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Nara, Neuroscience-Based Restaurant Recommendation Site, Goes National

Most ways of getting restaurant recommendations rely on the assumption that you have the same taste in food as other people. Whether you seek advice from your food-obsessed friend, a Zagat guidebook or the restaurant critic who writes for your local newspaper, you’re essentially hoping and trusting that you will like what someone else has liked in the past. Obviously, this is far from a given.

A new-ish website called Nara is trying to change this, using a concept from neuroscience to generate restaurant recommendations tailored to each user’s idiosyncratic preferences. The site’s bots have trawled the internet to build a database of the restaurants in the country, affixing publicly-available information on cuisine, price and quality to each restaurant’s profile. Nara links similar restaurants to each other in a “neural network” that functions much like the connections in your brain. When you first sign up for the site, you’re asked what kinds of restaurants you like. Nara then uses those preferences to suggest other restaurants close to the ones you like in the neural network.

“One thing we’re really proud of is that the site worked just as well on day one as on day 100. Nara was ready out of the box, because of its neural network technology,” CEO Thomas Copeman told The Huffington Post.

Copeman and his co-founders hope that the company’s innovative approach to finding great restaurants can eventually make it a more useful alternative to sites like Yelp. They aim to eventually expand outside restaurants to hotels, shopping, music and beyond, challenging the hegemony of traditional search engines like Google. Their unofficial motto? “Stop searching, start doing.”

The site has found some success since it was founded in 2010. Nara has received millions of dollars in venture capital funding, which it has used to expand to mobile and to cities across the country. The site partnered with OpenTable and GrubHub to add more functionality to the searches. And on June 4, Nara announced that it was making its recommendations national for the first time, so users can now search for restaurants anywhere in the country, not just in major metropolitan areas.

“The biggest feedback we’ve been getting has been, ‘Nara looks great, but it’s not in my city,'” Copeman said. “But now it is. No matter where you go, Nara’s got your back.”

At this point, though, the recommendations themselves leave something to be desired.

When I searched for cheap restaurants in my neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, the top several choices were spot-on: the best slice joint, a good burrito spot, an anonymous-looking deli with killer sandwiches — plus an interesting-looking wine bar I’ve never heard of. But the site suggests McDonald’s and White Castle a bit further down. And there’s no clear demarcation between strong recommendations and faint ones. Nara, unlike something like Netflix, doesn’t display the number of stars it thinks I’ll rate a given restaurant; it just lists it, without explanation, as a recommended eatery.

The problem seems to be that Nara straddles the line too ambiguously between search engine and recommendation generator. Right now, it’s less comprehensive than Google, but less transparent in its evaluations of restaurants than a review site. At this point, I’m certainly less likely to trust it than a knowledgeable friend or critic.

That said, Tuesday’s news that the site was going truly national adds serious value to the product — now, Nara’s recommendations will transcend geography. The company’s neural network understands New Yorkers just as well in San Francisco as in Manhattan. So if I travel somewhere I’ve never been, where I know no food lovers, I might just log on to Nara and see what it recommends.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Yelp Calls Lying “Personal Opinion”

    A blog post on the SFWeekly website this week brought a href=”http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2011/09/yelp_lying_about_working_for_s.php” target=”_hplink”a troubling Yelp-related incident/a to light. A Yelper claimed, falsely, to be a writer for SFWeekly in a restaurant review. emSF Weekly/em’s Food editor caught the lie and contacted the reviewer; she admitted that she actually wrote for emSF Weekly Voice/em, and said she’d ask Yelp to change the review. But the website refused to amend the review — a representative told SF Weekly that the lie in question was “personal opinion.”

  • Yelp Is Known To Be An Outlet For Shilling

    So many restaurateurs and publicists post glowing reviews of their own restaurants that Eater has a whole column dedicated to a href=”http://ny.eater.com/tags/adventures-in-shilling” target=”_hplink”sniffing out shilly reviews/a.

  • Yelpers Are Totally Anonymous

    People do all sorts of weird things when they know they’re unidentifiable — which can throw off the average on sites like Yelp, which rely on the forthrightness and honesty of strangers.

  • Yelpers Can Rate Restaurants They Haven’t Visited

    Because of said anonymity, there’s not even any guarantee that a Yelper has visited the restaurant they’re reviewing. One infamous case of this sort of fraud took place in Graham Elliott’s a href=”http://www.grahamwich.com/” target=”_hplink”Grahamwich/a restaurant in Chicago — one Yelper gave it a href=”http://eater.com/archives/2010/09/01/graham-elliots-grahamwich-gets-negative-yelp-review.php” target=”_hplink”a vicious one-star review before it even opened/a.

  • Yelp Sorts Its Reviews In Mysterious Ways

    Yelp has been a href=”http://techcrunch.com/2010/02/24/yelp-class-action-lawsuit/” target=”_hplink”criticized in the past for the byzantine methods/a it uses to sort reviews on a given restaurant’s page. According to the site’s FAQ, blockquote”Yelp’s default sort order takes a number of factors into account and reflects our own attempt to present reviews in a meaningful order. For example, we’ll favor reviews from your friends and the users you follow. The sort algorithm does not take into account whether the business is an advertiser or not.”/blockquote Thanks, Yelp. That clarifies literally nothing.

  • Yelp Bullies Restaurants

    According to some reports, the “Yelp sort” has an insidious monetary element. Yelp salespeople have been known toa href=”http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/yelp-and-the-business-of-extortion-20/Content?oid=1176635″ target=”_hplink” call restaurants offering to push bad reviews far down in the list/a, if they’ll agree to pay to advertise.

  • Yelp Doesn’t Give Guidelines About Stars

    There are no guidelines on Yelp for what different star ratings mean — one person’s five star experience could be a jaded gastronaut’s three star. Yelp does release the distribution of stars actually given out — and they’re definitely slanted toward the positive.

  • Only A Tiny Minority Of Yelp Users Rate Restaurants

    Many more people a href=”http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/12/why-yelp-works/#?wtoeid=growl1_r1_v5″ target=”_hplink”read Yelp than actually write reviews/a. Most reviewers fall into two categories: people who review every restaurant they visit (see the next slide for more on the “Yelp Elite”) and those who have an extreme reaction. People probably won’t review a restaurant if they thought it was just OK — but they are likely to review it if they have very good or very bad experiences, making it hard to trust any given review.

  • Restaurants Throw Special Parties For The “Yelp Elite”

    If you’re one of those people who writes a Yelp review of every nail salon and yakitori joint you visit, you can become part of the “a href=”http://www.yelp.com/elite” target=”_hplink”Yelp Elite/a.” Once you’re part of this creme-de-la-creme, you can get invited to a href=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43344769/ns/business-local_business/t/yelps-elite-epicurean-force-totally-free-labor/” target=”_hplink”special “Elite-only” parties that restaurants/a throw to attract good reviews. Sounds nice, right? It may be, for the “Yelp Elite” — but it’s bad for the general public, because these events often translate into glowing, misleading reviews for the party-throwing restaurants.

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Mystic Maggie

All of the Mystic Maggie Posts are RSS Reader Feeds from around the web. All copyright remains with the original publisher. No copyright is claimed or intended. Where supplied, links back to the original article are included.

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