Is Google Thinking About Abandoning the Zagat Rating System?

Matt Gregory, a local SEO in Minneapolis, recently sent me these screen shots of an obvious test that Google is conducting to assess the relative merit of stars vs. the Zagat display for reviews in the main SERPS. He has been seeing these results on Safari for the Mac consistently from Monday evening through today on a broad range of searches. I have not been able reproduce the results but the fact that they were visible to him over such a long period time indicates that the results were not a fluke and are likely part of a larger test.

These results lend themselves to speculation. The recent change of review presentation to the Zagat rating system from the 5 star system was jarring to say the least. Minimally the local results with reviews became less visible in the search results and some folks like Matt McGee think that they are difficult to understand by the consumer/SMB and are a big risk for Google.

Marissa Mayer was the person that was most involved in the Zagat purchase and she noted at the time:

“Did you know there’s a place in Menlo Park near the Safeway that has a 27 food rating?” one of my friends asked me that about two years ago, and I was struck because I immediately knew what it meant. Food rating… 30 point scale… Zagat. And the place… had to be good. With no other context, I instantly recognized and trusted Zagat’s review and recommendation.

A well known foodie, Mayer was obviously taken with the Zagat system. She was in charge of Google local when the Zagat review system was implemented and one can surmise that it was her “baby”. With Mayer leaving the company it is entirely possible that there is no longer a strong internal advocate for the Zagat system.

Obviously not everyone at Google thought the the Zagat display was the best choice as Adwords retained the stars. And it appears that someone in Google local search must agree with them.

In addition to the change back to stars, note that the large map is included in the main body of the serps and not off to the side and third party reviews are once again given front page visibility. Apparently the rollover to the full listing content appearing to the right is MIA as well. This layout also obviously frees up advertising space in the right column.

What do you think? Will Google abandon the Zagat display after only 2 months of use?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Is Google Thinking About Abandoning the Zagat Rating System? by

28 thoughts on “Is Google Thinking About Abandoning the Zagat Rating System?”

  1. Well I just tried a lot of restaurant searches in different cities on safari and got Google’s Zagat reviews. No stars.

    OTOH, I did find two Italian restaurants in Philadelphia with respectively a 27 and a 28 Zagat rating. Mama mia. I’m hungry.

  2. Still Zagat ratings for my category; but a return to stars would be much welcome. The way the Zagat works, you are rewarded if you have few reviews, but all perfect. Whereas if you have a greater number of reviews, with a few bad reviews sprinkled in, your score does not seem as good as the person with the few perfect reviews. So a 28 does not look as good as a 30, even though both would be five stars under the old system.

  3. All browsers and all cities were Zagat on my screen. I didn’t try safari though.

    I personally like the Zagat system better. But I think users are still accustom to the star system. I wouldn’t be surprised if the CTR on stars reviews was stronger than Zagat reviews.

    I vote stick with Zagat as it’s a better system for reviews. But I imagine Google will swap it eventually after seeing this test.

  4. @Joy

    Well its good to have confirmation. What browser were you using and what is your location?

    @Dave and Richard
    I don’t think most can see. I wasn’t able to even on Safari on Mac…

    Unfortunately this isn’t a democracy. 🙂

  5. It may not be a Safari issue – it may just be that Matt is sitting on a test server.

    Remember Mike when I 1st saw the blended algo and broke the story on your blog? I think it was July 2010? Then the new layout broke 4 months later? I was sitting on a test server at the time and could see the new results and hardly anyone else could see them.

    My vote would DEF be to go back to the stars. It’s standard. It’s something consumers relate to. AND for business owners that have good reviews, it helped click-through, call and conversion rates.

    1. Linda

      Matt tested on a range of browsers including Chrome and Firefox and was only able to consistently able to see the results on Safari.

      My sense is that google varies the test parameters and browser type is one of this variables.

  6. Hi Mike,

    I saw those kind of SERPs from Monday on and was asking myself: This view is absolutely contrary to the development we saw in the last month. A revert back to the 5-star system so shortly after the initiation of the Zagat system and the again more visible presentation of 3rd party review platforms within in the SERPS perplexed me.

    I solely got the new layout with a special program we use to make screenshots for documentation of the SERPS. Couldn’t reproduce on my working pc neither my home device.

    Greetings Nico

    1. @nico

      Thanks for confirming. It is obviously showing to a very limited set of browser types and likely, as Linda pointed out, from a limited number of servers.

      It is a surprising test, that’s for sure.

  7. 2 thoughts:

    1. I always thought it was a bit more coordinated than that and thought the stars were kept on the ads to draw even more attention to them by default.

