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Recommendations based on your location

Yelp is my new best friend, and I’ll never leave home without it. It’s an easy promise to make, since the mega-review Web site has an app for the iPhone that goes with me wherever I go.

Most of you have probably heard of Yelp even if you haven’t used it. From a macro perspective, it’s one of the many user-generated review Web sites that have sprouted up with the explosion of Web 2.0. Just like you can give a YouTube video a star rating, you can weigh in on a product you’ve purchased at Amazon.com, rate a movie at Flixster.com or the Internet Movie DataBase, and review a restaurant, bar or service provider on Yelp.

The Web site’s roots are in San Francisco, but it quickly expanded to New York and beyond. Now more than 25 million people access Yelp’s Web site each month, putting it in the top 100 most popular sites in the nation.

Users search based on the type of business (often restaurants) and the location. The Yelp iPhone application uses the phone’s GPS to approximate the mobile user’s current location and give recommendations based on proximity — in some cases, just a block or two away.

5-point scale

The resulting listings show user ratings based on a 5-point scale along with reviews from other users and specific details, including the business’s hours of operation, parking availability and photos. Business owners can update their own listings directly.

Last weekend I was in New York City visiting friends. We wanted to celebrate with a birthday dinner, and whipped out our iPhones to use the Yelp application to find a good Mexican restaurant on the Lower East Side. Bam — success! Barrio Chino, on Broome Street, had a four-star rating based on almost 150 reviews.

“Don’t miss the guacamole and homemade tortilla chips,” said one reviewer.

“Irene the bartender is SUCH a sweetheart. I love her margaritas and friendly grace behind the bar,” said another.

Alas, Barrio Chino had a 90-minute wait.

Wandering the streets of the Lower East Side, we foolishly ignored our research tool and opted to try another Mexican place just around the bend from the preferred Barrio Chino. And that’s how we ended up at La Barra Cevicheria.

It seemed benign enough — how bad could it be?

Awful.

Overpriced food

Overpriced, terrible food and watered-down drinks. On top of it all, the portions were minuscule. Hanging our heads in shame, we paid our bill and went to McDonald’s for a milkshake and fries to fill our stomachs — but not before posting a negative review on Yelp.

In the process, we discovered the dive had an average review of 3 out of 5 stars based on only 14 reviews, several of which surmised that the restaurant’s only existence was thanks to cast-offs from the long wait at Barrio Chino.

Next up was a visit to an upscale bar for celebratory birthday drinks. Though the bar’s ambiance was neat, the service was absolutely terrible, and we left at the end of the night regretful that we’d splurged on such a lackluster evening. A friend posted a 1-star review on Yelp with details of our bad experience, adding to the 50 reviews already on the site; the average review was an unimpressive 2.5 out of 5 stars.

“Why anyone would subject themselves to such miserable treatment is a mystery to me, but I will certainly NOT be going back,” concluded my friend’s review.

Owner responds

The next day, the bar’s owner sent her a message through the site, apologizing for the bad service and asking for more information.

It’s a testament to the growing importance of Web 2.0 services that the bar’s owner prioritizes reaching out to customers that way. One at a time, his efforts are time-consuming but necessary in an age where both visitors and residents are turning to tools on their mobile devices to seek recommendations before making a purchase.

If you’re a small-business owner (or even if you’re not), ask yourself this question: Where do you need to be to reach out to both your satisfied and dissatisfied customers?

Jackie Sauter is a Web marketing professional with the Kogod School of Business at American University. Follow her on Twitter @jackiesauter.