When I fell into blogging a while back, there were about ten people blogging about food. We were a fairly chummy bunch and met up for meals, swapped links, ideas, and technical tips as the medium continued to grow. It was all pretty small-scale until the whole thing blossomed into something that few likely would have predicted.
For years I’ve generally shied away from giving advice or offering opinion. After all, everyone’s blog is different and like lots of other things, it’s impossible to pinpoint what makes a blog click or even how to do it. What suits one person often doesn’t become another and people get into blogging for a myriad of reasons. But at the recent Food Blogger Camp, I compiled some thoughts for my presentation and wanted to share them here. Please note that although I do point out some things that have clicked for me, there’s plenty of terrific blogs out there that do the complete opposite of what I say and/or do, and work very well. There’s not a “right” or “wrong” way to blog and all points are certainly open to interpretation and discussion.
I wasn’t sure of the impact we’d had on the participants who came to the camp, since it was a hectic few days, until a few weeks afterward when I noticed almost all the bloggers who attended started radically changing their blogs; redesigning them, replacing hard-to-read fonts, getting rid of clutter, making them easier to read, and most of all, blogging with a renewed sense of fun and excitement.
The first things to ask yourself are “Why am I blogging?” and “What am I going to blog about?” Most people are blogging for fun rather than for professional reasons, and most just want to share recipes or food-related experiences. A while after I started my blog, I was talking to Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes and said “My blog isn’t a food blog” and she gave me a look of disbelief. But the more I think about it now, the more I realize that my site (or any food blog) isn’t just about food, cooking, and recipes. It’s thoughts and stories that we want to share, some involving food and recipes, but not always. To be a food blog (or writer) doesn’t mean you have to just recount recipes; often it’s the stories associated with cooking, shopping, or feeding others that are richer than lists of ingredients and putting together a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
The main thing you want to do is to find your niche and say something that people will enjoy reading or learning from you. We all have different personalities and highlighting yours in your blog is the most important thing you can do to differentiate yourself from others.
Getting traffic is a big goal for a lot of people, but that’s really not something anyone should focus on, especially when starting out. Instead work on giving people a reason to come back to your site. There’s an old saying that says “If you keep your eyes on the future, you can’t see the present.” If you’re just looking to get a pile of people leaving comments, you may as well just post recipes that include a cup of corn syrup or tell readers that you recommend running a cast iron skillet through the dishwasher. You’re not going to gain a following—or be happy—if it’s drudgery or you’re trying to merely use SEO (search engine optimization) tips to get the attention of Google. Write for readers, not algorithms.
Like professional writers, people write blogs for a variety of reasons. I would venture to say that a majority of writers (professional and non-professional) write because they have something to say. Blogging isn’t a popularity contest and I read a number of small, barely noticed blogs that I find interesting. But like professional cooking, which the media has created a bit of a frenzy by turning it into a series of ‘contests’, what only matters in the end is what’s on the plate. If you do what you love, the readers will (hopefully) come.
I’ve attempted to organize topics into some semblance of order, so please excuse any disparate elements as there’s a few places where ideas overlap. Some things I mention, a few will disagree with. But that’s what makes blogging so interesting, is the variety of styles and presentations. Blogging isn’t always easy, but it’s a lot of fun reading and participating in the discussion, and enjoying the diversity of styles and divergent opinions represented out there.
1. Develop your own style.
If you read blogs, you likely follow favorites that you go back to over and over again. That’s because you like the distinct voice and style of the author. Be yourself, don’t try to copy anyone. It won’t come off as genuine. Hank Shaw said something along the lines of “People should be able to read your writing without your byline (name) and know who wrote it.”
There are a lot of very good food writers, such as Julia Child, who could combine explaining a recipe along with certain turns that make the recipe hers. That was her voice. However blogs are more conversational than books and rules are a little more relaxed, so don’t be afraid to be more personal or do things different. If you stay in your comfort zone you’ll never change or proceed forward. Find a specific angle rather than describing just what’s on the plate. We all know soup is hot, rich, creamy, liquid, delicious, warming, comforting, and good with a dollop of crème fraîche. (And if yours isn’t, you might not want to be sharing it.) Think about what it is about that soup that will make it your story and why you like it so much, rather than the obvious.
For example, if you make squash soup…is it really that interesting that it’s your husband’s favorite soup? What is interesting about your husband? Did he grow up on a squash farm? Did he squash your mother’s favorite doll by accident? And why should readers care about him? Sure you love him. But even if you don’t, there’s likely a deeper story in there. Especially if you don’t. (In which case, you might not want to share that.)
