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Would Google’s Sale Of Zagat Have Any Impact On Restaurant Reviews?

The role of reviews has changed dramatically for local businesses since Google bought Zagat in 2011. And so has Google's ability to manage brands' offline digital presence.

Years after Google has built up its formidable Digital Presence Management capabilities to connect consumers with nearby restaurants — among the full range of other local businesses — the search giant is considering jettisoning an early piece of its hyperlocal strategy by selling its Zagat reviews property, according to Reuters.

Google declined to comment when we asked about the Reuters story.

Citing only “people familiar with the matter,” Reuters’ anonymous sources tell the news service that Zagat, which Google acquired for $151 million in 2011, has gradually declined as a priority when it sought to revamp the Google+ social network as its “local places” hub in 2013.

The Zagat purchase was also considered a pet project of Marissa Mayer, following her promotion from VP of Google Search Products and User Experience to run the Local, Maps, and Location Services division at the end of 2010. (Mayer left that post to take on the role of CEO of Yahoo in the summer of 2012. She resigned as the head of Yahoo in June 2017 following Verizon’s acquisition of the web portal.)

Zagat’s Stars Fade

As Google Maps has been the primary way users experience local reviews, the Zagat brand has been largely eclipsed, even though it still powers consumers’ restaurant comments and photo sharing.

In the meantime, platforms that share a range of vital business data for restaurants including hours of operation and even unbranded searchable menu listings across Google, Yelp, Facebook, Bing, Foursquare, AllMenus, delivery.com, MenuPages, and more, have made the focus on reviews something of an anachronism.

“Wait. So Zagat’s still exists?” quipped Andrew Shotland, CEO of Local SEO Guide.

“I don’t think this means anything other than Google doesn’t need, and likely never did need, to own Zagat,” Shotland added. “It was a business development deal that I am guessing Marissa [Mayer] thought would jump start their local reviews effort to compete with Yelp, which looked like the big gorilla at the time. Perhaps it did help get Google started but I am betting that it pretty quickly was of little consequence.

“Perhaps there is still some appeal to the brand for someone targeting either the restaurant industry or the corporate gifts business (I think that was Zagat’s main business — investment banks used to give copies of their books to customers). But from what I understand of their IP, I am guessing the restaurant inspector would not give Zagat a passing grade. Avoid the sushi.”

Native Google My Business reviews have become the dominant review platform and Google and that Google is able to pull in a lot more review sources then Zagat for ‘Critic Reviews’ in the Local Knowledge Cards,” added Dan Leibson, VP of Search for Local SEO Guide. “So the importance of Google actually owning Zagat seems pretty limited. I bet they have analyzed all their data already.”

Duane Forrester, VP, Industry Insights, Yext, concurred that there is little reason for Google to continue to run Zagat. (Full disclosure: GeoMarketing is a division of Yext. More details on that relationship here).

“No, Google doesn’t need their own review site — they collect data from across the web, so there’s little upside in ‘owning’ their own small slice of the pie,” Forrester said. “In fact, it could be argued (and likely has been) that it’s a conflict of interest.”

It would be interesting to see whether the separating of Zagat from Google would spur a licensing deal between the search giant and another reviews source for Google Maps.

Given what the NYT termed as a “grudge” between Google and Yelp, it would seem unlikely that the two would strike an alliance. But the absence of Zagat embedded would seem to at least open the window to third-party reviews provider. And Yelp, which has over 127 million business reviews, would certainly be hard to top when it comes to supplementing comments made on Google Maps and local delivery marketplace Google Express.

As it stands, Forrester doesn’t expect any impact to restaurants from a sale of Zagat.

“It’s highly unlikely [that Google search results would be impacted] as Zagat was bought originally partly because of its brand and the quality associated with it,” Forrester said. “That hasn’t gone away with time, and when we factor in the spread of news like this being so slow to reach actual street-level businesses, it’s not likely to do much to change their minds, though it might spur a cycle of raised awareness and get restaurants to focus on their reviews for a little while. And that’s always a good thing.”

The Reviews Revolution

The local marketing space, particularly for restaurants, has changed dramatically since Google bought Zagat.

Although reviews are a crucial point of discovery as brands seek to use online commentary to burnish their reputation and drive foot traffic and sales, reviews alone are less sustainable as a business proposition.

Consider the fact that Yelp, in evolving its identity as a local guide platform, often highlights its ability to drive transactions as opposed to merely serving as a repository for patrons’ “thumbs up or thumbs down.”

“The landscape is almost entirely different [in 2011]; about the only similarity is that as a concept, reviews are still with us,” Forrester said, when asked about the changes since Zagat was acquired by Google.

“From the accessibility consumers enjoy, to being able to leave reviews, to the sheer number of sources open to record a review, to the importance of reviews and their impacts on human behavior and algorithmic choices, reviews have a prominence today that never existed seven years ago,” he added. “Back then, it was still more of a word-of-mouth linked scenario. Today, everyone has access and with a human’s innate skew towards complaining versus complimenting; it’s trickier than ever to extract value from reviews.”

Simply put, people are likely to complain about small negative things and never leave positive feedback for small positive things, Forrester explained.

“Given the importance of reviews today in how a search engine ranks results, though, it’s critically important that businesses do whatever they can to cultivate positive reviews,” Forrester said. “This includes digging in when someone complains. Being ‘seen’ trying to solve a problem is often as powerful as actually solving a problem.”