I Need Some Help With Yelp

| Mon May 6, 2013 2:52 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan points me today to an essay by Tom Vanderbilt about the rise of online reviewing. Here he is describing his problems with Yelp reviews of restaurants:

As I navigate a Yelp entry to simply determine whether a place is worth my money, I find myself battered between polar extremes of experience: One meal was “to die for,” another “pretty lame.” Drifting into narrow currents of individual proclivity (writing about a curry joint where I had recently lunched, one reviewer noted that “the place had really good energy, very Spiritual [sic], which is very important to me”), I eventually capsize in a sea of confusion. I either quit the place altogether or, by the time I arrive, am weighed down by a certain exhaustion of expectation, as if I had already consumed the experience and was now simply going through the motions.

....What further complicates this picture of the masses liberating the objects of criticism from the tyranny of critics is that so many reviewers seem to turn toward petty despotism. Reading Yelp reviews, particularly of the one-star variety, one quickly senses the particular ax being ground—the hostess who shot the “wrong” look at the “girls’ night” group; a greeting that is too effusive, or insufficiently so; the waiter deemed “too uneasy with being a waiter”; or any number of episodes (each example has been taken from Yelp) that have little to do with food.

I've pretty much given up reading Yelp reviews. Part of the problem, as Vanderbilt notes, is that they're so polarized it's hard to make sense of them. Too often, it barely seems possible that the reviewers are even describing the same place.

But it's not just polarization. My sense is that people are much more likely to spend time writing a Yelp review when they're pissed off. And when they're pissed off they bring their full rhetorical skills to bear. So, as I browse through the reviews of even a pretty good place, I'm nearly always bombarded with enough horrible comments that I start to back off. Do I really want to go there? Seems pretty chancy.

Basically, Yelp makes me less likely to eat out, not more, because every place ends up sounding like a possible plunge into the heart of darkness. Is that because I'm more risk-averse than average? Or do others find the same thing? Let me know in comments. What's your advice for using Yelp most effectively?