The Online Cooking Recipe Ecosystem is Fucking up the Customer Experience (CX)

The Online Cooking Recipe Ecosystem is Fucking up the Customer Experience (CX)
Photo by Cookie the Pom / Unsplash

Attempting to follow a food recipe on the internet is like playing a game of Minesweeper. You want to cook Pasta. You’re just looking for ingredients and the steps. The process. But instead you’re badgered with unending introductions and long form backstories. Ads of all shapes and forms drop in from every nook and corner of the website, deviously sprinkled with photos, and text. Then, there are Pop-ups. Email signups. Video ads in the corner, teasing you with a tiny “close” button. You need to be precise in your navigation to avoid these “mines”. Like a game of Minesweeper. All of this to get to the coveted “recipe card”. What’s the meaning of life again? Frustration.

Everyone hates it

Do you enjoy the online obstacle course that is recipe pages? No! You hate it! Your friends hate it! I hate it! It is a horrible User Experience (UX). Yet, this is still how most of us consume recipes on the internet in 2021.

The entire experience of consuming food recipes on the internet runs counter-intuitive to the ultimate goal for these websites - returning customers. But, I avoid them like a plague by taking screenshots of go-to recipes on my phone.

Apps can fix the UX….or can they?

When I first started thinking about this, I imagined it as simply a User Experience (UX) issue. The customer experience for consuming food recipes sucks. Let's improve that by stripping the ads off, removing the long introductions, and making it easier to navigate.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the first one to think of this simple fix. It’s exactly what many tools and websites have done in the past, and continue to do. One quick look at the Apple App Store, and you realize that there are actually several apps with tools trying to fix UX issues by helping consumers scrape outside sources for recipes. They go by names such as Cook’n, Recipe Keeper, and RecipeBox.

They’re all designed to collect a user’s favorite recipes in one location, a convenience for those who don’t want to search the web or a library of cookbooks, or like me, their photo library for their go-to dishes.

Typically, you copy and paste the URL for a recipe into one of these apps and they will scrape the website, stripping the ads and long prologues, and give you a beautiful recipe card.

But, it’s not just about the UX

Improving the UX by allowing the customers to grab their favorite recipes and put them in a clean format is a great starting point. But there hasn’t been wide adoption of these tools. In fact, some of these have received fierce backlash from the food blogger community.

The more I dove into it, I realized it’s because these tools focused on the wants of just one member of the “Cooking Recipe Ecosystem” - the consumer, and largely ignored the other members of the ecosystem.

The Cooking Recipe Ecosystem

Recipe Creators are passionate about cooking, and want to share their hard-earned recipes on their websites. Some genuinely also want to share the backstories, and history of their recipes. Like all other creative artists, such as photographers and painters, they deserve compensation for their hard work.

Recipe Consumers want the recipes without the stories and advertisements. They just want the recipes. No ads. No long form stories, or at least a way to hide the stories by default. If I need it, I will enable it.

But, there’s also a third person in the room here, whose interests are in absolute contradiction to a good customer experience - the Ad Man.

The Ad Model drives bad UX

The ad model that the majority of Recipe Creators use is biased towards maximizing dollar value for the creators.

The ad model does not give two fucks about customer experience.

Instead, it incentivizes Recipe Creators to:

  1. Optimize for web traffic, which in turn generates revenue: The introductory stories often contain keywords which demonstrate authority and generally appease the Google algorithm gods in a way that can place these blogs higher in search results.
  2. Keep the consumer on the website for as long as possible to maximize the ad impressions and clicks: This typically means long-form stories at the beginning, injecting ads in the middle of the stories and the instructions, and keeping the prized “recipe card” at the bottom. The goal is to keep the customer scrolling for as long as possible to maximize ad impressions.

The Goals of the Recipe Creators and Recipe Consumers are misaligned

The whole enterprise is skewed to appease the ad algorithms, not the customer experience. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what creators want, and what an ideal experience for the consumers would be. All because the Ad man rewards creators for bad Customer Experience.

While creators deserve to get compensated, it should not be at the expense of the customer.

The Food Blogger Mafia

No one likes the ads, yet it’s the primary way for food bloggers to monetize. This dependence on the ad model is why food bloggers have been at loggerheads with apps and websites that strip the ads, and backstories.

One recent example of this tussle between food bloggers and app developers is a website called "recipeasly.com". It allowed users to paste in a URL, and it would strip the recipe of ads, long intros and everything else, except the information found in the “recipe card” section, which usually includes a photo, ingredients list and cooking directions.

The website was forced to shut down within a few days after massive backlash from the food bloggers, who accused the site of stealing other people’s work, and eliminating revenue for the creators.

As Food and Wine senior editor Kat Kinsman tweeted -

“Wait, so you are just stealing content, eliminating context and creator revenue, and diminishing the labor that is the only way these recipes exist in the first place because you have decided the humans behind them are annoying?”

“Stories or no stories” does not have to be black or white choice

There's a difference between consuming recipes for "cooking", and for "entertainment". While some people may enjoy the backstories of the recipes, most people search for a recipe because they want to get to cooking as quickly as possible.

So, the whole argument from some food bloggers that - “you don’t get the recipe if you don’t want my story” is flawed and misplaced. It’s not that I don’t want the story. I just want the choice. I want the control to choose if and when I want to read the story. I love reading the back stories for some recipes in recipe books. But I am doing that intentionally. I have the choice. I have the control.

Looking Forward: We need to move away from the Ad Model

To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, no one will ever say -

I wish it wasn’t this easy to find and follow the steps in a recipe I wish there were more ads on this page I wish the recipe websites were not this fast

Perhaps even provide alternate monetization mechanisms for food bloggers

  1. Donations (Patreon)
  2. Subscription Model (Netflix for recipes?)

Food bloggers provide an invaluable resource for recipes on the internet. We need to find alternate ways to help them monetize their work, without the involvement of the Ad man.

Yes, the ads make it free. But as the old saying goes -

If it’s free, then you are the product.