Zagat and Google: A Match Made in Foodie Heaven?

Zagat and Google MergerOn Thursday morning, the announcement went out across the land: Google (GOOG), the undisputed masters of search, had acquired Zagat, America's best-known and most highly-regarded restaurant review company. In a pair of announcements, both of the newlyweds painted the merger through the rosiest of lenses: Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of local, maps and location services, trumpeted the wondrous joining of Zagat's "innovation, trusted reputation and wealth of experience" to Google's search and Google Maps capabilities.

Meanwhile, Tim and Nina Zagat, the august company's founders, echoed Mayer, praising Google's "relevant and high-quality information" by noting that "it's the perfect home for our content." Not to be outdone, Mayer tweeted a haiku praising the joyous union: "Delightful deal done; Zagat and Google now one; foodies have more fun!"


As at many weddings, there were also some naysayers eager to cast a pall over the nuptials. Some snarkily suggested it was a joke, while others unsubtly hinted that the elegant Zagat was merely in it for the money. Google fans questioned the search company's move toward content, while people on Zagat's side of the church wondered what was going to happen to its employees. And, needless to say, many uncouth gossipers were quick to bring up the newlyweds' prior relationships, especially Google's failed $550 million attempt to woo online review site Yelp. On the other side, there were also whispers about Zagat's failed 2008 attempt to sell itself for $200 million.

To a degree, the critics have a point: In its 32-years in the review business, Zagat has mastered the balance between crowdsourcing and editing, creating a review structure that is well-nigh unassailable. In an earlier interview for DailyFinance, founder Tim Zagat noted that his company has more than 40 in-house editors and "about 100 out-of-house editors" who "curate comments, check facts," and add context to the user-generated reviews. While its methods have made Zagat the gold standard by which other review sites are judged, the company's high-touch editing structure may seem somewhat old fashioned, especially when compared with many of the search-engine-optimized articles that sometimes clog Google.

But under its genteel veneer, Zagat is aggressively innovative, using an estimated 30 filters to ensure that restaurants can't game its system. These techniques are highly proprietary -- Tim Zagat warned this reporter that "I'd have to kill you if I told you what they are" -- and the company is constantly adapting to ensure the purity of its ratings. By comparison, Google's reviews have been plagued by companies attempting to sabotage their competitors, and the lack of editorial oversight on Yelp has led to questions about its utility.

On the opposite end, Zagat has also been developing tools -- like its interactive "Matrix" model -- that fundamentally change the way users can access its information. At the same time, it has taken direct aim at edgier sites like Yelp by granting access to its unedited comments, which offer an unvarnished, often crude humor that is very much at odds with the mild tone of the company's published reviews. Finally, while it's hard to determine the effectiveness of the company's paywall, its iPhone and Android app is -- according to Tim Zagat -- the country's "highest-grossing travel app."

Given Google's long struggles with the content quality question, it isn't hard to see why Zagat would be a supremely attractive acquisition. In a single purchase, the search giant has acquired a top-rate editorial structure, millions of user-generated reviews and a company whose user-interface innovations have been quietly changing the way people can access crowdsourced information. For the forward-looking search behemoth, it just might be a match made in heaven.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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