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Cooking with Google
April 1, 2011 10:09 AM   Subscribe

"The more Google's scientists refine search algorithms, the more they manipulate the results, even unconsciously. When you search Google for a recipe now, you get steered towards something with low calories that can be made quickly". An interesting post about how Google's search results can be seen as "promot[ing] a cooking culture focused on speed and diets. "
posted by hepta (98 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
well, this is an odd rant.

While the technical aspects of it are, as far as I can tell, accurate, the conclusions he jumps to are more or less completely unwarranted.

Here's what he's demonstrating:
  • Google is identifying recipes based on metadata in the form of microformats.
  • Google is also letting people narrow search results based on how long a recipe takes to prepare or how many calories (presumably each portion) is. Presumably this is also coming from metadata.
  • The specs for those formats are complex and difficult for amateurs to master.
Here's teh conclusion he draws: Google is in bed with the diet industry -- or, Google is on the "wrong side" in the "food war" (whatever the hell that is*).

--
*I'm actually well aware of a few things that are called "food wars" -- one is between "foodies" and "regular people", one is between "hedonists" and people who prefer to eat sane portions, one is between people who have certain ideas about what constitutes sustainable food and those who don't, and on and on. This appears to be about the "hedonists" vs. everyone else.
posted by lodurr at 10:22 AM on April 1, 2011


Those people really do not fully seem to understand how a search engine works. I know Nick Carr is a technology writer, but he's also a bit of a troll. I fail to see how Google is steering people into lower calorie options or promoting a cooking culture focused on speed and diets.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:22 AM on April 1, 2011


Lamb NEAR (("coconut milk" OR butter OR lard) AND (cilantro OR chile OR habanero OR turmeric) AND NOT ("rachel ray" OR nonfat)). Altavista, how I miss you.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:27 AM on April 1, 2011 [15 favorites]


In his 2005 blog essay titled "The Amorality of Web 2.0," he criticized the quality of volunteer Web 2.0 information projects such as Wikipedia and the blogosphere and argued that they may have a net negative effect on society by displacing more expensive professional alternatives

He's got a bit of a history when it comes to making controversial, sweeping generalizations about technology...
posted by SweetJesus at 10:28 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The linked article mentions a format that Google expects recipes to be in. Some enterprising developer could write a tool to help enter recipes in this format (or perhaps there are generalized blogging tools that help people enter data in microformats of their choice?). The point is that the first part of his complaint really could be automated away.
posted by Jpfed at 10:29 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll make sure to stay off of this guy's lawn in the future.
posted by euphorb at 10:29 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's hard for me to get too worked up about this. I google recipes all the time and wasn't even aware the 'recipes' category existed. Last night I sent a friend bread recipes (that had been reposted on random blogs) from Mark Bittman, the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and the Cook's Illustrated Baking book. These were recipes I'd used in real life, from paper cookbooks on my shelf... but I found all three specific recipes in just a couple minutes. Why bother using the 'recipe' category at all if it's that easy just to type crap into Chrome's address bar and find literally anything you can think of?
posted by Erroneous at 10:30 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I search google for cassoulet, I get the traditional long-form recipes. There isn't any discernible bias toward anything low-cal, at least not until I chose options asking for low-cal.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:30 AM on April 1, 2011


More than a little bit of "looking for conspiracy wherever possible" here.
Here's a thought: search results tend to return what people are (a) linking against because they like it/find it useful/bookmark for later and (b) results that people click more that appear to be what they after tend to get pushed higher up. It's all self-reinforcing. No mystery man pushing healthy lifestyle choices (shock! horror! liberal!) on the poor quivering public.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2011


April 1st?
posted by Artw at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Food bloggers aren't the intended audience of the xml code instructions. That's the sort of thing that people write plugins for so you don't need to deal with it.
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


In fact, after a very little searching, here one such tool is.
posted by Jpfed at 10:32 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was going ask jokingly if there was a recipeML, turns out there is.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:36 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shocking surprise this. What you appear to get for free actually comes with strings. It seems pretty clear that endless drive for growth and profits will entice Google - a greedy for profit enterprise - to return the search results Google profits from which may or may not be the results users want to receive. Like Wikipedia, Google's results will at best be indicative, but hardly authoritative.

What is the adage? You get what you pay for. One will have to wait for those services you actually pay for in order to get what one wants.
posted by three blind mice at 10:37 AM on April 1, 2011


Yeah, I use Google to find recipes all the time, but have only today, reading this article, heard of the "recipe" feature. I've never had any problems finding anything I'm looking for (and I do use 4-6 physical cookbooks regularly). And I don't feel I've ever been steered toward low calorie or quick-to-make recipes.

I think this author is more looking for something to complain about than complaining about something.
posted by hippybear at 10:37 AM on April 1, 2011


Some guy's blog called "AmazingRibs" ranks #1 for the search term "ribs" and this is evidence that Google is unconsciously biased against the little guy?

And it added a "Recipe" button to the list of specialized search options that run down the left side of its search results pages. And it allowed searchers to refine results by ingredient, calories, or cooking time.

Two observations on that...

1) If those things are what people care about, it is not surprising that Google would help people find things based on those criteria. It's not Google's job to tell people what they should or shouldn't care about.

2) If Google takes what sites say about calories, cooking time etc at face value, that it going to be wide open for gaming and a recipe for disaster.
posted by philipy at 10:38 AM on April 1, 2011


My biased view of the code sample is that it's not actually very complicated -- and Google being Google, they'd probably pick up stuff that meets a subset of the implied requirements. A half hour's work with Views in Drupal and I could pretty easily produce a feed of recipes that would satisfy Google and I am a very (metaphorically) little guy.
posted by lodurr at 10:41 AM on April 1, 2011


When I search google for cassoulet, I get the traditional long-form recipes.

Click "recipes" in the sidebar. Suddenly all the recipes are 50% shittier and from the same few usual suspects, because they're the only ones who have adopted the recipe microformat. Carr isn't talking about ordinary Google Web search.

