Chowhound.com has developed a devoted following since its inception in 1997. Drawing on its millions of users, the website yields reliable recommendations on dining gems around the world. Discussions about food and recipes are specific and nuanced.
But now a website redesign has ignited an uproar, causing some users to leave and form their own sites, and others to wonder about Chowhound’s fate. Among the 500-plus comments after the Sept. 10 rollout are: “Unusable,” “The redesign is so bad, I am still laughing,” and “Browsing this on mobile is slower than molasses.” Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff, who sold the website to CNET in 2006, called the redesign a “miasma of inexplicable flexibility.”
Longtime user Tatsu Ikeda of Boston says, “Chowhound hadn’t changed much since the ’90s. It was a massively overgrown bulletin board. It was very rudimentary.” Updates in the past didn’t go well, he says. “But this is a pretty radical change.”
The redesign includes a new logo and brighter colors, more photos, and more panels to click. One big change provoking users’ ire is the abolition of regional message boards — i.e., Greater Boston Area, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles Area, etc. — where users scrolled through topic headlines before selecting one to read, or to join in discussion threads. Now users select topical communities, such as “restaurants and bars” or “grocery stores.” Then users add tags of words or phrases to their selected communities to filter specific cities, cuisines, ingredients, etc.
“The tagging system doesn’t work that well,” says Sampson Shen, a longtime San Francisco area user. “The system tries to be intelligent and be relevant but you might not get all relevant posts, say, from Boston.” Shen is so upset with the redesign that he began his own nonprofit food forum website, Hungryonion.org, that harks back to Chowhound’s earliest format.
CBS Interactive, which acquired Chowhound in 2008, is receptive to constructive criticism. “We want to get it right for the community,” says Susan Lundgren, a San Francisco-based spokeswoman. “We redesigned Chowhound to make it easier for both our long-term and new users to quickly find and discover the topics, resources, and conversations that are most important to them.” Lundgren cites August 2015 audience measurement figures from comScore attesting to Chowhound’s strength. In addition to 10.2 million unique users per month (versus 7.8 million for Eater.com), Chowhound has had 30 percent growth in desktop year over year, and 70 percent mobile unique user growth, she says.
Lundgren acknowledges that Chowhound’s new tag system is designed, in part, to increase Chowhound’s presence in Google searches. But alienating current users with new features like tags is risky. “The redesign is a big deal to users and they are the value to the property,” notes Nicole Junas Ravlin of the New England-based People Making Good public relations company. Ravlin is also a longtime Chowhound user. “Chowhound users engage on a daily basis, like
Facebook’s daily users, and if people aren’t visiting as often or not anymore, then it’s hard to win them back.”
Ikeda says Chowhound is “still very usable” but worries about its future. “It really is the world’s greatest ongoing discussion about food wherever you are on the planet,” he says. “But [since the redesign] site activity is low. There was a lot of breadth from some users who have left and they’re not coming back. [CBS] obviously rolled out the new design too fast.”
Many users have left posts on founder Leff’s blog of plans to start their own websites. Leff cautions that building a strong community is difficult.
“I feel your pain,” Leff writes on Jim Leff’s Slog. “I understand the impulse to angrily walk away. . . . I wish you godspeed (and vast deliciousness) either way!”