Taking Another Look at Google Recipes

Is the Google Recipe function actually hurting the people who use it?

That’s the question Amanda Hesser seems to be asking in an opinion article for food52.com, a website I’ll admit I’ve never been to until today. While cruising my Google Reader and Twitter feeds, I saw the article pop up both in a New York Times Diner’s Journal blog post, and on David Lebovitz’s Twitter.

A screenshot of a Google Recipes search.

The article is well-written, and a very thoughtful, thought-provoking piece. When Google announced the Recipe function just about a month ago, Hesser said she was excited to think that lesser-known food websites would be given a better chance to shine. Unfortunately, she found that not to be the case, and claims:

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.

She goes on to explain that Google rewards the big food sites by putting them on the first page of results because they are well-versed in search engine optimization (SEO), and have the ability to put together ingredient lists, cooking times and the number of calorie servings in a dish.

In my initial take on the service, I mentioned being disappointed that most of the recipes come from mega-sites like foodnetwork.com. It doesn’t give great, smaller food websites and blogs a chance to show off their completely original recipes, or describe how mega-site recipes can be adapted.

Apparently, some websites will game the system by lowering the number of calories and not including prep time in their total cook time. This is deceiving to inexperienced cooks who may not know that these authors are stretching the truth. Additionally, it could hurt smaller sites because if someone sees that a dinner can (falsely) be made in 10 minutes, they might use that recipe instead of searching for a similar recipe that doesn’t hesitate to admit that when made properly, the meal might take 2 hours in total to make.

But is there anything inherently wrong in wanting to make something fast and easy? I know that as a college student, I rarely plan my meals ahead. While I’m no culinary genius, it’s nice to be able to make something other than mac and cheese once in a while, and finding a recipe that is simple and fast is very appealing to me. I also like the “ingredient” feature of Google Recipes; though it’s not perfect, it may help me narrow down the search results to recipes that call for ingredients I already have available to me.

It seems to me that I’m not alone. Singles and people cooking for families alike often don’t have the time or patience on a random Tuesday evening to let something marinate for a few hours before cooking it. Hesser argues that this is what is wrong with the way Americans approach food. Is it a problem? I would say yes. But I can’t say I blame Google for giving the people what they want.

Hesser says Google can address some of the problem with Recipes by saying that recipes cannot be quantified in such restrictive measures as a calorie count or cooking time. I agree. She says that perhaps sorting by comment-to-page view ratio would promote smaller food websites. Perhaps it would. Google keeps their algorithms a secret, but I bet something like that is not impossible to do.

In the last paragraph of her article, Hesser goes on to say:

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.

I’m not sure the situation is that dire. Foodie culture is growing. People are becoming more aware of the need for nutritious, filling meals. Have Google searches ever been “thoughtful?” People seem to be able to navigate countless Google searches avoiding spam and scams and getting the information they need. I’m sure that given time, people will be able to do the same with Google Recipes, finding the hidden gems in the sea of scammers and mega-sites.

Google Recipes definitely has its flaws, as Hesser articulately pointed out, but I think the function needs more time to improve before we can completely write it off as a failure.

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