The point is often made – for example in the comments to this review of the 2013 Good Beer Guide
– that there is no longer any need for printed pub guidebooks, as all the information is readily available on the Internet. However, although there is a huge amount about pubs on the Internet, how usable is it, and how do the various pub websites measure up?
An important point is that people are not always looking for the same thing from pub websites. Sometimes they might just be looking for any pubs that may be of interest in an unfamiliar area, or they may be trying to find out more detailed information on a specific pub, and that may be specifically relating to the dining experience, or concerned with broader aspects of the pub such as the general ambiance or beer range.
So let’s look at a few of the well-known pub websites and see how they measure up.
First up is Beer in the Evening, which is possibly the market leader. It describes itself as “officially the UK's biggest and busiest pub, bar and club guide,” and it certainly has a very wide coverage. It includes all types of pubs, not just food-led ones, and probably has the most reader comments of any site. The “other nearby pubs” feature works well. However, there is very little editorial information about the pubs, and the overall design is a bit like a boring pint of brown beer. The search facility also leaves something to be desired, and if you don’t know the correct name of the settlement in which a pub is located you may have difficulty finding it at all. Plus I once submitted a new - and very deserving pub - to the site and it never ended up being added.
Next is the Good Pub Guide, based on the publication of the same name. This unashamedly majors on upmarket dining pubs, but at least you know what you’re getting. The search facility is pretty good, with the ability to find all pubs within x miles of a particular location, and the database of pubs is fairly comprehensive. However, very few have any kind of editorial comment. There are some user comments, but nowhere near as many as on BITE.
Then there is Pub Explorer. This has a very good map-based search facility which enables you to home in on your chosen area quickly and easily. Once you are there, there’s a comprehensive display of all the pubs with their locations. However, the site then falls down as it appears that the only pubs with any information are those where it has been loaded by the major managed pub operators, so there’s effectively nothing about the majority. There’s also no facility for user comments.
Pubs Galore has an attractive appearance and the facility for users to add both comments and photos. There’s also a good search facility. However, it’s entirely dependent on users to add information with the result that coverage is distinctly patchy. It also says “Pubs Galore exists to promote good pubs, if your purpose is solely to leave negative reviews of pubs you dislike, they will be deleted”. This is fair enough, but does result in a rather bland site, whereas some of the negative comments on BITE can be quite amusing and also in some cases genuinely telling.
Pub Utopia uses a Google-based search method. It appears to have a pretty comprehensive listing of pubs, and does offer the facility for users to add comments. However, actual detail about pubs is dependent on being added by licensees and overall, while there’s nothing wrong with the concept, it lacks sufficient critical mass of information to be at all useful.
Finally there is Trip Advisor, which is primarily a hotel website, but also includes locations and reviews of restaurants, which covers many food-oriented pubs too. While not the place to look for unspoilt boozers, the fact that it does generate a lot of customer reviews does make it worthy of investigation if you’re after a pub meal.
So how do these sites measure up when looking for a specific pub? As an example, I have chosen the Black Swan, which was CAMRA’s North Cheshire Community Pub of the Year for 2012. It’s not one of the “usual suspects” and indeed is a pub I have never personally visited. It is situated at the extreme north-east of the modern county of Cheshire where it is perhaps easily overlooked. It also suffers from the fact that its location is variously known as Hollinfare, Hollins Green and Rixton.
Beer in the Evening doesn’t cover it at all – and also seems to have no pubs in nearby Cadishead.
The Good Pub Guide has a limited amount of information provided by the licensees, plus a photo and a lot of reader comments. This is probably the best result of the six.
Pub Explorer has nothing but the location, and neither does Pub Utopia, although the latter also gives me a rather offputting advert for a mature dating site. Pubs Galore is little better, but it does at least have a couple of photos of the pub.
Trip Advisor has some photos and a number of customer reviews of varying quality, but no editoral information.
So, in summary, an overall poor result for this pub, with only the Good Pub Guide achieving what I would call even half-way decent coverage. It is also a feature of these sites that some of the reviews, particularly of the food, can be so gushing in tone that it is hard to believe they are genuine. Would anyone really write:
"The food is now fabulous serving beautiful juicy steaks and the fish and chips are to die for. The duck is a masterpiece and we have eaten here three times in the last few months without finding a single fault. The staff deserve a special mention too because they are so friendly and helpful. It's been a long time coming but we have at last found somewhere truly outstanding to eat right on our own doorstep."
CAMRA are in the process of developing a national pubs database at www.whatpub.com, but this is currently still in beta and only available to members. It also doesn’t give much information for the Black Swan despite its recent award-winning status. Some of the coverage is actually pretty good, including that of my local area, but it is very much dependent on the level of input from local branches, and it doesn’t have any facility for users to all their own comments.
As a conclusion, some of the key features I would be looking for in a pub website are:
- Comprehensive coverage
- Covers all types of pub, not just dining pubs
- As much information as possible about each pub
- Some kind of editorial description for each pub
- Information about beer range, not just food
- Information about smoking facilities, or lack of
- Link to pub websites, especially for menus
- Opportunity for users to add comments
- Flexible, easy-to-use search facility
- Easy to use on a smartphone
- “Other nearby pubs” feature
Personally I also think it is useful if a website makes some kind of value judgment about the information it is presenting rather than just offering a uniform database. The Good Beer Guide
does this implicitly by only including pubs that CAMRA members believe serve good beer and, while it may not be your cup of tea, the Good Pub Guide
also majors on a specific kind of establishment, so you know what you are getting.
In many aspects of the Internet, one service seems to end up dominating and squeezing everyone else out – just look at Google and search. But that’s still a long way off for pubs, and the pub website scene remains fragmented with nothing anywhere near reaching that killer status, and all the sites on offer seriously deficient in at least one aspect, often more. Maybe if one became more dominant it would start to build up a critical mass of user-generated information.
If there’s any better pub site out there, please let me know!