Butterballs or Cheese Balls, an Online Barometer
By KIM SEVERSON
If you are in Oregon this Thanksgiving, you stand a better than average chance of encountering Tofurkey. More people in New York are looking for caterers to prepare the holiday meal than anywhere else in the country. Live in the Southeast? Brace yourself for a big scoop of broccoli casserole. And no matter where in the United States you are, don’t be surprised if the host molds refrigerated breadstick dough and bakes it into a cornucopia centerpiece. It is the break-out hit recipe of the season at Allrecipes.com, the nation’s largest cooking Web site.Now that millions of cooks seek out recipes online, the culinary habits of a nation on its greatest food holiday can be codified and analyzed — a boon for marketers and trend watchers.
There are no huge surprises. Millions of people will, in fact, eat turkey. But regional differences and the precise time that Thanksgiving panic kicks in can be pinpointed as never before. At all the big food Web sites, traffic on the day before Thanksgiving dwarfs that of all other days.
By 9 p.m. Wednesday, 785,000 people had looked up turkey recipes at Allrecipes.com. For most of the day, the site was handling one million page views an hour.
“We built server capacity for the day before Thanksgiving, then use only 50 percent of it the rest of the year,” said Lisa Sharples, president of the site, which is based in Seattle. For the last five years, Google searches for Thanksgiving recipes have climbed steadily, doubling from 2007 to 2008, according to results from Insights for Search, a tool that indexes the volume of Google search trends.
By comparison, things are relatively sleepy over at the Butterball hot line. This Thanksgiving, the turkey experts expect to handle about 11,000 phone calls. That is the same as last year. The action has moved online, which is why this year, for the first time, hot line operators are answering questions on Twitter. “Definitely, this is where newer cooks are going for information,” said Bridget O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Butterball.
It is hard to draw very many conclusions based on search trends. The fact that cooks in the Southeast rarely look up crust recipes could mean that they are not interested in pies or that they bake so many that no one needs to be told how to do it. And what of all the searches for “cheese ball” in the Midwest? Do people in Indiana just forget how to make it each year, or are cheese balls winning new converts? We may never know why cooks in North Carolina show more interest in sweet potatoes, their most-queried side dish, than people in any other state. Or why a broccoli casserole belt extends through Appalachia and ends in Florida. International trends can even be figured out. Spanish-language Google hunts for Thanksgiving recipes are most fervent in Panama, a country popular with American expatriates, especially retirees.
That pumpkin is far and away the most searched-for pie recipe on Google is not a surprise. But that apple has upset pecan for runner-up is. In Wisconsin, apple is the winner. In Mississippi, that honor falls to pecan.
The rhythm of the nation’s kitchens can also be parsed, on an hour-by-hour basis. At Allrecipes.com, pie searches got the most action on Wednesday morning. But by 10 a.m., people began earnest hunts for sweet potato casserole and stuffing recipes. By noon, 100,000 people had searched for mashed potato recipes. The real outlier is gravy. If this Thanksgiving Day is anything like last year’s, most searches will slow by 10 a.m. But not gravy. That vexing cook’s kryptonite should peak about 3 p.m. Search data are also a way to track the Thanksgiving trends, which cycle through the years like hemlines. Curiosity about deep-fried turkey is growing faster than questions about brining, with Allrecipes.com reporting a 188 percent jump in people viewing information on the technique this year over 2008.
Last week at Epicurious, whose recipes come from the pages of Gourmet and Bon Appétit, there were a few search surprises. Brussels sprouts were in the top 10. So was pumpkin pie, which peaked earlier than usual. People who work at the site attributed the rush to news reports of a possible canned pumpkin shortage. For companies interested in driving deep into the psychology of cooks, this new insight into Thanksgiving cooking habits is a potential game-changer. Now, someone selling turkey-frying kettles or frozen pie shells can more easily figure out what people need and, perhaps more important, why they need it.
“Almost every human emotion could possibly start a search,” said Kevin Kells, head of consumer packaged goods for Google. That could include the thrill-seeking cook looking to make a turducken (a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey) or the jittery novice who cannot bake. “When you marketed in the past, you had to guess at the consumer’s motivation,” Mr. Kells said. “Now you have the answers to that right in front of you.”
For marketing executives at Safeway, the third-largest grocery store chain in the country, taking advantage of search traffic was simply a matter of following the cooks. “Our overall digital strategy is that we want our content where people are looking for information,” said Michael Minasi, president of marketing. And, he said, that is largely YouTube, especially for younger cooks who do not have much experience preparing festive holiday meals. So last year, the company made a YouTube video of a streamlined two-hour turkey recipe. “How to” is the second-largest category on YouTube. Type in “how to cook a turkey” and you can pick from more than 3,700 videos. “How to roast a turkey” offers another 3,800. For Rob Barrett, a 44-year-old father in Minneapolis, such requests could prove lucrative. He expects as many as 10,000 people to view his homemade 10-minute clip about cooking turkey this year. He claims that he now makes about a quarter of his income from sponsorship for his videos on YouTube and his Web site, Cooking for Dads.
Of course, all of this electronic help does not change the reality that Thanksgiving dinner, while not particularly complex, is a challenge to get on the table. Google all you want, but it is still up to the cook to put the turkey in the oven in time. And for all the regional distinctions shown by search data, at least one trait unifies the nation’s cooks. We are procrastinators. The extremely high search volume on Wednesday means many people were making menu and shopping decisions at the last minute. “As a snapshot of America,” said Tanya Wenman Steel, the editor in chief of Epicurious, “it shows that people aren’t planning.”