    2. The reasoning behind the Zagat rating expressed by Mayer seems ‘ivory tower.’ I’d imagine the majority of Americans are not as familiar with the Zagat scoring even for many that know the name. Plus taking it to all listings regardless of vertical….

  8. @Justin

    Good points both. I would however use the term “elitist” instead of “ivory tower” or perhaps in addition to. She exists in the rarified world of the super rich and brought much or that sensibility to the closed environment of Google.

  9. @Mike – Funny – that’s the term I originally had written before rewriting.

    Although I think the ivory tower concept is valid as well with Google in this case and in general (along with many other corporations). Even when they do user testing and market research on products pre-launch it’s often woefully inadequate. Was it Instant where they tested a whopping 30 “random” outsiders and 30 or more Googlers before launch? Simply put, Google is smarter than we are and knows better.

    That’s probably coming off harsher than I mean it to be. Love ya (most of the time), Google!

  10. @Justin

    The only disagreement with your comments would relate to this one: Google is smarter than we are and knows better.

    After years of observation and field experience we know that not to be true. Richer yes, bigger yes, more PHDs per sq ft yes… Smarter, no.

  11. @Mike Farney

    Once you hit a certain threshold of reviews, the aggregate Zagat score shows in the serp. The competitors also have Zagat reviews, just not enough to show their score.

    Nice score! =D

  12. Switching to the Zagat rating system was a very STUPID move. What’s the point of that? Could it really have beeen championed by just one person? “a 27 score out of 30!” is an absolutely terrible approach to creating a universally acceptible/understandable/embraceable/recognizable system that encourages use & sharing. Oh wait, so a 27 is equivalent to a 9 on a 1-10 scale, or a 90 on a 1-100 scale. I get it.

    Switching from the star system was brainless to begin with but to now abandon it after 2 months – how awesome is that? The Zagat system is getting Netflixed!

    I wonder how Marissa’s thinking will affect Yahoo! Well, actually……perhaps a totally new style of thinking is exactly what Yahoo needs. They need something. (but they don’t need the zagat system).

    Personally I think this whole experiment of pushing everyone and everything to Google Plus is a big mistake which will eventually be corrected. On paper it’s brilliant. But the world does not live on paper.

    The Zagat change is merely a distraction in the scheme of things.

    I’ll stop now.

  13. If Google decides to go back to the “old” system and retire the Zagat system, it will be interesting to see how they break THAT one to business owners. Just from a PR standpoint.

  14. Zagat is very hit and miss over here in the UK – it’s available in London and a couple of other places which are not necessarily big cities. And it seems to be an approval only thing which means that many businesses where it is operating are not members.
    People like at a glance visual representations – the stars do that. 27/30 just confuses people.

  15. Mike:

    As I’ve stated a couple times now on Matt’s blog, this Zagat system is a joke and there is no doubt in my mind it will be gone within a year. So to answer your question could Google possibly be thinking about abandoning it – YES!

    The Zagat system is just too complex for the average consumer. There is a reason Amazon still uses a simple 5 star rating system:)

    Travis Van Slooten

    1. @Travis
      The tests we have seen certainly confirm that Google is thinking of switching back. But predicting the vagaries of a company like Google is like trying to make your house payment by working the craps table.

  16. Again I want Zagat to go away but the new Frommer’s Travel Brand Google just acquired is supposed to be rolled into Zagat. Does that suggest Zagat is not going away after all?

    Google Acquiring Frommer’s Travel Brand: Zagat Integration, Google+ Improvements To Follow

    “Update, noon ET: A Google spokesperson has confirmed the deal, saying that “the Frommer’s team and the quality and scope of their content will be a great addition to the Zagat team. We can’t wait to start working with them on our goal to provide a review for every relevant place in the world.”

    We’re also now hearing that the Frommer’s team will be joining the Zagat team, and indeed the acquisition is related to improvements related to the local search experience across Google. Initially, the Frommer’s content will come to Google under its own brand and will be further integrated with Zagat over time.”

  17. I think anybody actively analysing the results of a local search campaign would be fully aware that the Zagat system was doomed from the get go. Within agency we noticed a broad reduction in Places actions across a wide range of industries. The move never seemed to properly serve anything but a restaurant, but even then engagement was going to decrease.

    @ Mike
    Do you believe the third-party review come-back signify their possible increased rankings importance?

    On a side note I’ve also noticed a string of reviews not being displayed by Google for one reason or another. This is particularly frustrating given I recommend clients invest (in employee inscentives) to deliver reviews to their page for them to turn back and mention they don’t show up anyway. Any news or feedback?

  18. I don’t care whether they have stars or the zagit system it I just wanna see reviews that are not created by business owners or companies. hey legitimate way to review companies and their products or services would be great

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