Za­gat, Back on the Menu


Fast Company - - Contents - By Ben Paynter Il­lus­tra­tions by Wren Mcdon­ald

The iconic, pocket-size guide­books ush­ered in the era of crowd­sourc­ing. Now, af­ter a decades-long jour­ney (and be­ing owned by Google), they’re be­ing re­vived again. An oral his­tory.

The iconic bur­gundy guide­book helped shape the modern con­sumer era— and con­tin­ues to rep­re­sent the power of a strong brand iden­tity.

It be­gan as a mimeo­graphed score sheet, com­pil­ing the opin­ions of about 200 avid restau­rant-go­ers in New York City. A fun side pro­ject dreamed up by lawyers Tim and Nina Za­gat in 1979, the guide evolved to fea­ture pithy, com­pact 60-word re­views that show­cased con­trib­u­tors’ hon­est and col­or­ful re­marks (‘‘the rise and fall of Rome in a sin­gle evening’’), plus numer­i­cal rat­ings of food, decor, and ser­vice,

and the ball­park price of a meal. By the start of the aughts, more than 35 dif­fer­ent pocket-size bi­bles were be­ing printed, yield­ing an­nual rev­enues of more than $20 mil­lion. They made (and broke) restau­rants and spawned (and killed) food trends. They boosted ris­ing chefs and ex­posed the lethargy of es­tab­lished ones. They re­shaped not only how and where peo­ple eat, but how the restau­rant in­dus­try op­er­ates, chan­nel­ing more power to con­sumers. There were even spin-off guides—for ho­tels, nightlife, golf cour­ses, and movies.

The Za­gat guide was more than a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, how­ever. It rep­re­sented the ana­log birth of a dis­rup­tive idea—user-gen­er­ated con­tent—that has trans­formed the busi­ness land­scape and con­tin­ues to power such jug­ger­nauts as Ama­zon, Face­book, and Twit­ter (not to men­tion up­starts like Glossier, Tar­get’s kid-in­spired Stu­dio Con­nect, and health com­pa­nies like WEBMD and Io­dine). But Za­gat is also a sym­bol of re­silience. It has weath­ered the tran­si­tion from print to dig­i­tal and then mo­bile, the dot­com bust of 2000, the rise of blog cul­ture, and a $151 mil­lion ac­qui­si­tion by Google in 2011, fol­lowed by a pur­chase, for an undis­closed price last March, by The In­fat­u­a­tion, a restau­rant-re­view site with its own snark and so­cial-me­dia-based recipe for suc­cess. As this new chap­ter be­gins, in­sid­ers re­flect on the early chal­lenges, happy ac­ci­dents, and sur­pris­ing en­durance of the brand, along with a mo­ment that for­mer Google ex­ec­u­tive Marissa Mayer calls “one of my big­gest heartaches.”


Tim Za­gat and Nina Safronoff meet at Yale Law School, marry, and con­ceive of an en­tirely new kind of restau­rant-re­view­ing sys­tem. Eaters would rate places with a 0, 1, 2, or 3 across three cat­e­gories—food, decor, and ser­vice. The num­bers were added up, av­er­aged, and mul­ti­plied by 10 to get a fi­nal score be­tween 0 and 30. Tim: I think we started it in New York, and Nina thinks we started in Paris, but it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. The end of the line was the same: We were try­ing to pro­duce some­thing that was use­ful, quick, and based on other peo­ple’s needs, not just our own.

Nina: We started prac­tic­ing law in New York City. And Tim’s law firm had asked him to go to their Paris of­fice.

Tim: They ba­si­cally sent her [with me] be­cause they couldn’t sep­a­rate the fam­ily. Con­ser­vatism played well in that in­stance . . . . We used to get to­gether with friends in Paris, also young lawyers, and we had maybe a hun­dred restau­rants on this sheet of pa­per, and we’d go around the table ask­ing them to rate the restau­rants, [and then] av­er­age those rat­ings. It was al­ways done with four points—0, 1, 2, 3—be­cause that’s more or less what ev­ery­body else was do­ing, [like] Miche­lin. Nina: There were [also] col­umns for each of the ma­jor guides.