Not having seen this "microformat" nonsense before, I'm more amazed at the non-food-specific aspects: it seems like some wing of Google has been taken over by undercover long-march Semantic Web agents, much to its detriment. It ought to be obvious to any remaining sane people who care about search at Google that rewarding content in arbitrary "microformats" is a formula for fast-track SEO crappification of their search results, because SEO dicks are the only people who spend time mastering arbitrary Google-rewarded formats. The people who, instead, concentrate on putting good new stuff on the Web are the ones the search engine should be rewarding. Carr is right about this.
posted by RogerB at 10:41 AM on April 1, 2011 [14 favorites]


... as for the amorality of web 2.0, I think he needs to look up the word 'amoral'. He seems to be arguing something rather different.
posted by lodurr at 10:43 AM on April 1, 2011


Not having seen this "microformat" nonsense before, I'm more amazed at the non-food-specific aspects: it seems like some wing of Google has been taken over by undercover long-march Semantic Web agents, much to its detriment

It's a standard for structured information and promotes interoperability. There's no dark conspiracy.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:46 AM on April 1, 2011


And apparently Google has only been supporting the recipe microformat for about a month.
posted by SweetJesus at 10:48 AM on April 1, 2011


I've found google to be not super useful for recipes thanks to all of the SEO shenanigans. Half the time I end up just using Epicurious or my copy of Joy of Cooking instead. Recipe source is handy, but I like my recipe edited, y'know?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:49 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


SEO dicks are the only people who spend time mastering arbitrary Google-rewarded formats

The SEO dicks jumping on the bandwagon is your motivation to get with the program, adopt the same format and beat them with real content. The system works.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:51 AM on April 1, 2011


Some guy's blog called "AmazingRibs" ranks #1 for the search term "ribs" and this is evidence that Google is unconsciously biased against the little guy?

If you'd read all of the article, you might have known what you were talking about.

It's not the ordinary web search, it's the recipe search.
posted by kenko at 10:53 AM on April 1, 2011


I haven't found any unusual recipe search results. I just made Curried Chicken and Nexus S and it was delicious!
posted by orme at 10:54 AM on April 1, 2011


Ug, this is infuriating. Google needs to back off. Unfortunately, every instinct that drives google is pushing them forwards to even greater absurdities.
posted by kuatto at 10:54 AM on April 1, 2011


The system works.

Well, if by "works," you mean "rewards people with expertise in system mechanics over those with expertise in the subject matter," sure.

Like most large systems.
posted by tyllwin at 10:55 AM on April 1, 2011


The SEO dicks jumping on the bandwagon is your motivation to get with the program, adopt the same format and beat them with real content. The system works.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.
posted by kuatto at 10:56 AM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's a standard for structured information and promotes interoperability. There's no dark conspiracy.

The agenda of the "conspiracy" to which I was alluding (though you might want to recalibrate your joke-dar) is, in fact, exactly this: the idea that the Web is a place for standardized, structured information rather than free unstructured text that people write. Rewarding structured formats for something like recipes, where millions of ordinary people will never spend the time to master the format, inherently biases the search results in favor of big players. It's a little sad that the commercialization of the Web has progressed so far that people don't even notice little creeping steps away from egalitarianism anymore.

The SEO dicks jumping on the bandwagon is your motivation to get with the program

It doesn't matter if I learn the microformat and post all my new recipes in the proper way. There are still hundreds of millions of other people who won't (and millions of recipes already on the Web that won't be reformatted, because the format wasn't available for the last decade), and some of them might help my cooking way more than the Food Network's chef of the week.
posted by RogerB at 10:57 AM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you'd read all of the article, you might have known what you were talking about.

Clearly he did read it, or he wouldn't have the example to cite.

And the fact that it wasn't ordinary search was kind of the point. Carr's painting with a broad, technophobic brush.

Sometimes I think Nick Carr is an agent provacateur because he might have interesting points to make if he didn't insist on making them so broadly and insultingly.
posted by lodurr at 10:58 AM on April 1, 2011


RogerD, it sounds like you're trying to structure the web as an unstructured space.

That strikes me as a little prescriptive.
posted by lodurr at 10:59 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


RogerB, if the little guy is using a blogging platform, then they can just use a plugin. If they're hand-crafting HTML anyway, it's really not hard to conform to the proper format.
posted by Jpfed at 11:01 AM on April 1, 2011


Google’s mission is to organize the
world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Or, get big enough to get people to do that for them. Rather than advancing computers to become increasingly adept at interpreting data the way a human can, they are getting humans to format ideas in a way that computers can recognize. Sort of disappointing.
posted by snofoam at 11:04 AM on April 1, 2011


The people who, instead, concentrate on putting good new stuff on the Web are the ones the search engine should be rewarding. Carr is right about this.

Yeah, and how exactly do you go about doing that? You act like it's a solved problem, or something that's trivial to do. "Oh, why doesn't Google just give them the good results". The fact is that the reason SEO is so successful is that the good ones, for all piratical purposes, have reverse engineered the PageRank algorithm. They can get to the top of the results precisely because they know how to game the algorithm. Every time Google tweaks PageRank, the SEO world takes a few days to ingest the changes and make modifications to their models.

With any sufficiently complex system there will always be a subset of people who will be able to game the system. It happened prior to Google in search with people spamming tags with bullshit meta-tag keywords to increase their search rank. It will happen with whatever comes after Google. But the fact is that Google is pretty reactive when it comes to confronting SEO abuse, and tweaks it's algorithm fairly frequently.

Rewarding structured formats for something like recipes, where millions of ordinary people will never spend the time to master the format, inherently biases the search results in favor of big players.

No, it rewards the technically competent. It rewards those who speak the langauge. There is nothing stopping me, a little guy, from writing some XML that fits the microformat standard. Just because you don't understand it, doesn't mean everyone doesn't.

