What does Google want with Zagat?

September 8, 2011
Google buying Zagat, a company which has failed miserably online, rather than, say, Yelp or Tripadvisor?

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Why is Google buying Zagat, a company which has failed miserably online, rather than, say, Yelp or Tripadvisor? I suspect a lot of the reason has to do with its pseudoscientific ratings, on a 30-point scale: Google loves being able to quantify stuff. But those ratings are silly: they’re not at all comparable between markets (try a sushi joint in Long Island and then compare it to one in New York City with an identical food rating), and they suffer from enormous inflation.

On top of that, the one concrete datapoint that Zagat does provide — the cost estimate — is simply dreadful. Steve Cuozzo exposed this five years ago, and nothing has improved since then — you will basically never get out of a restaurant for the ridiculously low price that Zagat purports to think that a meal costs.

Zagat is mainly useful as a source of phone numbers and opening hours — information Google Places already has. Yes, it has a trusted reputation — but Google has that, too. And it has a massive global print-publishing business; I can’t for the life of me imagine why that’s something that Google wants to get into.

Most puzzlingly of all, Google’s Marissa Mayer refers twice in her short official announcement to Zagat’s “insight” — it’s “impressive” at first mention, and “tremendous” at second. Does anybody have a clue what she’s talking about? Zagat doesn’t do insight — that’s simply not the business it’s in.

So color me very confused at this weird entry into what looks very much like Old Media — something which was very useful before the mobile internet came along, but which has already been comprehensively disrupted by Google itself. Google is the future of information; Zagat is the messy and conflicted past.

Ethical questions about the Zagat guide abound — about the way that restaurants game their ratings, the things that diners will do for a free guide, and the way that Tim and Nina Zagat themselves are extremely chummy with the restaurateurs they’re judging in a supposedly objective manner. I hope Mayer and Google know what they’re doing, here. But it makes no sense to me.


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