Gertrude Stein told an artist, who later became a very famous impressionist: “Don’t paint what is there, paint what you see.”
So write what you see. I know there are lists of words that you’re not supposed to use when writing about food, so do think about using certain words like “delicious” and “unctuous” too much when writing. (Although some foods really are just delicious and unctuous, and it’s hard to avoid them.) But are there better words you can drum up?
The hardest thing I ever had to write was the headnote for the Vanilla Ice Cream recipe in my ice cream book. I mean, what hasn’t been said already about vanilla ice cream already? And is it really that interesting to write, “This refreshing vanilla ice cream is perfect with apple crisp or chocolate cake.” ZZzzzzzzzz. So it was an exercise in probing the depths of my shallow brain to find something else to say. (No one said writing was easy, folks.) Amber who attended Food Blog Camp, ended up not writing a description of the seminars, or the food (or the margaritas) but the event prompted memories of a best friend, so she ended up penning a heartfelt description of how the event transformed her and her writing.
Writing is as much about editing as it is about merely writing a bunch of stuff down. People like Matt Armendariz (who has a traditional media background, where word count matters) and Heidi Swanson, keep it short, concise, and neat, and don’t beat around the bush. I don’t know how much editing they do, but I’ve spent hours writing whole paragraphs, then re-read them the next day and deleted them. (You might think there’s a lot of endless rambling here on the site, but believe me, you should see what gets tossed into my trash folder before I publish it.)
“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” -Elmore Leonard
Because bloggers can write as much as they want, we tend to overdo it. Check your statistics and see how long readers spend on your site, then tailor your posts so they can be read in about that length of time. If you’re not sure, two minutes is a good goal. Editing is probably fifty percent of writing and taking stuff off the page (or computer screen) means readers can focus more on what is on there. You don’t need to dumb anything down, but if you watch or read good comedy, you see the importance of a sharp, succinct punchline and not lot of extraneous matter.
Another thing you want to avoid are too many exclamation marks. F. Scott Fitzgerald said “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” A good trick is to go through and limit yourself to one per entry. Or none. But there are no absolutes and rules should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt and we all be allowed to laugh at our own jokes once in a while. (I mean, if they’re not funny to us, how can we expect others to find them amusing?) Blogs are more about quick, off the cuff information, so bloggers tend to use more dashes and exclamation marks and parentheses because that’s how one might normally talk in a conversation. I’ve been making a concerted effort to use less in forums like Twitter because I’m not sure everything in my life is really all that funny. Well, at least to others. But I find some of the stuff that happens to me hilarious. (If I didn’t, I would have daily meltdowns.)
As Mel Brooks said: “If you’re quiet, you’re not living. You’ve got to be noisy, colorful, and lively.”
Same with blogging. So make some noise! (With or without that exclamation mark..)
2. Get those photos down.
I remember buying my first digital point-and-shoot camera eight or ten years ago. It was a little compact number and was wildly expensive, over $500. I recently upgraded to a better DSLR (digital single lens reflect), which cost less than what is now considered that outdated piece of crap. Good digital cameras have become a lot more affordable and if you can get your hands on one, even the cheapest model (like the Rebel that I have), your pictures will be a lot better.
People have become very, very visually oriented. People loved Gourmet magazine because it had an outstanding, stop-you-in-your-tracks photo on every cover and it was hard to resist not looking at those covers. People scooting around the web, if they land on an uninspired or out-of-focus photo, they likely won’t stay on your site. Never, ever put a bad or out-of-focus picture on your blog. (Unless you accompany it with a story noting that the photo was a dud, and then it can be funny.) People have very high standards these days about photos because so many people have digital single lens reflex cameras, which making taking a decent photograph relatively easy.
I used to say you need a DSLR but I’ve seen good pictures from point-and-shoots and iPhones. If using a point and shoot or smartphone:
1. Shoot outside, not in full sunlight.
2. Never use the flash.
3. Zoom in a bit; the most extreme position on those zoom lenses distort things.
4. Avoid extreme close ups, which makes food look goofy.
5. If using a smartphone, consider using an app like Instagram to make the photos more artful.
Use photos to tell the story. A nice picture is one thing, but your photos should augment the text, or vice-versa. Show the process, not just the end result. Use photos to show steps of a recipe that might be confusing or need clarification, like how to slice mangoes or boning a fish. Show the tree that grew that persimmon. Don’t let the props overwhelm the food.
