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.
GOOGLE BUYS ZAGAT
AND MAKES IT FREE,
BUT THERE’S A TWIST
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
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 user-
generated content with You Tube. 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 Zagat-branded 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 From-mer’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.
The Zagat site remains largely
unchanged a;er being acquired by The Infatuation last
March, with Google ratings—
pumped in through an outside
application—appearing alongside existing Zagat reviews.
The Infatuation CEO, Chris
Stang, expects to release a
new platform for “
community-driven content” by the end
of 2019, and says that he and
his team are currently testing
the format and rating system
for reviews internally.
In the meantime, the com-
pany is experimenting with
ways to apply Zagat’s heavily
quote-driven restaurant re-
views to Instagram. Currently,
geotags can alert editors
to where diners are posting
from, and then editors can
“re-gram,” layering user com-
ments beneath related food
pics. It’s also looking back to
the company’s roots. “I was
joking with [Tim and Nina,
saying], ‘You were basically
building an app but on paper,
your pocket at all times, and
it worked,’;” Stang says. “Their
approach to the guides is
right. Yes, we live in a much
different time now, where
everything is on these super-
computers in our pockets.
[But] there’s still an audience
that wants something tangible, that they can hold on
to. Andrew and I can tell you
[this from our] experience in
the music business. Just look
at vinyl.” —BP
New owner The
Infatuation has begun
cooking up plans.