Consuming content

How SEO killed the food blog

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I’D BEEN THINKING about the Kaiserschmarrn we ate with gloved fingers while strolling a Christmas market, cobblestones slick with ice, in Salzburg at the end of 2019.

It was now one of those disorienting mornings between Boxing Day and New Year, and as the aircon roared in my suburban living room, I found myself suddenly desperate for snow, remembering the lights strung across Salzburg’s Residenzplatz, the smell of spiced cider, the way the stall vendor cut those hot, fluffy pancakes into tender shreds, heaping them together with a rubble of apple sauce, rum-soaked raisins and powdered sugar, dropping the paper plate into my outstretched hands in exchange for €5.

I decided I wanted to make some.

‘Best…fluffy…pancake…’ I typed into the Google search bar on my phone. The phrase yielded more than twenty-six million results.

I scrolled halfway down the page of suggested recipes until one particular image, pancakes photographed with ribbons of maple syrup dripping down the sides, caught my eye: ‘fluffy, quick, no fail.’

Yes.

I clicked on the hyperlink.

‘Go on. You deserve freshly made homemade pancakes for breakfast tomorrow!’ the first paragraph announced.

My cursor scrolled further down.

‘What goes in homemade pancakes?’ a second heading asked. A list of ingredients – with no measurements or instructions – floated above a block of stylised photographs, then a lengthy inventory of suggested toppings, from butter and maple syrup, ‘the classic!’, to the brief but less compelling ‘sprinkle of nuts’.

I continued to skim, my hope of ever reaching the recipe fading millimetre by millimetre as I encountered each additional photo collage, sections espousing ‘pro tips’ such as keeping a dry pancake mix on hand and even an embedded video showing the process step by step.

By the time I eventually arrived at the recipe, my hankering for Kaiserschmarrn had started to feel a little foolish.

It was too hot for pancakes anyway.


‘DO FOOD BLOGGERS realize how awful their recipe pages are?’ a Reddit user innocently enquires in a thread I stumble across while googling food blogs bad. ‘Do they take reader satisfaction into account?’

According to more than 600 replies, the answer is largely no.

‘It’s so obvious when they write for search engine optimization,’ says one. ‘With the way search engine algorithms (and, you guessed it, ad services) work, they’re necessary for a page to get hits, and thus for a blog to get views.’

In a digital reality where ‘best fluffy pancakes’ number in the millions, it stands to reason that not all of them can be good – that we need some way to cut the stack. Repeating keywords ad nauseam, embedding infinite lists of internal links, integrating gratuitous text and images to encourage long scrolling: these techniques, among others designed to gratify the search-engine crawlers, serve a sensible purpose, a utility we should probably allow.

So why do we resent it so much?


AS JANET THEOPHANO reminds us in Eat My Words, exchanging recipes is more than just a way to catalogue ingredients and instructions. ‘There is much to be learned from reading a cookbook besides how to prepare food,’ she observes. We seek out recipes not only to satisfy physical hunger but also to observe and transcend the minutiae of our daily lives – to ‘make beauty and meaning in the midst of the mundane’. In this way, writing and reading about food is reassuringly human, a distinctively generative activity that merges the inane with the imaginative, the pragmatic with the pleasurable.

Whether we skim the blurbs and instructions or devour a cookbook from cover to cover, however, those of us who share recipes intuitively recognise the rules of engagement. For some of us, at least some of the time, recipes are ‘utilitarian references’, a means to a fortifying or delicious end. Sometimes pancakes are just pancakes: varying ratios of flour, milk and eggs. For others, and probably more often, they’re altogether more complex sites of memory, identity and community – pancakes as portals – and we gladly surrender to the reveries they elicit, respond to the ‘imaginative leap’ required of us to read between the lines.

In a roundabout way, despite their prescriptive format, recipes are also an exercise in relinquishing control. The dishes we share, as well as the advice, reminiscences and meditations that naturally accrete around them, are memetic: infinitely repeatable, but also adaptable, corruptible. What works for one eater, one reader, is as manifold as our individual tastes and circumstances, and these quirks as divisive and defensible as rinsing rice or preferring runny yolk. The most enduringly popular food blogs – sites like Smitten Kitchen and Joy the Baker – understand this concession well, imparting reliable recipes and mouth-watering images framed by confessional writing. Whether they make Google’s front page or not, they’ve attracted large, loyal followings and even secured book deals. Their recipes work, but the storytelling does as well.

When belligerent browsers claim they just want the recipe, then, I have a niggling suspicion it’s not entirely true. In the formats dictated by the algorithm, maybe the massified food blog has become unpalatable not because narrative or marginalia is anathema to recipes – quite the opposite – but because we see this cloying, over-stuffed prose for what it is, and it’s awful because of the way it transforms us, too. In the overcrowded blogosphere – where those who write about food are now content creators, readers are page hits and traffic, and recipes, once shared in good faith, are bones buried in layers of confected clicks – the story-adjacent, information-like prose so characteristic of SEO is not just tedious or annoying. Genre and content taste different. One is about creativity, humans making of something what they will; the other is about control. And wherever the content mill strives to homogenise intellectual and creative labour, to flatten and streamline our responses, to blur the boundaries between connection and commodity, it detains us in a sort of uncanny valley in which something formerly human and forgivably imperfect is rendered too uniform, too empty, too incorruptible – something to be tolerated rather than used.

Does our unwillingness to simply jump to recipe reveal a new appetite for expedience, a mere selfishness that authors must rightfully resist? Maybe. But perhaps the food blog has something else to suggest about the agency we expect to bring to writing and to reading – about what ‘content’ has come to mean in the post-information age.

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