BBC Food at 20; its biggest year

Jen Hartshorne, Dan Morehead & David Fine

BBC Home, Design and Engineering

20 years ago when BBC Food was first created we would never have imagined how we’d be celebrating its 20th anniversary. The average weekly traffic across all weeks in 2020 was 3.4m unique UK browsers, which was up +74% on the average for the previous calendar year. The peak weekly traffic came at Easter with 6.4m UK unique browsers. That’s quite a birthday party!

2020 wasn’t an ordinary year

Back in March 2020, as stocks in shops diminished, more people found themselves at home and people juggled a working life with childcare, there were overnight changes to everyday behaviours up and down the country.

Banana bread
Banana bread

On 16th March the country was asked to start restricting movements and interestingly, within a couple of days of the press conference, we saw that Google search trends heavily featured bread searches. In fact, 7 of the top 10 Food and Drink related searches included bread. It comes as no surprise then that 10 of BBC Food’s most popular 40 pages that week were bread related, with a huge nod towards banana bread. People weren’t only turning to bread though, as another 10 of BBC Food’s most popular 40 pages were related to baking in general. There was a particular period in lockdown where the top 20 recipes contained no family cooking. It was 19 baking recipes — plus Dalgona coffee (a viral trend that had a moment and performed fantastically for us at the time).

The below outlines what went on to be the most popular recipes of 2020:

Fluffy American pancakes
Fluffy American pancakes
Easy chocolate cake
Easy chocolate cake
Classic Carrot Cake
Classic Carrot Cake

The BBC Food search became popular as we approached summer, and even became the most popular page on BBC Food. This is because people started searching for what to do with specific ingredients that were in their store cupboard, either because they were shielding and couldn’t go out or because of limited supplies in shops.

We also began to see article content drive traffic, particularly articles related to coping through lockdown — health, budgeting, limited ingredients. Below are the top 20 articles of 2020:

As the year went on the trends observed above continued, sometimes to a lesser extent dependent on the layers of lockdown applied at any given time and location.

  • January: no real trends (Fluffy American pancakes, 171k unique UK visitors)
  • February: pancakes! Fluffy American pancakes, Basic pancakes with sugar, and How to make pancakes rounded out our top 3 in Feb, totalling 1.16m.
  • March: Fluffy American pancakes, banana bread starts its rise to stardom, and easy white bread, totalling 900k.
  • April: Banana bread, 657k.
  • May: Mary Berry’s scones for VE Day — 570k.
  • June: Fluffy American pancakes — 321k.
  • July: Fluffy American pancakes — 259k.
  • August: Fluffy American pancakes — 254k.
  • September: Fluffy American pancakes — 205k.
  • October: Fluffy American pancakes — 256k.
  • November: Fluffy American pancakes — 254k. But, Christmas Cake close behind with 238k.
  • December: Gingerbread men with 398k — the honey-glazed ham a little behind with 326k.
Mary Berry’s scones
Mary Berry’s scones were popular to celebrate VE Day

Popular peaks

These trends, alongside regular annual events, helped to determine the most popular peak days on BBC Food:

  • 24 December — Christmas Eve (Honey-glazed gammon; Article — The Christmas treats we need to make a comeback)
  • 12 April — Easter Sunday (Roast leg of lamb with garlic & rosemary; Yorkshire puddings; fluffy American pancakes; roast calculator)
  • 18 April (Search; Homepage; fluffy American pancakes)
  • 13 April — Easter Monday (Article — how to use your freezer better; banana bread)
  • 3 May (Fluffy American pancakes; Search)
  • 29 March — first Sunday of lockdown (Banana bread; fluffy American pancakes; Search)
  • 4 April (Budget homepage; banana bread; Search; fluffy American pancakes)
  • 2 April (Article — how to make bread with plain flour; Article — Chefs’ top tips for when we’re short on supplies)
  • 11 April — Easter Saturday (Search; fluffy American pancakes)
  • 19 April (Search; fluffy American pancakes)

Following the most successful year for BBC Food we then completed this with the biggest Christmas we’ve seen. During Christmas week we achieved 5.1m UK unique browsers on BBC Food, this beats our previous highest Christmas peak (set in 2019) by 33%. Our peak hours came between 1pm and 6pm on Christmas Eve, followed by 11am to 1pm on Christmas day. The most popular recipe (by quite some way) during Christmas week was the Honey-glazed gammon which received 226,523 visitors.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/traditional_honey-glazed_52289
Honey-glazed gammon

Budget cooking and Daily Kitchen Live

With changes happening very quickly, we had to look at how BBC Food could be there to ensure the nation made the most of the food that was in their store cupboard. A new topical budget index was put together incredibly quickly so we could respond to an audience need. It combines articles and recipes; the editorial team commission recipes and feature articles that educate audiences in healthy eating and eating better on a budget. They also produce educational video content to teach basic cooking skills and work with qualified dietitians and experienced home economists to make sure the health and budget advice is evidence-based.

Budget recipe promo banner

In April, ‘Saturday Kitchen’ turned up the dial and turned into a daily show, ‘Daily Kitchen Live’.

