Letter from Our Editor: Zagat and I Don’t Agree

Here's what I don't get about the Google-Zagat union. (1) Google seems to buy things to kill them. Why bother killing Zagat? They seemed to be slowly dying anyway, never having figured out how to publish successfully on the Web. (2) Google is getting more and more local, what with Google Places, but it was already getting local content for free, by pretending that republishing the juicy parts (star ratings and reviews) in its search results wasn't stealing, but rather promoting Yelp and TripAdvisor and the like. (3) Zagat is content of the old-school, people-get-paid-for-it sort. In addition to the crowd-sourcing, Zagat has actual people editing and reporting and doing journalisty things. Maybe they'll get laid off.

On the other hand, there's one thing that really does make sense: Google+ plus Zagat. Since online media has evolved from community (a bunch of strangers in a chat room where nobody knows you're a dog) to social (a bunch of friends who know way too much about each other), there's been a big gap: You can ask your friends about where to get good Sichuan food, but what if none of them knows anything about Sichuan food? You could ask a community of strangers, but how do you know which of them really knows what they're talking about? Google+ combined with Zagat has the potential to create an intersection of known-quantity friends and strangers with experience.

But you know what? I still won't use it. Because Zagat hasn't been my go-to review source for years. It's nice that Zagat's reviews are excerpted and quantified (Amanda Hess just made a case for editing user reviews by quoting an inane Yelp review of a coffee shop: "I don't drink coffee, and I think that if I did I would have enjoyed this place more").

But Zagat and I just don't agree. Their highest marks seem to go to places with manageable noise levels and predictable food. (Looking for "reviews that suck slightly less than Yelp"? Hey! Over here!) Come to think of it, nobody totally works for me: Zagat's too middlebrow; Yelp's too ignorant; Citysearch is too impressionable; and local reviewers are mostly jaded, novelty-hungry, and cliquish. Of course I'm biased, but I like Chowhound. Its long discussions can be frustrating, unwieldy, mysterious, and even hostile, but there's nuance there, and finding good food is a delicate process. Even so, Chowhound won't have all the answers. I always end up cross-referencing: a little from here, a little from there. If only there were a site that could scour the Web and take all the information from everybody and present it in a nice little list. Like a search result. That would be great.

Photograph by Michael Skrzypek