You may have heard the news yesterday that Google is acquiring longtime citizen-review stalwart Zagat, for somewhere in the range of $100 million to $200 million. The move appears to be an effort to go head-to-head with Yelp on the citizen-review front, but with the backing of a brand with several decades worth of respect and name recognition among diners, especially on the East Coast. Some say this is a consolation prize for Google, which tried to acquire Yelp in 2009 for $500 million. But we and a few chefs around town see this as probably good for everyone, with the potential for Google to bring Zagat and its heavily curated collection of user-generated content, finally, into the 21st century.
Zagat never really harnessed the potential of the web, being one of the early proponents of charging for their content back when no one wanted to pay a dime for reading stuff on the internet. The pay-wall also destroyed their chances of ever being a major player in online restaurant reviews, due to their subsequent demotion in Google ranking, and sites like citysearch, nymag.com (which owns Grub Street), Menupages, CHOW, and Yelp quickly filled the void providing both free listings and reviews for restaurants in major cities. Zagat later launched a blog, with national food news and some local restaurant news in their urban markets, but has remained firm in keeping their reviews for subscribers only.
But is Google going to kill the Zagat brand as we know it, or adapt it to new purposes? CHOW editor Jane Goldman surmises that they could be rolling Zagat's brand of quotation-happy reviewing into some sort of app/section for Google+. "Google+ combined with Zagat has the potential to create an intersection of known-quantity friends and strangers with experience [to provide a more reliable review of a restaurant]," she writes.
Grub Street surveyed some chefs around town to see what they saw as the upside (or downside) of the deal, vis a vis Yelp and its significant sway on the Bay Area's restaurant culture. Jardinière chef and Top Chef Masters runner-up Traci Des Jardins says she sees this as "a great thing for the consumer as well as restaurateur and chefs," and adds that "Google is a great company and they can only help [Zagat] in bringing accurate, timely and broad information to the dining public."
Food & Wine 2011 Best New Chef honoree (and San Francisco mag's Best Chef of the year) Joshua Skenes (Saison), is a little more direct. "It would be nice to see an updated approach on Zagat," he says. "It’s always nice to hear people’s opinions, but yeah, I’m not always the biggest fan of amateur criticism."
But the most pointed comment on the deal, naturally, comes from Hapa Ramen chef Richie Nakano, who's established himself firmly as a Yelp hater, through and through. He says, "I can only assume the reason [Google] didn't buy Yelp instead is because associating with Yelpers would count as 'being evil.'"
As for what will become of the printed guides, they aren't going anywhere soon.
Co-founder Tim Zagat insists the guides remain "very profitable," and Google intends to keep printing them for now. But yeah, they're not a publishing house.
In a Twist, Google Reviews Zagat, and Decides to Bite [Dealbook/NYT]