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Concluding Research: NBC New York’s Feast Rank

What is Feast?

The site was founded by Ben Leventhal, the same guy who started Eater and Grub Street, popular and renowned food blogs.  Feast includes a blog, maps, videos, photos, and a searchable database of restaurants.  Social media is also incorporated, allowing you to make your own list of preferred restaurants and see others’ lists as well.

What is Feast Rank?

Broadcasting and Cable explains, “Feast features a scoring system that brings together a wide range of reviews, ratings and opinions and produces what it calls a definitive score known as the Feast Rank.”  However, Feast has not disclosed either the sources it aggregates from OR how the sources are weighted.  Supposedly heavy-hitter critics like the NY Times’ Sam Sifton and New York Magazine’s Adam Platt have the ability to “move the needle” more than a Yelp review, but it is not clear by how much.

According to Eater, Feast Rank is “kind of like a Rotten Tomatoes for the food world, the site’s algorithm takes in reviews from all over the web—from the Times reviews to blogger buzz—and spits out a number, ranking every restaurant in the city anywhere from Dicey to Epic.  Rankings change daily based on new reviews or buzz.”

BlackBookMag.com delves further into the scoring system: “Feast Rank [is] a 1-100 score generated by a wholly automated algorithm and in New York comprising 75 sources — everything from the New York Times restaurant stars to Grub Street stories to Zagat listings to Yelp and Citysearch reviews to local blog and social media chatter, all apparently updating in real-time (a handy “+” or “-” indicating recent point shifts in opinion runs across the top of the page like numbers on a stock ticker, so it seems real official-like).”

What is the relationship between NBC and Feast?

Several people asked about the relationship between NBC and Feast and why NBC would be interested in restaurant reviews at all.  I couldn’t find much in the way of explanation except for this sort of opaque quote from MediaWeek, “The new segment is part of NBC Local Media’s strategy to offer more lifestyle content across its local market media platforms… Feast is edited by Ben Leventhal, managing editor of lifestyle for NBC Local Media and founder of the popular food blog Eater. “

I tried to learn more about the root site, nbcnewyork.com.  The description on their site says “With the help of the community, NBC Local Media uncovers and connects our users to all that the city has to offer so they can be true city insiders.”  The site is about New York life, and eating out is a big part of living here.  Feast is one of several blogs that are part of the site, including The Thread (fashion), Niteside (nightlife), PopcornBiz (TV and movies) Want This (shopping), and What You’re Doing Tonight (daily events calendar).  In that context, I think a restaurant blog makes sense.

How are people reacting to the ranking system?

As far as I can tell from the comments on FeastEater and Twitter, Feast’s bravado about being “The first word and final score on New York’s restaurant scene” (from FeastNY’s Twitter bio) has not gone over well within the foodie community.  Some of the most common reactions were exasperation with the format of the blog, the secrecy and accuracy of the ranking system, and general overexposure to the endless conjecture and speculation about NYC restaurants.

Eater has linked to Feast twice so far.  Interesting considering Ben Leventhal, Eater’s founder, is also the top dog over at Feast.  You’d think they would be more integrated, but since technically they are competing I think they will end up keeping the cross-pollination to a minimum.

My sense is that the community is fairly skeptical about the whole thing, and there are still acknowledged bugs in the ranking system.

Feast doesn’t actually allow you to influence rankings directly on their site so it’s kind of a one-way street.

Can you game the system?

I asked the class for help with a little experiment.  I suggested trying to influence The Hungarian Pastry Shop’s ranking since it had no score on Feast.  It is a little neighborhood hole in the wall type place that is across from the cathedral of St. John the Divine.  It’s filled with Columbia students studying or writing papers, mostly.  The pastry is delicious and they let you stay all day if you want.  I wanted to positively influence their ranking.  The updated stats on the most common sites:

NY Mag: 8.3/10 “recommended”

Yelp: 3.5/5 stars, 111 reviews

CitySearch: 5/5 stars, 17 reviews

Zagat: “When this restaurant receives enough member reviews, our editors will consider it for a Zagat Rating & Review” (8 reviews)

Several of you wrote positive reviews and ranked the shop either 4 or 5 stars. I also chatted with the owner, Wendy, and several members of wait staff to get their opinion on whether they want to be rated or if they think it will influence their customer-base.

