Google will use Zagat's (so you don't have to)

Google has no reservations about baking Zagat's right into its artificial intelligence search engine of tomorrow

Google bought Zagat Survey this week for an unknown amount between $50 million and $200 million. Zagat specializes in ratings for restaurants, hotels and travel destinations informed by the input of some 350,000 contributors.

The acquisition is Google's 104th. (The blog TechCrunch claims that the deal did not merit an FTC antitrust review, which happens automatically for any deal worth $66 million or more.)

Google offered Zagat competitor Yelp $500 million in December 2009, but the offer was rejected.

Silicon Valley companies often make acquisitions to gain access to talent, intellectual property or markets. But Google's Zagat buy is mostly about data and a winning methodology for maintaining it.

Zagat ratings are on a 30-point scale, with 30 being the highest score for each attribute. In the case of restaurants, attributes are "Food," "Decor" and "Service." The database behind all this has a number between zero and 30 associated with each location's attribute, as well as pricing and other information. It also contains a field where short blurby "reviews" are entered.

Data for Zagat's is gathered using a reliable methodology that's much harder to "game" than Google's "Places" service.

As an embarrassing example of how unreliable Places is, the New York Times this week published an expose about the apparently widespread problem of sabotage on the service. Unscrupulous business owners are apparently using the tools on Places to falsely label their competitors as "permanently closed."

Places data also shows up on Google Maps, associated with each business's location.

"Closed" or "open" status is either true or false. As such, it's a relatively easy thing to check. The hidden problem with sites like Places, as well as Yelp, is the unmeasurable "reviews" portion of each service. It's very easy for a business owner to write fake positive reviews for his own business, and fake bad reviews for the competition.

The Times also published another expose recently about the growing industry of fake restaurant and hotel reviews for hire.

Zagat's reviews are more reliable in part because participation is more time consuming and engaging, and also because Zagat uses editors to filter comments. Zagat also polices results, and threatens on its website to remove any establishment caught violating its Content Creation Policy.

There's no question that Zagat data will improve the quality of recommendations on Places and Maps.

Why Google really bought Zagat

Google started out as a search company, and continues to rely on search for the core of its business. But this success requires constant innovation and improvement in the search experience.

About a year ago, Google's then-CEO Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal about the next big leap in search technology that Google is working on.

In the future, according to Schmidt, you won't have to do searching as much as you do now. Instead, Google's back-end system will proactively suggest things like a personal assistant would. Those suggestions will be based on a detailed understanding of your preferences, and also of the world.

Schmidt said at last year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference that the next step in boosting the speed of search results is something called "autonomous search." The idea is that Google is always searching in the background for you based on your context at any moment.

This self-directed search engine will draw from multiple data points, including product and service rankings, store inventory databases, geo-location data and most of all, your personal history using Google services. Another aspect of the "autonomous search" idea is constant improvement. The more you use the service, the more accurate and useful it becomes.

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