Tim: So you could look at the num­bers side by side and see what ev­ery­body was say­ing.

Mimi Sher­a­ton, food critic, New York Times

(1976–1984): I re­mem­ber hear­ing about a sort of let­ter go­ing [around] be­tween them [and their] friends, when they were liv­ing in Paris.

Tim: We called it Les Guides des Guides . . . . [Back in New York], we were in this food-and-wine group called the Down­town Wine Tast­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, just a bunch of 20 friends who used to go out to din­ner once a month. The head at the time was a guy named Ivan Karp. He started crit­i­ciz­ing the crit­ics of The New York Times. He was out­spo­ken when he was sober, and this was at the end of a long meal with a lot of wine. He was es­pe­cially out­spo­ken.

Mar­i­lynn Gelf­man Karp, art pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, New York Univer­sity (and wife of Ivan): Ivan

found and cul­ti­vated the ca­reers of Warhol and Licht­en­stein and Rosen­quist and Go­ings, many artists. [Editor’s note: He died in 2012.] As a lark, Ivan sug­gested—be­cause Tim was un­happy with the food and wine crit­ics—that they start a ques­tion­naire.

Tim: It was prob­a­bly the ef­fect of all the wine I’d drunk, but I said, “Why don’t we do a sur­vey? Ev­ery­body give me 10 names of peo­ple you think would like to do this and I’ll ask them to share their opin­ions.” We tried to de­ci­pher [the feed­back] into as con­cise a lit­tle re­view as we could. I went to see [culi­nary icon] James Beard at some­body’s sug­ges­tion, and he said, “Don’t have clean­li­ness [as a cat­e­gory].” I said, “Why?” And he said, “Be­cause the day that they sue you, the restau­rant which you thought was dirty will sud­denly be very clean.”

Kyle Zol­ner, Za­gat VP of sur­vey re­search (2000– 2011); Google quan­ti­ta­tive mar­ket­ing man­ager (2011–2017): You want to force peo­ple to make the de­ci­sion [with the 0 to 3 rat­ing sys­tem]—is it ex­cel­lent or very good?—be­cause if you give everyone a big­ger scale it’s go­ing to pile up. The dis­tri­bu­tion would be much tighter.

Dan Entin, Za­gat prod­uct man­age­ment (2004–2008); Za­gat dig­i­tal prod­uct di­rec­tor (2010–2011) and Za­gat prod­uct lead at Google (2011–2015): [This] meant that you had to take a side. Did you like it, or did you not? Mak­ing peo­ple take a stand was a valu­able dif­fer­en­tia­tor to that process.

Nina: As peo­ple got in­ter­ested, we started cir­cu­lat­ing [the sur­vey] through our law firms, and then ac­count­ing firms and PR firms, places where [peo­ple] ate out a lot as part of their work. Daniel Boulud, chef, res­tau­ra­teur, and founder of the Dinex Group: In the ’80s, Tim would al­ways have pock­ets full of ei­ther guides or re­view forms, to be done by hand and sent to him. I was [ex­ec­u­tive chef] at Le Cirque, and Tim would come in and pass [ques­tion­naires] around to any­one he knew at the restau­rant or who wanted to do the sur­vey.

Tim: The first year we had 200 peo­ple. The next year we had 500. The third we had a thou­sand. Nina: We had huge ex­penses be­cause we had to make copies of all the ques­tion­naires, send them out to [peo­ple], then send [the re­sults to data pro­ces­sors]. When we started re­al­iz­ing how much this was cost­ing, we de­cided that we ought to print it as a book and see if we could find a pub­lisher. Tim: It wasn’t un­til the fourth year [in late 1982] that we started sell­ing it.

