Technology

Yahoo's Feast for Foodies


The Web portal has joined the competitive cornucopia of sites offering recipes and food-related information and ads

It's a question that crosses everyone's mind, one way or another, every day: What's for dinner? For the millions who take that query online, Yahoo! wants to serve up answers.

So on Nov. 2, Yahoo (YHOO) opened a food site, joining the hundreds of Web sites and blogs already providing recipes, food-related ads, and a cornucopia of other culinary information. The site, food.yahoo.com, includes content from partners such as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO), Food Network (SSP) chef Rachael Ray, and Condé Nast's popular online foodie-haven Epicurious.com. Early advertisers include Smokehouse.com and Overstock.com.

Deanna Brown, Yahoo's general manager of lifestyles and a former Epicurious executive, says the company launched the food offering to expand its lifestyle content and provide a destination for the millions looking on Yahoo for recipes and food-related information. Of Yahoo's more than 60 million daily queries, 1.5 million are related to meals. In addition to downloading recipes, people spend time on food sites reading articles, researching cooking tips, and rating results. "We know searching for food is daily, frequent, and very sticky," says Brown, referring to the idea that it keeps users on the site for longer.

Hoping to Cash In

Food-related information is also a highly targeted market, the kind that advertisers desire and Yahoo needs. Yahoo has lagged behind competitor Google (GOOG) in its ability to pair ads with appropriate search results. That's made Yahoo more vulnerable to ad-budget cutbacks in certain industries, since advertisers are less likely to cut back on ads that translate into sales.

In the second quarter, Yahoo experienced a softening in its financial and automotive advertising segments. Analysts attributed the shortfall to a lack of targeted advertising options (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/06, "Yahoo's Project Panama Back on Track").

Yahoo's new site has 5,000 recipes in its database and includes videos, chef and celebrity food commentary, detailed photographs, and nutritional information for each recipe. Brown calls the current site "food 1.0." Over the next several months, Yahoo plans to add a social networking component, letting users share and discuss recipes.

Broadband-Fueled Market

As attractive as food sites may be, they also represent a highly competitive market. Both Foodnetwork.com and Epicurious.com, two of the oldest and most popular food sites, have seen steady increases in traffic and revenue. Epicurious, for example, had 3.5 million unique visitors in October and more than 42 million page views, says Tanya Steel, Epicurious' editor-in-chief. That's a 17% increase from a year earlier, she says. Foodnetwork.com averages roughly 7.2 million visitors per month and had its best year-to-date on the revenue front, says Marie Fazzari, director of Foodnetwork.com.

Fazzari attributes the traffic and revenue increases to more people getting high-speed, or broadband, Internet connections. Food, she says, is a largely visual medium, with people wanting not only recipes but also photos and videos demonstrating cooking techniques—what's meant by a pinch or what a properly thickened soup looks like, for example. "The fact that more and more people have broadband just opens them up to that kind of content," says Fazzari. "Consumers are generally looking for recipes…but people love to just browse food, and video plays a large role because a lot of food is very visual."

Epicurious' Steel says that the spread of broadband has also fueled growth by allowing more people to use food sites to form social networking communities. On Epicurious.com, users can submit and critique recipes and communicate with each other about their favorite meals, cooking tools, and related passions. In addition to the 25,000 chef recipes Epicurious provides, it also has 25,000 recipes from users themselves. In a way, that makes Epicurious, which launched in 1995, one of the first user-generated content sites, says Steel. After all, people were supplying recipes way before they were uploading videos to YouTube.

Hungry for More

Also fueling growth of the online food sector is the effort to make meals and meal information mobile. Both Epicurious and Foodnetwork.com have features that let users send recipes and ingredient lists to cell phones via text messages. That way, when people are supermarket shopping and notice salmon is on sale they can quickly look up the related ingredients to prepare the right supper, says Steel.

While Yahoo's entry into the online food market does make the aisles more crowded, Steel says she is not concerned. "There are definitely more and more sites launching," says Steel, adding that there is also growing competition from bloggers. "But I must say that this is one area where millions of people out there cannot learn enough. They cannot read enough. They cannot eat enough."

When it comes to online food, says Steel, Americans are insatiable.

Holahan is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York .

Later, Baby
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