Is Zagat Too Conservative for Google’s Image?

The news of Google’s acquisition of Zagat made us wonder: Is the search giant going after Yelp? Besides buying actual content in the form of Zagat reader reviews (steering readers to what’s good or bad, instead of merely facilitating searches), Google gets a tool for increasing local coverage.

CNET’s Larry Dignan traces Google’s prickly recent relationship with Yelp, after the company was accused of importing user restaurant reviews on its Google Places page without linking. But does Zagat, which has a reputation as an old-school authority—the kind of source your parents turn to when deciding whether to hit up Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris—really fit Google’s younger, more tech-savvy image? Doesn’t Yelp, and its user reviews peppered with exclamation points and OMGs, have more of the coolness Google would want in a review site?

As more than one commenter observed on the New York Times DealBook blog today, Zagat’s image—framed in pay walls and quoted snippets—is stuck in the 1990s. One commenter (San Francisco’s Cornholio) likened Zagat to Antiques Roadshow. Ouch.

But is that fair? We compared user reviews on both sites for The Spotted Pig in New York City. Though the Zagat site looked a bit more dynamic than we remembered (not to mention easier to navigate), the overall impression was of a contributor base that skewed heavily suburban and slacks-wearing. Zagat’s 1,815 reviews were heavy on complaints about the Spotted Pig’s infamous waits for a table—one guy from Jersey complained that he was forced to sit on a “milking stool” while he waited. The word sublime showed up at least twice in two pages of reviews, and the grumbling asides sometimes had the ring of stuff your Uncle Morty says (“I thought the waiter was just some guy hanging out but he turned out to be the waiter”).

Yelp’s 882 reviews of the Spotted Pig careened all over the place, date-wise (a review from 9/6, followed by one from 8/26). There was a lot of uppercase breathlessness, of course (“first time EVER in the village”), punctuated with enough “awesomes” to pack a Tumblr dashboard. Yelpers, too, griped about the waits, but it tended to be a footnote to giddy praise of the food (“Best burger of my life!”) and the kind of judgments unlikely to make it through Zagat’s rather murky editing process (“I'm pretty sure the interior of The Spotted Pig is exactly how I want my brownstone to look when I become rich and insane”).

All of which makes us think: If Google thought it was buying relevance with the Zagat purchase, it might want to consider enlisting a different demographic of user reviewers.

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