There are still hundreds of millions of other people who won't (and millions of recipes already on the Web that won't be reformatted, because the format wasn't available for the last decade), and some of them might help my cooking way more than the Food Network's chef of the week.

Great, and they can search Google for recipes the way the vast majority of people already do, by just typing it in the search box.

Rather than advancing computers to become increasingly adept at interpreting data the way a human can, they are getting humans to format ideas in a way that computers can recognize.

Open up a Microsoft Word Document in Windows notepad and see if you can understand the results. Now open up the same Word document in Word and see if you can understand it. Computers can structure data in ways both human and machine readable through the use of software.
posted by SweetJesus at 11:07 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not Google that's changing our behavior, it's us, in conjunction with the medium.

Google has an effect, for sure. But they respond to us, to our behavior, at least as much as we respond to theirs.

Change happens. The lawn dies and gets replaced by weeds. Well, some of those weeds are tasty or have medicinal properties or use less water or promote the growth of helpful insects, or etc. To stretch a metaphor.

As for the notion that Google is suppressing useful information by promoting microformats -- I'm a pretty technopessimistic guy who's been building websites for a living since 1997, and I'm just not seeing it.
posted by lodurr at 11:09 AM on April 1, 2011


There is not a shortage of recipes online. If this becomes popular, plugins will be made, and more crucially Google can do things in the future such as 'show me recipes for what is in my fridge' based on NFC. This may or may not be something you want, but the crucial point is that it's harder to evaluate the use cases for structured data because they have not currently been explored on a large scale.

Separately from the broader point, what is wrong with this suggestion: search as normal for all recipes, search recipes for the curated/more organised/content farm recipes. It isn't rocket science (this may or may not be a food pun). If you feel that the recipe option doesn't work best for you, then feel free to use the free text search.
posted by jaduncan at 11:10 AM on April 1, 2011


I agree with RogerB about the mechanics of the problem. However, search engines just do not understand human content. Go ahead and do a search on Google Web for a certain product. Locate a bunch of web pages which actually sell said item for a listed amount of money. Now, go back and look at Google Shopping. Many of the pages you, a human, found simply are not present.

This is because the search engine just does not "get" that pages 2, 4, and 7 are actual product pages. It failed to connect the dots. Maybe the page's HTML was weird, widely separating the product from the price. Maybe there was some kind of AJAX-y deal which dropped the price into place. We don't know. Search engines do not see pages with human eyes and they do not understand what they see.

This isn't a preference on Google-the-Corporation's part. They would dearly love to have all prices for all things available, oh yes.

As annoying as the Semantic Web people are, they are correct in that microformats are good for machines to really "get" the content of a small block of text in the page, transforming this endless string of byte-like objects (thank you, Unicode) into little blocks of data. Oh, calories. Oh, preptime. (The search engine does not understand what a calorie is but does know it ought to be looking for C-A-L-O-R-I-E-S). Google's algorithms just aren't good enough to really digest a page and understand that recipe, so the search engine simply cannot offer results like "Yeah, okay, so this gal whose grandson set her up with a blog has this amazing fast recipe that is very low cal, check it out" because it does not grok Grandma's recipe. Google-the-Corporation would love to get there, believe me.

Are the humans putting the original information in catalog librarians and metadata specialists or do they just want to whip something out to share with the fam? Will the search engine come to the people or will the people come to the search engine? That is the battle between The Web As Structured and therefore transformable Information and The Web As a Bunch of Text and Images of Cats.
posted by adipocere at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would these champions for the little guy be railing against big brother imposing standard measurements if we didn't have those already?
posted by Space Coyote at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2011


Pointed out in the comments, Carr talks about the decline of small web publishers and links to a Huffington Post article instead of what seems to be the original on Amazingribs.com.
posted by AceRock at 11:17 AM on April 1, 2011


Lamb NEAR (("coconut milk" OR butter OR lard) AND (cilantro OR chile OR habanero OR turmeric) AND NOT ("rachel ray" OR nonfat))

Lamb (("coconut milk"|butter|lard)&(cilantro|chile|habanero|turmeric)) -"rachel ray" -nonfat

I mean it's not altavista, but you can do that query
posted by thetruthisjustalie at 11:18 AM on April 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


damn you, now i'm hungry.
posted by lodurr at 11:20 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Oh, why doesn't Google just give them the good results".

Google is introducing the +1 button next to search results, they are also set to introduce a facebook style +1 button to put on web pages. Tied to a google account, hopefully they will have an easier time preventing SEO games and linkfarms +1ing eachother.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:21 AM on April 1, 2011


The only thing worse than food recipe search results are drink recipe search results.

Really, there, the content farms are just winning flat out.
posted by klangklangston at 11:23 AM on April 1, 2011


Gah, that used to be one of the Internets core competencies.
posted by Artw at 11:28 AM on April 1, 2011


You act like it's a solved problem, or something that's trivial to do.

You're misunderstanding me. My concern is not that search engines' rewarding good content is simple and Google is acting out of malice, but that Google appears to be losing track, in cases like this, of a formerly universally acknowledged goal. But I think this is the real root of the problem:

No, it rewards the technically competent. It rewards those who speak the langauge. There is nothing stopping me, a little guy, from writing some XML that fits the microformat standard. Just because you don't understand it, doesn't mean everyone doesn't.

You're stating exactly what Google's engineers and Semantic Web-pushers more generally seem to think, but it's a ridiculously engineer-centric, inegalitarian worldview/Web-view. Just because you (or I, and please ratchet down your condescension, I have a CS degree too) can learn arbitrary XML formats and might even enjoy dinking with them doesn't mean that's a reasonable standard for the entire Web. Even Web forms like the WP plugin above are an unreasonable degree of complexity to ask of ordinary people, many of whom will just ignore them and enter recipes as free text; there is no way around this. Free unstructured text is, by comparison, egalitarian. If ordinary folks' plain text recipes are penalized in Google searches while those with tech/SEO savvy and/or the money to hire the tech/SEO-savvy, the Web becomes a less level playing field, and as a consequence, a less interesting place.
posted by RogerB at 11:29 AM on April 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Thetruthisjustalie, I have used Google's advanced search features (although to their credit I usually don't have to), and that comment was intended to be a bit tongue in cheek.

