Yahoo Cooking with Gas: Food Search on the Web

How well would a food search engine work on the Web?

One that let you search for meals available at local restaurants, or through recipes, or at local markets where you could find the ingredients to make your meal?

What if it provided information about each dish based upon flavors such as saltiness or bitterness, leanness or fattiness, hotness or coldness?

Would it help if it also provided a composition of dishes providing amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals? If you’re concerned about your health and diet, or have special dietary needs, that could be nice.

Would recommendations for alternative meals, and complementary sides and beverages based upon other searchers’ selections help?

A Yahoo patent application published last week describes such a Meal finder search (US Patent Application 20080147611).

As a one time chef at a number of restaurants, I would appreciate such a food based search engine. I also like the idea of being able to look at information regarding the flavors and the composition of meals.

Planning around carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin, and mineral makeups of meals would save me a lot of time reading labels in the supermarket. As someone who likes to go out to eat every so often, I would use something like this if it were available.

Conventional Meal Searches

If you were to try to find information about food choices available at dining spots near you, you might be lucky enough to find a local dining guide, which provides a list of restaurants and their locations on a map.

That list of restaurants may display the name, phone number, address, and user ratings for each restaurant, and possibly a menu for the restaurant.

After selecting a restaurant, you might be able to visit an online menu for the restaurant, usually made up of textual description of the dishes offered by that restaurant.

If you’ve tried to do this yourself, and I have more than once, it can be time consuming, and often results in picking a place rather than a meal.

The big question is, would restaurants, shopping markets, and recipe sites be willing to participate and provide images and information either on their sites or to a search engine that would enable such a meal finder to work?

How a Meal Finder Search Might Work

This search focuses upon a way of selecting a meal, based upon viewing pictures of food dishes, through a simple and visual user interface. The steps involved:

  1. Search engine receives a user request to find a meal.
  2. Pictures of food dishes are presented, where each dish may represent a category of dishes.
  3. Each picture would have associated metadata describing characteristics of the food dish.
  4. One set of characteristics of a dish may include saltiness, sourness, sweetness, bitterness, savoriness, spiciness, astringency, leanness, fattiness, tingly numbness, hotness, and coldness.
  5. Another set of characteristics of a dish may include composition of carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamin, and minerals in the dish.
  6. The user is required to select a meal that seems most appealing.
  7. The selection is received, and the searcher’s input is analyzed according to the characteristics of each food dish presented.
  8. In addition to the specific selected dish or dishes, other food dishes that have not been selected by the searcher are analyzed to determine the user’s preferences.
  9. If the searcher has made a final selection, additional information is provided to the searcher possibly including one or more alternative dishes based upon that selection that can be chosen by the searcher instead.
  10. If the searcher has not made a final selection, a set of updated picture of food dishes is presented to the user.
  11. Additional food dishes may be recommended to complement the user’s selection. If a main dish has been chosen, a salad and/or a dessert may be presented to go with the main dish.
  12. Beverages may also be presented to go with the user’s selections of the food dishes.
  13. This process may link the searcher to websites of restaurants, recipe descriptions, or food markets where the user’s selected items may be found.

This process may use a recommendation method when presenting selected dishes to a searcher, displaying one or more alternative choices with a label stating “People Who Selected Dish n Also Like The Following Dishes.” When presenting complementary dishes such as salads or deserts or beverages, a sign stating “People Who Selected Dish n Also Like The Following items,” may be displayed.

Some Thoughts on this Patent Application

The idea of a patent filing on a Food Search Engine seemed somewhat silly when I first saw this in the patent database, but I’m beginning to warm up to the idea.

If restaurants and marketplaces and recipe sites participated, this food search engine could be possibly be very useful in helping people plan healthier meals. It would also provide a chance to look over a restaurant’s menu before making a drive and not seeing what was offered until a menu was placed in your hands.

Could it influence fast food restaurants to offer healthier choices? If they didn’t, people might start making healthier choices than fast food.

I very much like the idea of including information about flavors, and nutritional content of meals, and would hope that someone could filter selections based upon things such as carbohydrate levels.

But honestly, for many restaurants, the pictures I’ve seen of the meals that they offer usually look much better than the actual dish.

