Cooking From Every Angle

UPDATE: Google's New Recipe Search

May 18, 2011 • 161 Comments

UPDATE to the UPDATE: Julia Moskin joins the debate in today's New York Times story on recipe search engines.

UPDATE: 130+ thoughtful comments later, both David Lebovitz and one of the creators of Google's recipe search have weighed in (see below in the comments).

Google Recipe Search

- Amanda

The entity with the greatest influence on what Americans cook is not Costco or Trader Joe’s. It’s not the Food Network or The New York Times. It’s Google. Every month about a billion of its searches are for recipes. The dishes that its search engine turns up, particularly those on the first page of results, have a huge impact on what Americans cook. Which is why, with a recent change in its recipe search, Google has, in effect, taken sides in the food war. Unfortunately, it's taken the wrong one.

In late February, when Google announced that it was adding a new kind of search, specifically for recipes, it seemed like good news for a site like ours -– at last Google was shining its searchlight on content we deeply care about. But then came the bad news: once you get your new recipe results, you can refine the results in just 3 ways: by ingredient, by cooking time and by calories. While Google was just trying to improve its algorithm, thereby making the path to recipes easier and more efficient, it inadvertently stepped  into the middle of the battle between the quick-and-easy faction and the cooking-matters group.

Before these new changes, Google recipe results favored sites with lots of content and good Search Engine Optimization (that is, those that organized their pages and chose their words with Google's preferences in mind) – e.g. AllRecipes and Food. Now, recipe results favor these sites, but also those with lots of additional information, such as ratings, calories, cooking times, and photos.

Imagine the blogger who has excellent recipes but has to compete against companies with staff devoted entirely to S.E.O. And who now must go back and figure out the calorie counts of all of his recipes, and then add those numbers, along with other metadata. That’s not going to happen. So the chance that that blogger’s recipes will appear anywhere near the first page of results is vanishingly small. (See Craig Goldwyn's piece on this in the Huffington Post.)

Stove  Eggs and Toast

What this means is that Google’s search engine gives vast advantage to the largest recipe websites with the resources to input all this metadata, and particularly those who home in on “quick and easy” and low calorie dishes (which, by the way, doesn’t mean the recipes are actually healthy). In so doing, Google unwittingly -- but damagingly -- promotes a cooking culture focused on speed and diets.

Take, for instance, a recent search for “cassoulet.” The top search result is a recipe from Epicurious, one of the larger and better sites. But if you refine by time, your choices are “less than 15 min,” “less than 30 min,” or “less than 60 min.” There is no option for more than 60 minutes. In truth, a classic cassoulet takes at least 4 hours to make, if not several days (the Epicurious recipe takes 4 hours and 30 minutes; yet there in the results are recipes under each of these three time classes. One from Tablespoon goes so far as to claim to take just 1 minute. (It’s made with kidney beans, canned mushrooms, and beef, so it’s not long on authenticity.)

If you refine by calories, you can even find two cassoulets that are purportedly fewer than 100 calories per person: the Lamb Shank Cassoulet from Good To Know contains a full lamb shank and sausage link per serving, yet is supposed to weigh in at just 77 calories a serving. No such dish exists unless the serving size is a pinch.

For something more mundane like fried chicken, a refinement of “less than 15 min” takes you to a recipe on Food that claims the total prep and cooking time is six minutes, even though the recipe itself tells you to bake it for 1 hour. Even if you do find a recipe that accurately claims a fast cooking time, how will you know it’s a good recipe? Refining recipe search by time doesn’t result in better recipes rising to the top; rather, the new winners are recipes packaged for the American eating and cooking disorder.

Cauliflower 

Google's new approach is misguided even if sites don't try to game it. What does cooking time really mean, anyway? If I’m braising lamb shanks in the oven for 2 hours and am able to do laundry or watch TV during that time, then is the cooking time 2 hours? Is that the same as the 2 hours I’d spend standing over the stove stirring strawberry jam? And what if I’m making something that’s not actually cooked, like a salad -- is the cooking time the time it takes me to whisk the dressing and mix the salad?