Nina: Every sin­gle pub­lisher we saw turned us down. They said peo­ple didn’t want to hear from other peo­ple like them; they wanted to hear from ex­perts. Be­cause it was so­cial, lo­cal, and mo­bile, they didn’t want it. Which of course was the best thing that ever hap­pened to us . . . . We started print­ing th­ese books our­selves, dis­tribut­ing them our­selves. We put boxes of books in the back of our sta­tion wagon and drove up Madi­son Av­enue and down Lex­ing­ton Av­enue, stop­ping in book­stores and ask­ing them if they would like to carry our guides. . .

Tim: We got it into Dou­ble­day, which was a small book-shop chain at the time. It turned out we were one of the best sell­ers . . . . As soon as the other stores saw [that], we didn’t have much trou­ble getting into book­stores.


A cus­tom print­ing di­vi­sion helps boost the com­pany as it tack­les more cities, and in 1988 Za­gat launches a guide for ho­tels, re­sorts, and spas. In 1992, Tim helps or­ga­nize New York City’s first an­nual Restau­rant Week to co­in­cide with the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion (mul­ti­course lunches are of­fered for $19.92). By the end of the ’90s, Tim be­comes chair­man of the city’s tourism bureau, and Za­gat is pub­lish­ing edi­tions in Lon­don, Paris, and Tokyo. Tim: Pete Go­go­lak came to us from one of the fi­nan­cial print­ing com­pa­nies. [He was an ex­ec­u­tive at Charles P. Young, and later at RR Don­nel­ley.] He had scored more points for the New York Gi­ants than any player in the his­tory of the fran­chise . . . and pi­o­neered kick­ing soc­cer style. And he said, “I like what you’re do­ing. Could I get deluxe cus­tom­ized copies?” He said, “I’d like to have a re­ally nice cover, im­print in gold leaf [my] com­pany’s name, have gilding around it, and have a rib­bon in it.” Then he said how many copies he’d like—5,000. Bingo! The lights came on and we said, “Of course we will.”

Nina: He is an enor­mously charis­matic guy, and he would go around to all of his best clients, getting th­ese big com­pa­nies to want to buy their own cus­tom Za­gat guides . . . . The change in busi­ness model, [to fo­cus on] th­ese spe­cial­ized books as op­posed to the book­stores, was what re­ally made the com­pany so prof­itable. Tom Sietsema, food critic for The Wash­ing­ton

Post and for­mer ju­nior reporter: When read­ers called us about where to go for a ro­man­tic restau­rant, or what’s a great room with a view, the guides were al­ways within reach, right next to a dic­tionary.

Alice Waters, chef, owner of Chez Panisse, and founder of the Ed­i­ble School­yard pro­ject: I learned about it when it was still in New York and thought it was in­cred­i­bly use­ful [from a con­sumer’s per­spec­tive] . . . . It’s ter­ri­bly im­por­tant to us that we’re meet­ing [din­ers’] ex­pec­ta­tions as well as ours.

Tim: The sur­vey­ors be­came our mar­ket­ing team, be­cause they were all say­ing, “I did this. See? They quoted me.” Let’s say a restau­rant was crowded and noisy. A hun­dred peo­ple said it was crowded and noisy. They all thought they’d been quoted.

Drew Nieporent, founder, Myr­iad Restau­rant Group: It was al­ways funny—you’d get a few peo­ple [who came into a restau­rant] who would say, “I’m a Za­gat re­viewer.” In the early days, they wanted you to know that. They wanted to be taken care of.

Nathan Myhrvold, for­mer Mi­crosoft di­rec­tor and VP (1986–1996) and CTO (1996–2000); in­vestor, Za­gat; founder, Modernist Cui­sine: I met [Tim and Nina] when I was at Mi­crosoft in the early 1990s. They named me the chief gas­tro­nom­i­cal of­fi­cer of Za­gat and gave me a busi­ness card. I have to say, it was the only use­ful busi­ness card I’ve ever had, be­cause you could present [it at] a restau­rant that wasn’t treat­ing you well and sud­denly every­thing would change.

Al­lan Ripp, Za­gat pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor (1986–2003): Tim was re­lent­less about march­ing out books even if there was a small mar­ket. If he could find an editor in Kansas City or St. Louis, it was worth it to con­tinue spread­ing the brand and cre­at­ing na­tional data.