However, Google has never had an equivalent for either a NEAR keyword or * wildcard search. They brought a lot of other cool things to the table with page rank, but there are rare occasions where they fail repeatedly and spectacularly. It's especially hard sometimes to tease out a specific unpopular subset when a lot of the terminology overlaps with something much more popular, as to some extent the - operator seems to not always work. I really wish that AltaVista had kept up their indexing enough to stay at least barely competitive as an alternative search provider, because once in a thousand queries I do miss them.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:32 AM on April 1, 2011


Clearly he did read it, or he wouldn't have the example to cite.

If you'd read all of my comment, you'd have seen that I said "all of the article", not just "the article".
posted by kenko at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2011


BrotherCaine, you can sort of get a NEAR with the * operator used as a binary operator. See here.

But you know what beats the hell out of that? AROUND(n), where n is a number of words.

Yeah, like gathered AROUND(3) masses. It works.

Just like witches at Black Massesssszzzzzzzz DUN DUN!
posted by adipocere at 11:41 AM on April 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


If you'd read all of my comment, you'd have seen that I said "all of the article", not just "the article".

If you weren't intent on scoring points rather than making arguments, you wouldn't have used the phrase in the first place.
posted by lodurr at 11:42 AM on April 1, 2011


I guess in this specific case I come down on favoring the recipe functionality as long as they don't use the information from that to adjust the general search rankings. Like if an address bar search for cassoulet started to return "Rachel Ray's easy fat free cassoulet: mix a bowl of microwavable healthy choice chicken rice soup with two cans of cannelini beans, heat and serve" because a bunch of people clicked lowfat and easy on the recipe search, I'd probably die of apoplexy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:43 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Which phrase? "Read the article"? No, I used "read all the article" advisedly, because it seemed as if the original comment was written by someone who'd just read the very beginning of the article and hadn't bothered to see what the point of it actually was. Of course he read some of it.
posted by kenko at 11:44 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, are you telling me that you weren't trying to shame him by insinuating that he hadn't read all the article? Because if he had, it would be clear to him that what he said didn't make sense?

Even though what he said did, actually, make sense -- but just didn't happen to support your view on the subject?
posted by lodurr at 11:47 AM on April 1, 2011


lodurr: "So, are you telling me that you weren't trying to shame him by insinuating that he hadn't read all the article? Because if he had, it would be clear to him that what he said didn't make sense?

Even though what he said did, actually, make sense -- but just didn't happen to support your view on the subject
"

What he said was: "Some guy's blog called "AmazingRibs" ranks #1 for the search term "ribs" and this is evidence that Google is unconsciously biased against the little guy?"

This doesn't actually make sense -- the article was citing ribs/amazingribs.com as evidence that Google used to (or still, in the standard non-recipe) not be biased against the little guy. He deserved the attempting shaming.
posted by Perplexity at 11:54 AM on April 1, 2011


Is it possible to take the he-said she-said to somewhere else?

If ordinary folks' plain text recipes are penalized in Google searches while those with tech/SEO savvy and/or the money to hire the tech/SEO-savvy, the Web becomes a less level playing field, and as a consequence, a less interesting place.

I don't think there has ever been a time in which search results did not favor the savvy, and in general I'd have a hard time imagining an alternative. If recipes were inferred from plain text, the savvy would still have a leg up, because the inference would be fuzzy by necessity, and the SEO savvy could format their recipes to hit the sweet spots in that fuzzy inference. By making the formats explicit and publishing them, they are shifting the balance of power away from the reverse engineers to anyone who can adhere to the format, whether by manually coding it or by using a plugin.
posted by Jpfed at 11:58 AM on April 1, 2011


If you'd read all of my comment, you'd have seen that I said "all of the article", not just "the article".

If you weren't intent on scoring points rather than making arguments, you wouldn't have used the phrase in the first place.

He deserved the attempting shaming.

Just an observation, but you guys are getting a little bit wrapped up in the details of who is wrong on the internet here. The article is about searching for recipes. It's okay to disagree.
posted by Roger Dodger at 11:58 AM on April 1, 2011


First: Shaming is intellectually dishonest as a debate tool.

Second: You, like kenko, are missing the point. The point is that there's not really a problem, because the guy is doing great on natural search results. It's only the category results that are "skewed", and the category results are "skewed" because it's not a natural search.

Jesus fucking christ. Really, "deserved the attempting shaming"? Really? Seriously?
posted by lodurr at 11:58 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


klang: The only thing worse than food recipe search results are drink recipe search results.


Google should just buy extratasty and be done with it.
posted by mullingitover at 12:00 PM on April 1, 2011


The more salient point is that these new recipe search results reflect the way people eat now, and as such reinforce how we continue to look at food: boring corporate sponsored recipe focused on brands, cooking time and nutritional value.

I think Carr touches upon something important there, and it's bigger than "food wars" or Epicurious vs. the ribs guy. There's a standardization, even an equalization of culture taking place in the new information age, and Google has decided to play an active role in it. It's undermining Internet Neutrality, not through legislation, but through SEO requirements.
posted by monospace at 12:03 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


monospace- I'm not sure how you're interpreting the phrase Internet Neutrality; could you please expand on that?
posted by Jpfed at 12:05 PM on April 1, 2011


I guess I'm just glad I didn't know that "Recipes" button was there, and always include the names of one or two sites whose recipes I like in my query string...

Really, is this an actual "Issue"?

