Last September, Google acquired Zagat, a company that built a world-famous brand around printed restaurant guides.

Thanks to the internet and the rise of user-generated reviews sites like Yelp, Zagat like so many other print publishers had seen a stunning reversal of fortunes before Google swooped in to buy it.
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The two big questions at the time Google’s Zagat purchase was announced: what would Google do with Zagat and what how would it impact Google’s relationship with the publishers it both serves and competes with?

Today, we received an answer to the first question as Google announced the launch of Google+ Local, which the search giant calls “a simple way to discover and share local information featuring Zagat scores and recommendations from people you trust in Google+.”

Dining establishments, of course, are a big part of the local ecosystem, and thus it’s no surprise that Google is integrating Zagat’s content prominently into its new offering. Google Director of Product Management Avni Shah explained:

All of Zagat’s accurate scores and summaries are now highlighted on local Google+ pages.

Each place you see in Google+ Local will now be scored using Zagat’s 30-point scale, which tells you all about the various aspects of a place so you can make the best decisions. For example, a restaurant that has great food but not great decor might be 4 stars, but with Zagat you’d see a 26 in Food and an 8 in Decor, and know that it might not be the best place for date night.

In conjunction with the launch of Zagat content on Google+, it was also announced that the content on Zagat.com is now free. The move to free under Google’s ownership isn’t all that surprising. After all, Google is far less interested in running paid subscription services targeting consumers than it is in leveraging Zagat’s content to bolster its own properties (like Google+) and sell advertising.

Obviously, Zagat’s Google+ integration and the relaunch of Zagat.com as a free property is bound to raise eyebrows at companies like Yelp. If Google’s acquisition of Zagat last year left any room for doubt that Google was now officially a competitor, that doubt was all but eliminated today.

The good news for the Yelps of the world is that in many instances, consumers seem to prefer user-generated reviews to their professional counterparts. So the real challenge for Google now is to figure out if and how it can use Zagat’s content to gather more user-generated reviews of its own and augment them with the kind of professional content consumers see value in.

To do that, it would appear it will need a larger and far more engaged Google+ audience, something Zagat’s content alone won’t deliver.