Tim: I would usu­ally go around with friends, some­times peo­ple from the me­dia. We’d go to 20 restau­rants in a night, in and out in five min­utes. . . . Any­time I saw some­thing that looked at­trac­tive, I’d say, “Stop,” and we’d go in.

Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner, Le Bernardin: He came to the kitchen many times. It was not even like, “Can I go to the kitchen?” He would just get up from the table and go to the kitchen and say hello and even give some Za­gats to the cooks. The cooks were, I think, very sur­prised and amused by the sit­u­a­tion, that Tim Za­gat was giv­ing them Za­gats. Be­lieve me, they were tak­ing them. Danny Meyer, res­tau­ra­teur; CEO, Union Square Hos­pi­tal­ity Group: I re­mem­ber the days when they would just walk in and out, they may not even eat, but they would just want to get a sense, a smell, a look, I think, to cor­re­late the feed­back they were getting from their re­view­ers.

Tim: We were very much aware of the pos­si­bil­ity

of cheat­ing, and we had to deal with it. The way most peo­ple cheated is stupid. They would give it a high­est pos­si­ble rat­ing, low­est pos­si­ble cost. And then they would use the same words like, “best meal I ever ate” or “ter­rific, won­der­ful.” If you looked at them or had edi­tors look at them, you would know which ones were out of whack and elim­i­nate them. Later on, we had a va­ri­ety of ways of check­ing by com­puter.


As read­ers mi­grate on­line, Za­gat launches a web­site, and in Fe­bru­ary 2000 se­cures $31 mil­lion (for a 25% own­er­ship stake) from Gen­eral At­lantic Part­ners, Kleiner Perkins Cau­field & By­ers, Allen and Com­pany, and oth­ers—just two months be­fore the dot­com bub­ble bursts. The com­pany, now val­ued at $125 mil­lion, re­port­edly em­ploys 75 staffers, rolls out a nightlife guide helmed by one of the cou­ple’s sons, Ted (who be­comes pres­i­dent be­fore leav­ing in 2007), in­vests in Opentable and an­other now-de­funct on­line reser­va­tion ser­vice called Food­line, and strikes deals with com­pa­nies to dis­play its con­tent. Tim and Nina also hire the com­pany’s first out­side CEO, Amy Mcin­tosh, a for­mer senior man­ager at Ver­i­zon who leaves af­ter less than a year and a half, putting the cou­ple back in charge of the com­pany. Myhrvold: Un­for­tu­nately, one of the things the Za­gats had go­ing against them is that their com­pany was based in this hick back­wa­ter town that didn’t un­der­stand tech­nol­ogy called New York City. New York City has never been strong in tech. Nina: We launched our first site in May of 1999. But prior to that, we had been leas­ing con­tent to tons of com­pa­nies [in­clud­ing Amer­i­can Express, AOL, Com­puserve, Pathfinder, and Prodigy]. We de­cided that our busi­ness model should be con­sis­tent in that we were paid-for books, [so] we should charge for our con­tent on­line.

Tim: Peo­ple were [ini­tially] pay­ing $3 a month or $25 a year [for a web subscription]. I think at one point it was close to half-a-mil­lion peo­ple. The abil­ity to do vot­ing on­line saved us some­thing like $10 per sur­veyor.

Nina: Peo­ple kept telling us that this was the most in­cred­i­ble time, that ev­ery­body wanted to in­vest in com­pa­nies like ours, and [won­dered] why we weren’t look­ing into [out­side in­vest­ment] at all. Doug Macken­zie, part­ner emer­i­tus, Kleiner Perkins; founder and part­ner, Radar Part­ners: They were the first that I’m aware of—or cer­tainly one of the first—user-gen­er­ated con­tent com­pa­nies. They had a strong fol­low­ing, ob­vi­ously, with the con­sumers but also with the re­view­ers.

Tim: We just said we wanted to con­tinue to do what we’re do­ing and ex­pand.

