Show me the damn recipe: The SEO of cooking

Originally published on Medium

How copyright law, search algorithms, and digital advertising models stand in the way of the simple recipe you are looking for

Casserole photo courtesy Jonathan Pielmayer via UnsplashCasserole photo courtesy Jonathan Pielmayer via Unsplash

It’s Thanksgiving morning, and all you want is an easy casserole recipe for turkey day dinner. You search for recipes, see an appetizing thumbnail, and dive in:

The year was 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen. When I was but a small child living in the shadow of the Iron Curtain, my grandmother taught me that a can-do attitude and a generous spirit of hospitality will take you far. I remember the warm crackle of the radio tuned to WDR 2 as 99 Luftballons flittered through the speakers. [Five paragraphs, three autoplay videos, two Sur La Table banner ads, and one (1) “Subscribe to our newsletter!” pop-up later] Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall, and you and your guests will be dying to tear into this casserole!

Where is the damn recipe? Why is the ingredients list always the last thing at the bottom of the page? Did you really need to know about the blood feud between the grandmother and her cousins twice-removed?

Why does it have to be this way?

Insufferably long recipe blogs exist because of three underlying factors: copyright law, search engine optimization, and digital ad revenue.

Copyright law

The legal story starts with Dannon yogurt. Before getting into search traffic or ad revenue, food bloggers need to cover their legal bases first.

When Meredith Corp. found that another publisher they were fighting in court had lifted recipes from the Meredith-published “Discover Dannon – 50 Fabulous Recipes With Yogurt,” they counter-sued, winning a preliminary injunction from the district court. However, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had a different view.

In Publications International, Limited v. Meredith Corporation (1996), the Circuit court determined that recipes themselves aren’t copyrightable insofar as they as procedural “statements of fact.”

At the same time, *Publications *established a basis for copyright protection “where a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression” or “expressive elaboration.” In other words, recipes with fluff on top.

The Seventh Circuit went as far as to specifically suggest “musings about the spiritual nature of cooking or reminiscences they associate with the wafting odors of certain dishes in various stages of preparation” as copyright-protectable.

The Circuit court, writing in 1996, predicted the future of the food blogosphere with great prescience.

Further cases Lambing v. Godiva Chocolatier (1998) and Barbour v. Head (2001), a case where recipes from Texas-themed cookbook “Cowboy Chow” were published almost verbatim without the plaintiff’s consent, cited and reaffirmed the ruling from Publications.

Search engine optimization (SEO)

According to Google’s SEO guidelines, “appreciably similar” content to that of other webpages will degrade your content’s searchability. “Google tries hard to index and show pages with distinct information,” the guidelines state.

In other words, Google wants to provide users unique, diverse search results. Since there are only so many ways to make a casserole, Google will filter out and consolidate such “appreciably similar” or duplicated content across webpages deemed too similar to each other.

Because SEO translates into more traffic translates into more ad revenue, standing out becomes imperative in an already super-competitive search space.

Search algorithms and the law both agree that the literal recipes themselves are not original content, but are just lists of ingredients combined in a certain way–mere “statements of fact,” per *Publications–*that don’t warrant special treatment.

Other SEO factors come into play as well:

  • According to HubSpot, the ideal blog post length for SEO should be 2,100–2,400 words. How else to stretch out an article but with a winding, long-spun childhood story?

  • With richer search engine results pages (SERPs), search engine widgets such as featured snippet boxes that precede organic results further amplify consolidation of search result traffic to the top results. Food blogs must doubly work to be on the right side of the search traffic power law distribution.

  • Users make one billion voice searches each month, predominantly from mobile. Again, loading up an article with enough context and target keywords will enable good SEO to capture traffic that is considerably more focused with voice search compared to a desktop browser search.

Digital advertising revenue

With copyright squared away and a stream of traffic coming in, how do food bloggers actually make money?

Food bloggers have various income streams, chief among them ad revenue. These main revenue sources all require a steady stream of raw search and readership traffic:

  • Digital ad revenue: Income from ads is often measured as a function of traffic volume and RPM (revenue per thousand impressions i.e. when a reader loads and sees an ad). Mediavine, AdThrive, and Google AdSense are popular ad networks among food bloggers, paying out anywhere from pennies on the dollars to $15+ per 1,000 impressions.

  • Sponsored content: Food blogs occupying a valuable niche with targeted audiences will attract sponsors willing to pay top dollar to get their brand in front of captive readers in an authentic manner. Sponsored posts tend to net in the four figures for food blogs with large enough followings.

  • Affiliate marketing: Food bloggers make commission on referral links to partner brands, getting a cut of purchases (rates ranging on average from 5–30%) made by referred customers.

Monthly income statement for a very popular food blogger (courtesy Financial Samurai)Monthly income statement for a very popular food blogger (courtesy Financial Samurai)

If a blogger wants to increase ad revenue, then they’ll want more page view traffic, better clickthrough rates, more lucrative RPM/CPC, and more opportunities to place ad content.

The longer the preamble leading up to the actual content readers want (the recipe and ingredients), the more digital real estate you pave for serving more revenue-generating ads.

Food blogs are businesses too

It’s all too easy to complain about the time and friction it takes to furiously scroll down to the actual recipe at the bottom of an article. There are of course many valid criticisms of the advertising-driven machinery of the internet economy and the chaotic web browsing experiences they enable that are not within the scope of this article or my limited comprehension of them.

But let’s have some empathy toward food bloggers and recognize that they are serving us free recipes that require investment on their part to create. They juggle fixed time costs per recipe: recipe experimentation and writing, time shopping for ingredients, photography and editing, the actual cooking with prep and cleanup. Running a business, food bloggers must pay for web hosting, email marketing automation, equipment and cookware, and services such as food photography or video editing.

When we humor their long tangentially-related stories, we sustain food bloggers’ business models built off ad-supported free content. If paying for an ad-free experience appeals to you, that’s what buying a literal cookbook or a subscription to NYT Cooking is for. Additionally, tools such as RecipeFilter or Saffron make it a little easier to cut straight to the recipe.

Happy Thanksgiving, happy cooking, and happy feasting. You will have taken the little extra time to scroll down to find the recipe, maybe half-enjoying some unnecessary anecdote along the way, and in no time have a warm casserole out of the oven and onto the dinner table. Enjoy.