The SEO-ification of food
How the apps shape the way we eat. Words by Mina Miller.
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The Hater is a column dedicated to the art of hating. Each week, a different writer examines something they hate, or observes a trend of hating in the food world.
Past columns have included:
The TV Food Man, by Ruby Tandoh
Everybody Hates Norman’s, by Tom Usher
Rich People Peasantcore, by Sheena Patel
Gatekeeping Pubs, by Jimmy McIntosh
The Gallery Dinner, by Phoebe Cripps
STREETFOODZ and other atrocities, by Katie Mulkowski
Why I hate Americans talking about tacos in London, by Chloe-Rose Crabtree
Against Curation, by Jonathan Nunn
What is the point of the recipe box?, by Thea Everett
Against Culinary Cuckooism, by Luke Dunne
McLondon, by Robbie Armstrong
The biweekly British vs American food debate, by Niloufar Haidari
What is wrong with the London restaurant scene
Gut Feelings, by James Greig
Ultra Processed Foods, by Laura Thomas
Today’s Hater is Mina Miller
The SEO-ification of food, by Mina Miller
How are desires and appetites formed? They’re born of our environment, our culture and class. They’re born of encounters: in our family homes, at the cafeteria, at church gatherings. They’re influenced by what we pass on the street: restaurants and takeaway counters in our neighbourhoods, the places we intersect on our trajectories through the city. They emerge, as well, from glossy magazine spreads and series like MasterChef, from conscious and subconscious desires, from our fears and emotive associations, from aspiration and nostalgia. Increasingly, too, our desires are formed by what we see online – which, increasingly, is determined by search engines and, by extension, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).
At its core, SEO refers to a series of practices people enact to make sure their business or website appears at the top of search results. As a freelance copywriter, I have frequently been tasked with writing pointless 2000-word articles for businesses (including recipe-box companies and restaurants), stuffing my text with keywords without providing the reader with any meaningful information, then plugging my copy into an SEO checker to make sure it scores well enough before publishing it. Lots of this work is directed at Google, but other platforms call for the use of SEO: Facebook, Instagram and TikTok all use a blend of algorithms and machine learning to sift through data, including abstracted content, keywords and user patterns, to decide what to display at the top of their results page. Similarly, restaurant delivery apps utilise machine learning to prioritise certain restaurants over others, whether that’s ranking by popular menu items, customer scores or perceived desirability (the actual mechanics are a black box).
All of this is fundamentally changing the way we eat. When we order or go out for food, we tend first to search: to read reviews, to see what’s open, to check prices. Google is undeniably helpful in that respect, but its maps and reviews aren’t merely tools; they change how we interact with the urban environment around us. What businesses come up, what we think is available, how good we think it is – all of this is mediated by the search engine, which elevates outlets deemed to have more ‘authority’: generally, established players who are SEO-savvy and can either pay for ranking or are good at keywords. The search ‘Best restaurants Sheffield’, for instance, is topped by listicles by the likes of Time Out, who have no presence in the city.