Zagat’s Long, Sad Slide into Irrelevance — and How It Can Recover

“I’m taking you somewhere special tonight. It’s a surprise, but I will tell you that it’s a 28.”

“It was an amazing find, about a mile walk beyond the end of the 7 train in Queens. It just smelled delicious, so we went in and sat down. Not a word of English anywhere, and not even travel posters on the wall. I’ve never had noodles like that before. We had this incredible spicy lamb dish — no idea what it was called, but we saw it at the next table and pointed at it to the waiter. We stuffed our faces for less than 30 bucks. I’d say it was like a 25, 2, 2.”

“Sure, the food was good, but seriously? The main courses took an hour to come out, and then one of them was the wrong dish. The waiter spilled ice water in my lap. The table by the door was freezing. I don’t care if they got a 27 for decor. The service was 5, at best. We’re never going back.”

“That place has been a solid 21 for as long as I’ve lived here. You know that the salad’s going to be fresh, the pasta isn’t going to be overcooked, the portions are going to be huge, the tiramisu’s going to be killer, and the house red’s going to do the job. Nothing special, but reliable as clockwork.”

Those numbers — Zagat ratings numbers — used to mean something to foodies. They don’t anymore, and that’s a shame.

“Where should we go for dinner?” is an eternal question in any city. There are many places to go to get answers, but none of them have cracked the code like Zagat did.

Yelp gives you lots of basic data about restaurants: where they are, whether they’re open now (unless it’s a holiday), what forms of payment they take, whether they’re “good for groups,” and what kind of food they serve. But this is the site that brings you such scintillating review comments as as “1 redeeming quality. Lots of cleavage in the waitstaff” and “god this place was retarded”, not to mention millions of “to die for”s and even more millions of reviews that are fake and paid for by the owners or their PR agencies.

Eater tells you what the 38 trendiest places are in each city. This means you’re guaranteed to have a hard time actually eating in any of those places. You’ll be unable to get a reservation and/or will stand in line for hours. Then if you try again a year later, the places will all be closed because their styles or ingredients are no longer trendy and the Instagram-your-meal crowd has moved on.

Speaking of Instagram, there’s Foodspotting. Foodspotting lets you view user-contributed photos of specific dishes at restaurants in your immediate vicinity or another location. This is great as a secondary means of research, after you’ve done primary research from a more informative source.

TripAdvisor is constructed so that people who want to review things have to put in more effort, making them more committed. They also are effective at rooting out paid fakes. So you get thoughtful, honest user reviews of restaurants … written by tourists who really know hotels.

The Infatuation gives you ratings up to 10 that look data-driven because they have decimal points. But they’re really just a few guys’ subjective opinions — Gault-Millau with a nice mobile UX, and limited to seven cities. UrbanSpoon? An also-ran in the first place, now languishing in the U.S. market after its acquisition by India-based Zomato. OpenTable? For reservations, yes, but not for the reviews or the ratings. Chowhound? Hardcore foodie audience, deep content, really hard to search and navigate. Dine? Pivoted to dating last year.

What about Michelin? Michelin hasn’t made much of a dent in American food consciousness beyond jet-setters who can afford to drop in at Eleven Madison Park one night followed by Arpège the next and Osteria Francescana the next. Oh, and it doesn’t have a mobile app for restaurants.

In other words, no one else has cracked the code.

How does Zagat do it? By soliciting reviews and ratings from volunteers, tallying the numbers, and using human editors to create pithy summaries of the crowdsourced reviews. This gives you the wonderful and unique combination of hard data on restaurants from committed eaters and an editorial voice. You have lots of data to search and sort; you trust the sources of that data because the people are committed and there’s no way to game the system; and you enjoy the review format.

Back in the 1980s, Zagat was the Gold Standard. Every serious foodie in NYC knew it by its narrow red books. New issues came out every November, the anticipation was palpable, and the rankings in each new issue made news. It expanded to other cities in the U.S. and then abroad, and its notoriety grew with its geographic reach.

