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Tech keeps trying to ‘fix’ recipe sites. Food bloggers wish they’d stop.

Nobody loves the way food blogs work right now. But developers keep missing the point when they try to make them better.

Tech keeps trying to ‘fix’ recipe sites. Food bloggers wish they’d stop.

Recipe websites are everywhere. Most of them don't have a great user experience.

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

"Your favorite recipes without the ads or life stories." That was the tagline for a site called Recipeasly when it launched in February. In its first iteration, the site was simple: People could paste in a URL from a food blog or website, and Recipeasly would spit back just the ingredients and steps required to make the dish, with no extraneous design or ads. People could save their favorites and come back to them later.

If you wanted to pinpoint a reason everyone hated Recipeasly, that tagline is a good place to start. Tom Redman, a product manager at Buffer — and on the side, one of the co-creators of Recipeasly — posted about the site at 1:24 p.m. PT on Feb. 28. By 4:42 p.m., he was apologizing for the site after a torrent of negative feedback which accused him of stealing from creators, removing context and history, and demeaning the whole industry. By 6:44 p.m., Recipeasly was offline. "Our goal is to amplify the voices & content of creators, not diminish them," Redman said. "And if we come back, it'll be with changes where we have fallen short."

From a product perspective, the biggest knock on Recipeasly was how unoriginal its idea was: Its basic description also fits Just the Recipe, Recipe Keeper, Recipe Filter and countless other recipe aggregators. Food websites seem to be irresistible to anyone with a computer science degree and a knack for UI design. "Once you finally manage to scroll to the part you're looking for, another ad or popup loads in and shifts the page around," said Just the Recipe developer Bryson Thill. "It's no fun trying to get back to the right spot when your hands are covered in dough."

This is a more or less universally held opinion, by the way. Mindy Kaling summed it up pretty well in a tweet from last March: "Why do all online recipes have endless pages of the chef's whole life story about the recipe and then on the 12th page is the actual recipe? I just want the recipe! I don't need the Modern Love essay on how you came up with it!" Anybody who's ever tried to cook with an online recipe knows the feeling.

Mindy Kaling's recipe tweet Mindy Kaling's recipe tweet.Screenshot: Twitter

Along with his co-founders, Redman — who declined to comment on the record for this story beyond pointing me to his tweets — had made a classic mistake. He'd tried to "fix" food websites. He became the latest in a long line of developers who thought they could improve the user experience of finding stuff to cook on the internet, without realizing that there's a very good reason food websites work the way they do. And rather than try to work with and help food writers grow their businesses, he'd tried to force them into a new one.

Nicole Taggart, who writes a food and travel blog called I am a Honey Bee, was one of hundreds of people from the food industry who took issue with Recipeasly's launch. "Because it is so difficult to scroll or hit the 'jump to recipe' button that I have on my site?" she tweeted in response. "God forbid I make an income off my blog that has been hard hit during the pandemic. You get my content for free, so why try to rip me off as well too?"

But Taggart does understand why food sites are catnip to developers. "Look, I get the issue," she said. "People want things faster and faster. So they don't want the life story." She's changed her writing style over the years, writing shorter entries and adding that "jump to recipe" button in order to make the site more navigable. "I started blogging years ago, back when people read blogs," she said. Now, the classic industry in-joke — that a food blogger could confess to murder and not get caught because nobody reads the posts — feels a little more true every day.

But you know who cares about the life story? Devoted readers, certainly; every food blog has followers who actually do care about the writer's life and children and favorite musicals. But that's not really why the life stories are there. They're there because SEO, Pinterest and advertisers all demand it. They're a business decision, plain and simple, just like practically everything else on a given food blog.

To be a food blogger is to try to balance a huge number of competing interests. You want to create recipes and run a site that you like, that's readable and useful. You also want to make money. And you know that Google is your meal ticket. "If Google isn't your No. 1 source of traffic, you have a problem," said Casey Markee, an SEO consultant who has worked with hundreds of food bloggers on improving their site and business. Pinterest is typically second, and Instagram and Facebook are currently in a heated competition for third place. Even TikTok is a space most food bloggers are thinking about now. But Google dominates.

Practically everything on a recipe website is dictated either by Google or by ad networks. Recipe cards are almost always at the bottom of a page, for instance, because when users spend even a few more seconds on a page it signals to Google that this was a useful search result. The life stories, Markee said, are mostly about the ad networks. "Word count is not a factor" for Google, he said, but more paragraphs and photos means more ad slots. (Advertisers hate the "jump to recipe" button.)

Google results for spaghetti bolognese Every spot on a Google search for food is coveted real estate, and bloggers fight hard to get there.Screenshot: Google

Recipe cards themselves are created specifically to be featured on Google, in those "Recipe" carousels at the top of search results that can drive an enormous amount of traffic. The best food websites are blisteringly fast, which Google factors into its rankings. Most sites will use lots of internal links and FAQs, all structured precisely for Google's crawlers to understand.

Even the content of the posts is often created with the Google searcher in mind. "I teach my clients to optimize for toddlers and drunk adults," Markee said. He works with clients on perfecting their recipe template — a header here, a photo with labeled ingredients there, a couple of notes about which flour to use over here — both to improve the reading and cooking experience and to increase the chances that Google will understand and thus promote the page. As a result, some food bloggers have even begun to outsource the actual writing of their blog so they can focus on recipes rather than word counts.

Food bloggers share their knowledge with one another in Facebook groups, at conferences and in plenty of other places. Pretty much everybody uses WordPress, along with plugins like WP Tasty and Create. (Create was built by Mediavine, one of the largest food-site ad networks.) They use site templates from companies like Feast, and host on services like BigScoots. Google SEO remains a famously unknowable thing, but there are plenty of ways to improve your standing. And while many food bloggers are using Instagram, TikTok and other places to grow their audience — and even Clubhouse is turning into a hot spot for food talk — their business is still their website.

"I have my site down," Taggart said. "I'm basically copying a template: I write my little meta description at the top, I have a photo, I have a sentence or two and I have my page break. I have my photo, my affiliate disclaimer. Then I have a header, because we can't have too long between headers." There's still some room for creativity, she said, but it often feels like she's running the site Google wants her to run rather than following her own ideas. She has a plugin on her site that makes sure she's using the right keywords, and an icon that flashes green when she's hit the optimal word count. "Over time, my writing style has had to transform to meet the criteria, which Google keeps changing. It's fun."

The uproar against Recipeasly came from a sense that Redman and his co-creators didn't care about how the food web worked. Other recipe aggregators will feature a prominent link to the original website, so at least the author gets some credit and hopefully a few clicks. Recipeasly appeared to strip out all attribution, which felt like stealing to many. "Recipe creators put in 3-4 days of work for every recipe: inventing ideas, driving to the market to buy ingredients, making the recipe 3 times, photography, videos, etc. The ads are how we make a living while providing free content to readers," Denay DeGuzman, author of Confetti & Bliss, tweeted to Redman.

Still, few in the food world would argue that the current state of business is the optimal one. Some write and sell cookbooks or merchandise to make more money. They look to subscription businesses like NYT Cooking or marthastewart.com as examples of what could happen if they hit it huge. They work with companies like Prepear, which turned the recipe-aggregation idea into a full platform, including compensating creators for their recipes. But these opportunities are available only to the handful of most successful blogs.

Everyone else is stuck trying to feed the three-headed beast: their users, their advertisers and Google. "You want to be creative and you want to create beautiful, unique content and why? Because you want to share that with everyone," Table for Two's Julie Chiou wrote on her blog in 2018. "You want to inspire people. How can you share that with everyone with algorithm shifts and Google Panda updates strewn in, what seems like, every other week?" That increasingly cynical feeling is a common one … and a mostly unavoidable one. "You're not going to please everyone, and that's perfectly fine," Taggart said. But until someone can honestly compete with Google, what are you going to do?"

Just The Recipe Banana Bread recipe Apps like Just the Recipe are starting by fixing the user experience — and learning to work with food bloggers.Screenshot: Just The Recipe

That's where a few more ambitious developers come in. The creator economy is booming right now, and there are new tools for people to pay for stuff they like, whether it's an artist, a musician, a streamer or a YouTube magician. Substack proved people will pay for email newsletters. Why not recipes? "The more that we can give optionality on interesting new monetization models, especially for new use cases like food, the better off we all are," said Kenny Cohen, a co-founder of Food Supply. He and co-founder Abena Anim-Somuah want to build all the tools required for a creator to make and sell recipes, merchandise, cooking classes and lots more, in a good and food-centric UI.

Thill plans to turn Just the Recipe into something similar. But he knows he needs to do it the right way. "I do think it's important not to circumvent the food blogs," Thill said, "and I'm currently exploring ways to drive more traffic to content creators, to ensure that all parties involved can benefit from the site."

Beyond that, it's clear to lots of developers that the cooking UI could be better as well. Google and Amazon have experimented with voice-based cooking, but what if it could be more interactive? What if it were a tappable experience, step by step on your phone? Anyone who's tried to navigate a recipe website with messy hands knows how big the opportunity is. And wherever there's a UI problem, there's a legion of developers itching to fix it.

The recipe web is long overdue for an upgrade. Developers are desperate to provide one. But they're quickly learning they have to work with creators to get it done, understanding their business and trying to help them improve it rather than trying to force a new paradigm onto the industry. TikTokers are at home on TikTok and YouTubers on YouTube, and everything for food bloggers starts with their blog.

The only way to upend that is to be bigger than Google. And nobody's bigger than Google.

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