Use photos to break up big blocks of text. People have a hard time reading lengthy paragraphs on a small screen, especially those of us with painfully short attention spans. I will curl up on the sofa with a New Yorker magazine but I don’t do that with my laptop. You don’t have to dumb down your text, but make it easier to read.
3. Find cheap ways to dial up your blog.
The most important thing I did for my site was to have it professionally designed. It was not inexpensive, and when I wrote the check, I was trembling. I cried when I sent it and it dashed my dreams of ever owning that black Yves Saint-Laurent suit that made me look like a million bucks. But it has paid off and I love my site and the fellow who redesigned it; it’s easy to navigate and has become an important part of my life.
Not everyone has a lot of time or money to fix up their blog and make it flashy. But the good news is that online, less is more. And if you don’t believe me, look at Google, which is the number-one most visited site on the internet. Other sites like Amazon and Ebay depend on relatively clean designs which makes them easy to use and navigate. Simple works.
How do you make your site look different than the others? If you’re on WordPress, there are thousands of themes to choose from. Lots of people are using Thesis, which is nice, but a lot of bloggers are using it now. So maybe find something else. I have zero technical ability but switching to WordPress this year made blogging a lot easier. (Although I had to write a few more checks for that.)
But you need to think about what your are hoping to achieve with your blog. If you really want more traffic, you need to spend time (and a little money) if you’re trying to make a go of it financially. One inexpensive trick you can do is hire someone to design a custom header or logo. Some people recommend hiring a design student who might be looking for extra work. However in my experience, you should only expect someone to give you back what you pay for and it’s worth investing in someone who will do a good job, not just the cheapest person out there.
I’m on the train for paying for stuff. When you work for yourself you see how much things cost and what they’re worth. Things like having a newsletter, blog maintenance, etc, aren’t free and paying provides a better user experience. If you have no budget, a pure white theme with block black letters works well.
Get rid of useless widgets and sidebar clutter and focus on content and pictures. Good examples of sites with very simple designs, which recede and highlight the compelling content are Sprouted Kitchen, A Life Worth Eating, deliciousdays, and Lottie + Doof.
4. Create good content and provide answers.
A restaurant owner recently told me, “This business is all about solving problems.” Yes, owning a restaurant is about serving food, but it’s also about how to get the food to the restaurant in the first place, then to customers. Then how to take payment, how to hire (and fire) people, and a plethora of other issues that arise.
Having a food blog can also be about solving problems. Some readers are just looking to food blogs for recipes, of course. But people are also looking for solutions, like how to break down a duck, make bacon, discover a great lemon bar recipe, or what to make for dinner. They’re also looking for views to another culture, a laugh, to something about a new ingredient, or cooking tips. Think about what questions readers might have—What is a Parisian food market like? Where should we eat in Paris? How much should we tip in France? What do we do if we’re coming to Paris and we’re gluten-free? These are posts I’ve done, that are food-related but certainly aren’t recipes or cooking tips.
Long gone are the days when you could write a “How to” post and have it linked everywhere. (And from the “Be careful what you wish for” file; I once got Stumbled Upon for a “How to” post and for a one day surge of traffic, my server hit me with a $371 bill.) And while helpful and interesting for readers, the larger food sites and the content farms pretty much covered almost all of the general cooking topics by now. (More about SEO later.) So it’s best to try and gauge your readers, new and returning, and reel ‘em in with writing about what they’re looking for. Blogging is a conversation and providing interesting content is part of that, and something the content farms can’t do, but the other is reacting and responding to what you readers might like.
Many people try to make their blogs addictive by tackling controversial topics to generate conversation and get shared on social media. (In spite of those $371 server bills.) You can tackle a controversial topic, but steel yourself for any disagreements that might break out in the comments and elsewhere, and get ready to mitigate them. I worked in professional kitchens for almost three decades and people still think they can say something that will shock me. But man, the stuff I’ve seen, well…let’s just say I’ve seen it all. And I mean all of it in my days.
The other downside is that you’ll have first-time visitors who might not be familiar with your style and may invoke their unpleasant wrath upon you. One controversial post is great to have people come to your site, but you want them to keep coming back. And you want to build a network of quality readers, not one-time stopovers looking to stir things up.