Crowdsourcing became a thing in the mid-2000s; a few years after that, content services (re-)discovered curated crowdsourcing: curation as a means for making masses of crowdsourced data comprehensible. Yet Zagat had figured out curated crowdsourcing twenty years before the term was coined. It was a characteristically American alternative to the hegemony of Michelin and its army of inspectors or individual restaurant critics. Zagat even started to make inroads into the Paris dining scene beyond American tourists, confirming some hallowed standard-bearers of Parisian gastronomy while exposing some hidden gems and bursting a few bubbles.

Tim and Nina Zagat took a slow approach in the digital age. They had been focusing on expanding the brand to hotels, golf courses, airlines, and other areas, and they didn’t have the in-house competence to build good websites or (eventually) mobile apps. For the latter, they partnered with an app development and distribution company called Handmark to offer Zagat To Go apps for mobile devices, starting with BlackBerrys. The apps were clunky, but they finally enabled people to sort and search all that data, and to do so while traveling around. The revenue model was subscriptions for a few dollars a month.

Zagat gradually started updating the data for each city more frequently than once a year. It released iPhone and Android apps and finally integrated them with mapping features so that you could figure out directions, and with OpenTable so you could make reservations at participating restaurants. The progress toward continued relevance in the Internet age was slow but steady.

Then Google acquired Zagat in September 2011 for a reported $151 million — short of the $200 million it tried to get three years earlier, but still a hefty sum for a niche publication. The deal was masterminded by Marissa Mayer, who was then in charge of Google’s growing location-based services. Her vision was to expand Zagat data and integrate it with Google Maps and other location-based applications. Tech-savvy foodies were thrilled: if any company on earth knew what to do with all that data and how to present it in useful ways, it was Google.

Yet Google’s acquisition turned out to be Zagat’s peak moment rather than a new start. Zagat ratings data did get integrated with Google Maps … sort of … but that was about it. Google produced a new website and Zagat apps for Android and iOS, and made them all free, at first to anyone with a Google+ account, then to everyone. But — preposterously — they shrank the data down to nine cities.

Google’s strategy was apparently to make Zagat into Yelp Lite: pointless “news” and social media features followed, and they jettisoned the signature 30-point rating system in favor of the prosaic five-star scale used by Yelp, TripAdvisor, OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, and so many others.

Zagat’s importance within Google soon fell victim to typical Silicon Valley behaviors such as short attention spans and frequent reorganizations. The beginning of the end came less than a year later, in July 2012, when Mayer departed Google to take the CEO job at Yahoo. The remaining Googlers weren’t really interested anymore; editorial employees were replaced with temporary contractors; and Google’s acquisition of the larger Frommer’s travel guide group from John Wiley & Sons overshadowed Zagat (even though Google sold it off to the Frommer’s family only eight months later).

Today, Zagat suffers from a litany of handicaps. Although it has expanded back to 47 cities in North America (45 in the U.S. plus Toronto and Vancouver), its only international city is London. The five-point rating system is utterly generic, like yet another wine-rating site that uses Robert Parker’s 100-point system. Michelin’s three-star/fork-spoon/roly-poly-tire-man system and even the New York Times’s four stars are more distinctive.

The website and Android app are both buggy, hard to use, and insist on pushing the pointless editorial content at you before you can get to the ratings and reviews. Adding insult to injury, Zagat updated the app for Apple iOS devices last July, but it still hasn’t made good on its promise to update the app for the “home team” Android platform (the Android app isn’t even mentioned on the website).

The latest self-inflicted wound is the recently-updated website, which dumbs down the search and filtering functions and limits the data (once again) to 38 cities. (Sorry, Pittsburghers, NYC suburb inhabitants, and various others.)

Worst of all, Google is improving its location-based data independently of Zagat. Google constantly nags Android device users to submit metadata and photos of places they’ve visited, but none of this data makes it to Zagat. It promotes “Google ratings” that are on the same five-star scale but apply to any type of business and are different from the Zagat ratings (not to mention utterly irrelevant to foodies). In fact, Zagat data is no longer to be found anywhere on Google Maps, and Google will stop making it available to third-party app developers in May.