As all the recipes came into the BBC Food website, we fed in our search trend findings so we could use it to fill any commissioning blanks and in turn attempt to increase reach further.

Changes to trends: Reactive SEO

When conducting any keyword research for SEO purposes, we would typically take into consideration the average monthly search volume of terms. The average would obviously be influenced by seasonality, but the terms with higher search volumes are typically much more competitive as a lot of sites compete to rank and gain traffic.

Lockdown meant that there was nothing “average” about search behaviour and traditional search volumes went out of the window.

‘How to make’ Google search volumes

Using Google Trends we were able to analyse the changing behaviour, as in the above screenshot, which shows the rise in queries related to ‘how to make’ in the Food & Drink category during the first week that the UK went into lockdown at the end of March.

By conducting trends analysis you can then see top and rising queries related to a phrase or topic in order to determine whether your site already contains related content or if new content needs to be produced to fulfil this new user intent. It can take some time to commission, test, photograph, and upload new recipes, so adapting or promoááting existing content was key to maximising visibility during this period.

‘How to make …’ became an extremely popular range of queries during the initial lockdown period, as the UK began to adapt to the new challenges of 2020.

If we look at Google’s Search Console data, beginning on the date of Boris Johnson’s initial press conference advising British people to stay at home, we can see that there were approx 2.5m visits to bbc.co.uk for queries containing ‘how to make’.

The query driving the largest amount of traffic during this time was ‘how to make a face mask’, which the News team had covered. The other four are food related, which was reflecting the growing trends in home cooking and baking during lockdown.

In order to quickly analyse what was driving organic traffic, a Google Data Studio report was spun up, allowing easy access for all stakeholders to specify a date range in order to view the most popular recipes which were being accessed, along with the search queries which drove them.

It was at this point that the banana bread baking craze was in full swing and began to register record-level organic traffic to the Food site.

Changing Spikes

Typically, there are two organic traffic peaks for the BBC Food site during the year. The biggest peak is during the week building up to Christmas when the public are planning their shopping lists (or leaving searching for recipes right until the last minute on Christmas Eve or Day as millions seem to do!).

The second peak is at pancake day, when the nation is split between those who prefer Delia Smith’s pancakes with sugar and lemon juice, and those who fancy American-style fluffy pancakes. Perhaps unexpectedly, the American-style have consistently been one of the most popular recipes on the entire Food site.

In the below graph we can see the spike for Pancake Day traffic at the end of February, before lockdown was announced. With restaurants and takeaways closed across all nations of the UK during a similar period, demand for recipes skyrocketed.

Overnight, this particular banana bread recipe became one of the most popular pages across the entire BBC online estate, with over 11 million organic visits between the UK’s lockdown beginning on 23rd March and ending on 4th July (for England — end dates vary per nation).

Top Search Terms Driving Traffic During the UK’s Lockdown (23/3/20–4/7/20):

Christmas Trends

Using the experience of 2019 alongside our historic traffic data, we had been preparing for BBC Food to receive its greatest amount of seasonal traffic at Christmas 2020.

This period can be split into three distinct sections:

  • Pre-Christmas (1st-23rd December)
  • Christmas (24th & 25th December)
  • Post-Christmas(26th-31st December)

Pre-Christmas

Although it can be tempting to start this period even earlier as some people make Christmas cakes as early as September, the pre-Christmas period of 1st-23rd December is when we start to really see the traffic ramping up to an annual high. Comfort food and mulled wine takes centre stage in December as the temperature drops further.

Shortbread
Shortbread

Top 5 Search Terms Pre-Christmas 2019:

The top 5 terms saw only slight changes in 2020, with more Brits enjoying eggnog than ever before.

Gingerbread men
Gingerbread men

Top 5 Search Terms Pre-Christmas 2020:

Christmas

Whilst the majority of research for shopping purposes has been done in advance, once Christmas Eve hits, the public begin to search for how to actually cook the turkey they have purchased.

Rather than searching for the vague term “christmas dinner”, searchers are typically looking for how to cook the specific elements of their meals.

Perhaps surprisingly, Google Trends indicated that red cabbage was the most searched recipe during this period in 2019 and our own data also puts it on top spot.

Red Cabbage

Top 5 Search Terms Christmas 2019:

Red cabbage lost its top spot last year.

Yorkshire pudding

Top 5 Search Terms Christmas 2020:

Post Christmas

Once Christmas dinner is out of the way, it is time for the leftovers to shine, with turkey pies and curries moving to top of the trends.

Turkey and ham pie
Leftover turkey and ham pie

Top 5 Search Terms Post-Christmas 2019:

Leftover turkey curry
Leftover turkey curry

Top 5 Search Terms Post-Christmas 2020:

What’s Next?

Although reactive SEO arguably played a bigger part last year than any before, it is still necessary to plan ahead for events we know will always be big in the food calendar — with Veganuary now in full flow and then Pancake Day just around the corner, there’s plenty to sink our teeth into.


BBC Food at 20; its biggest year was originally published in BBC Design + Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: BBC

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