Myhrvold: I ac­tu­ally spent a lot of time strate­giz­ing with them [about] who they would take money from, what they would do. Ul­ti­mately, they took the $31 mil­lion from a bunch of ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, and I put in some money.

Tim: We were lucky be­cause we hit it at the top of the boom. We prob­a­bly would never have got­ten the same deal six months later.

Myhrvold: I also do re­search on di­nosaurs. [This] was a mass-ex­tinc­tion event for in­ter­net com­pa­nies.

Ni­cholas Ne­gro­ponte, co­founder, MIT Me­dia Lab; in­vestor, Za­gat: Tim­ing could not have been worse for in­vestors, but ex­cel­lent for Tim and Nina.


As it gen­er­ates new guides, for golf cour­ses and movies, Za­gat main­tains its pay­wall, even as ri­vals offer re­views for free based on an ad-sup­ported busi­ness model. Tim and Nina re­main at the helm, and in 2008, with the com­pany’s an­nual rev­enue at a re­ported $40 mil­lion, they pon­der sell­ing, some­thing they de­cide against fol­low­ing the bank­ruptcy of Lehman Broth­ers and the en­su­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Con­trol­ling costs by is­su­ing sur­veys on­line, but be­set with com­pe­ti­tion, Za­gat ex­pands to cover more than 90 cities by the decade’s end. Entin: We had nu­mer­ous free com­peti­tors who pre­sented a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge for con­sumer at­ten­tion with the likes of Yelp and Menu­pages. We built out our own, sim­i­lar kind of menupro­cess­ing and data-en­try sys­tem so that we could offer menus.

Zach Brooks, founder, Mid­town Lunch blog: When I moved to New York in 2005, there was this blog­ging thing that started to hap­pen. Peo­ple were [bring­ing] cam­eras to their meals and tak­ing pho­tos. And ob­vi­ously, be­ing able to go on­line to see pho­tos of that food be­came su­per com­pelling. Entin: It was chal­leng­ing. We had a strong brand. There was real rev­enue com­ing in from sub­scrip­tions and spon­sor­ships. But at the same time, there’s all this com­pe­ti­tion. I don’t know if that led to some turnover.

Myhrvold: It took a while to get a good tech­nol­ogy base for peo­ple post­ing re­views. It’s not like the Yelp code in its early days was some mir­a­cle of com­puter sci­ence. But it was bet­ter than what the Za­gats fielded in that era.

Ash­ley Hayes, sales man­ager, Yelp (2007); com­mu­nity man­ager, Google Places (2010–2012): [Yelp CEO] Jeremy Stop­ple­man built this in­dex of all th­ese lo­cal busi­nesses think­ing that it was the in­dex it­self that was go­ing to be some­thing that peo­ple wanted, but it tran­si­tioned when he started [learn­ing] that peo­ple were ac­tu­ally writ­ing re­views and en­joy­ing it.

Michael Luca, busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­fes­sor, Har­vard: The fact about con­tent gen­er­a­tion on the in­ter­net is that the more things you make some­body do, [the steeper the] drop-off in [their] will­ing­ness to con­trib­ute. Hav­ing a sim­ple 1 to 5 with [an open com­ment area] where peo­ple can do their own thing would get a lot more con­tent than hav­ing peo­ple fill out sep­a­rate boxes.

Tim: The last thing in the world I would have wanted to be was Yelp. The idea that you [had to scroll from] ev­ery­body who loved it down to ev­ery­body who hated it and fig­ure out where you came out on the spec­trum, I thought it was to­tally waste­ful.

Michael An­der­son, agri­cul­ture and re­source eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor, UC Berke­ley: There may be a de­sire to make it eas­ier for users to glance and say, “Hey, three-and-a-half ver­sus four stars, that’s a pretty easy com­par­i­son.” But that’s go­ing to have an im­pact on [some] restau­rants. Waters: It’s a fast, cheap, and easy world . . . . Every time you make a de­ci­sion about where you want to eat, you’re sup­port­ing a whole set of val­ues. Entin: The com­pany tried to sell it­self around 2008, with Gold­man Sachs do­ing the deal.