What happens when you must marinate a dish for 24 hours? Do you count that as prep time or cooking time? If you have a food blog or website, won't you be afraid to tally up the 3 days it took to make your shortribs dish? Because if you do, your recipe most certainly won’t appear in the refined recipe results. And even if Google does miraculously find your recipe, your audience might be scared off by the putatively huge cooking time. Whereas, if they just read the recipe, rather than the “duration” time, they might grasp that it’s not much work at all but must be distributed over a few days to allow the flavors to develop.

The tradition of prep times began creeping into our cooking culture about 30 years ago with the rise of quick-cooking columns. They’ve long acted more as a marketing tool than as helpful information. The proliferation of cooking times has not only put pressure on writers to fudge times, but has encouraged editors to stop running recipes that take longer than an hour. Lost in the rankings will be such slow-build classics as paella and layer cakes.

Google must surely know that recipes are anything but precise formulas: they’re descriptive guides, and quality cannot be quantified in calories or time. The search engine’s real opportunity lies in understanding the metrics that actually reflect great quality. A very simple place to start is by tracking the number of comments relative to pageviews, the number of Facebook likes a recipe has garnered, or how often a recipe has been shared. A recipe with 74 comments is almost certainly better than one that takes 8 minutes to make. (And at some point, Google should create its own system for calculating calories.)

I’m glad Google put effort into improving its recipe search, but their solution feels robotic rather than thoughtful. If they don’t change their current approach, I fear to contemplate the future of American cooking. As it stands, Google’s recipe search gives undue advantage to the “quick & easy” recipe sites, encourages dishonesty, and sets up people to be dissuaded from cooking, as they will soon learn that recipes always end up taking more time than they expected. Alas, the search algorithm fundamentally misunderstands what recipe searchers are really looking for: great recipes.

Jump to Comments (161)

Comments (161)

Default-small
Default-small
Default-small

about 2 years ago shynewilliams

oh, the headaches of SEO. lol congratulations, though...I've been checking out this site for a while now and it's now my top two on my top five favorites list :)
I wonder if gourmetrecipe.com and gourmandia.com will ever be famous on Google's search engine too...they're my top one and three :)

Default-small

almost 3 years ago Manjusha Pakanati

WOW! please visit my blog
http://manjurecipes.blogspot...

Default-small

almost 3 years ago MrsMehitabel

Kavi,
I read this article and your comments a while ago, and it occurs to me that it might be possible, among the other search tools, to simply let searchers to choose to only see results that appear on blogs. I only cook from blog recipes, since there's more description and I'm likely to get a better idea of what the result is like, and what the writer's tastes are.

Default-small

almost 3 years ago MrsMehitabel

Kavi,
I read this article and your comments a while ago, and it occurs to me that it might be possible, among the other search tools, to simply let searchers to choose to only see results that appear on blogs. I only cook from blog recipes, since there's more description and I'm likely to get a better idea of what the result is like, and what the writer's tastes are.

Default-small

about 3 years ago zoomse

after reading your article i;ve checked the google recipes and i think google is killing the food culture. why use google recipes when there are plenty of excellent websites/blogs about recipes, cooking..
http://www.americancookingrecipes...

Default-small

about 3 years ago zoomse

after reading your article i;ve checked the google recipes and i think google is killing the food culture. why use google recipes when there are plenty of excellent websites/blogs about recipes, cooking..
http://www.americancookingrecipes...

Default-small

over 3 years ago pauldavis

If you are building your own website you will need a domain name. This is basically the address, and consequently the name of your particular site. Choosing this name is trickier than it might seem because you will need to choose something that is easy, relevant and preferably popular. You can search for domain names using a site which will do the job for you.

-----------------------
pauldavis
Domain Names Search

Doughboy_unbaked

over 3 years ago dbcurrie

I think that a lot of people are seeing that the recipe search feature isn't finding the recipes they want, whereas the broader search works better. Which is fine. If the recipe search doesn't work, people won't use it. Or maybe they'll search both ways. Most people aren't going to know WHY the results are different and they aren't going to care. They'll just choose to use the one that works better for them. I'm betting that since so many smaller bloggers aren't going to be able to invest the time in coding their recipes, those results will always be different. If there's some semi-automated way to do it, I might go for it. As it is, though, I don't have infinite time. My priority is putting out good content, not finicky coding that's probably not going to make a difference.

