Updated. When ZipList launched its digital grocery list and recipe clipping service in 2010, it dreamed of becoming the premier destination website for home cooks. But those dreams were quickly dashed. CEO and founder Geoff Allen said ZipList not only had to face off against a growing number of recipe aggregation and shopping services, like Paprika, Yummly and Grocery IQ, but also found it couldn’t compete for attention against entrenched cooking brands on the Web, such as the Food Network and Epicurious.
So ZipList changed tack. Last summer it began partnering with big food brands MarthaStewart.com and the Daily Meal, as well as small food blogs that began integrating the ZipList recipe box directly into their sites. The results were impressive: In nine months it signed up 120 big-name food sites and 6,500 small blogs, which in turn generated 1 million customer accounts for its digital recipe and shopping list service. This week, it plans to launch its recipe box with one of the giants of online cuisine, Simply Recipes, a cooking site that boasts 7 million unique visitors per month.
“It’s hard to build your own brand name in the face of these powerful consumer-focused food sites,” Allen said. But ZipList could give those sites something they weren’t able to create on their own, he said. “If you look at all of them, they’re a mess — not just the blogger sites. It’s the biggest ones, too. There is really no taxonomy to how the organize recipes and ingredients. We were able to provide that taxonomy.”
Unlike the recipe boxes that the food sites typically offer their customers, ZipList’s isn’t locked in silo. Once you save a recipe or a shopping list on MarthaStewart.com, for example, it appears in your box even if you access it on Simply Recipes and vice versa. The idea, Allen said, was to create a recipe box and notepad that travel with you as move through the culinary universe on the Web instead of forcing you to go to a specific app or Web portal to access the content. ZipList provides its own destination Web portal and iPhone and Android apps (an iPad app is in development), but most of its customers are accessing their recipe boxes through its partner sites, Allen said.
So far, ZipList has indexed 350,000 recipes, which have been clipped by its customers 4 million times. Those recipes generate targeted ads, the revenues from which ZipList splits with its partners. The recipes are being converted into shopping lists at a rate of 4 items for every recipe stored, and those lists are driving use of ZipList’s mobile apps as customers access their lists while shopping for dinner.
Finding common ground in online food
I have written in the past about the difficulties of creating a universal online recipe library and the need for a common digital recipe media format. ZipList doesn’t solve either problem completely, but it goes a long way to bridging the disconnect between the people creating recipes and the services that organize them digitally.
Recipe box services such as Hindsight Labs’ Paprika, HungrySeacow’s YummySoup and Pepperplate all have wonderful tools for scraping, storing and organizing recipes you find on the Web, but there’s a natural friction between the food sites and those aggregators. As recipes are whisked off to online or app-based storage lockers, they no longer generate page views, and customers have less incentive to engage with the food site itself.
Cooking community portals like KeepRecipes have tried to bridge that gap by encouraging its members to engage and even purchase content from recipe creators, creating an iTunes for cookbooks, but ZipList goes further by keeping content local. While it stores metadata such as ingredients and measurements to make searching and generating shopping lists easier, customers are ultimately interacting with their recipe boxes within the ZipList’s partner sites, not apart from them.
If ZipList continues to grow it also might wind up being a catalyst for creating a common language for food on the Web. ZipList encourages its partners
must to render their recipes in hRecipe or Schema.org’s recipe formats optimized for digital search and discovery. (Update: Like other recipe box services, ZipList has also developed indexing algorithms that scrape unstructured recipe data when those formats aren’t used.) Consequently thousands of blogs and hundreds of big food sites are translating recipes from mere text floating in the Web into clearly identifiable and parsable digital data, something they have never had any incentive to do. ZipList uses that data to manage its customers’ recipe collections, but everyone benefits, as that information can be accessed and sorted by any app or search engine.