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Zagat.comJust finished filling out a survey from the redoubtable Zagat.com.

No, it wasn't rating restaurants (and making that uneasy call as to whether or not that undiscovered gem should be revealed to the masses). Rather it was a survey based on what features and price points I, as a subscriber, would most prefer to see in the future.

They've got this all wrong.

Zagat's clearly toying with personalized recommendations, a social network (or social network integration) that displays your restaurant preferences to friends, expanding or contracting the number of listing available to paying subscribers, the level of detail they supply in restaurant listings and a host of other features - most of which you could probably concoct yourself.

But the basic premise of the survey is flawed. Once a loyal Zagat subscriber (and before that, a buyer of their annual New York restaurant guide), I'm now going elsewhere for ratings and reviews. Particularly as Zagat's ratings and reviews are essentially user-generated content.

So while Zagat may view my answers to their survey questions as indicative of what features I prefer to get as a subscriber, that's not how I formulated my answers to their survey. I responded only to one element of each question: price, and consistently chose the lowest-price option.

Will their data-crunching reveal that pattern? Free was not an option. It should have been.

Zagat made a critical and not-uncommon error in crafting their survey. All possible answers were ones they wanted to hear: namely, that respondants are and will be willing to pay for their service. Once I was, but I no longer am.

When I was teaching online publishing at New York University, the first thing I told my students is that you can charge for content only when it isn't readily available elsewhere. Local restaurant listings no longer belong in that category. Zagat's competition is growing by leaps and bounds: Yelp, CitySearch, a host of iPhone apps, OpenTable.com (reviews and reservations!)...the list goes on.

Zagat reviews remain solid, but they no longer have the value they once did. Clearly the company is concerned about monetizing the model via paid subscriptions.

Perhaps it's time they considered different options. And a less subjective approach to user surveys.

Rebecca Lieb

Published 15 December, 2009 by Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb oversees Econsultancy's North American operations.

Follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on Facebook.

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