(FWIW, I'm a designer, not a programmer, and I think the Google Recipe XML you have to add is easy enough to comprehend if have at least a basically knowledge of dealing with web-based content. Worst case, you cut and paste... what's the actual PROBLEM here?)
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 12:07 PM on April 1, 2011


It's undermining Internet Neutrality,

Net Neutrality doesn't mean what you think it means.
posted by empath at 12:09 PM on April 1, 2011


...promoting a cooking culture focused on speed and diets.

"Cooking with Meth"
posted by mmrtnt at 12:13 PM on April 1, 2011


When Google sets up "rules" for certain search categories (be they recipes, guitar tabs, poetry, or what have you) it will make finding information that doesn't adhere to those rules harder to find. It's just as effective as setting up a pricing scheme for different parts of the Internet, but won't cause that much outcry.
posted by monospace at 12:14 PM on April 1, 2011


I disagree that it makes things harder to find. The regular web search turns up those results just fine. They are just introducing a new format and functionality to take advantage of that format. It won't be useful until it is widely adopted. If it is not widely adopted, it will go away.
posted by Roger Dodger at 12:18 PM on April 1, 2011


When Google sets up "rules" for certain search categories (be they recipes, guitar tabs, poetry, or what have you) it will make finding information that doesn't adhere to those rules harder to find.

It's a filter, like searching for 'filetype:mp3'

Which is optional to use.

And costs nothing to use or implement.

And Google has no incentive to push bad results.

And other search engines are free to not use it.
posted by empath at 12:20 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, FWIW, when I want to look up a recipe, the first thing I DO reach for is the The Joy of Cooking.
posted by Roger Dodger at 12:21 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


The point is not that more obscure results can still be found through regular search. What's happening is that Google is de facto creating a new category for recipe search, and many people will gravitate towards it simply because it's there. Give it time, and I'm pretty sure that at some point people will become distrustful of results for "cassoulet" that aren't listed on Google as a "recipe".
posted by monospace at 12:22 PM on April 1, 2011


So here's the thing. The technically proficient can learn the XML format which Google requires and embed recipes semantically within their web page. Google can find their recipes, they can style their recipes consistently – it's a win!

Now, you might say but my Aunt Betsy can't do that and she's a fantastic cook, and I say: so write or buy your Aunt Betsy a utility to do it for her. Since, you know, 2011 is still the easiest time in history to publish anything, I have a hard time feeling bad for people whose recipes won't show up in a Google recipe search because they can't be bothered to improve their page.
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:23 PM on April 1, 2011


I can't believe you are griping about formatted data in web pages. Jesus, why not skip all the html and css box model bullshit and instead publish images of pages. Then anyone can just write something in Word and take a screenshot. So democratizing!
posted by ryanrs at 12:43 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Google is de facto creating a new category for recipe search

They're not de facto anything, they're just plain creating it.

And as has been pointed out, you're free to not use it.

Given what I know about how people actually use Google search -- they just bloody type, often in complete sentences, screw the categories -- it's not going to make much of a difference.

Carr's looking at this as though Google has a strategy. They don't. Google just does stuff. This is one of many things they're just doing. They're also just doing AI and natural language recognition, and trying to identify the quality of resources by other factors besides the quality of their microformats. That's the reality; Carr's focused on what might be.
posted by lodurr at 12:50 PM on April 1, 2011


First: Shaming is intellectually dishonest as a debate tool.

I wasn't attempting to shame anyone. Jesus. I do not understand why this is exercising you so much. (Lest I get a tu quoque: I have been trying to clarify why I said what I did, initially, and irrelevant remarks are irritating.)
posted by kenko at 12:52 PM on April 1, 2011


You're both very pretty. Now shut up.
posted by ryanrs at 12:55 PM on April 1, 2011


Ok, maybe not shut up. But do take it to email, please.
posted by ryanrs at 12:57 PM on April 1, 2011


Originally celebrated for leveling the media playing field, the Web has come to re-tilt that field to the benefit of deep-pocketed corporations.

I believe this is his main point. When the web was chaotic and web companies were the outsiders, they celebrated the virtues of openness, access for all, empowering the amateur, rejecting all gatekeepers and walled gardens, etc. But giving special benefits to sites that have the time/knowledge/resources to mark up their recipes in Google's microformat is effectively a walled garden.

The populist rhetoric of individual liberation from elite gatekeeers is purely opportunistic, it's dropped as soon as it stops being profitable. Which is not to say that they won't continue to try to promote it where they think it will be useful to them. What's interesting to me is why this approach is applied to recipes specifically. Why not other types of searches? Google's model depends on large numbers of people who have been properly socialized into doing two things: creating large amounts of content for free; and filtering the good and the bad via linking. The obvious pre-web analog of this behavior is academic research, so it makes sense that this model works for people who have already adopted those norms, like the tech community. The motivation for creating and filtering content is to altruistically increase the commons of universal human knowledge, and this labor is expropriated by Google. The problem with recipes is that not enough people approach sharing recipes in this way, it's much more of a social, interpersonal behavior, and the conventional wisdom that "Google doesn't get social" fully applies here.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:58 PM on April 1, 2011


If you put a recipe up on your blog with the h2 headline "Recipe for [insert delicious name here]", and the recipe is cleanly formatted, has largely correct spelling, and specifies measures in a consistent way, then you have an excellent chance of competing with Food Network in the natural search results. Which is what most poeple use.

Also, given what I have seen from Google over the years, in 2 years time you'd probably also see that recipe in the Recipes category, microformat or not. I wouldn't bet money on it, but that's only because I never bet money. This business about the web going to all microformats -- it's just never, ever going to happen. Some people at Google want to use microformats because that's an easy way for someone, if they follow the rules, to ensure that their content is findable in the way they want it to be found.

This manic opposition to microformats on Carr's part strikes me as a pining for the days when you couldn't be sure of finding anything useful. So you want random serendipity -- bully for you. When I want that, I know how I can get it. When I want a decent recipe for something specific, I also know how I can get that, too -- and it's not likely to be by searching Google's Recipe category. But when I want 6 meters of 1mm nitinol wire, unpolished, with very specific properties, a little microformatting will be very helpful to me.
posted by lodurr at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wasn't attempting to shame anyone.

