Google’s recipe for recipes

Q: How do people cook these days?

A: They cook with Google.

When you’re looking for a good recipe today, you probably don’t reach for Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer or some other trusty, soup-stained volume on your cookbook shelf. You probably grab your laptop or tablet and enter the name of a dish or an ingredient or two into the search box. And that makes Google very important in the world of eating. Very, very important. I’ll let Amanda Hesser, noted food-writer, cookbook-author, and web-entrepreneur, explain:

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.

Once upon a time, Google didn’t distinguish recipe search results from any other sort of search result. You typed in, say, “cassoulet,” and that keyword ran like any other keyword through the old Google link-counting algorithm. Recipes that had earned a lot of links from a lot of good sites appeared at the top of the list of results. But then, about a month ago – on February 24, 2011, to be precise – Google rolled out a special algorithm for finding recipes. And it added a “Recipe” button to the list of specialized search options that run down the left side of its search results pages. And it allowed searchers to refine results by ingredient, calories, or cooking time.

On the surface, all these changes seemed to be good news for cooks. What’s not to like about a specialized recipe search engine? Beneath the surface, though, some funny things were going on, and not all of them were salubrious. In fact, the changes illustrate how, as search engines refine their algorithms, their results become more biased. In particular, the changes reveal how a powerful search engine like Google has come to reward professional sites that are able to spend a lot on search engine optimization, or SEO, and penalize amateurs who are simply looking to share their thoughts with the world. Originally celebrated for leveling the media playing field, the Web has come to re-tilt that field to the benefit of deep-pocketed corporations.

Let’s look at the actual effects that Google’s changes have had on the kind of sites that show up in recipe search results. I’ll let Meathead Goldwyn, proprietor of a barbecue website and self-described “hedonism evangelist,” take up the story:

When one enters “ribs” in Google, my website AmazingRibs.com is #1. [But] if you search for “ribs” and then click on the new “Recipes” option in the column on the left on most browsers, the results are limited to only those that Google is sure are recipes and not articles about some football player with broken ribs. My ribs recipes are nowhere in sight. How does Google know a recipe when it sees one? The authors have included code that tells Google “this is a recipe.” … Handy for consumers, but a pain for food bloggers like me. I’m getting smashed because I did not get around to installing the new recipe codes when Google announced them in April 2010 because the instructions were too confusing. Now the top slots are all occupied by the big-time corporate food sites, Foodnetwork.com, Epicurious.com, About.com, AllRecipes.com, etc.

If you’re publishing recipes online and you want them to rank highly in Google’s recipe results, it’s no longer enough simply to publish really good dishes and get lots of people to link to them. Now, you have to be adept at (or hire someone who’s adept at) SEO in order to code your pages in ways suited to Google’s increasingly complex algorithm. If you want to get a sense of how complicated this is, you can check out this page at Google’s Webmaster Central, which describes how the publisher of a food site needs not only to tag a page as a recipe but to put various “microdata,” “microformats,” and “RDFa” tags into the source code of their pages. As Meathead notes, the page “was obviously written by engineers for engineers.” Here’s an eye-boggling sample that Google provides for a recipe called Grandma’s Holiday Apple Pie:

microdata.jpg

It may be Grandma’s apple pie, but I don’t think Grandma is going to be able to crank out that kind of coding. And I don’t think Google’s explanation of how the coding works is going to be much help to the old gal:

  • On the first line, <itemscope itemtype="http://www.data-vocabulary.org/Recipe"> indicates that the HTML enclosed in the <div> represents a Recipe. itemscope indicates that the content of the <div> describes an item, and itemtype="http://www.data-vocabulary.org/Recipe" indicates that the item is a Recipe.
  • The sample describes properties of the recipe, such as its author, ingredients, and preparation time. To label recipe properties, each element containing one of these properties (such as <div> or <span> is assigned an itemprop attribute indicating a property. For example, <span itemprop="author">.
  • A property can consist of another item (in other words, an item can include other items). For example, the recipe above includes an Review-aggregate item (itemtype="http://www.data-vocabulary.org/Review-aggregate") with the properties rating and count, and a Recipe-ingredient item (ingredient), which in turn has the properties amount and name.

No, Grandma is out of luck.

And that’s the point. As Google’s army of codesmiths – with the best of intentions, I’m sure – make the company’s search algorithms ever more complex, ever more “refined,” the art of creating pages that will rank highly becomes ever more a job for professionals, for SEOers who spend all their time analyzing Google’s arcane instructions and mastering the esoteric codes those instructions demand. Amateurs and small-timers, like Grandma and Meathead, have little chance to compete with the big corporate sites, which can afford to spend big bucks on SEO. Once antagonists, Google and the SEO industry have developed a tightly symbiotic relationship that seems to be mutually beneficial. The folks who lose out are the little guys.

Here’s Amanda Hesser again:

Google has, in effect, taken sides in the food war. Unfortunately, it’s taken the wrong one … 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. 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.

But that’s not all. Other biases – these having to do with Google’s idea of what people should be cooking and eating – are also at work. In setting up parameters for refining results based on cooking time and calories, Google explicitly, if subtly, gives privilege to low-calorie recipes that can be cooked quickly, as shown in the options it allows for refining a recipe search:

subsearch.jpg

Those choices may seem innocuous, but they have important consequences, as Hesser describes:

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.) … 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.

The proof is no longer in the pudding. It’s in the search results. And baked into those results are the biases, ideologies, and business interests of the people running the search engines. The code is not neutral.

24 thoughts on “Google’s recipe for recipes

  1. Charles

    My 2004 blog post of my mother’s recipe used to be the top Google search for “pumpkin custard pie.” But recently it was outranked by SEO optimized recipes by sites like cooks.com and even eHow. It’s still on the first page of search results but probably will sink lower.

    I kind of regret posting this recipe. Every year around Thanksgiving, I get emails from people asking pumpkin pie questions, I just tell them everything they need to know is in the blog post.

  2. Michael Smith

    It is even worse. I have had several recipe blog posts that validate using Google’s Webmaster tool. I coded each entry to conform with the microformat standard.

    Despite doing everything Google requested, none of my recipes show up as recipes. They are only honoring hRecipe formatting from the large recipe sites. I’ve pointed this out to them a few times, but my requests when nowhere.

  3. Jasdanmoo

    I am considered a master of using a search engine by friends, coworkers, and others. I always start with a broad search and then quickly narrow it down using boolean code and quotations marks. I’ve never used Google’s (or anyone else’s) specialized search engines for this exact reason. I want to give the parameters of my search, not have them told to me. I dislike the “refinement” for general reasons and now hate them for specialization and self-interest reasons. This is great information and ammunition for me in continuing to search my way using non-standard search engines, which will almost find better results faster.

  4. Kevin Kelly

    >The code is not neutral.

    Exactly. Like any tax code, voting system, or set of laws, it can not be absolutely fair. It is always biased in some direction. Any direction you pick will be unfair to someone/someplace.

    And in the search algorithm case, it is probably unfair to a different set of parties depending on the search type. Right now recipes algos seem unfair to grandmas. If users agree this is “unfair” by leaving traces of their disappointment Google can, and will, tweak it in a few minutes. Whatever additional money they might make by catering to the big sites, would be dwarfed by their loss if people did not use the search. You can bet they are tracking usage.

  5. Tom Lord

    Kevin, what the hell is your point?

    “Exactly. Like any tax code, voting system, or set of laws, [….]”

    So you are putting Google on par with entities that hold a monopoly on force? Sounds like a good reason to bust them up.

    “Right now recipes algos seem unfair to grandmas. If users agree this is “unfair” by leaving traces of their disappointment Google can, and will, tweak it in a few minutes. Whatever additional money they might make by catering to the big sites, would be dwarfed by their loss if people did not use the search. You can bet they are tracking usage.”

    WTF. Seriously, WTF. Really?

    Tell me what percentage of users you think are conscious of their choices in this matter.

    Go ahead and find me your “rational agent” consumer in this matter.

  6. Nick Carr

    I’m with Tom. And, frankly, I’m surprised that Kevin Kelly, who has written eloquently and searchingly about the ways our tools influence our desires and behavior, would, when it comes to a tool as powerful and as intimate as the Google search engine, suddenly turn into a radical instrumentalist, implying that the search engine is entirely inert, that it doesn’t influence or amplify behavior at all.

    But, for the sake of argument, let’s say Kevin is right and that Google is simply, passively responding to user demands. That doesn’t change the effects I’ve described. It just changes the cause. Kevin may feel that search engines increasingly promote large, SEO-heavy corporate sites at the expense of small, simply-coded amateur sites because that’s what we, the people, demand. And maybe, in the final analysis, he’s right. Maybe the fault lies not in Google but in ourselves.

  7. Kelly Roberts

    “Maybe the fault lies not in Google but in ourselves.”

    This is exactly where I stand. It is not Google’s problem if users are not conscious of their choices while browsing for recipes or anything else. In fact, it is Google’s responsibility, as a public corporation, to exploit this unconsciousness for profit. Such is the nature of contemporary capitalism.

    What bothers me is what always bothers me about advertising propaganda: that seemingly intelligent people actually buy it.

  8. Webscaleguy

    This world is not a fair a place;Even God is unfair while treating Japan with so many earthquakes.

    I don’t think Fannie Farmer or Trader Joes are any fairer than google. They have their own biases based on the their reasons to offer a recommendation. Google is the marketmaker for Search ,and, in your case, turning out to be the marketmaker for Recipes. It creates the rules for the game. If you want to play in the market created by Google you need to follow its rules. And, SEO is the rulebook. If the barrier to entry for SEO was prohibitive I would agree with you. But, it is not – the fact AmazingRibs.com comes up in the top searches proves that even small time guys can get on the first page.

    The AmazingRibs guy probably replaced SomeOtherLocalRibsGuy when the Internet came along. He mastered the art of blogging and created a website and hence he is on the first page of results. He now needs to also understand the Recipe Spec and play accordingly.

  9. Tom Lord

    By logic like this: “This is exactly where I stand. It is not Google’s problem if users are not conscious of their choices while browsing for recipes or anything else.”

    Frito-Lay ought to be secretly lacing corn chips with cocaine.

  10. Seth Finkelstein

    I refer people to Tom Slee

    “Googling Barbie Again”

    http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2009/07/googling-barbie-again.html

    “Independent sites are out there in their millions of course, but they are unfortunately being pushed to the periphery of our field of vision by commercial efforts – of Mattel in this case. It should be no surprise that as the web has become mainstream, and as corporations realise the necessity of investing in their web presence, the web begins to look more like other mainstream media. Perhaps more evidence that the Web’s counter-cultural moment is over.”

  11. Sprague Dawley

    Fun analysis with important implications — thanks for posting this. A good question to ask would be what the revenue impact (for Google) is from these changes. By creating a “sub-division” of the searched web where commercial entities will cluster and be forced to vie with each other for top SERP ranks, do they force businesses to pay more for AdWord placements and sponsored links? I can’t believe that (these days) any decision is made about the algorithms without considering impact on revenue.

  12. Blogging Common

    Dear Blogger,

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  13. Kevin Kelly

    I guess I should repeat my point:

    As Nick said, I am convinced technologies are biased. Every search algorithm (Bing, Ask, Google, et.c) is inherently biased. Every category and classification system is biased in its construction. Every voting system is biased and unfair is some way. Every set of rules or laws, whether private or public, is biased. None can be truly completely fair. This is mathematically provable.

    If you change the rules you can change the bias – but you can never get rid of the bias. You can just make it favor a different unfairness.

    Changing the rules of laws is hard. Changing the rules of search is easy. In other words, it is mechanically easy to change who you are unfair to.

    Economically, Google will try to balance being fair to the few big time advertisers and the millions of small-time customers. But it cannot do it perfectly, ever. It has to slightly favor one over the other.

