If you want proof Al Gore didn't, as he claimed, invent the Internet, just look at any blog. The comments you'll find in them—on literally any subject you can imagine—are far more interesting than the former Vice President himself.
The word "blog" is short for "Web log," which is an electronic sounding board, soapbox or stump any person with an opinion and Internet access can use to have his say. According to research firm Technorati, 70,000 new blogs surface daily, and 700,000 new blog posts (essentially commentaries) are made daily.
"More consumers are finding restaurant blogs because the major search engines, Google, MSN and Yahoo!, oftentimes rank blogs higher than Web sites," Galvin said. "People are becoming more interested on where their food comes from and how it is prepared, and blogs provide a great way to do this."
So, if a consumer were to search, "Baja Fresh Review," he might stumble upon The Burrito Blog and find an entry such as this: "My biggest complaint about Baja is their pre-fabricated menu items. See, you're not encouraged to go up and order a burrito and spec out its contents. They want you to get the Ultimo, the Fajita Burrito, the Baja or something like that, kind of like Taco Bell."
On the Burrito Blog, the author reviews and photographs nearly every burrito chain in the fast-casual segment. The blog has been featured in the Washington Post, and according to Technorati, it is the top-ranked burrito blog in the Internet.
There several pizza-centered blogs, but NYSlice is the only one focusing wholly on ready-to-eat pizza. Blogs on sites such as Pizzamaniac.com and Pizzatherapy.com, while equally passionate about pies, focus on making pizza at home.
Adam Kuban publishes NYSlice, and his bloggers comment strictly on pizza in and around New York City. Great coal-fired pies are the standard for all pies judged by the group.
"There are a lot of foods that inspire passion, and pizza seems to be one of them," Kuban said, explaining why he started the site. The Oregon native got hooked on pizza when his dad experimented with home recipes, and the move to Manhattan a few years ago landed him in pizza heaven. "I've got the bug for it for sure. I'm a passionate consumer when it comes to pizza."
Chipotlefan.com is run by burrito buff Matt Silverman. The 20-year-old college student said he started the site because the company hadn't posted any nutritional data on the Web. He told Chipotle he'd post the data if the company supplied it, and he received a spreadsheet of ingredients, nutritional data and photos.
"It's really flattering having customers write about us like that," said Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesperson. "The way we look at it is: It's much better to be cooperative with 'fan' sites than being standoffish. If they're going to write about us, we want to make sure they have accurate information."
Neither SliceNY nor Chipotlefan is breaking any Web traffic numbers. The former gets about 1,800 unique visits a day, the latter, about 2,000. Amazon.com, for example gets about 500,000 per day. But the fact that people logon, read and weigh bloggers' opinions when making a restaurant decision is important for several reasons:
* Unlike standard restaurant reviews, blogs capture the opinions of multiple sources.
* Restaurant reviewers may have an agenda, be it an axe to grind or an advertiser to favor, but bloggers, by and large, simply speak their minds.
* Bloggers are anonymous and can't be "spotted" by a restaurant's staff and receive favorable treatment.
* And perhaps most importantly, bloggers tend to be pumped about the subjects they write about, and they commonly write for the fun of it.
Kuban said he's gotten
"Usually those have been pretty positive if they've gotten a good review," he said. "I've had a number of owners tell us to come in and have dinner on us, but we don't do a quid pro quo. That's against our ethics code. One thing our readers know about us is we can't be bought."
Silverman said his personal passion for Chipotle makes it an easy company to praise through his blog. "I do feel I help promote (Chipotle). I've had visitors tell me that just by browsing the site has made them crave Chipotle."
Silverman has added a message board that includes entries on Chipotle's rising stock, and whether Qdoba or Chipotle is the best. At last count, Silverman said 20,000 people had signed up for the message boards. He said the site also provides him a nice side income through advertising.
A Starbucks fan has taken a different approach in promoting his favorite coffee brand. Simply known as "Winter," the author of StarbucksEveryWhere.net plans to visit every Starbucks in the world. As of March 16, he had visited 5,467 North American stores and 306 international. He writes:
"I've been trying to visit every Starbucks in the world. Why? Well, I'm not obsessed, if that's what you're thinking. No, my reason is simply to do something completely different."
Winter's pursuit has led to the making of "Starbucking," a documentary that will be featured at the Omaha Film Festival in March and the Sonoma Valley Film Festival currently underway—free publicity for Starbucks generated through a happy customer.
Major companies are viewing highly rated blogs in the same light as other media outlets because of the traffic they draw and their loyal fan following. When creating media plans, they're including blogs on potential advertiser lists and story pitches.
"Smart companies are definitely tracking blogs that cover their company and industry," said Kevin Dugan, author of the Strategic Public Relations blog.
Kuban said at least one pizzeria attributed a spike in sales to a favorable review on SliceNY, and while standing in line at his favorite pizzeria, DiFara's, in Brooklyn, he overheard someone talking about his blog.
Blogs can have their drawbacks, however, if employees use them to defame their employers. Aware of this, some restaurant companies are demanding employees sign confidentiality agreements that prohibit workers from blogging about employers or their products, said Ted Demopoulos, author of Blogging for Business (Kaplan Business).
"Anybody can be a publisher on the Internet," Demopoulos said. "That means a lot more information is on the Internet, which means there is more opportunity and more risk."
It's really flattering having customers write about us like that. The way we look at it is: It's much better to be cooperative with 'fan' sites than being standoffish. If they're going to write about us, we want to make sure they have accurate information.
— Chris Arnold Chipotle Mexican Grill
"With blogs, you get a certain amount of complainers, and that's all they do," he said. "They complain about their job or what they ate for breakfast. If they are saying horrible things all the time, people tend to take what they read from that blog with a grain of salt."
As for regulating employees' blogging privileges, that's not been an issue for Chipotle.
"It's not come up, so we don't have a policy," Arnold said. "We have a very popular Web presence of our own and that's been a huge tool for us and has really helped build our brand."
Blogging is against company policy at Domino's Pizza, and it cost a blogger named "CoonMan" his job two years ago. According his blog post on TipthePizzaGuy.com, he discussed the chain's Cheesy Dots appetizer before it was officially rolled out. When the chain's legal department called his boss, and he was fired for releasing confidential information. His parting shot was a warning to other Domino's employees who might think about doing the same.
"I know DP is now monitoring both this board, and the stifflist.com site," CoonMan wrote. "I reccommend (sic) changing your profile to a fake name and info. ... I've been blackballed from all the DP franchises."
Steve Coomes also contributed to this story.