Cookbooks. They’re great. They don’t have to load their contents, and they usually contain tons of helpful technique information on top of recipes. But they can be expensive, and they don’t always have every recipe you want. So recipe-makers turned into recipe-bloggers. Over time, the content got longer, and longer, and longer… and more websites sprang up out of nowhere with recipes.
And are the essays at the top of the recipe really that annoying?
Longer Websites = More Engagement… With Ads
This is the root of the problem. Access to the website doesn’t cost money, but it’s not free. To provide the platform for this recipe, most recipe bloggers use ads. If everything fits onto one scroll-bar’s worth of page, then they only have room for one scroll-bar’s worth of ads. ‘What, so I have to scroll for two minutes because they want more money?’ doubters might say. Well, yeah.
Hosting a website costs money. That doesn’t even include the labor of producing the recipe, taking the photos, and ultimately, creating the content that makes the website tick. Hosting something that other people can anonymously comment on is brutal and often thankless. The essay system allows many websites to keep running even if they’re very small. Recipe bloggers are asking for your time in exchange for free access to a quality recipe, instead of money, like cookbooks would.
Surely, viewers are adaptable enough to understand that, right? Most people are reasonable enough to wait or scroll for content they value… right?
Unfortunately, the end consumer doesn’t know the quality of the recipe before they invest this effort to get to it. It might have five stars, but only produces two servings when four are needed, or it might have five stars, but all the comments noted that ‘it fell apart, but it would be great if it had eggs!’ So it is frustrating to wait for the ads to load, wait for the page text to load, sit there as the auto-play video buffers so you can close it before it makes noise, scroll down so the recipe itself loads, wait as the screen jerks around because the top bar ad still had to load… it feels agonizing to wait for something when Google made it seem so easy and just scraped the ingredients for the slug.
It’s even worse if you don’t know how long it will take for it to finish – unpredictable waiting times make consumers angry!
More Engagement = More Ad Revenue – No Matter the Quality
Try to assume the worst of the recipe blogger, for a second. Assume the story’s obviously made up, or irrelevant to the final recipe. Assume it’s poorly written, and the narrative style doesn’t capture your attention. You only notice this if you’re actually reading these things or if the website sucks so badly you can’t jump to the recipe. Both of these scenarios mean you’re interacting with the site. The motivation to make the site better and shorter is merely “pleasant feelings from consumers”, but the motivation to keep it as-is would be ad money. If it’s what’s called a ‘click-farm’, then they don’t even care about consumer feelings. Click-farms don’t care about anything but views, they don’t care how many users hate the site, they avoid optimizing on purpose because you stay longer.
You’re more likely to click an ad, accidentally or not, if the website’s laggy, jumpy, or slow. You blame your frustration on that essay, because it’s the only thing you can still see when the site’s lagging, and it’s all totally pointless to you. (My conspiracy theory is that those auto-play videos aren’t meant to actually play a video, they’re there to slow you down. I have no proof of this. Don’t quote me.)
Bad recipe websites make users less tolerant of the ones that don’t make users suffer like this. And it’s not about the essay, it’s about formatting!
Determining a recipe’s worth has become harder because of this essay/ad space system, and frustration caused by poorly optimized websites is now transferred to the website’s format, which is a different thing entirely. Furthermore, click-farm websites exploiting the format get mixed in with the real sites ran by real people, but the end user can’t tell which is which. Recipe websites didn’t used to be like this, and many still remember the good old days. In fact, the good old days are still here, but because so many people are using mobile phones instead of desktop, this essay issue feels more prevalent than it actually is.
You’ll probably stay unless the website is atrocious – and they know that
I don’t find myself often visiting the same site twice; when I’m looking for a recipe, I usually already know what I want to make, and I’m just looking for a recipe to facilitate that. I, like many people, don’t follow these recipe blogs for ideas. There’re so many websites following the same format that they’re all more or less interchangeable. So it would make sense for a good website to try and outcompete the others by optimizing better, right?
That’s the trick, that website has to show up in the results first for that strategy to be effective. But if they’re new (and if they’re one of the millions of sites with a blueberry muffin recipe) they’ll get sorted to the bottom, and the top sites all follow the winning format because the winning format can pay for their ads. The newbies then have to optimize for the limited number of visitors to their website, which – you guessed it – means following the winning strategy. Increased funding means they can now pay for advertising campaigns, and now they’re one of the horde.
Besides, If I click on a website and realize it’s terrible, I’m still going to wait for it to finish loading. I don’t know if the other websites with similar recipes are going to have the same loading time, so I’m not saving any time if I risk it and find out the second result from the top is also poorly optimized. They’re all playing chicken, and they know that aside from standouts like Allrecipes and other crowd-sourced sites, you really don’t have another option. You won’t leave unless the website’s truly, truly horrible.
Personality books and TV – Hope
This whole event is so frustrating that cookbooks have come back into fashion, but with online personalities instead of TV ones. Binging with Babish, Sohla El-Waylly, Claire Saffitz – you might not know these people, but they have a big enough following on Youtube to create and sell their own recipe books.
I know these names because they got big – and because they broke through the format that haunts these smaller recipe bloggers. Therefore, I don’t worry that Babish’s website is going to suck because I enjoy his content, and I know the quality is going to be there. I know Sohla is an expert in her field, and I know the recipes she films have worked for me in the past, so I know the cookbook’s going to be decent at minimum. I don’t know that for these recipe bloggers. I’m interested in what Claire has to say about technique, because she went to school for it, and she tells her viewers where these techniques came from. Recipe bloggers screw up techniques (or oversimplify them) all the time, so trusting one feels more dangerous than it should feel.