February 13, 2011
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Consolidated Bad Ideas

At the Atlantic, Timbuk2’s Lizzy Bennett likes asks, "Can Social Make Kids (Want to) Cook?" She’s finishing a week of fascinating posts about American manufacturing, and here ties Foodily – a social-software-enabled recipe aggregator – to her interest in Facebook and Twitter as a source of good ideas.

Foodily aggregates lots of recipes and makes it easy to vote for the ones you like. It’s a nice idea. But I think it’s probably hopeless. Because so many of their recipes, it seems, are drawn from link farms and SEO plays, you’re asking lots of people (some self-interested, some idiotic) to choose the best of a bad lot.

Take my first course last night: cream of broccoli soup. I made mine in what I believe to be the standard manner: make roux. sweat onions, add stock, simmer, add vegetable, purée, season with salt and lemon juice, add cream, crème fraiche, and garnish.

Now, what does Foodily suggest? 181 recipes! The first has no roux and is thickened with lots of cream and a ton of cheese. The second isn’t thickened at all. The third is plenty thick since it involves Velveeta, canned mushroom soup, milk, and frozen broccoli. A little further down we’re combining condensed milk, cream cheese, Velveeta, and more frozen broccoli. Another poaches the broccoli in bouillon powder.

There are three recipes for the Aviation cocktail. All three are wrong, omitting the crème de violette that give the Aviation is color and its name.

Consider picadillo: what chillis should we use? The top recipe suggests 1/2tsp of ground chipotle per pound of meat. Right pepper, but wrong form and far too little. The second has no pepper at all. The next calls for one twelth of a teaspoon of “hot sauce”. The next, 2T “chilli powder”. So we have to sort all the way down to the fifth recipe before anyone suggests that cooking some peppers would be a good place to start.

What’s going on here? We’ve got a bunch of sites like Cooks.com and AllRecipes.com that shovel thousands of “recipes” together. They game Google to land at the top of the search listings, which lets them sell ads. The advertisers don’t really care if the recipe is any good. Nor does the aggregator; as long as Google and Foodily send traffic, who cares if the recipe is any good?

Google is now nearly useless for recipes. I understand other consumer segments are nearly as bad. Social filtering like Foodily might in principle help, but only if the database begins at a point where good information can be found. There seems to be so much bad information in Foodily, I can’t imagine those social voters will stick around long enough to find the needles in their haystack.

Update: David Segal in New York Times has a good, if unremarkable, article about link farms. John Battelle points out that the culprit of the article, J. C. Penney, is a big Google advertiser, giving Google a good reason to look the other way. Everyone implausibly denies knowing anything about this link farming operation, and the Times, oddly, takes their word for it. Tim Bray picks out Segal’s best passage:

...the landscape of the Internet ... starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.