Pure Genius

Tim Zagat: Why our guides are still relevant in the Yelp age

Posting in Design

The Zagat Survey founders say their burgundy-bound guides are a natural for today's technology.

Zagat Survey, which provides ratings on everything from diners to doctors, traditionally in a slim, burgundy-bound book, recently announced that its Atlanta and Texas guides would only be published digitally. Earlier this year, the company launched Zagat To Go 3.0 for the iPhone, also compatible with the new iPad (3.0 features off-line sync, so you can even access content on flights without WiFi). Then there’s their deal with Foursquare, and a Twitter integration that gives Zagat.mobi users all the latest tweets about a particular restaurant.

Hungry for more? Here’s excerpts of my recent conversation with co-founders and co-chairs Tim and Nina Zagat.

Before we get started on all the cool tech-y stuff, let’s set the scene in 1979, when you just started the survey. What did your publication look like then?

TZ: In some ways it was even before that. In 1968,we were living in Paris as young lawyers, and we used to survey our lawyer friends. We’d go around the table and say, “Write down a list of 100 top restaurants.” Then we started in 1979 as a mimeographed sheet, stapled together. In 1982 it became a book (with 1983 on the cover). We said if you participate [in the survey] you get a free copy. The first year we had 200 people voting on 100 restaurants. In the fourth year, we made it into a book, and it looked a lot like what it does today. But we had no publisher that was willing to take it. They said, “We don’t want local content, the entries are too short, the book’s too small, it’ll get lost on the shelves.”

NZ: When we started out, it was totally as a hobby. Other people played golf, we did the survey.

At what point did you realize you needed other vehicles to supplement the books?

NZ: It grew out of the original concept, having a couple lines about each entry, using quotes from surveys. That whole visual piece was just a natural for technology that wasn’t available then but came on the scene later. In the late ‘80s with the first online services—CompuServe, Prodigy—they wanted to license our content to use on their platforms. So we did a lot of deals at that point, then of course they all went away. As there were new players, we would increase our content and get paid for it. We’ve always been believers of paid content, which—interestingly—seems to be where content is going now.

TZ: It’s largely the same content, but we’re operating in different ways.

NZ: In 1999 rather than licensing, we decided to launch our own site.

TZ: “We” is Nina. She’s my web mistress; she’s not my wife. When it comes to all things technological, she’s the leader.

NZ: I just knew we had to do it. Around the same time we got a visit from people in Tokyo—NTT, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone--and they said they were creating a new product. It was the i-mode—like the iPhone 10 years earlier. So we were on this mobile product in Japan, and since then we’ve had a commitment to have our content available on any platform the customer may want—iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Kindle. We’re platform agnostic.

Is there a big change in how people are using your surveys, because it’s more mobile now?

NZ: The book was designed to be portable, and people have always taken it with them. People have their book and Zagat To Go on their iPhone or Blackberry. They like to get the same content in multiple ways.

Are you getting more people voting, now that it’s digital?

TZ: The answer is yes. As people get used to voting from handhelds, more and more will do it. That will be the great growth engine going forward.

NZ: There are lots of fun things you can do with mobile—Foursquare, Twitter to mobi.

When you have so many people out there rating restaurants on sites like Yelp, what’s the value of your surveys?

TZ: Quality and curators. We have editors who make sure the content is accurate. A lot of people say “beautiful” or “gorgeous," but no one says “wood-paneled,” or “Victorian.” Our editor will add words like that. We make sure the information is accurate and reliable. We do not allow people to pay to affect where they stand [in surveys]. If you look at the reviews, the quality of the information in the core reviews is better.

So you two are trying to figure out where to go to eat. How do you decide?

TZ: Nina uses the handheld (her Blackberry). I use the book. The ability to transact with the handheld—to click on a menu item and order it—is going to get bigger and bigger.

I still have a couple of your books on my shelf. Are they going to be collector’s items?

NZ: [laughs] We will always have books.

In this video you can see Zagat nru ("near you") in action. It's a free app, available for the T-Mobile G1, which gives information on restaurants and shops around your current location.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure