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Is Google Recipe Search the Sandra Lee of Online Cooking Resources?

When Google announced its new recipe search earlier this month, I didn't pay the news much mind. As the resident foodie here, I've got my stable of RSS feeds and recipe databases from which I regularly cull meal ideas. I knew that Google's results, which would be predicated on page views and SEO, probably wouldn't fit my needs. I don't care to read Paula Deen's fried chicken recipe just because it sports the most reviews; I like my own (actually, it's Thomas Keller's) just fine.

But I had the sneaking suspicion that Google's recipe algorithm, like any other recommendation algorithm, would end up reducing the tyranny of choice to a recipe monopoly by a few large sites, and start recommending hapless and distraction-prone new cooks to "semi-homemade"-style dishes à la Sandra Lee (e.g., the Kwanzaa cake, whatever the hell this is). Amanda Hesser, founder of Food 52 and food columnist for the New York Times, is also worried. By trying to make "good" recipes easier to find, Google "inadvertently stepped into the middle of the battle between the quick-and-easy faction and the cooking-matters group," she writes. (Check out her full post here.)

Hesser makes the case that a small, amateur food blog -- any one of the millions springing up over the past several years -- will not only have trouble competing with other sites, but also with being recognized in Google's search results at all, particularly if they don't take the time to add an endless stream of metadata to their recipes. Google is currently filtering recipes by cook time, calories and ingredients; if casual bloggers haven't painstakingly coded those parameters into each post -- as, say, a legion of interns could -- then don't expect to see their recipes in your results.

What's even worse is that, as Hesser puts it, Google's recipe results "[promote] a cooking culture focused on speed and diets." (Sure, we could all stand to trim a few pounds, probably -- but most of us can also agree that the more likely culprits in the current obesity epidemic is fast food and processed treats, not home cooking.) Since every American wants instant food that is nearly calorie-free, and since Google only offers filters based on perceived healthfulness and speed, Google is unwittingly advancing the "quick-and-easy" recipes, not necessarily the best ones.

Hesser gives the example of a search for cassoulet. Since Google doesn't offer the option to search for anything under an hour, a novice cassoulet maker might assume that the dish could be completed within the time it takes to watch an episode of 'Law and Order.' (It's more like four hours.)
chicken stock results
As Hesser sees it, there are two problems with this. First, any cassoulet recipe purporting to take less than an hour probably sucks. Second, it's possible to game the system, intentionally or not, with metadata. A search for "chicken stock," for example, brings up this GroupRecipes listing for a six-minute brew. Joy to the world! I could have spent my Sunday afternoon knitting booties for my cats, rather than skimming the flotsam off of a slowly simmering pot all day.

Oh. It turns out that "cook time" for this recipe just refers to throwing a chicken carcass and some mirepoix into a stock pot. Then, you set it on the heat for 10 hours, like any other stock recipe. Does that not count as "cook time"?

Hesser suggests that, instead of trying to appeal to time-choked cooks with misleading metadata, Google should learn "the metrics that actually reflect great quality," and rank recipes according to the number of comments as they relate to page views. (Personally, however, I try not to lean toward a recipe simply based on its number or ranking of comments; look at any given recipe and you'll see commenters altering the ingredients, which often make it an entirely different recipe. "I didn't have any sumac so I used crushed Cool Ranch Doritos instead. BEST RECIPE EVAR.")

While ranking recipes according to the number of Facebook "likes" (as Hesser also suggests) may help steer cooks toward better recipes, the business of ranking taste is always subjective. My suggestion? Steer clear of Google recipes altogether -- at least until it gets its algorithm in order -- and start to compile your own list of trusted source sites.

Tags: AmandaHesser, cooking, food, food52, google, metadata, recipes, SearchEngineOptimization, seo, top, web