  14. Linderholm

    Very interesting piece. I have had a food blog for a long time and rank faily high for a few things but probably never will rank all that high for recipes since I am more of a written-out-stream-of-directions person than a neatly formatted person. But I like looking for recipes. And I HATE finding allrecipes and all the other useless and frankly soulless recipe sites out there. Fortunately over the years I have acquired a very good workign knowledge of food blogs and good food sites and can find my own way.

    In this case, the ideas behind how to do something like this were written by engineers, not food people. Most people understand that in a recipe it is usually the TECHNIQUE that is important and the data (amounts of things) are secondary. But the recipe microformats ignore that.

    In addition, if you look at the results it is clear that they are NOT using recipe microformats when they find them – instead they are just using them from a small number of established recipe sites. One of the things this does is encourage plagiarism and copying. People already steal recipes left and right and repost them on recipe sites. And technically that is OK, since the part of the recipe they care about (amounts and temperatures) is actually NOT protected by copyright (really – this is true – you can look it up if you doubt me). What is protected by copyright are the words, description and story around that recipe. But these often get copied too.

    And yes, the use of more and more arcane formats does encourage the whole symbiotic secondary industry of SEO and web data people. Nothing wrong with that perhaps but it does exactly what the article describes – it moves us away from doing the right thing in search – finding what the user was looking for. And that is happening more and more frequently. I think that the results I get from search engines where the answer isn’t obvious are actually far worse than they were three or four years ago. Yes, there’s more noise on the internet but the search engines are losing out to the manipulations of SEO.

    And yes, search engines are culpable in this too. They label specialized searches things like Recipes – but they don’t actually mean recipes – what they mean is ‘things on the web that have been formatted to match a highly specialized data format that we are calling recipes’ – and most actual recipes do not fit that format. The bottom line is that this recipe search is not ready. It is half-baked.

  15. Ambrose Chapel

    “The proof is no longer in the pudding.”

    Seriously?

    The proof was never in the pudding. The correct phrase is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”.

  16. Eric Gauvin

    The bias is in the fact that the vast majority of results are just for decoration, giving one the impression that out of all these millions and millions of results THESE 10 are “what you want.” For “cassoulet” the first page is only .0005% of the results. On the one hand you could say google has done an amazingly precise job of weeding out the good ones, but on the other hand I have to think the other 1,989,990 results is a pretty broad category of “not what you want.” How does google know that? It seems the pages-and-pages-of-search-results format is a really blunt instrument for sifting through the content on the web.

    Here’s the very last result for “cassoulet.” Doesn’t look too bad to me… But what do I know? (perhaps the crux of the whole problem.)

    http://knittybaker.blogspot.com/2011/01/mark-bittmans-cassoulet.html

    NOTE: In fact, it seems impossible to get to the 1,990,000th result. The link above is the last page available (page 66, 660th result). There’s a disclaimer that basically says those other millions of results weren’t really results anyone in his right mind would ever really want to see.

  17. Zammitdavid 8

    Extremely interesting article !

    I just feel that Google is becoming way too powerful, the internet doesn’t seem to be as ‘free’ as it used to be. Its a shame to see that the only way that one’s website or ideas can become successul is through Google. How democratic is that ? And how perfectly competitive is the internet nowadays, with Google gaining such monopolistic power?

  18. Nick Carr

    Ambrose,

    Thanks for your note. Without dismissing your criticism, I have to disagree with it. “The proof is in the pudding” is idiomatic, and I actually prefer it to the more belabored (if “correct”) “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” And “the proof is in the pudding” seems particularly appropriate for this post.

    Imagine two people looking at a pudding recipe online.

    Person 1: “That looks like a decent recipe.”

    Person 2: “The proof is in the pudding.”

    So true.

    Nick

  19. Nara_yun

    Never thought the consequences of the recipe search. This was a mind-opener. Do think it is a nifty tool that they integrated in the search but definitely agree on your point on how “the code is not neutral.”

    Wonder if this was unintended mistake though?

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