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

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.”

Duane Forrester, VP, Industry Insights, Yext, agreed with Shotland 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 and Shotland don’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.”

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Target Adds Google Voice Assistant Shopping Nationwide

Target is the latest brick-and-mortar brand to sign on to accept requests made by owners of the Google Home through their voice-activated Google Assistant (aka “Okay, Google”) for delivery or pickup via its local online shopping marketplace Google Express.

In essence, the arrangement represents an expansion of Target’s existing use of Google Express.

Starting today, Target shoppers at most of its 1,800 stores in the United States can access items through Google Express and with the Google Assistant (except for Alaska and Hawaii). Target will offer two-day delivery, as well as free shipping for any orders over $35, Google says in a blog post.

Coming In 2018

Most of the capabilities of shopping through Google Express won’t be available until 2018. For example, after the new year, Target customers will also be able to use their Target loyalty membership through REDcard to get 5 percent off most Target purchases and free shipping when using Google Express. In addition, in 2018, Target shoppers will be able to link their Target.com and Google accounts, so the service will remember all their favorite items.

“We’re teaming up with Google to create innovative digital experiences using voice and other cutting-edge technologies to elevate Target’s strength in style areas such as home, apparel and beauty,” Target says. “Work is underway for Google and Target teams to bring this all to life.”

In August, Walmart unveiled plans to rollout a similar voice-activated shopping via Google Express and Google Home tools for its 4,700 U.S. stores and its fulfillment network “to create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else,” including choosing to pick up an order in store (often for a discount) or using voice shopping to purchase fresh groceries across the country.

These partnership on voice-activation comes roughly a year after Google Home debuted as a Connected Home product to augment Google Assistant.

“Shopping isn’t always as easy as it should be,” Sridhar Ramaswamy, SVP for Ads and Commerce, said in a blog post at the time of the Walmart deal’s announcement “When was the last time you needed to pick up something from the store but didn’t have the time to make the trip? Or you went to the store only to realize they didn’t have the brand you wanted? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get what you want, however you want, from the stores where you already shop? We launched Google Express and shopping on the Google Assistant to do just that: make it faster and easier for you to shop your stores like Costco, Target and  Walmart.”

Okay, Google, Target shoppers are ready to talk.

Target’s Many Omnichannel Steps

For Target, the expanded Google partnership follows a series of steps designed to tackle one of the primary challenges facing its omnichannel strategy by rivals like Amazon. In August, for example, Target acquired transportation tech company Grand Junction to promise same-day delivery to customers to match one of key appeals of Amazon’s discount shopping subscription program, Prime.

It’s the latest salvo store brand has taken to meet consumers’ demands in the age of Amazon and e-commerce. Those demands include personalized recommendation and satisfying customers’ purchasing preferences, such as online shopping/in-store pickup.

But as Amazon has expanded its discounts and two-day shipping with its Prime membership option, and has just heralded its Instant Pickup option, retailers have turned to one advantage they still possess — at least for the moment — in relation to Amazon: proximity to their customers and known inventory, which makes it possible to offer the ultimate convenience of letting someone click “buy” and then having it brought to them within a few hours.

The Rise Of Connected Intelligence, The Knowledge Graph

In general, the adoption of voice-activation and on-demand delivery/pickup follows the wider capabilities stemming from the rise of Connected Intelligence and the Knowledge Graph, which have propelled personalized, one-to-one connections between brands and digital assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Samsung’s Bixby as they enter the mainstream of consumer behavior.

While Amazon’s Alexa has assumed an early position as a leading voice-activated assistant, Google has stepped up its push into the space as its aligns its services to brick-and-mortar brands such as Panera Bread, which became one of the first national restaurant chains to begin offering voice-activated ordering and payment through Google Assistant.

The voice-activated ordering is currently available in Panera’s hometown of St. Louis and at its six locations in the Silicon Valley area. A full rollout of voice ordering is expected to come to all of Panera’s 2,000-plus U.S. locations by the end of the year, the company has said.

Other national brands that have formally aligned with Google’s voice-activated virtual assistant to accept spoken orders via the delivery marketplace Google Express, including Costco, Guitar Center, Kohl’s, L’Occitane, Payless, PetSmart, Road Runner Sports, Sur La Table, Ulta, Walgreens, and Amazon’s Whole Foods.

In the case of Target, the retailer has been aggressively — and at times, fitfully — revising its omnichannel strategy. For example, earlier this year, it decided to abandon its sub rosa e-commerce program called Goldfish, which was dubbed as the “store of the future.”

Before that, in August 2015, Target started a beacon program with Estimote to round out its in-store sales assistance. It’s unclear how vital the beacon program has been — or even whether Target has continued to use it —  since the company has not discussed those efforts publicly. Along the way, Target’s experiments with interactivity has included retail pop-ups and a showcase IoT-based connected home store in San Francisco.

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