Word that Google has acquired Zagat, the prestigious restaurant-rating organization (see the Tribune's Breaking Business story here), no doubt sent a current of excitement through the entire dining community, ending with an unpleasant jolt to Yelp headquarters.
Use Google to search for any restaurant, and what pops up? The restaurant's home page, of course, usually followed by Yelp's collection of community reviews of the place. Sometimes, Yelp reviews pop up ahead of the restaurant's own page.
Expect that to change now that Zagat's online ratings, previously available only to subscribers, become available to all and sundry under the powerful Google umbrella (that, at least, is what I assume Google plans to do). In the very near future, when someone googles "Topolobampo," how close to the top do you suppose the Zagat information will be?
Full disclosure: I edited the Zagat Chicago guides from 1985 through 2002, stopping once Zagat created an online presence and the Tribune editors ruled that my little side gig represented a conflict.
Zagat carries more prestige than does Yelp, I think (feel free to disagree), possibly because its comments and numeric ratings (on food, service and decor) are united under the Zagat name. Zagat's printed guides are extremely popular, and virtually required reading in New York City. But numbers aside, Zagat and Yelp operate similarly, in that their information is based completely on man-on-the-street input. There are no Zagat reviewers per se, which doesn't stop restaurants from saying they've been "reviewed by Zagat."
With Yelp, on the other hand, each comment and one-to-five star rating is matched to the person who posted it (even if that person is operating under an alias). Some followers have come to rely on certain Yelp posts more than others, because of the person doing the posting. That's a filtering system Zagat doesn't provide.
Yelp and Zagat's strengths and weaknesses are roughly the same. Both can be tainted by input from people whose motives are less than pure, and both rely on the sheer number of responses to paint an accurate picture of a given restaurant.
But expect some interesting online battles in the near future. Zagat, by hooking up with Google, just packed on a lot of muscle.