Urban Spoon maintains a blog leader board, whose formula is unknown and whose influences are unknown. In that respect, it’s a bit like a tissue slice in biochemistry. In enzymology, some enzymes cannot be isolated but are only known by their enzymatic effects. Likewise, to a food blogger, the formula for scoring blogs is only known by making a review, placing it on the Urban Spoon system, and observing the effects.

I learned most of what I know about Urban Spoon scoring in a short span of time in which  John Bickford and I reviewed Fogo de Chao and Gourmandises respectively, and then later, John reviewed Flip Burger Boutique. As a consequence of that second review, John’s blog vaulted from 14th to 8th on Urban Spoon’s blog leader board. After looking at FLIP (#1 on the hotness chart at the time and about #8 or #9 on the popularity chart), Gourmandises (#2 on the popularity chart, with about 650 votes at the time), and Fogo (#3 on the popularity chart, with about 630 votes at the time), I formulated the static model of Urban Spoon scoring.

The static model would say that a blog score (they call them views, but understand, Urban Spoon isn’t measuring blog views in any real sense) is the sum of all the restaurant scores that the blog maps to Urban Spoon. The restaurant score consists of two parts: there is a popularity component, roughly equal to the number of positive votes for the restaurant, and there is a “hotness” component, which is hard to factor but often easy to measure. At the time that John Bickford posted his review of FLIP, he gained about 1,900 points, despite the fact that FLIP had only about 250 votes at the time. In other words, the hotness component was worth 1650 points, or about 7 times more than the voting component. Currently, the hottest restaurant in Atlanta is Livingston Restaurant, according to Urban Spoon. And since Aspirations of a Southern Housewife has only reviewed Livingston, we can know that Livingston’s combined score is, on July 11, 389 points, almost all of it “hotness”, since almost no one seems to like Livingston.

Hotness is affected by blog reviews. I’ve seen this by observing the effects of Kokai Thai’s hotness ranking. It was pretty soon after Jennifer Zyman’s review and the AJC review that I reviewed Kokai Thai. Subsequently, Kokai appeared on the top 10, so it takes about 3-4 media and blog sources combined in a short period to boost the hotness of a restaurant into the top 10.

Even before I puzzled all this out, I had wondered often about the ratio of Urban Spoon views, which varied wildly from one blog to the other. You could have Tongue Sausage, which had 4,000 views on 10 reviews at the time, or someone more like BuHi and Eat Buford Highway, who was averaging about 30 points a review. This disparity begins to make a lot more sense in the static model, and it allowed me to categorize blogs by their Hotness Factor, their ratio of views to reviews, or their Hotness Ratio, which is the Hotness Factor of any blog divided by the Hotness Factor of Blissful Glutton, who as a professional reviewer, is a useful standard in the Atlanta market.

At the time (this was before Urban Spoon divided all scores by 4/3 ), a Hotness Factor of 50 or less suggested either ignorance or indifference to the scoring system. Examples included Eat Buford Highway, and many other regional reviewers. Hotness Factors from 50 to 150 suggested that they either understood what was going on, or made it a habit to review both popular and unpopular restaurants. Chow Down Atlanta, Amy on Food, Atlanta Foodies, From My Table all fell in this category. At the time Jennifer Zyman and Blissful Glutton was averaging a ratio of about 100. Blogs with Hotness Factors over 200, with the exception of Foodie Buddha, I tended to just not pay any attention to. It was obvious these people were focused on popular restaurants, and would not be the kind of place to dig out a hole in the wall. Ratios like 400 were unsustainable. These were hot restaurant chasers of such fervor they would soon run out of restaurants to review that could score so highly.

This model explains a lot of behavior. For example, the model explains losing views over time. Food bloggers, especially those who reviewed FLIP, must have been seeing their points deflate as FLIP came down off that astounding high, and now has fewer hotness points than Livingston. Gaining perhaps 100 voters hasn’t eliminated the deflation effect, and I suspect that Urban Spoon divided “views” by 4/3 just minimize the obvious nature of the upcoming deflation.

There are other changes, however, that I can’t explain with the static model. The day after Amy of Amy on Food reviewed Shoya Izakawa she gained perhaps 500 points. That was not possible if the static model holds. Likewise, the day after Jimmy of Eat It Atlanta reviewed Hop City, he gained 1000 points (more than the entire total of Eat Buford Highway’s reviews). I’ve been puzzling these two gains for some time.

Let me note that Amy was not the first blogger to review Shoya Izakawa; Gene Lee was. But in both cases, within a day or two after their reviews, both restaurants suddenly appeared in the “hotness” top 10. I don’t think that appearance was coincidence. A week later than Amy I posted my review of Shoya and the score I received was a small fraction of these enormous scores. I suspect anyone else that reviews Hop City isn’t going to get 1,000 points either.

Conclusion: the scoring isn’t entirely static. It also has a dynamic, timing component. Get a review of the right up-and-coming restaurant, and get more points than BuHi will get in his lifetime. At one level, I’m very annoyed, as the static model has a nice mathematical feel to it. Your score would be a map of coverage of the restaurant universe, as defined by Urban Spoon, weighted by the value of the restaurants you reviewed. But when 1/6 of a blog’s total score is purely an act of verve, or luck, or for all we know, a bug in the scoring model, then any pretence to objectivity in the model is lost. And, likewise, the predictability of the static model is lost. Jimmy of Eat It Atlanta may be the kind of guy who focuses on openings and grand restaurant theater. Or he may be just savvy and lucky. Who knows? I surely don’t.

Update (7/12/2009 ca 10pm): I’ve made some corrections to point values in this article. I can’t validate 800 points for Amy’s as I really don’t have any data in that period. 500 seems more likely after some review. The original Hotness Factor where I would judge a reviewer as having a major focus on hot restaurants was around 200 back in the day. With Jennifer Zyman’s current hotness factor of 70, 150 would now be a fair guide for either (A) – a major focus on hot restaurants, or (B) some luck with dynamic point gifts. Converting to Hotness Ratios, which survive any multiplication or division of points, the interpretation of blogs would be:

Hotness RatioInterpretation of blogging style

0.5 or lessIndifferent to restaurants that Urban Spoon sees as popular. Perhaps a focus on niche or ethnic restaurants.

0.5-1.5Reviews a variety of restaurants, including popular or unpopular restaurants. May or may not pay attention to new restaurants.

2.0-3.0Focus on restaurant openings, new and popular restaurants,  some luck with “dynamic hits” on ‘up and coming’ restaurants.

above 3.0Unsustainably high focus on new and popular restaurants. If continues, score ratios will deterioriate over time.