could use some interactivity. For instance, it gives you no way to rate another person's recommendation, subscribe to their reviews, or ask other people for suggestions.
Runner-up: Given Yahoo's millions of users, Yahoo Local is a bit of a disappointment. The site nicely interweaves snippets of restaurant reviews from local newspapers and professional review sites with user reviews, but simple ratings are more common than full-fledged reviews. The site, which includes reviews of mechanics, restaurants, dry cleaners, and a wide range of other services, allows you to vote on other people's reviews, bookmark pages, and send information to your cell phone.
All that may sound appealing, but Yelp's energy puts Yahoo Local's personality-free site to shame. Yahoo Local reviews tend toward nondescriptive tags such as "good and cheap," while Yelp users may spend a paragraph describing an appetizer.
Runner-up: Citysearch.com, the oldest player in online reviews, combines paid professional reviews of a wide range of businesses, including restaurants, spas, and hotels, with user opinions. Its best feature is the inclusion of handy insider tips, such as which tables to grab for people watching. While Citysearch lets users bookmark sites, you have no way to bookmark your favorite reviewer. And though the breadth of listings is good and user participation is fairly high, it lacks the community feel and vitality of Yelp.