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Google Plus Zagat Equals Yelp? Let's Hope Not.

A Google-owned Zagat will undoubtedly look a lot Yelpier. And for anyone who values reasoned opinions, that's too bad.

Google announced today that it has acquired Zagat, the original crowd-sourced restaurant guide. The move marks the final nail in the coffin for Zagat's curated approach to amateur restaurant rating, and the ultimate triumph of Yelp's free-for-all model—a Google-owned Zagat will undoubtedly look a lot Yelpier. And for anyone who values reasoned opinions, that's too bad.

Starting in 1979, Zagat owned civilian restaurant reviews with its slim red book of succinct rankings culled from the views of anonymous eaters. But in 2004, the online-only Yelp leapfrogged Zagat by elevating amateur restaurant reviewing to a personalized social experience, allowing users to create profiles, upload photos, and spill their thoughts at length on everything from pizza joints to plumbers. Yelp's rise made Zagat irrelevant, and so Zagat will become more like Yelp. Zagat has said that its new prerogative involves developing "new ways for consumers to express their opinions." But after spending many hours reading the choicest insights of Yelp's amateur food commentators, I'll miss Zagat's more traditional approach.

In the pursuit of feeding myself, Yelp has proven itself a steadfast companion—it has directed me toward the nearest taco, supplied me the phone number of the coffee shop open the latest, and managed my expectations for my meals with its helpful five-star scale. But while Yelp's aggregate ratings of local restaurants are largely reliable, the site's worth disintegrates at the level of the individual reviewer.

Many Yelp users are pleasant, honest, and helpful people. Others are untrustworthy, misanthropic, and deeply annoying, and these types seem to be uniquely attracted to Yelp's platform. Perhaps no one else will listen to their uninformed yet deeply-held opinions on that local Moroccan place, but Yelp cares. If you and a couple of friends are ever interested in irreparably damaging your faith in humanity, just hop on to Yelp and stage a dramatic reading of the site's one-star reviews.

Some reviewers take to Yelp to air their insecurities ("I could feel the dirty looks from everyone in the place when I booted up my non-Apple laptop") or their biases ("Not even a place I would take a fat girl on the second date"). Reviews are regularly peppered with character assassinations ("the chick at the counter was blasé"), desperate pleas for attention ("I was too distracted by the guy that didn't say hello when we walked in the door"), or irrelevant personal details ("I love presents and I love that I was born. I do not, however, particularly like presents on my birthday").

In a development that has been particularly frustrating to the few journalists still employed as expert restaurant reviewers, some eaters log on to Yelp for the sole purpose of flaunting their ignorance of the food they have just consumed. "NEW HAVEN style pizza? What the hell is that?" someone weighed in on a New Haven-style pizza joint. "I don't drink coffee, and I think that if I did I would have enjoyed this place more," another wrote about a local coffee shop. Others have used the site as a vehicle to harass service workers, adding an eternal archive of petty customer complaints to an already thankless job.

Reassessing Zagat in 2009, Tim Carman criticized the guide for its lack of transparency in the Internet age—prospective eaters never knew who its reviewers were or why exactly they loved or hated a place. But that's not always so bad. The beauty of the little red Zagat book was that it didn't make us page through the long-winded diatribes of the diners sitting at the next table—it curated the raves and rants for us, then assigned a number. That ship has sailed—Zagat readers can already read individual member reviews on its website. But if Zagat and Google are truly committed to finding "new ways for consumers to express their opinions," let's hope they keep Zagat's mechanism for making them rational, relevant, and brief.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user angermann

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