I’m going to resist turning this space into my own customer service department, but here’s another little skirmish in my own personal war on obnoxious web sites. Tonight’s target is Zagat, purveyors of other people’s opinions. Long before epinions and Trip Advisor figured out how to [not?] make money off of what other people think, Zagat had cornered the skinny book market with its trademark burgundy restaurant guidbooks.

Then the Internet came along with its promise of FREE MONEY and even more opinions and also FREE MONEY, and here Zagat’s has got this big stockpile of opinions all ready to be uploaded. It was a no-brainer for Zagat to create an online service, and for some time there was a glorious moment when you could surf through the Zagat guide and search for restaurants in your hometown by location or cuisine or service feature, and it was only when you wanted to do something really exotic like cross-reference restaurants by favourite ingredient that the nice Zagat folks would hit you up for cash.

Then it all went terribly wrong.

Now if you hit the Zagat site you’ll have a few minutes of delightful expectation as you review the wide variety of features you can easily search on. Go so far as to click one of those features, however, and what you’ll get is a big come-on to subscribe to their service.

As annoyed as I am by these unanticipated come-ons, I am even more annoyed by (a) bad food, (b) starvation, and (c) driving through a strange city in my pajamas, which is why I found myself taking eight (!!!) minutes tonight to complete the subscription form that granted me the privilege of 30 days of Zagat access for a mere $3.95. But that seemed like the fastest cheapest route to find good food that delivers in San Francisco, which is where I am now and for the next five days. Surely I can extract $3.95 worth of meal-hunting value in five days.

Hah! The restaurants that Zagat’s listed as offering delivery did not, in fact, offer delivery — at least not the first two we called before giving up. (Not very persistent, I admit, but maybe I would have felt more patient if I hadn’t spent eight minutes on the site registration process.)

But here’s the really cheeky part: Zagat’s confirmation e-mail notes that “For your convenience, your subscription will renew automatically until you tell us otherwise.”

Hmm…do blogs count as telling them otherwise? Maybe not. So here’s what I wrote:

YIKES! Please don’t renew my subscription. I’m guessing that “automatic renewal” is buried somewhere in your fine print but FYI other sites that do automatic renewal offer it as an opt-in option, not an opt-out.

And actually wasn’t very happy with even my one-shot $3.95 subscription. Bought it so I could check into which restaurants offer delivery in SanFran (I’m here on vacation)…the restaurants you list as delivering don’t necessarily (I called 2 then gave up.)

Also while I’m at it can I say that it’s very unusual for a site to offer links that are viewable to subscribers only without labeling them as such? I know you’re trying to drive subscriptions but it more or less violates netiquette standards. If you’ve got subscribers-only features, label them as such; don’t offer them as links and then smack me in the face with a subscription come-on.

Gosh, I can’t wait for the Zagat survey on e-business sites.