The Missing Ingredient at CNET

If you've ever watched Iron Chef and insisted that you could top the pros in a culinary challenge, CNET Networks (Nasdaq: CNET  ) is throwing down the spatula.

Tomorrow, CNET's Chow.com is launching the Food Fight Recipe Challenge, a monthly contest series looking to find creative cooks within its growing community of foodies.

February's challenge? Macaroni and cheese. Nice pick. Everyone knows how to make it, and it gives kitchen caddies a wide palette to paint on, since it's so easily spruced up with colorful sprinkles like tasso ham or sun-dried tomatoes.

There is one problem with the recipe, though: It could use a little more bread. Something a little green. Following me? There's a missing ingredient in what could be a killer recipe. Let me walk you through the prep process to explain what I mean.

As someone who is a better consumer than a creator when it comes to food, I spend more time on CNET's Chowhound.com message boards than on Chow itself. At Chowhound, area foodies share tips on the best restaurants in town.

More to see at CNET
Maybe you didn't even know that CNET is a culinary magnet. Most people associate CNET with its namesake tech news and consumer-electronics reviews. However, the company also owns the popular Gamespot.com site, not to be confused with the GameStop (NYSE: GME  ) retail chain, though both are familiar to die-hard video game aficionados. Other CNET properties include TV.com, Search.com, and Download.com.

If CNET has been making news in recent weeks, it's probably more for its proxy fight -- with activist shareholders jockeying for change -- than over a food fight. Too bad, because CNET has been expanding its lifestyle hubs in recent quarters, including the Chow makeover.

However, there's something about the Chow.com food fight eating away at me. (Pun intended.) I love how it's incorporating the new member-recipe features on the site. Getting the community to vote on a winner, as entrants upload recipes and tasty digital snapshots, is the right viral approach. I'm just stumped at the end result of this contest.

"The winner will get bragging rights and his or her recipe featured on CHOW's home page," reads this morning's press release. Really? That's it? If I can heave a second pun into this story, that's just cheesy.

Why isn't CNET coming up with a niftier prize? Better yet, why doesn't it compile the best recipes into a book -- and it has the connections to do so -- with some snazzy title like Chow.com's Best Macaroni & Cheese Recipes? In turn, CNET could pay royalties to the book's contributors, based on how many books sell.

The winner is a loser
You may think I'm crazy, but this simple "bragging rights" approach to stocking the prize drawer is emblematic of why CNET as a company is in a funk. It just doesn't know how to incentivize its users. Why are folks no longer flocking to CNET's TechRepublic to share their tech acumen? Well, because they're off setting up their own blogs on sites such as Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Blogger, and making money on their words through contextual marketing programs such as Google's AdSense or Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) YPN. Why aren't folks uploading their tunes to CNET's MP3.com? Because sites such as Snocap and CBS' (NYSE: CBS  ) Last.fm are actually paying them for their streams.

CNET is a company with many quality moving parts. However, it is growing more slowly than the dot-com darlings are, because it has failed to keep up with the Web 2.0 monetization that has turned millions of casual Web users into coin collectors.

I'm not suggesting that CNET needs to bribe its users into participation. It's just that "bragging rights" is no longer the currency of choice in cyberspace.

You know what's missing in CNET's mac 'n' cheese recipe? Tasty financial incentives.

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