There are a lot of threads going around about what to say and what not to say on your blog. Don’t say a recipe is ‘fast’ or ‘easy’—show readers that it is. Like ‘seasonal’ and ‘fresh’, everything is seasonal and fresh these days so show readers that it is, don’t just say it. Todd and Diane at White on Rice Couple don’t have to talk about how fresh their fruits are because they show the fruits still clinging on the trees in their backyard. Similarly Elise of Simply Recipes shows that she believes in home cooking only using fresh ingredients and presenting procedural shots and photos to show how they’re used.
I am a little surprised when people say (or write) “I have nothing to post about…I need to write up a post!” which came up when I spoke at the Blogherfood conference a few years back. (About every mouth in the room hit the beige carpet when I said that I think I had about fifty unfinished posts in a folder on my computer.) I always think, “Why have a blog unless you have something to post?” It’s not homework. If you don’t have anything to say, you’re not going to get penalized for not saying anything. But everyone has to cook or eat at least three times a day so no one has any excuse for not having something to write about. Find inspiration from worrying about what to make for dinner, about finding a hard block of cauliflower puree nestled in the back of your freezer that you tried to disguise as hummus by blending it with peanut butter (sorry, yuck..), or the caramels you found smushed at the bottom of your purse next to your chapstick that you forgot were in there. (Then maybe inventing salted butter caramel-flavored lip balm?)
The main thing to remember is that a blog is a conversation between you and your readers A good exercise is to speak your dialogue out loud and if it sounds like the way you talk, then you’re doing it right. And most important, find out what makes you special. That will help you stand out in the crowd. It isn’t always easy to find an answer to that, but it’s one that’s important if you’re interested in getting people’s attention.
5. Choose title words carefully to give your blog character.
There’s a lot of discussions about what words you should and shouldn’t use in food writing. As mentioned, one school of thought says that “delicious” is a big no-no, although anyone who tunes into Food Network will see that “delicious” isn’t going away anytime soon and if they stopped saying that word they wouldn’t have a network anymore.
Aside from words like “yummy”, “tasty” and “sublime” (which have their detractors, although I’m on the fence), folks should be careful using words like “family” “musings” “seasonal” “fare” and “fast”. All of those words are pretty subjective and I recently saw a “fast” recipe that called for “1 cup of grapes, halved”, which doesn’t sound like a task one would get done all that quickly. (At least they weren’t peeled!) A blog is a conversation and unless you’re writing the Encyclopedia Brittanica, if you normally pepper your chats with a word like “musings” and “yummy”, then feel free to use them. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in any conversation but I’m not you.
(Backing up what I just said, I was once at a writer’s conference and the speaker said never use words like ‘opt’, and reinforced that by reading a sample of someone’s writing who used that word, following up by stating that “No one says opt.” I do, however, so I think it’s okay for me to use it. The point is to use words in your vocabulary, don’t reach for those that aren’t in there. I used the word “fare” recently because it seemed to fit. So there.)
When choosing a name for your site, or a tagline, try to give readers who land on your site an idea of what it’s about right off the bat. Anyone who has tried to sell a house or opted to buy a magazine because of the yummy, sublime, delicious fare on the cover, knows that first impressions matter.
Examples of blog titles that both give a clue about the content and the tone, and make you want to read more are My Kids Eat Squid, Hungry for Paris, 5 Second Rule, It’s Not You, It’s Brie, The Pioneer Woman, All That Splatters, 64 sq foot Kitchen, Three Many Cooks, Married…with Dinner, Matt Bites, and Shut Up Foodies!, which use action words—and a dash of humor, to tell you about the blog and the author in one concise phrase.
Add characters to your site. If you’re writing about your life, chances are there are interesting people that share your life, and table, as well. (If not, invite me over. I’m kind of interesting.) If you spend time with them, it’s likely others will want to as well. Some writers like to give others a bit of privacy, which is all well and good, but readers who are just joining your site for the first time don’t know who Q or X are, and I’ve found myself playing a little mental Scrabble trying to figure out who everyone is. (Tip: If you do that, perhaps put a glossary in your sidebar?) Readers may not comb your archives to look for where you introduced them. In my opinion, either use their real names, or just say “my husband”, or make up a pseudonym. Ree Drummond calls her cowboy husband “Marlboro Man”, Dorie Greenspan called her son “The Kid”, and Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl nicknamed her husband “The Chef”. All gave their characters a moniker, making them an intergral part and character in their stories.