Searches for restaurants are one of the most popular aspects of local search engines. If the meal search engine described in this patent filing were to be developed, how would it be incorporated into the local searches that we are familiar with? Would other, more specialized searches be next, such as one solely devoted to places to stay such as hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and other lodgings?

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37 thoughts on “Yahoo Cooking with Gas: Food Search on the Web”

  1. You wrote: “If restaurants and marketplaces and recipe sites participated…” and that is the key. Our experience in internet marketing is that busy restaurants, etc. are not diligent about supplying content for their websites, often submitting changes in menus a long time after the actual change is made in the restaurant. I can just imagine what would happen if they now needed to analyze the food for saltiness, etc. and supply accurate “nutritional content.” It will be the same maze of results we have now on the internet for restaurant recommendations and commentary, i.e. very mixed results. Some restaurants are able to encourage patrons to support them on the internet. Some are not. My personal results now in using sites to find a restaurant with a certain type of food and menu items is very discouraging. I’d like to know how Yahoo intends to overcome these very human hurdles.

    Just one person’s opinion…

    Shirley de Rose

  2. This would be a great service if Yahoo developed it. It would put all those recipe websites on the internet to shame. Maybe they could put links into recipes for local business that sell those products and create an entirely new niche advertising market. Great article by the way, definitely going to Digg and share :)

    -Ryan

  3. Another aspect that could be integrated would be offering food options based on certain diseases or afflictions. As in someone with high cholesterol should be able to search for food he should be eating and the places where he can get them.

  4. Interesting concept, almost a refreshing move from yahoo. I imagine it would benefit from user reviews and rating systems, create your own ‘cook book’ or collection of favorite recipes, sharing recipes – everything ‘2.0’

  5. Hi Shirley,

    The difficulty in many patent applications isn’t in putting the ideas on paper, but rather finding ways to implement those ideas. I expect that you are right that there might be a lot of inertia in getting businesses to participate, but there may be ways to build towards something like this meal finder in an incremental manner that might work.

    One of the fun things about looking at many of these patent applications though, is when you see a business like Yahoo or Google or Microsoft taking some of those incremental steps towards implementing ideas like this one.

    I know that there are a number of online businesses, including a couple that include my area, which allow people to look at menus from a good number of local restaurants, and order online for delivery.

    Yahoo Food includes a local dining guide, and recipes that do include nutrition information for dishes like cherry cobbler. Those recipes can be sorted by whether they are low carb, or low calorie. Might it evolve into something like this “meal finder?” That’s hard to say. Keep your eyes open.

    Hi NY SEO,

    It would be interesting to see Yahoo develop this. I would think that rather than trying to put the recipe sites to shame, Yahoo might try to find ways to collaborate with them. Yahoo Food uses recipes from Kraftfoods.com, Taste of Home, Food & Wine, EatingWell.com, Allrecipes.com, Epicurious.com, Pillsbury, and others.

    Hi Nicole,

    I think that’s one of the things that I like best about this meal finder – that it opens up the possibility of helping people make intelligent and healthy food choices, including people who have some kind of dietary restrictions.

    Hi SEO Services,

    Yahoo Food started back in 2006, and offers social networking aspects in what it does, including ratings and reviews from users. I don’t see a way there of creating your own cookbook or collection of favorite recipes, but that would be a nice addition.

    Yahoo Food isn’t this meal finder described in the patent application, but I could see the possibility of it growing to add some of the features described in the patent filing.

    That would be interesting.

  6. I’m not sure that a “food search engine” would work. When people search for a type of food on the internet, I’ve found they’re looking for a good (there’s no way for them to tell before they make it, so good=high rated or from a reputable source), free recipe that they can print out and then leave. Speed is really a driving factor for recipes, and visitors (in my experience) would rather have a quick recipe spit out at them then look through photos of food. (Of course, if you give them what they want, nobody makes money from ads.)
    Also, taste, smell and convenience are factors just as much as looks.

    Restaurant search is kind of disappointing traffic-wise, too. In the large cities where there’s decent search volume, the restaurants have lots of money to spend on seo, though. Really the only way you could afford to get an informational-type site to the top of that particular pile would be to set up a restaurant guide site and charge big bucks for featured placement.