All of these limitations diminish Zagat’s importance by the day. It would be unreasonable to expect Zagat to maintain complete dominance over the restaurant discovery scene today, given the explosion in mobile apps over the past couple of years and the legitimately valuable features of some of them. Nevertheless, Zagat is currently on a path to irrelevance.

Zagat’s profile in the media has suffered greatly in recent years. TechCrunch — in its only story on Zagat since the acquisition — reported on the then-new iOS app last July. It said that the old app had “a massively outdated user interface that made it seem like a holdover from an earlier era on mobile”; yet the old app still exists on Android. The hit 2000 off-Broadway show “Fully Committed,” a deft parody of NYC’s overheated high-end restaurant scene, staged a comeback last year; the show features a Very Important Food World Person character that was Tim Zagat in the original run, but in the new production it’s the famed British chef Heston Blumenthal.

An LA Weekly article complaining about the proliferation of lame new restaurant apps cites Yelp, Google, and OpenTable as useful, and doesn’t even mention Zagat. Only some food and lifestyle blogs’ lists of recommended restaurant apps still include Zagat. Urban Tastebud’s list doesn’t; neither does Mediaite’s or LifeHacker’s or RealSimple’s. It’s no. 16 on The Daily Meal’s list of 22 apps, and dead last on Lifewire’s list of 9. MakeUseOf’s list includes “Google Restaurant Search” (is that really a thing?) but not Zagat.

Yet the Zagat brand and formula of data and crowdsourced curation still have value to a certain audience, even if it’s not scalable to world-domination size as Google or Tim and Nina might have liked. Zagat can have a much brighter future if it goes back to what made it great in the first place while incorporating the right set of digital features in its mobile apps.

Here are some suggestions for saving Zagat from oblivion:

  • Get out from under Google. Google clearly hasn’t cared for years and will do nothing to help. Do what Frommer’s did: find new backers and leave.
  • Merge with a restaurant app company that knows how to build good mobile user experiences and work with data. OpenTable could do this by buying Zagat from Google and merging it with Foodspotting, which it acquired in 2013. The Infatuation is another possibility, as they understand not only UX but also the power of editorial voice; but they’d need a VC to get the money to make it happen.
  • Restore the 30-point rating system. Google felt that it was alien and confusing to users. It might be if you’re also rating hotels and golf courses. But the 30-point system is not confusing to foodies. On the contrary: in the U.S. market, it has been more distinctive than Michelin’s iconography. Using everyone else’s five-star system might have fit into Marissa Mayer’s original plan to use Zagat as a source for all local business data, but it has damaged the brand. Zagat should not only restore the 30-point system but embrace it, by constructing cheeky marketing campaigns around it.
  • Lose the editorial content, other than the excellent hand-picked restaurant lists. Move those resources into marketing (for those cheeky campaigns about the 30-point system). Your editorial voice is user review curation. That’s a great thing, and it’s enough.
  • Charge users subscription fees again. It’s apparently OK to do this now. We’ve learned that people who want quality content will pay for it, especially when it isn’t tainted by ads. Figure out a limited freemium model a la Spotify, Hulu, and The New York Times. Roll this out in connection with the integration with Foodspotting (or The Infatuation).
  • License data to third party services for additional revenue and exposure. Imagine foodie/travel articles in Saveur, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel+Leisure, or Food & Wine (or Frommer’s!) with built-in Zagat ratings and reviews.
  • If you have to expand, don’t dilute the brand. Instead of expanding ratings to airlines and golf courses, try complementary things that resonate with your core audience: food festivals, social events, classes, gourmet travel experiences, and so on.

Above all, go back to your core strengths: make Zagat a brand and destination for foodies again. That’s where its genius lay, and nothing else has taken its place. With the right backers and the right goals, it can be a successful and profitable business again.