I'll say this and then leave it: Given that you were complaining about someone not reading the whole article and understanding it the way that you did, I find it ironic that you're responding to that remark as though it applied to you.
posted by lodurr at 1:03 PM on April 1, 2011


The populist rhetoric of individual liberation from elite gatekeeers is purely opportunistic, it's dropped as soon as it stops being profitable.

One of the things I find frustrating about Carr and others who say the kind of thing he's saying is that he's basically behaving like Inspector Renault. "I'm shocked, shocked I say, to learn that large corporations can benefit from disintermediation!"
posted by lodurr at 1:05 PM on April 1, 2011


The web was never the internet's wide open platform for the amateur. That was usenet, which really was a text-only free-for-all. In comparison, setting up a web site required buying a domain name, buying hosting, and learning several computer languages. These days you can skip most of these steps if you're just writing a simple blog. But the web has always been biased against the layman in favor of the technically adept experts.
posted by ryanrs at 1:09 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


C'mon, guys, could we knock off the back and forth?

Is it because you haven't eaten? You should eat. You look thin.
posted by klangklangston at 1:33 PM on April 1, 2011


One of the things I find frustrating about Carr and others who say the kind of thing he's saying is that he's basically behaving like Inspector Renault. "I'm shocked, shocked I say, to learn that large corporations can benefit from disintermediation!"

Sure, but normally the arguments for disintermediation are directed at consumers - prices are reduced, etc. But in the participatory model, the users are the producers, not the consumers, so disintermediation on the internet reduces the economic benefits of knowledge, exposing them to increased competition and so on, while at the same time, Google gains huge profits. This is essentially deprivatizing the commons, but selectively, only for individuals. Corporations still jealously control their IP. The interesting thing is that as soon as individuals try to make a profit, seizing the means of production for themselves, the quality of Google's search results declines, you end up with problems like SEO and content farms. This is because Google can only function if a link to another site represents an authentic positive evaluation of its content - if that link is corrupted by profit motives, it harms the system.

The Silicon Valley noise machine is so effective, that even people who are normally skeptical of corporate behavior end up policing each other, effectively insisting that only Google should be allowed to profit from the commons. This is what makes the usual anti-capitalist moralizing about greed profoundly ambiguous, it is used against those who are victims of greed, in yet another example of how most anti-capitalist discourse is not only ineffective, it actively drives profit for large corporations.

A perfect example: Andy Budd asks whether SEO practitioners are the equivalent of bankers. To me, this is a staggering accusation. Obviously, SEO does undermine the quality of Google's search results. The staggering part is the direct equivalence between Google, a massive corporation whose only goal is to make as much money as possible, with something like the SEC, an institution nominally tasked with protecting the common good. This is nothing other than a 21st century version of "What's good for GE is good for America."
posted by AlsoMike at 1:57 PM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


AlsoMike- I have to admit I'm having some trouble understanding your comment. It sounds as though you are trying to say that you predict some harm will result to either 1) people looking for recipes or 2) people attempting to publish recipes without the aid of SEO techniques.

Is this a correct representation of your viewpoint? If so, could you make it a little clearer what those harms are, who is enacting them, and why they might choose to do so? If not, is there a different concrete circumstance that you could give in which individuals are harmed?
posted by Jpfed at 2:21 PM on April 1, 2011


(Also, after reading the Andy Budd article, your interpretation of it seems profoundly uncharitable; the SEO/bankers analogy was supplemented with a Google/casino analogy. Obviously a casino is also in the business of making as much money as possible and not with protecting the common good.)
posted by Jpfed at 2:30 PM on April 1, 2011


See, I think a fundamental problem here is that a lot of people don't actually understand the idea behind microformats. Consider these two situations:
Hey, man, i got those numbers for you. We spent $1287.58 on the bid from Jenkins. There were competing bids for $1408 and $1911 from Rogers and Snide, respectively. The overall project came in around $5k, but i don't have the exact numbers on that. I do know the hardware was $2k.
versus:
Bids:
    Jenkins  $1288
    Rogers   $1408
    Snide    $1911

Hardware:    $2000 Est.
Overall:     $5000 Est.
One of these is structured data; one is a "document," but is not structured data. One is transparent and can be parsed easily; one is opaque to anything short of a full English parser. That's fine. Many things are intended only for human consumption. However, if you want to analyze, index, search, store, process, generate, style, or publish data, the structured data is completely superior.

In my daily job, I commonly deal with people who don't understand the document/data divide. This is a constant source of frustration. They repurpose form fields to their own ends, refuse to use any of the styling and structural features of Microsoft Word, print documents and then scan them in order to generate PDFs, etc., even after they have been given training to prevent these idiocies.

The fact is, data is one of the most valuable commodities of the current era, and respecting it is important. It is a skill. When Google publishes a microformat, it isn't so much evangelism or an imposition as it is an acknowledgment: "We are a data company. We deal in data, not in documents." A microformat is intended to present data as data and avoid trying to parse the ridiculously idiosyncratic morass of personal whim which governs web typesetting and design.

Tools exist to create data in the microformats. You don't even need to understand the format itself, or XML – you just need to purchase or download a tool to generate it. What's the problem? People who are willing to put a modicum of effort into a medium have always had an advantage over the terminally lazy.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:35 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


The best way to find good recipes on the Internet is not standard Google search, or Google Recipe search. The best way is Google Books search. Try "cassoulet" in Google Book search (this is a good one). Try "duck rillettes". Braised short ribs. "Lobster roll". Fuck an epicurious.
posted by AceRock at 3:01 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Eric Schmidt Tried To Get Google To Hide His Political Donation In Search Results [via]

Departing Google CEO Eric Schmidt was known for some of his bumbling public statements -- like saying that privacy didn't matter -- but apparently he made some internal blunders as well.