Ruth Re­ichl, restau­rant critic and food editor for the L.A. Times and The New York Times (1984– 1999); editor-in-chief, Gourmet (1999–2009): At Gourmet, we even talked to them at one point about ac­quir­ing it. They were too far be­hind in their un­der­stand­ing that the in­ter­net was go­ing to make them ob­so­lete. They hadn’t ramped up enough to make it worth­while spend­ing a for­tune for.

Peter Ge­orgescu, chair­man emer­i­tus, Young & Ru­bi­cam, and in­for­mal com­pany ad­viser: They weren’t look­ing to cash out. They were look­ing to find a part­ner­ship. That’s why I think they didn’t rush into a fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ship at that time. Nina: We did talk about [be­ing open to of­fers] but

then the mar­ket changed and we just with­drew. Entin: We pro­ceeded to do a ma­jor web­site re­design that fo­cused on try­ing to cre­ate the best restau­rant search ex­pe­ri­ence on the web.


Marissa Mayer, then Google’s VP of lo­cal, maps, and lo­ca­tion ser­vices, leads a deal to ac­quire Za­gat in Septem­ber 2011, en­vi­sion­ing it as a tem­plate for Google’s user-gen­er­ated per­son­al­ized search rec­om­men­da­tions. Tim and Nina agree to stay on as ad­vis­ers, only to see Mayer take a job 10 months later as CEO of Ya­hoo. Nina: Marissa sent us an email and said that she thought there were lots of things that we could do to­gether. Would we be will­ing to meet with her? I re­mem­ber walk­ing into Tim’s of­fice with the email and say­ing, “Gee, Tim, do you think we have time to meet with Google?”

Marissa Mayer, for­mer VP, lo­cal, maps, and lo­ca­tion ser­vices, Google: We had tried nu­mer­ous times to ac­quire Yelp. I made [the case] that we needed re­views. It wasn’t okay just to have a [phone-book style] list where every busi­ness in the world was on Google Maps. We ac­tu­ally needed a sense of, “Where should I go?” We wanted it to be more cu­rated and thought­ful. Nina: We ended up go­ing out to lunch. It was at Jean-ge­orges, right across the street from our of­fice.

Tim: They were al­ways rated very high, but there was that one year when they dropped a point and they took it badly for a year.

Mayer: We had started to see the ben­e­fit of user­gen­er­ated con­tent with Youtube. We felt we could get greater par­tic­i­pa­tion and po­ten­tially greater cov­er­age of the Za­gat guides by of­fer­ing that as part of Google Maps and Google Lo­cal. Nina: [Tim and I] felt that Google would be a fab­u­lous part­ner be­cause it would mean that our tech­nol­ogy would get 10 times stronger.

Mayer: We ul­ti­mately paid more than $150 mil­lion for the com­pany. Restau­rant re­views in them­selves aren’t worth that, but a re­views plat­form that can help peo­ple cu­rate, pick the best busi­nesses, and hear about other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences is worth that and much more. We wanted to take it and scale it.

Entin: “Wow, this is awe­some. This is ex­cit­ing.” I think that was kind of the gen­eral reaction. Ne­gro­ponte: When Google bought them, it was a total sur­prise, to me. I thought it was a fine exit for Tim and Nina, and prob­a­bly not good for the com­pany. I think I was right about both.

Den­nis Crowley, co­founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, Foursquare: At that time, I might have looked at it like, Za­gat [has] great con­tent, but if a new place opens up in the Lower East Side there’ll be 20 Foursquare re­views there in two days and that’s all the con­tent we need.

Entin: In­ter­nally, Google had this pro­ject called Hot­pot. They had built this Net­flix-y kind of [plat­form where users could] rate a bunch of places, like thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and it will give you some [lo­cal] rec­om­men­da­tions. [The sys­tem used both stars and smi­ley faces.] Hot­pot was look­ing for a dif­fer­ent user flow to try to make [re­view­ing] more fun and en­gag­ing peo­ple to do it more.