  7. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks.

    I think that you’re right that most people conducting searches are performing informational type searches, and are likely looking for recipes that they can use.

    But, if a food search like this was developed, even given all the logistical problems that it would entail, would people use it by browsing pictures of menu items? It’s a good questions, and I guess one of the business considerations that would go into deciding whether or not this invention was developed.

    I do wonder if Yahoo Food would develop aspects of this food search, or if it would continue to be the kind of restaurant guide that you mention.

  8. is it me or are Yahoo running out of ideas, im not saying it’s not a good idea, just that i’m sure that there are better ideas to be had, especially for a large corporation like Yahoo – although you never know i could be wrong – only time will tell …

    interesting article though, thanks =)

  9. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks. I think that when a company explores some new ground, like the Yahoo Food site that they’ve put online, some other ideas may surface, and fleshing those out, and publishing them in a patent filing may provide future ideas that could be developed.

    The work behind the patent application becomes their intellectual property, and it may lead to other ideas.

    Apple published at least 45 patent applications last week, and very few of them are groundbreaking by themselves, but when you put the ideas together into something like a iphone, or a new operating system, there may be a greater value in the whole of the parts.

    Is the food search in this patent application something that might be worth developing from a business perspective? Is it something that can even be developed from a logistical view? It’s hard to tell. But it’s not unusually for people to publish patent applications like this one in case it does seem to be an avenue to explore further.

  10. I’m not so sure a search engine devoted solely to food would work either. I think that it would be more productive if people focused more on refining the search results rather than making a whole new thing.

    While I do not think it is a bad idea at all, I think it is just not time yet to do such a thing.

  11. Hi wailan,

    I’m not so sure that it is a bad idea for Yahoo to try out ideas like this one, and to attempt to develop other ideas that may work in different contexts when they do set up a more narrow niche. They already are working on refining search results in their Web search.

    Consider a more narrow search like this one to be a chance to experiment, to try out new things, to see how people might react to an alternative way of searching. All ideas have to start somewhere, and with the patent filing for this one, we are introduced to something that may or may not be developed, but that may spark other ideas and approaches to search that could have broader implications for Yahoo in other niches than just a food search.

  12. Hi,

    It’s pretty tough for a food search engine to substitute for a well-trained server who knows what questions to ask, has talked with the chef about pairings, and may have tasted everything on the menu.

    Not to mention the correlation data is difficult (read: expensive) to collect and the value isn’t that high. It’s hard enough to get a customer to fill out a comment card unless they’re phenomenally happy or very much not.

    This type of patent might be better saved for a predictive drug interaction database than restaurant selection.

    Cheers,
    Steve

  13. Hi Steven,

    You raise some pretty good points. I’m not sure that we would see something like this food search in the very near future. As an exercise in building a unique specialized search engine, it’s interesting. I think the difficulty is in the implementation, and if we do see anything come of it, it might be more in the area of helping people find and recipes, and locate ingrediants for those at local shops.

  14. Hi Carsten,

    It would be great if you did write something about this on your site. What I have on this topic, I’ve shared here. If you look through the patent filing and have questions that I can help you with, I would be happy to do so.

  15. Food Search, a bad idea of a good idea. what does it mean? good idea there is one more type of search that we can search recipe “type in and one click”, but is there somthing else more useful and more cool than this idea.

    Google has Maps Search, Books Search (this is really cool). Google Finance (of course with search), News Blogs. Food Search doesnt really cool search, too me actually. I think it’s too expensive development for too little traffic.
    well, it’s my personal opinion.

    Let me know if there is more information on this development.

    me tfirdaus from indonesian food

  16. Hi tfirdaus,

    It’s interesting to see the major search engines focus more narrowly on specialized types of searches. As you point out, Google has developed a number of niche or vertical searches, as has Yahoo and Microsoft.

    The Food Search Engine patent application is from Yahoo, and we do see aspects of it already developed in their Yahoo Food pages, including a Local Dining Guide.

    How likely would it be for a restaurant to start providing information about the menus that they are serving, and the nutritional values of those meals? I’m not sure, but I am seeing the growth of sites that people can go to in their areas, look up the menus of restaurants, and order home delivery from those restaurants. It will be interesting to watch and see if the meal finder described in this patent filing is developed.

