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Rough Type: Nicholas Carr's Blog: 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.



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