Default-small

over 3 years ago Creative Culinary

The burning question I was hoping Kavi would answer? How long once we comply and submit our pages that have passed the test can we expect to see our site in the results? I've got one post in particular I use to check and it's funny...how far off the mark those recipe search results become in the 12 pages of results that do show. Not ONE result comes back with the search term I use in those twelve pages. I can find a torte, a martini and more but nothing that hits the mark in my search for a particular cake. Calories and prep times aside, how relevant can that be?

Dscn2212

over 3 years ago boulangere

Cynthia is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

I've had the same experience, and I just don't use Google's recipe search for that reason. As many have noted, I use food-specific sites instead.

Default-small

over 3 years ago vavroom

I blog about food and post recipes. From the outset I decided to not use a "food blog" format - I kept recipes as recipes and blog posts as blog posts. From the outset I started using hRecipe format. This was before Google announced that they were going to look at using Rich Snippets for a recipe search.

I defended Google when bloggers started being upset about the calories and cooking times - I understand that these are a reflection of what people look for - regardless of risks of developing a culture or not.

I argued that if you want to publish a cookbook, you need to have a certain know-how about book writing and publishing and if you don't have that knowledge, you can hire someone. In the same way, if you want to publish recipes and information about food on the web, you should expect to have a certain level of technical knowledge about web publishing. If you don't, you can hire someone.

I still stand by all that.

But I really wonder what's going on with Google Recipe search - as others stated, it isn't returning results. My recipes make the Google recipe rich snippet testing tool happy. But if I use the recipe search on google, I am unable to get any of my recipes - even if I search on the exact title of the recipe. The same search on "generic Google" returns my site in the top 3 results.

Kavi, thank you for your comment - it's good to see that someone at Google is listening. But can you, or someone else from Google, explain why sites using hRecipe are not being returned? Even when the microformats were implemented months before it was announced Google would use the format?

Default-small

over 3 years ago minsrecipes

I had almost completely given up on searching for a decent recipe any more. Then a friend told me about foodily.com Check it out. It's still not what I would consider the best, but better than the alternative.

Food54_profile_pic

over 3 years ago Ms. T

Foodily is a GREAT concept, but they still have a lot of work to do on the search filters to bring it up to speed and make it a really efficient and effective way to search recipes. I'm crossing my fingers that they're still working out the kinks and will introduce some improvements soon.

Default-small

over 3 years ago LaurieConstantino

Excellent article. As a food blogger, I've been very frustrated by recipe search. For many of the reasons articulated here. But also because I've gone to the time-consuming trouble of changing my entire process of adding recipes so that I can insert proper coding for google recipe search. (Had to pay a computer professional to help me do this.) The recipes pass the test as properly formatted using google's rich snippets testing tool. Even so, none of my recipes show up in Google's recipe search. Not one. Not ever. Make that very very very frustrated.

149130_100440840028137_100001866631527_1389_855041_n

over 3 years ago AmyRuth

well said! We just need to keep this out there where they will hear and see it. There truly is strength in numbers folks!
Isn't that the American Way?
AmyRuth

Default-small

over 3 years ago Cooking in Mexico

With Google driving the recipe search, recipes will become more generic and lose their wonderful regional differences. Often the top recipe results. i.e., the top of the list, are basically the same thing.

Kathleen

Default-small

over 3 years ago thomasw

Kavi wrote:
So, the traffic impact to any site that doesn't yet appear in recipe view is minimal, if any.

---

We have a site that's been around since 1994 and under the same domain since 1996. Over the past few years we have kept daily and monthly records from a variety of statistical sources, including Google Analytics, Quantcast and StatCounter. Each year for the past several years our traffic has steadily increased.

