Google announced last week that they had consummated a deal to buy the Zagat restaurant guides.
The company was founded in 1979 by Tim and Nina Zagat, native New Yorkers who came up with a startling concept: Rather than evaluating restaurants by the opinion of a single critic, they would circulate questionnaires among consumers. Their views were collated and averaged, and the restaurant’s review in the guide contained quotes from the evaluations of actual diners. Restaurants were rated on a 30-point scale in four categories (food, décor, service and cost).
Originally focused solely on Manhattan, the Zagat Guides grew into an enormous enterprise covering dozens of cities in various countries. For a while, the format worked very well. If you read the guides over a long period of time, however, it became obvious that neither the ratings nor the comments changed much from year to year. Since the Zagat Guides did not accept advertising, we can assume that the accuracy of the ratings probably had more to do with the energy level of the person editing the individual guide.
Since the announcement of the Google/Zagat deal, there has been a great deal of buzz about what it “means.” It seems fairly obvious that the point of the transaction was not to enable Google to branch out into print publishing, nor was it to facilitate the delivery of restaurant ratings on mobile devices (although this surely will increase). The real meaning has to do with advertising. Google will use the Zagat ratings to lend credibility to its discount deals, and the acquisition of Zagat will allow it to be more competitive with sites such as Yelp and Groupon.
In the end, the Google/Zagat deal really has little to do with restaurants. It has less to do with restaurant criticism, sharing information, empowering consumers, or delivering information that will help diners make wise choices. Like many other things today, it’s all about selling stuff.