The premise behind Yelp is simple: it lets you search for nearby places of interest like restaurants, gas stations, bars, drugstores, etcetera. It also offers sponsored "deals" and location check-ins through Yelp's social networking service.
Yelp sports a fairly simple and easy to use interface with icons for each of the major functions. Searching for places is just as easy: choose a category and go, and it'll automatically use your current location and quickly display results.
The layout of information is fairly simple and, for a wonder, doesn't bother with a lot of flashy graphics around it. Instead it provides simple facts about the place you're looking at: amenities, cost, payment options, reviews, etcetera. Shock of shocks, somebody actually gets "displaying information in a mobile-friendly way" right. Are you listening, Facebook?
It's a nice touch that you don't actually need to sign up for an account to use the Android app. Just download, open up, and you're ready to go, making it a breeze if you're already away from your computer when you decide you want to look around.
But Here's the Catch
If it were simply a matter of design and ease of use, I'd have no problem recommending Yelp as a nice, easy way to look up stuff on the go without the difficulty of a Google Maps search, or using a full fledged navigation app with points of interest. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. The problem with Yelp is basically the same problem as with any generic search engine -- garbage in, garbage out. The app is only as good as the data it's given... and in this case that data is "not that great."
Case in point, I fired it up and asked for restaurants near me. Yelp's very first suggestion? "Letchworth State Park." Which in case the name didn't tip you off, is not actually a restaurant, unless you graze like a cow. It also mislabeled one restaurant as "New York State Government Offices."
What is included is not quite as bad as what's not included, though. Searching for someplace to get coffee, sorted by distance, tells me to drive half an hour to find a place, because Yelp is apparently unaware of the Tim Hortons coffee shop a few miles away from me. If I ask for a drugstore, it gives me three within ten miles -- then skips to one in Geneva, roughly 80 miles away as if there were nothing in Buffalo or Rochester.
On top of that, Yelp won't let you change the default search settings; if you want to search for the closest place, rather than the one Yelp recommends, or only for places within 5 miles, etcetera, you have to reset those options every time you search for anything.
This isn't to say that Yelp won't perform better in other areas, particularly major urban centers where it's more likely to have good data. But that same sketchiness of the data means that it's hard to trust it. You never know when it might be completely missing the exact thing you're looking for, a block away. If I wasn't familiar with the area I was in, I probably would have been unable to tell how riddled with holes Yelp's database was. That makes it very hard to recommend it to a traveler, or anyone who's trying to get a really comprehensive idea of where the good stuff around them is.
If Yelp can improve its database enough that its at least as reliable as driving up and down Main Street gawking at the signs, it can be a great little tool for anyone on the go, whether it's just to the next city or cross country. In the meantime, it's interesting to use, but I wouldn't recommend it as your sole source of information when you're on that summer road trip.
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