Since the Google search algorithm change in February our site traffic, which once averaged 20,000 pageviews per day, went down 25% per day, compared to previous weeks and previous years. That 25% drop is amazingly consistent each day and the drop is all attributable to a loss of traffic generated by Google search.

Like most other small sites, we do not have the manpower to go back through the thousands of recipes we have online and update them for metadata. (I heard via Prof. Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?" that back in the 90's Epicurious employed monks to manually convert all their recipes from the CondeNast magazines Gourmet and Bon Appetit into html. Dear God, maybe that's the answer!)

But the metadata issue did not affect us until February 2011 -- if that was the reason our site suddenly lost Google "juice." I have personally checked a number of our recipes that used to rank on the first page of results -- most, but not all, have been bumped down by corporate sites' similar recipes.

It is difficult to analyze what caused our site's drop when we have followed the same methods for presenting original content for so many years and have seen steady growth. I have noted little empirical evidence that the content farms, or the sites that scrape others content, have been impacted by the new search algorithm.

Default-small

over 3 years ago cookscorner

AntoniaJames: not all small sites are blogs. Some are "regular" websites created by individuals who have chosen the website format instead of the blog format.

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

over 3 years ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Kavi, thank you for taking time to weigh in and to thoughtfully explain how your team at Google is approaching recipe search. It's clearly not an easy issue to tackle -- but it's a really important one. I look forward to future improvements. Thanks, all, for your continuing discussion -- keep it up! And thank you for tolerating our lack of paragraph breaks -- we're finishing up a big project (will announce soon) and once that's done, we'll get this fixed!

Doughboy_unbaked

over 3 years ago dbcurrie

betterirene, if you find your recipes on someone else's site, the first thing to do is contact the blogger and ask for it to be taken down. If they don't take it down, you can contact the site host and have the whole site taken down. It's drastic, but it would get the point across. The other thing is that if your content is swiped, there's a good chance that you'll find other bloggers' content there as well. If you find that, contact the other bloggers and inform them. If enough complain, it might make a difference. I recently found a site like that and contacted about a dozen bloggers and a couple of larger publications. The site has since been cleaned up. If you do want to pursue getting a site taken down and it's just your content that has been swiped, there are people who will help you with that (for a fee) but I also found some very helpful "do it yourself" instructions.

Default-small

over 3 years ago dory

This google search feature combines with the Food Network's new plethora of "good cooking" contests which in which chefs, or aspiring chefs compete against a time clock to create supposedly appetizing food that is made in under -------------(fill in the blank) minutes. Anyone who pays a little extra attention to detail or who uses a traditional technique that takes more than a couple of minutes to prepare is automatically eliminated-- usually in a very painful way. This contributes to an evolving food "culture" (forgive the irony) that implies that all good food can/should be made in 30 minutes or less, often using pre-packaged and processed ingredients. As someone who values traditional recipes, and who prepares many foods that take long cooking times, but allow me to do other tasks in my house while cooking, (bean soup, or pot roast anyone?) I find this deeply disturbing. What a longs ways we have come from Julia Child on public TV. I don't think all recipes should be pretentious or take all day, but where is the room for cooking as a relaxed process?

Dory

Dsc03010

over 3 years ago betteirene

I don't blog. To do it right and to do it well is too much like work. That's one of the reasons I love food52: it's fun here, not work, and I'm perfectly content to ride A&M's coattails. Once I've decided to submit a recipe here, I do a search to help me make sure that I haven't inadvertently plagiarized someone else's work. How embarrassing it would be to get accused of stealing! (Although, given my age, my recipes probably are the original, teehee.) It's maddening to be linked to the exact same recipe (including typos) with the exact same photo (usually "stolen" from wikipedia) three different times on the first page of the search results. So. . .what do you do when that recipe is yours? What recourse do you have?

Dsc_0122.nef-1

over 3 years ago Panfusine

love the statement, riding on A & M's coattail....perfectly describes what a lot of us are so happy doing, this community aspect of food52 can't get better & I don't want to explore beyond this on Google, So there Google you can keep your imperfect search engine!