Why are Search Engines being slow to roll out their ‘Recipe Search’ functionality?
Posted 3 November 2011 09:12
What is recipe search?
In January 2010, the Microsoft owned search-engine Bing, announced its recipe search feature. Just over a year later in 2011 (which is like a lifetime in the world of IT), Google announced ‘Recipe View’, which is its version of the same thing. Despite being slower to the market, because it is better known; when Google released their version the food blogging community raved about it, saying that it was a really good thing and that it was going to change the way people would find recipes.
The recipe search functionality provided by both these search engines is quite similar. The premise is that if a user enters text into a search engine that could possibly be a recipe (e.g. chocolate chip muffins), the search engine should present the user with a number of recipes for that search.
The user should then be able to decide if they want to view recipes or not. If they do, they should have options to fine-tune their search results; for example are they looking for a recipe that is hot or cold, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, contains carrots or hazelnuts, etc.
Can I use it yet?
So now almost two years after Bing and around six months after Google, what has changed? Really, not a great deal – at least not from where I’m sitting in the UK. Why is this? Well there are a number of factors, primarily:
- Both the Bing and Google recipe search tools are currently only available in the USA (enter ‘chocolate chip muffins’ into Bing or Google – and if you don’t get a food based context menu appear on the left hand side of the screen, then the recipe search feature hasn’t been activated for your location yet)
- Many recipe websites and food blogs have not added the relevant code to their sites
Because recipe search is a relatively new technology, search engines are rolling it out slowly, starting in America. They don’t want to get it wrong (a lot of good technologies get released but get retired early due to lack of take-up – Google Wave is a good example of this).
Actually, if you are not in America right now, you can still use the Google Recipe View, you just need to visit their Recipe View landing page first.
How does the Bing and Google recipe search functionality work and what do you have to do to enable it on your website or blog?
From a search engine point of view, the difference between:
- Returning results based on the text “strawberry cake”
- Identifying the text entered as possibly being a recipe and then returning results for recipes that the user might be interested in
is very different. It is much harder for the search engines because they need to know the context of a web page, not just be able to pick out key words and phrases from a web page.
By context, I mean that the search engine needs to be able to identify elements of a page, such as the ingredients, steps, measurements, cooking time, preparation time, author, photograph of the recipe, etc. It can’t get this information by just reading a web page, it needs to read additional code within the web page to be able to identify each element.
A couple of years ago (as usually happens with new developments), three methods appeared to resolve this issue. They were very similar with just a few subtle (but notable) differences:
- Microformats (hRecipe – note the word term ‘draft specification’ at the top of this page)
- Rich Snippets
See the bottom of the Google Rich Snippets page which lists all three and some differences between the three standards.
Also, note at the top of the Google Rich Snippets page, it says:
New! www.schema.org lets you mark up a much wider range of item types on your pages, using a vocabulary that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! can all understand.
The three initial attempts at standardising the context of data (Microformats, RDFa and Rich Snippets) were fragmented and short-lived. In June 2011, a new standard called Schema was released. This standard was agreed upon by the top three search engines (Google, Bing and Yahoo). The old formats will still be supported, but the new standard is safer to use (in terms of compatibility), allows more functionality and will continue to be developed.
Although the standard is supported by the top three search engines, its take-up among the food sector has been slow. In fact I haven’t seen it being used on any other recipe website or WordPress plugin other than ours and GetMeCooking Recipe Template for WordPress! As described in our blog, we changed the code on our website to use Schemas within a week of it coming out and our Recipe Template plugin for WordPress has always uses the Schema standard as that came out in August 2011.
Is Schema the definitive standard that we should all be using in our food sites?
This charter for the Web Schemas Task Force (owned by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)) states that the Web is too de-centralised and complex for a single schema to fully describe everything – this doesn’t give a clear direction for developers and is one of the main reasons for the slow take-up on the part of both the developers, as well as the search engines and other parties.
However, as I mentioned; the Schema standard has been agreed upon by the top three search engines, so that is a solid foundation. Another standard couldn’t emerge, but it would have some stiff competition, so this is unlikely to happen in the near future. So for now, Schema is a safe bet and is the one that all food sites and blogs should be using.
I’m sure that the standards will settle down, become more widely accepted and will evolve. I would like to see the Schema standard allow me to add Search Engine Optimised data at a more granular level. On GetMeCooking we store ingredients at a fine level – for example we record the measurement of each ingredient as a value (we are the only site I’ve seen that does this – other sites save the measurement as text). We do this so we can do clever things like:
- Automate the pluralisation of measurements
- Dynamically change the recipe format to imperial/metric/USA based on the visitor’s location
- Dynamically change the number of servings
I know that this article is perhaps too technical to write on a recipe site, but I wanted to explain (and give evidence) why people are wrong when they say that:
- Google was the first search engine to offer recipe search functionality
- Recipe search is available worldwide
- The hRecipe microformat should be used
- Bing was the first major search engine to have recipe search functionality (over a year before Google)
- Both Bing and Google only offer recipe search in the USA right now
- The Schema format should be used, not Microformats (hRecipe), RDFa or Rich Snippets