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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.

Feast: Norms revisited

For this research update I thought I would revisit the norms from the previous post and give you an update on how they stacked up against what’s really going on out there.

Norm #1: There are those eaters who live and die by restaurant reviews and rankings and will only eat at places that are well-reviewed.  These people also tend to leave reviews and comments more frequently.  For this group, I’m guessing that they will actively check Feast Rank before they go out to eat, if nothing else than to see if they agree with the rankings.  Unfortunately, it is kind of a one-way street.  There isn’t a great way that I’ve found to say you disagree with a ranking.

Result: As far as I can tell from the comments on Feast, Eater 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.  Here are some excerpts from comments:

TommyT: No idea where the numbers come from, but just looking at the Momos, on what planet is Ma Peche currently better than Ssam Bar, and Noodle Bar a 47? It’s not as good as Frankies 457?

Ben (Leventhal): Appreciate the feedback – The Ma Peche rating is a bug and we’re fixing now. Won’t have an official score until it opens.

Kinkistyle: The site design is kind of a mess yet at the same time has zero character. The concept is interesting but I feel exasperated just looking at it.

Truffledballbag: The top rating is “Epic.” This is one of the lamest things I have seen in a long time. Who the hell OKed “Epic?” They should be disposed of. I will never look at the FEAST site again.

Anon: Just what this town needs: another half-baked blog rehashing the same news, and another half-baked listings search engine.  Please, someone, somewhere, someday: make it stop.

Anon: as self-referential as most of the foodie press is, this thing really takes the cake. they’re running updates about updates to their rankings? good luck with that in terms of winning over new readers.

Anon: Looks like a elementry school web design project. truly thought out over several beers and designed over several lines.

what ??? RE: Anon: Several beers and several joints

Nathalie: Great daily blog entries. The Feast Rankings are a f#@!*ng joke though. Whoever put this list together is completely out of touch and definitely not actually involved in eating at any of these establishments. Whatever “formula” you’re using seems to be based on randomness above all else. Why not do a listing rather than ranking…you’re clearly not doing the leg work.

Joe_Coffee_NYC Yet another list, this time on NBC‘s new Feastsite: http://tinyurl.com/yajmauy

kasekaiserina The layout of NBC‘s Feast blog makes my head want to explode. The rankings, endless numbers, it’s like Dungeons and Dragons for food, no?

EatingLA NBC‘s Feast site launches in L.A with @foodgps and Carole Dixon contributing. But what do those ratings mean?http://bit.ly/9f93dV

Norm #2: Other food blogs like EaterGrub Street and Diner’s Journal will probably start integrating Feast into their coverage since the food blogs tend to have a sort of incestuous relationship.

Result: 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.  According to BlackBook:

“We wish Ben well in all of his endeavors,” says Joshua Albertson, Vice President of Sales and General Manager of Curbed. When asked if the coverage of Feast’s launch on Curbed-owned Eater didn’t seem a little, um, excited (i.e. “all the glorious details have been released”), Albertson counters, “I wouldn’t say excitement is the right word. Of course, we’re interested in what they’re doing. We’ll link to them when they’ve got something good, and I expect that they’ll do the same.”
Well sure, the internet is built on links, right? But isn’t it a tad confusing to have Leventhal commenting on Feast coverage on Eater using an official-looking Eater admin logo and log-in? “Nothing seems paradoxical about this from an ad sales point of view,“ says Albertson. “Feast isn’t the first competitor to Eater in this space and it won’t be the last.”

Norm #3: Some chefs have been known to vent on twitter when they are unhappy about a particular provider or have other restaurant-related grievances.  I wouldn’t be surprised if those who are already using twitter as their megaphone will complain (or celebrate) their Feast rank as it becomes more well-known.

Result: Unfortunately not too much to report on this one.  My sense is that the community is fairly skeptical about the whole thing and there are still acknowledged bugs in the ranking system (See Ben’s comment above re: Ma Peche).  Another quote from BlackBook:

“Real-time samplings of a thousand half-formed opinions are useful to political pollsters, but not necessarily to somebody trying to figure out whether it’s going to be Motorino or Maialino after the show. It’s hard to see why it would be any more reliable than Yelp or Citysearch, which to me are most useful when it, because you can follow specific commenters, functions most like a regular review,” says Jonathan Gold, the former New York critic for Gourmet magazine who went West to LA and on to become the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

As for our experiment with Hungarian Pastry Shop, please post a positive review on Yelp if you have not yet!  At my last update, there were 107 reviews and there are now 111.  Still no ranking on Feast.

Feast Rank update

I found a little bit more evidence on what goes into the Feast Rank algorithm. According to BlackBookMag.com, “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).”

Moreover, some people in the foodie community are not convinced that the algorithm is enough to get people interested and using the site: “The problem is,” says [Tom Ajello, creative director of Poke,] “The Feast Rank feature is buried, impossible to decipher once you find it, and not iconically or creatively represented in a way that will engage people.”

And then there’s Jonathan Gold, the former New York critic for Gourmet magazine:  “Real-time samplings of a thousand half-formed opinions are useful to political pollsters, but not necessarily to somebody trying to figure out whether it’s going to be Motorino or Maialino after the show. It’s hard to see why it would be any more reliable than Yelp or Citysearch, which to me are most useful when it, because you can follow specific commenters, functions most like a regular review.”

FEASTing on restaurant reviews

As I wrote in my previous post, I will be pursuing NBC’s new restaurant review aggregator/blog, Feast.  In future posts, I will conduct my research on how the site works by using places in the neighborhood where I live (Morningside Heights) as a test.  I plan to talk with restaurant-goers as well as restaurant management and servers to see if they’re aware of the site, whether it’s relevant to them, if they try to influence the ratings, etc.  For now, here’s an overview of what the site is and how it works:

Elements of the site

The site was founded by Ben Leventhal, the same guy who started Eater, a popular and renowned food blog.  Feast includes 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.

Read More http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/blogs/editor/2010/02/a-first-look-at-nbcs-feast.html#ixzz0gDQ7DgUD

Feast Rank

According to Broadcasting and Cable, “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.”  The Epicurious post does note that Feast has not disclosed either the sources it aggregates from OR how the sources are rated.  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.