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Google Gobbles Zagat

Acquisition of venerable restaurant review company secures Google Places content supply lines, develops a potential Google+ asset.

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Unpaid restaurant reviewers of the world rejoice! You can now not get paid writing for Google.

Google on Thursday announced that it has acquired Zagat, a pioneer of uncompensated labor aggregation, better known by the euphemism "user-generated content."

Google's fortune is built upon user-generated content: Through its PageRank algorithm, it was first to figure out how to make search more relevant by using the latent labor in Web links. And the company sees value in continuing to tap the work of affordable scribes.

"The Zagats have demonstrated their ability to innovate and to do so with tremendous insight," said Google VP of local, maps, and location services Marissa Mayer in a blog post. "Their surveys may be one of the earliest forms of UGC (user-generated content)--gathering restaurant recommendations from friends, computing and distributing ratings before the Internet as we know it today even existed."

Google's gain however could be a loss for Yelp, a popular aggregator of online reviews, and for companies that produce editorial content in general.

Yelp in 2009 trumpeted its relationship with Google, through which Google presented Yelp reviews in "rich snippet" search results. And in late 2009, Google came close to acquiring Yelp for $500 million, but the deal fell apart.

Since then, Google has been more of a "frenemy" to review aggregators. In April 2010, Google launched Places, its locally focused search and business marketing service, and sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor began to chafe at Google's use of their ratings in its Place pages.

That August, Yelp reviews briefly disappeared from Google Places, but were subsequently restored. In October 2010, Trip Advisor joined, a group formed to oppose Google's acquisition of ITA Software and that has been lobbying for regulatory restraint of Google. In December 2010, Trip Advisor began blocking the use of its content on Places pages.

However, it's not immediately clear whether Google is really moving from the ostensible neutrality of a content aggregator to the more precarious position of being both a publisher and aggregator--precarious because Google, if it chose to, could give its own content an advantage over third-party content in search results. Claims that Google does just that have prompted litigation and regulatory scrutiny.

Journalism professor and widely followed blogger Jeff Jarvis acknowledged that concern in a Google+ post but said he expects Google will stick to its mandate to organize information rather than to create it.

Indeed, Google's goal with Zagat may not be so much local as social. By associating Zagat reviews with Google+, Google could drive Google+ traffic while still treating its own Zagat reviews like third-party content in searches.

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