Thinking about user-generated content

I listen to some travel podcasts, which is how I learned how much Arthur Frommer (the guidebook guru that founded Frommers) hates user-generated content. His point is that unlike we users, guidebook writers are professionals, doing this for a living, and going to a lot more places than we do. So, for example, while we may stay in one or two hotels in a city, they check them all out.

But I think I have to disagree with Mr. Frommer on at least part of his argument. Granted, he's probably right about the hotel thing, but when it comes to restaurants and shops, I think user-generated content is as important, and as good as — if not better than — what you're going to get in a guidebook.

While one guidebook writer can maybe visit a restaurant once or twice, that's no substitute for reading the reviews of perhaps 20 or 30 people who've been there on different nights and ordered different things (and, often, posted pictures). And a wide range of people posting to Yelp can cover far more restaurants than one guidebook writer can, finding new places that the guidebook writer might not get into the book for years.

I like the Frommer's guides — they're easy to use and generally less stuffy than Fodor's. In fact, I started with a Frommer's Boston and a Frommer's New England when I was planning for this trip, and also skimmed a Lonely Planet and Fodor's guide from my local library.

Some of the things I did and really enjoyed were in the guidebooks. But some of my favorite places and most memorable experiences weren't — I found them on user-generated content sites:
  • Scup's in the Harbor — Yelp
  • Galleria Umberto — Yelp
  • Soakology — Tripadvisor
  • J's Oyster — Yelp (although I did see it was in the Lonely Planet guide later, so go Lonely Planet)
My trip to Portland would have been significantly less great without Soakology and J's Oyster. And unlike some of the places you'll find in a guidebook, these places weren't overrun with tourists.

I'm not saying we should throw out guidebooks. But I am saying that there's a lot of value in user-generated content, and you really need both to research a great trip.

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