What’s Next for Zagat?

Plenty of head scratching accompanied the announcement that dominated food news last week. Google sold Zagat—the iconic, original crowdsourced restaurant review guide—to The Infatuation—the digital upstart and Instagram darling that’s threatened to make Zagat obsolete. A little surprised? We were, too.

Zagat has been synonymous with restaurant discovery since married lawyers Nina and Tim Zagat sent their friends a typewritten survey in 1980, which was quickly passed along to 200 amateur critics and later evolved into a yearly print guide in dozens of cities. Walk into any good New York City restaurant in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and you’d see its Zagat rating proudly posted on the wall. Then came the rise of Yelp and other online review sites. As diners flocked to the free sites and food-porn-heavy apps like Instagram, Zagat (which Google bought in 2011 for its data) failed to keep pace.

Meanwhile, the Infatuation has amassed over a million Instagram followers and a heavy millennial following with over a dozen of local restaurant guides and mouthwatering photos (hashtagged #EEEEEATS). The Infatuation says it will operate Zagat separately “to provide users quality and diverse options for restaurant recommendations.” (Read: they’re looking to Zagat as their way in with an older audience that’s less easily swayed by Instagram food porn.) But the Infatuation will have some serious work to do in reestablishing Zagat as a relevant brand. Here’s what we hope to see in the new Zagat.

The return of authority to crowdsourced reviews

Rize Thai Sushi Social Media

Despite the popularity of Yelp and TripAdvisor, no crowdsourced review site has completely filled the void left by Zagat’s surveys. Yelp’s strength — millions of reviews at diners’ fingertips, written by anyone and everyone — is also one of its weaknesses. Without editorial oversight, Yelp “has become more of a soapbox than a trusted source of information,” says Amber Eckerlund, Director of Marketing at L.A.’s Coral Tree Cafe. Reviews can range from full-fledged novels to complaints from a passerby about the line outside.

By comparison, the old Zagat surveys encouraged more focused, complete reviews by asking diners to rate restaurants across four categories: food, decor, service and cost. A team of editors fact-checked and summarized the responses, and curated a sampling of diner comments included alongside the ratings for the best of both worlds.

“The thing that was nice about Zagat was that you could rely on this differentiation of opinions to get a good average sense of what a restaurant would be like,” Eckerlund says. “That’s not representative of Yelp reviews.”

The Infatuation has already hinted at returning to Zagat’s roots, with plans to “expand user surveys and develop a new tech-driven platform that will create a stronger, more meaningful alternative to other crowdsourced restaurant reviews.” If Zagat can revive its editorial eye, expect to see it coming for Yelp’s lunch.

A more nuanced, open-ended rating system—and more nuanced reviewers

G & B Coffee Grand Central Market

There were mixed reactions in 2016 when Google converted Zagat’s unique 30-point scale to a more commonly used 5-point scale. Until then, Zagat reviewers rated a restaurant from one to three in each of the four categories. 3 was excellent, 2 very good, 1 good and 0 poor to fair. Ratings were then multiplied by ten to give a score out of 30. 26-30 was extraordinary to perfection, 21-25 was very good to excellent, 16-20 good to very good, 10-15 fair to good and 0-9 poor to fair. The 5-point system is arguably more approachable for consumers, especially those looking for a quick assessment. But there’s also more room for differentiation in the 30-point, four category system. We’ll be looking to the new Zagat to find a happy medium between the two, with a consumer-friendly system that recognizes all the facets of the restaurant experience.

This time around, Zagat will also need to shed more light on the people behind their ratings. Eckerlund, for one, would like to see “a more accurate representation of local diners, and we’ll need to see transparency in where these survey results are coming from.” The guide hasn’t divulged reviewer demographics in the past (which has traditionally been perceived as older, perhaps stuffier). It now has an opportunity to broaden its reviewer base with the Infatuation’s younger foodie audience.

We’d love to see Zagat use insights from a more diverse audience to power advanced filtering options beyond cuisine or location: diner demographic, mood (quiet and peaceful for the first kid-free outing in months) and occasion (sophisticated group birthday dinner, rowdy group birthday dinner, a meet-the-parents meal with your significant other).

A revival of the old print guide

Toca Madera Los Angeles

The Infatuation CEO Chris Stang has said he wants to bring back Zagat’s iconic print guides. There’s still a market for print, and the revival might be a way to recapture Zagat’s old audience and reputation as a trusted brand. At the same time, Zagat should take advantage of the Infatuation’s creative resources to bring their surveys to new channels — like Instagram Story polls.   

It’s too early to tell how successful the Infatuation-Zagat deal will be. The more we think about it though, the more we see the potential in this merging of old and new guard to create a comprehensive review experience.

Hungry? Order online through ChowNow! Want to learn about restaurant reviewing from the Directory of Regional Marketing at Yelp? Read this blog post about the ins and outs of restaurant reviews in the social media age.