Tim: Google asked us to stay. We didn’t know that it would last six years.

Entin: We knew that Google didn’t have the re­views cov­er­age it wanted. At the time, [with] Google Maps or Google search, the cov­er­age was thin on places [users might] be sur­prised about. The goal was pretty clear. They built out a Za­gat­branded base in the [Google] head­quar­ters in Chelsea. No [small] com­pa­nies got that; they just get ab­sorbed into the Borg. Hayes: It was “Google Plus Lo­cal and Za­gat,” which was clearly a mouth­ful to try to pro­mote against the in­her­ent ad­van­tage of just a one-word com­pany—yelp—that ex­isted in the same town. Entin: Marissa led the deal. She left not that long af­ter [to be­come CEO of Ya­hoo]. She was a cham­pion of the deal, and she was no longer there. Mayer: I will say the Za­gat brand, and where that in­te­gra­tion was, was one of my big­gest heartaches. Be­cause I had so many strate­gic plans for how it would span out . . . I un­der­stood the ar­chi­tec­ture of Google and how to ac­tu­ally get things done there in a way that [Tim and Nina] were ob­vi­ously less fa­mil­iar with . . .

Hayes: I was hir­ing out a Lon­don team, in­ter­view­ing some folks there, and I got a call at like 3 o’clock in the morn­ing say­ing, “Marissa left. Come back. We need to re­assess every­thing.” I ac­tu­ally quit pretty soon af­ter be­cause I could tell that with­out our big cheer­leader it would change every­thing. Mayer: I left the pro­ject [in the hands of] Bernardo Hernán­dez, who did a fine job run­ning it for some time, but then ul­ti­mately he fol­lowed me to Ya­hoo.

Myhrvold: If you wanted to write a case study of how to take branded con­tent that meant some­thing to a large set of peo­ple and just de­stroy it, that’s what Google did, with the best of in­ten­tions at every stage.


Google ac­quires rat­ing-guide com­pany From­mer’s for $22 mil­lion in Au­gust 2012 (with an eye to­ward bol­ster­ing travel re­views), shifts its data col­lec­tion method­ol­ogy, and re­port­edly be­gins let­ting ed­i­to­rial con­tract work­ers go. The last Za­gat guide pub­lished was the New York sur­vey in 2017.

Entin: The idea was that Za­gat was go­ing to power Google Plus Lo­cal. That prod­uct in­ter­nally was called Spicy­bowl, the suc­ces­sor to Hot­pot. But there was also Google Search, lo­cal con­tent in the knowl­edge panel [in­for­ma­tional boxes], and then you have Google Maps. Lo­cal is a com­pli­cated busi­ness. The tide turned in terms of how prom­i­nent the Za­gat brand should be and how much peo­ple cared.

Mayer: We wanted to try [the 30-point rat­ing sys­tem] be­cause we felt like getting more in­for­ma­tion [was im­por­tant]. We wanted to be able to drill some of those [ex­pe­ri­en­tial] is­sues apart for peo­ple.

Nina: Then ul­ti­mately it be­came a five-point scale . . . . I don’t want to talk about that.

Entin: The rat­ing scale was ab­so­lutely a big po­lit­i­cal thing. There was a lot of drama around that. Ne­gro­ponte: To change that is like chang­ing the flag of a coun­try.

Entin: I did user re­search and saw that a lot of peo­ple didn’t get [the 30-point rat­ing sys­tem]. It was ab­so­lutely an in­hibitor for a com­pany like Google, where there are a bil­lion users of Google Maps. I get it.

Zol­ner: It was a bet­ter sys­tem, but peo­ple weren’t fa­mil­iar with it. The world was run by stars. Google now [goes] from 0.0 to 5.0. It is just as gran­u­lar, but in­stead of hav­ing the whole num­ber it’s a dec­i­mal num­ber [of stars].

Tim: There were changes. But Google was the owner, and they did what they thought was right. Zol­ner: I think there was an agree­ment to dis­agree.