  17. thanks for the reply Will. Let’s see if Yahoo can do their inovation..but I see right now SEO guys on the internet most talking about SearchWiki

  18. Hi tfirdaus,

    You’re welcome.

    Many of the ideas from SearchWiki have been explored in patent filings from Google. It will be interesting to see if Google continues with searchwiki, and uses information from it in rankings. We don’t know if they will.

  19. I can see how this can be done. One way would be to make a electronic log for ordering ingredients supplemented by a recipe log. However that’s a huge risk on their behalf since good restaurants with special meals will never give out their recipe, not matter how much potential such an idea proves. Another way would be for yahoo to have some people to gather info from the restaurants, although not a hard thing to do, it’s just time and resource consuming, and not quite effective, not on the long run at least. Any other ideas? Thoughts?

  20. Hi marblehost,

    I’m not sure that restaurants would be in a hurry to give away their recipes either, but there are some very good restaurants on the web that do provide recipes to some of their meals. And there are others that do provide nutritional information about the food that they serve.

    I guess the number of businesses that get involved depends upon whether on not those restaurants believe that they would see a return on their investment in time and effort in participating. We might see this kind of meal search evolve out of the merging of Yahoo Food and Yahoo Local.

  21. Searches for foods and restaurants is actually pretty deeply already there. Think about it…almost every major restaurant has a website and most are actively promotion online. I own a restaurant delivery service and almost all our business is from online contacts. meaning they found us from a major search engine. Yes we do some local ads but most end up finding us online after searching for a restaurant they wanted to order from.

  22. Hi Dustin,

    I do like the ideas behind this patent appplication, but I’m not sure how possible it might be to develop something like this, and have a large number of participating restaurants. But, who knows what might be possible five or ten years from now.

    I’ve seen a pretty wide range of restaurant sites, with varying levels of development and sophistication behind them. Most of them are more brochure sites then places where you can check waiting times for service, or make reservations, or order for takeout or delivery.

    I’ve seen a few sites like yours on regional levels, and think that what you’re doing is pretty smart. If anyone were to develop a meal finder type search, I would expect it to be someone like you rather than a Yahoo or Google. It’s going to be interesting to see how this develops, but I expect that more and more services will become available online in the future that sound just a little farfetched right now, and some of the development behind those ideas has already started with services like the ones that you offer.

  23. I think this is a great idea, but it will take a huge coordinated effort to get it up and running

  24. Hi Jim,

    It is definitely interesting. I’d love to see it developed, but I agree that it would take a huge effort, with a lot of people involved.

  25. Hi James,

    It just may be worth the effort. I imagine that if Yahoo does try to implement a food search like this, that they may do it in stages over time. They already have a start with Yahoo Local and Yahoo Food.

    I noticed a recent law being pursued in Delaware that would require fast food places to provide significantly more nutritional information about the food that they serve to the public, and I expect that to be a growing trend. The idea behind it is to help consumers make more informed choices, and to possibly influence the development of better nutritional offerings from those restaurants. Nutritional information might start becoming available from more and more sources, which is one of the most appealing parts of this food search to me.

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  27. I have never thought of this in terms of doing a search for a specific meal… but it’s a good idea. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a particular type of food. I may know one restaurant that offers it, but if another small town diner offered it, this might be a way they could get their name out. They could optimize for the particular entree’s they specialized in. Fun Idea!

  28. Hi Nathan,

    With more businesses starting to get into providing information for location-based services in the past year, with check-ins and so forth, it’s possible that we may start seeing restaurants start allowing their menus, inventory, and waiting times accessible on the web through services like this. We may or may not see it come from Yahoo, but someone might jump on an idea like this one.

  29. Hi Stoned Chef,

    I’m not sure what direction Yahoo might head out in over the next few years, especially since they just fired their CEO. They are still one of the most popular destinations on the Web, and some of the services that they offer are extremely popular, such as their Fantasy Football leagues.

    Google has their own approach to things like food and recipe searches, and we may see some new offerings from them sometime in the near future. See:

    How Google Might Introduce Job, Recipe, and Other Search Modes into Web Search Results

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