One of the biggest: asking Google's search team to remove information about a political donation from its search results.

According to a new book about Google by Steven Levy, Schmidt's request was shot down by Google exec Sheryl Sandberg, who is now COO of Facebook. The book was reviewed this morning by the New York Times, which got an advance copy.

The fact he would make such a request at all is pretty amazing -- especially since Google's lawyers have said that the company never promotes or eliminates particular sites from search results, even when trying to fight spam. Earlier this month, Google engineer Matt Cutts contradicted this stance, basically admitting that Google can use "whitelists" to exclude certain sites from changes to the algorithm.


Schmidt has a history of creepy comments:

"We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about... We can look at bad behavior and modify it."

As to what is defined by "bad behavior" to modify, Schmidt did not elaborate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:09 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well sonic meat machine you tend to illustrate the fallacy under which Google is laboring here. The fact is that culture is increasingly embedded within the medium of the internet. By virtue of an almost historical rupture, Google wields monopolistic, plutocratic power over the structure of the Internet. Now it could be that it is in everyone's interests for Google to streamline the collection of these kinds of cultural artifacts. Or it could only be in Google interests. You say:
They repurpose form fields to their own ends, refuse to use any of the styling and structural features of Microsoft Word, print documents and then scan them in order to generate PDFs, etc., even after they have been given training to prevent these idiocies.
What you term "idiocies" are, in a cultural context, freedoms to experiment and develop on individual terms. If Google takes the attitude that you have, then we can expect that the "idiotic" ways in which users create recipes will be resisted and channeled, effectively marginalized, by Google. The short of the matter is that we have no guarantees that what Google does is not a part of a larger limiting process in which the "wriggle" room in cultural conception is squeezed out even more then it already has been. Motivations to structure and control cultural discourse should be resisted and condemned out of principle.

If Google is any kind of steward of the public trust, then there has to be an acknowledgement from them that Culture is not Data. Unfortunately as long as fools like Brin and Schmidt are pulling the strings, I don't think that will ever happen. The temptation is too strong to resist and all the while cultural edifices are slowly being chipped away.
posted by kuatto at 3:12 PM on April 1, 2011


By virtue of an almost historical rupture, Google wields monopolistic, plutocratic power over the structure of the Internet. Now it could be that it is in everyone's interests for Google to streamline the collection of these kinds of cultural artifacts. Or it could only be in Google interests
Google isn't mandating the use of structured data – and Google isn't alone in championing structured data, either.
What you term "idiocies" are, in a cultural context, freedoms to experiment and develop on individual terms.
If I give someone a form and ask them to fill it out, they are not being asked to experiment and develop. They are being asked to provide data. Failure to do so is not individualistic or experimental – it's a failure of understanding.

Structured data is an attempt to make the web more useful. Any clean, reliable database is superior in terms of usefulness to a "cultural" corpus.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:18 PM on April 1, 2011


It sounds as though you are trying to say that you predict some harm will result to either 1) people looking for recipes or 2) people attempting to publish recipes without the aid of SEO techniques.

No, I'm saying that I think Carr is wrong about the harms. The microformat excludes, but mostly it excludes people who aren't driving traffic to their blog to begin with. Grandma's apple pie won't get in the top 10, but that doesn't matter to her, since she only cares about sharing it with her family. It matters to people searching for apple pie recipes, since it's the best apple pie recipe in the universe (let's assume), and they can't find it, because not enough links are created to her recipe.

So the walled garden microformat strategy is a fallback because the participatory strategy failed, and Google doesn't know how to generate profit from the maintenance of social bonds like Facebook - no-one is really being excluded except those who don't want to be included in the first place.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:47 PM on April 1, 2011


Thinking forward, I frankly don't see the long-term harm in there being a bit of a disconnect between the structured recipes and the unstructured ones. If you want tried and tested material, with known calorie counts and idiot-proof instructions, you use the structured data search. If you have a more discerning palate and/or can handle perusing a translation of a family recipe dictated by a French père de famille on his deathbed and/or don't care about the calorie content of this butter/garlic soup, then use the unstructured search.

If you rely on the commercial success of your recipes to earn a living (and I want to be clear, this is the main argument in the article) you learn the structured data language, and make sure your recipes have a structured representation. As has been mentioned several times, it's a) not hard and b) already implemented in easy form-style plugins.

If you just want to share information, Google is not going to prevent this. They will happily index your page, and maybe when their NLP is near-flawless they will flick a switch and there'll suddenly be a (default on) option for the recipe structured search to include "detected" results. Boom, culture meets structured data.

I still really do not understand the argument that structured data is going to kill culture. It is supplementary, a different kind of search.
posted by pahalial at 7:18 PM on April 1, 2011


sonic meat machine: Any clean, reliable database is superior in terms of usefulness to a "cultural" corpus.

Generally I agree with you, but this part is only true for certain goals. A cultural corpus contains information that's not contained in clean data. To crib from your example above:
Hey, man, i got those numbers for you. We spent $1287.58 on the bid from Jenkins. There were competing bids for $1408 and $1911 from Rogers and Snide, respectively. The overall project came in around $5k, but i don't have the exact numbers on that. I do know the hardware was $2k.
Here's some information that's not represented in your summary -- some of which would be hard to put into a clean, structured format:
  1. The sender is presuming a high degree of familiarity between her/himself and the recipient.
  2. Indirect communication of information is valued (see [1]), as is informal language.
  3. In the current discussion, having numbers is more important than them being either verifiably accurate or precise.
You'd need more than just a full english parser to get those -- you need some human ability to make inferences about human relationships, within a cultural context (business in the capitalist west).

It's not a great example because it's so short, but it does illustrate some of the kinds of things you can miss by just focusing on the data.
posted by lodurr at 11:07 AM on April 4, 2011


... the walled garden microformat strategy....