Mayer: The no­tion of tak­ing the user-gen­er­ated con­tent and cre­at­ing a hu­man-edited and pri­or­i­tized form ul­ti­mately didn’t ma­te­ri­al­ize [at Google], but there were a lot of other strengths that were re­al­ized.

Meyer: The Za­gat Sur­vey [book] didn’t come out last year, which crushed me. It kind of went out with a whim­per in an odd way.


Google sells Za­gat on March 2 for an undis­closed sum to The In­fat­u­a­tion, a nine-year-old ed­i­to­rial-driven re­view site founded by two for­mer record com­pany ex­ec­u­tives. The In­fat­u­a­tion, which is known for pop­u­lar­iz­ing the hash­tag #EEEEEATS on In­sta­gram (along with a textbased rec­om­men­da­tion ser­vice called Text Rex and a Los An­ge­les food fes­ti­val that’s ex­pand­ing to New York in Oc­to­ber), now owns the rights to the Za­gat brand, site, app, and deep archive of pub­lished con­tent. Tim and Nina Za­gat have no for­mal role in the deal. Chris Stang, for­mer VP of mar­ket­ing, At­lantic Records; co­founder and CEO, The In­fat­u­a­tion: We were in the mu­sic busi­ness, and the mu­sic busi­ness is a night­time sport. You end up in a lot of restau­rants. Peo­ple would start ask­ing us ques­tions, [but they] never started with, “Who’s the best chef in town?” or “What’s the best restau­rant in the city?” It al­ways started with, “Hey, I re­ally need to go im­press this girl I’m tak­ing on a first date,” or “Hey, my mom’s go­ing to be in town, I need a great place for brunch.”

An­drew Steinthal, for­mer VP of pub­lic re­la­tions, Warner Bros. Records; co­founder and CRO, The In­fat­u­a­tion: We’re try­ing to add value to peo­ple’s lives and cre­ate a brand that can in­fil­trate a per­son’s life in more ways than just read­ing some­thing on the in­ter­net or in­side an app.

Stang: We launched our web­site in 2009. The app came out in 2011. Every re­view has a neigh­bor­hood, a cui­sine, a bunch of “per­fect for” [rec­om­men­da­tions], which ends up be­ing search­able query in­for­ma­tion. It cre­ates a data­base rather than a bunch of ar­ti­cles that aren’t or­ga­nized in any way . . . . I was in Lon­don for a con­fer­ence and saw this email [from Google’s for­mer cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment man­ager, Sarah Hughes] as I was getting out of a taxi to jump into a restau­rant. They were like, “Look, we’re go­ing to sell this thing and we thought you guys might want to be in­volved based on the space you’re in.” I never re­ally asked who else was in the mix. We just fo­cused on mak­ing a com­pelling case for why we were the right home.

Tim: [Stang and Steinthal] cer­tainly seem to un­der­stand the val­ues we care about, and we want to be help­ful to them. What pre­cisely they are plan­ning to do, we will learn in due course. Stang: Rarely are restau­rant opin­ions a ze­ro­sum game. We’d like to see a world in which you can see both the critic’s score from The In­fat­u­a­tion and a com­mu­nity score from Za­gat in the same place.

Myhrvold: We’ve not [yet] seen the per­fect mar­riage of what tech­nol­ogy can do and what a brand can mean [in terms of con­tent on­line]. Maybe this last in­car­na­tion will do it.

Waters: I would like to think that there’s al­ways a place for a [printed] guide. It’s not like a com­puter, [which fig­ures] out what it thinks you’re go­ing to like and only shows you that. Some­times you find things that you wouldn’t ex­pect, and that in­ter­est you.

Stang: The num­ber-one reaction I get from peo­ple when I talk to them about [Za­gat] is nos­tal­gia, and that’s a pow­er­ful thing . . . . We’re go­ing to print guides again. It’s some­thing we have to fig­ure out, but it’s some­thing we are go­ing to do. BPAYNTER@FAST­COM­PANY.COM

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