Rosalind Brazel was up early on Thanksgiving morning two years ago to make her traditional rolls. She got out all the ingredients and turned on her tablet to search for her favorite recipe at Allrecipes.com. Which was loading really, really slowly. She didn’t have time to wait.
Brazel, a communications director for a consumer advocacy group in Seattle, had made the rolls on enough holidays in the past to remember most of the steps on her own, but they still didn’t turn out quite right – they were dense, not fluffy like they should have been. She had forgotten to temper the butter, she realized later, when she was able to access the website.
Not an ideal scenario for a company relied upon by 80 million home cooks around the world, with the biggest food site, by traffic, in the world. So in Allrecipes’ twentieth year, it wanted to up its game, especially for the busy year-end holiday season. It migrated to the Microsoft cloud in September, and Brazel – who’s been relying on the site since 2000, when she was a TV reporter in Louisiana – couldn’t be happier.
“Since the switch, things pop up faster and load more quickly,” Brazel said as she cooked Pasta Fazool from a Chef John video, frequently pushing “pause and rewind” on her tablet while following his instructions. “There used to be a time when you couldn’t replay a video over and over like this, because it would just get stuck and time out, and you’d have to stop in the middle of cooking and reload the recipe. But now it’s pretty solid.”
Seattle-based Allrecipes boasts a collection of more than 60,000 recipes for home cooks looking for mealtime inspiration and direction in their moment of need, whether it’s for a romantic dinner or a quick weeknight meal for kids who refuse to eat broccoli. So it’s not a casual service that can get away with being unpredictable or slow – users depend on it. And traffic patterns are spiky, with surges in the afternoons, on weekends, on the first day of football season, and, above all, during the holidays.
The holiday season, starting with Halloween in October, through Thanksgiving in the U.S. at the end of November and Christmas at the end of December, is such a big deal for Allrecipes that staff spend 10 months preparing new technologies for it and trying to improve site performance from the previous year. “It’s a long slog,” says Chief Technology Officer John Keane. The website gets a month’s worth of traffic in the 24 hours before Thanksgiving.
“When we looked back on our site’s performance for Thanksgiving last year, we didn’t feel like we met our own expectations to provide the best possible experience for our home cooks,” Keane says. “Migrating to the cloud not only made it a breeze for us to handle spikes in traffic and load, but it also provided other capabilities that are allowing us to increase the level of personalization for the cooking experience.”
With machine learning through Cortana Analytics Suite, Allrecipes is now serving up recipe recommendations for users based on their own past likes and dislikes as well as those of the cooks they follow. Cortana’s recommendations also take into account that a Sunday lunch recipe search will be different than one for a Wednesday dinner, for example, and that on a 70-degree day in Miami, people will want a slow-cooker recipe to warm their bellies, whereas the same temperature in Minneapolis will have cooks grilling outdoors with margaritas in hand.
Cortana also keeps track of personal preferences, so vegetarians won’t be bothered with recipes that contain meat. And it allows users to both include and exclude certain ingredients in their searches – enabling them to simply list what’s in their fridge to see what recipe recommendations might be a good match. Allrecipes has a structured taxonomy and classification system of more than 2,000 attributes that fuels the algorithm, so staff members tag recipes with characteristics such as hard or easy, kid-friendly, and sweet or savory.
“The secret sauce, for me, is that our engineers have so many priorities to focus on, we’re not a huge company, and we can’t staff a big machine-learning team,” Keane says, “but what we were able to do with one or two people was to get recommendations on this Cortana machine-learning engine and get it up and running.”
The improvements are focused on energizing home cooks with confidence and capturing “the millennial spirit” of people with a passion for cooking who want to be adventurous, Keane says.
“Millennials expect what they see on the internet to be relevant to them,” he says. “I want us to be the Pandora of food and provide a deeply personal cooking experience for cooks around the world. And to do that, we had to start with the basics of being able to host it on a platform that could sustain the ebb and flow of traffic.”
Peak traffic times have shifted later in the day as more people access the site on connected devices while they’re shopping or cooking, rather than using it to plan in advance. “About 10 to 15 percent of page views happen in a grocery store,” Keane says. “So when we’re not there for them, it’s a real problem. It’s critical that we always have accessibility and speed.”
Kim Mancuso isn’t a millennial, but the mother of two teenagers in an Atlanta suburb says Allrecipes has expanded her family’s culinary horizons, especially now that the feed of recommendations has been changing more frequently with this year’s improvements. The increased diversity is particularly welcome since Mancuso, whose popular Allrecipes profile is “Kim’s Cooking Now,” has used the site every day since she stumbled on it in 2002.
Mancuso got used to printing out recipes in advance for high-profile holidays, just in case traffic overwhelmed the site, but she says this year she didn’t need the paper versions. “Stability has gotten better, and I didn’t have any problems over Thanksgiving this year,” she says.
“Switching to the cloud has reduced capital expenses and improved the experience for Allrecipes techs as well,” Keane notes.
“My people are able to be more strategic now, because they’re no longer focused on getting a patch onto web server 23,” he says. “Last Thanksgiving was like the Wizard of Oz, with us all back there flipping levers as traffic was ramping up. It was a lot of work. Now we let Microsoft worry about the background, and we can work on improving how our site and services are behaving in the ecosystem.”
Allrecipes has reduced the page-load time by 25 percent, along with improvements in responsiveness and refresh time.
Users are noticing. This is the biggest holiday season yet, with the highest traffic in Allrecipes’ nearly 20 years – 11.1 million visits – experienced the day before Thanksgiving. That’s 27 percent more than the same time period last year, and it’s about four times the typical level for a Wednesday. Just a year or two ago, Allrecipes was logging a million visits a day; around Thanksgiving this year, it got more than a million visits an hour.
(Allrecipes worked with Microsoft for this blog post.)
Posted by Esmee Williams
Allrecipes, Vice President,
Consumer & Brand Strategy