I'm not seeing a walled-garden strategy, here. Could you explain why you're using that term? It's kind of a loaded term -- it implies an active barrier to entry. E.g., Facebook is a walled garden because you have to actively become a member and actively choose reveal your information to non-members).

Selecting documents for membership in a 'recipes' category based on whether they look to the machine like a recipe (e.g., are in a microformat that facilitates the machine recognizing it as a 'recipe') is not an active barrier, it's a passive barrier, and maybe not even much of one at that. Google is quite good at inferring microformats -- Gmail users may be familiar with how often it recognizes appointments implicit in email messages, for example -- so I tend to think stuff is going to get into that recipe category other than the microformat stuff.

But the question I'm really left with is: If you don't use "looks like a recipe" as a criterion for inclusion in the category "recipes", then what do you use? Or is the demand here that there just not be a category search? Carr seems upset that we're biasing results toward "fast" and "diet-focused" food, so presumably his ask is that we eliminate those categories as well -- it starts to sound like the problem is categories as such.

Which baby+bathwater and out the window, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by lodurr at 11:15 AM on April 4, 2011


I think the code sample Carr provides confuses things a great deal, because it makes explicit a bunch of things that a good search bot will not need to have made explicit, and it entails a presumption on Carr's part that the XML microformat that's illustrated there is superior for SEO than, say, a YAML feed -- or, more to the point, something that looks like a YAML feed.

Put this another way: If you're going to output recipes from a database, you might as well put them into a more structured format; and if you want your recipes to be parseable for, say, caloric content, then it behooves you to structure your data accordingly. Grandma and grandma's customers don't give a crap about the caloric value, so they're not going to use those filters and won't be limited to results that play well with them.
posted by lodurr at 11:28 AM on April 4, 2011


I'm not seeing a walled-garden strategy, here. Could you explain why you're using that term? It's kind of a loaded term -- it implies an active barrier to entry.

It seems pretty straight-forward: the requirement that publishers implement a microformat is a barrier to entry for the majority of amateurs. Saying "Well, they need to learn then!" doesn't change that. And there's no technical reason why the Recipe search filter couldn't include pages that aren't in the microdata format, and just offer a richer search result for those that do. That's exactly what they do when you type in "fettuccine alfredo recipe" into the standard web search.

That said, I don't think this necessarily harms amateurs, because for this kind of content, they mostly aren't that interested in increasing blog traffic. It just goes against the standard meritocratic-participatory ideology that says that everyone gets a shot. This is only true when it's profitable.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:56 PM on April 4, 2011


It seems pretty straight-forward: the requirement that publishers implement a microformat is a barrier to entry for the majority of amateurs.

Under the same argument, the effective requirement to use HTML/XML is a barrier to web entry. This argument is coming across a little like 'but to write books I have to be literate'.
posted by jaduncan at 3:33 AM on April 5, 2011


... the requirement that publishers implement a microformat ...

... doesn't exist. Not really. This is the point that Carr obfuscates.
posted by lodurr at 5:48 AM on April 5, 2011


To clarify: the "requirement" is that, barring high page rank, you will do better on the Recipe filtered-search if you use the microformat. Here's what Carr actually says on the matter:
If you're publishing recipes online and you want them to rank highly in Google's recipe results, it's no longer enough simply to publish really good dishes and get lots of people to link to them.
So, he's stating pretty clearly that you don't have to use the microformats to be included in the filtered search (though you will probably start from a better SEO position if you do, and very likely won't be included in searches using subsidiary filters -- calories, prep time, etc. -- if you don't).

And then he produces the code sample, making sure that it's in very small type and as an image rather than text.* He's using fairly dishonest rhetorical techniques to make his case, here, and he's doing so in a fairly subtle way -- just look at this thread, for example, where almost everyone appears to be under the impression he's saying that the microformat is required, when he's not saying that at all -- meerely creating a rhetorical framework within which we can come away with that impression.

This really upsets me, because I actually share a lot of the concerns that Carr has voiced in the past with regard to how internet technology affects the way we use our brains. But he presents those concerns in subtly dishonest ways -- it's as though he expects a 'net-/media-addled public to fall for it because they no longer have the critical faculties to recognize he's peddling bullshit.

--
*Memo to Carr: the default display for <code> is pretty good, especially when nested inside a blockquote tagset, and the opinion of a technology writer who doesn't know that is IMO kind of suspect.
posted by lodurr at 5:59 AM on April 5, 2011


he's stating pretty clearly that you don't have to use the microformats to be included in the filtered search

I'm not sure that he's saying that, but regardless, it's not correct. At the bottom of every recipe-filtered search page, it says "These recipes are from sites that have identified their recipe content" plus a link to the documentation.

If your recipe doesn't use the microformat, you still appear in the main search results page. But if a user searches for something like "fettuccine alfredo", the recipe filtering options become available, and if they use those, they get switched into recipe mode. At that point, your page is gone.

Practically, that means non-microformatted pages that are already in the top 10 of the main search index will still get traffic, and the rest will get less traffic. Less traffic → fewer links → lower search result position.

I also don't think that he's really exaggerating the technical hurdles. Even for those who do understand the format (and know how to represent cooking times in ISO 8601, etc.), who's really going spend the time hand-coding that every time? CMSes like Wordpress will have plugins to take care of that, but will amateurs know they need to install them? Will they have the knowledge or resources to go back and reformat existing content? Maybe if they start getting popular, they'll try to overcome those hurdles, but as we know, the current design deprives them of traffic, so this is less likely to happen. All those things tilt the playing field in favor of commercial publishers.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:59 PM on April 5, 2011


Unless I've totally misread things, Google isn't rewarding low-calorie recipes in general search results, or in recipe search results by default. The calorie content of a recipe only becomes important when users specifically click a link that indicates "I'm looking for low-calorie recipes.".

Possibly the high calorie recipe providers have more spammy content, links and social marketing.

I would be very surprised if there were any relationship.
posted by Jpfed at 12:27 PM on April 29, 2011


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