I asked Wendy if she has heard of Feast (no) and if she reads reviews online.  She said she checks Yelp and CitySearch from time to time just to see what people say, but that she doesn’t actively try to influence her ratings and mostly just checks for curiosity.  The wait staff had similar comments.  I think since it’s a small shop with a steady clientele, they are too busy running the place to bother with reviews online.  A bigger, more renowned place would probably care more than such a small shop.

So far, the Hungarian Pastry Shop remains unranked on Feast.  I contacted Feast to ask what the threshold is to get a score but I haven’t heard back yet.  I will update you if/when I do!

Conclusions

Based on the fairly negative tone of the user comments I have read online, the foodie community is not jumping for joy at embracing this new ranking system.  The main reasons are:

  1. People don’t like the format of the site and find it confusing
  2. People are put off by the top secret algorithm and list of sources
  3. We may have reached the backlash to online restaurant speculation due to overexposure
  4. It’s a one-way street.  There is no way to influence ratings directly on Feast

Algorithms aren’t a stand in for real people.  Although Feast Rank aggregates from sources that are ultimately real people, we come again to whether the wisdom of the crowds is useful or not.  Do I care that a restaurant in my neighborhood is ranked poorly when I’ve been there many times and enjoyed it, or I’ve received a recommendation from a friend who says it’s great?  I think ultimately this is one of many food-related sites that will get lost in the shuffle.

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5 Comments

  1. ElzbthMllr 21:52, Mar 8th, 10

    Very interesting concluding post. I think it’s worth nothing that even though users tend to have a negative experience of the site itself (which I def. echo after having played around with it a bit), the site doesn’t depend on users to like it. In fact, it’s just aggregating data from more well established sites. It would be interesting to look back in six months or a year and see what comes of this project. I think one one hand it speaks to our never ending desire to quantify something that’s qualitative, and to define things on the internet in terms of metrics. Although I use restaurant website reviews from time to time, if I need recommendations, I still go to my friends or family for places that I will. I rarely write reviews online, but like to read them after I’ve been certain places. I agree that it’s a bit frustrating not to know how the algorithm works, but it seems that can be a recurring problem (like we talked about with Google).

  2. mushon 23:14, Mar 8th, 10

    This case made me really think about how we respond to algorithms. It’s interesting, it seems like as long as we are happy with the algorithm’s response we don’t mind as much that it’s opaque or inhuman. When the algorithm consistantly fails it makes us suspect it and question the way it is wired.
    In the case of Google or Pandora we can evaluate the choices of the algorithm instantaniously and if we’re not satisfied with the result we can simply choose the next one and by that help calibrate our preference. With Netflix the process is not as instantanious, but it is still delicately callibfated to our taste. When it comes to restaurant review, we are being expected to leave the house, spend money, spend time. There is no way for the algorithmic number agregated from around the web to represent our individual taste (literally). We cannot evaluate immediately and by the time we try the next option on the list algorithmicly provided to us we’re already doubtful and dissatisfied. Your travelogue makes me think Feast is getting too much wrong not realizing how the information we use for choosing a restaurant differs from other types of information that might better fit the model they built. Unless they change their strategy I will be surprised if the Feast Rank would become an importent player in foody informatics.

  3. Harris 16:29, Mar 9th, 10

    Couldn’t agree more with Mushon. “There is no way for the algorithmic number agregated from around the web to represent our individual taste (literally).”

    Besides taste – when I search Google for something, that’s all I mean to do. But going to a restaurant is more than just eating.
    Like I said in a previous comment, “I would rather rely on a friend or a trusted blogger’s personal opinion than a mathematical formula. It is a better experience even if you don’t end up liking the restaurant, in fact, especially if you want to argue with your friend about it when you go home.”

  4. Ryan 13:02, Mar 10th, 10

    mathematical aggregating equations versus a human being who actually went there and had something to say about it… hmmm. I am not surprised why this project didn’t go as well. Mushon and Harris are spot on, and that’s why people seem to trust people more so than machines at times, especially in this case. Also, it seems quite hard to topple review sites like Zagat, Yelp, and RestaurantReview.com

  5. ElzbthMllr 12:49, Mar 22nd, 10

    So I have an interesting tidbit about this but I don’t want to post it on the blog because I heard it from a source I can’t name, Alex can you send me your e-mail address so I can e-mail you? Or you can e-mail me elizabethrmiller@gmail.com