6. Stop thinking about SEO.
Some say that search engine optimization (SEO) is the “snake oil” of the Internet. Whose spam folder isn’t filled with pitches to “Take your site to the top of all search engines”? But think about it; would you rather open your home to a whole bunch of people coming to swill cheap beer, or have a great bunch of guests come for a nice glass of wine (or microbrewed beer) who you’ll want to return over and over again?
Do not write for search engines. If you are writing for search engines, you are cheating readers. People who come to your site want to read what a human being is writing; not a SEO machine. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen shows up near the top of search engines, and arrives there because people consistently come back to her site not just for the recipes, but for her funny stories and sharp writing.
And if you’re still not convinced, personalities like Jason Kottke, The Oatmeal, and Wil Wheaton get boatloads of traffic but little of their material is based on subjects people are using search engines to find. I mean, when was the last time someone Googled—How to tell if your cat is trying to kill you?
Unless you are building a recipe database, readers may become bored just reading rote lists of recipes that you’re churning out. The top food blogs that are recipe databases have a personal touch and the recipes are invariably accompanied by a story that’s brief, but well-written, with a personal touch and a good photo.
A few years back you could write a post on a topic like peeling garlic or melting chocolate, and have a decent chance of getting to the top of the search engine pile. But some rather large sites and aggregators, and those “content farms” (sites that pay people $5-$15 to create brief posts based on popular search terms) have gotten into the game and it’s much harder to get to the top of that mountain anymore. And chasing that takes all the fun out of blogging, I think.
When I started blogging, I thought I would be near the top of Paris searches. But when I checked by searching for anything about Paris on the internet, I either got pages about Paris Hilton or the big hotel and travel sites selling stuff about my favorite city. Lil’ me doesn’t stand a chance. Since there was no way I’m going to get there, I started posting on topics that I felt would be of use to my readers, such as Tipping in Paris and Health Care Tips for Travelers Coming to France, along with restaurants and chocolate shops from time to time, because I have regular readers who either come to Paris or have friends coming, and they find that information useful.
When writing this up, I randomly thought of a post I did last year on French sugars, describing the differences and what they were since I was getting a lot of questions about them. It was an informative post (well, at least I thought it was…), and I just checked my statistics on my site and in the last 30 days, five people visited that post. Four left immediately (hrrmph!) and one stuck it out. So while it shows up as #1 when you search for “French Sugars” on Google, SEO ain’t everything.
My strategy, if you even call it that, is sometimes based on reading comments, following social media, or trying to deduce things others might be interested in. (However the phrase “Recipe…PLEASE!” is nails on a chalkboard.) So I hope that people use the site as a resource. I love my readers, especially those who share their favorite tips, resources, and places with me as well, and there’s a great interchange of ideas that happens in the comments and on social media. So we all win.
So think about it: Are you writing for fun, or just to get hits? If you’re writing just for hits, consider if that’s reason enough to be blogging.
7. Find a niche.
Hank Shaw writes about gutting squirrels and foraging for wild grass for salads. He won a Beard award, writes from the Atlantic website, and got a book contract. These topics may not yield monster traffic, but he’s writing sincerely and has a good core of devoted readers, so it works for him.
Small niches can be better than big ones. Let’s face it, there’s a plenty of cupcake blogs, or blogs about Paris. Why should anyone want to see your blog? Maybe a smaller idea is better than a big one? You might not want to hunt for fuzzy critters in the forest, but perhaps there’s a subject that you’d like to explore. Cupcakes and macarons have been covered, and although I like both, maybe you could start from zero—like Julie Powell did with her Julie and Julia blog—and tackle something new or interesting to you. Heidi Swanson took on her overflowing pile of cookbooks at 101 Cookbooks, you can head back in time like 18th Century Cuisine, Luisa Weiss went through the food sections of newspapers for The Wednesday Chef, or admit your status as a culinary novice, like Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet confesses to several times a week.
Don’t post “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while but…” which makes people think you’re bored with your blog or aren’t interested. So why should they be interested in it if you aren’t? Ree of The Pioneer Woman is likely the busiest person in the world with life on a ranch, scooping up cow piles, homeschooling four kids, and writing books, but she posts a few times a week. She’s posting what she makes for dinner—but that’s what it’s all about sometimes and she makes even a simple dinner interesting. So do try integrating your life into posts, not just recipes, but food-related stories that you can post quickly. I’ve found that sometimes those are my best posts.
If you don’t have time to post, do short posts. I have often been surprised at how much interest a short post that I put up quickly generates a lot more comments and attention than a long one with lots of photos and a recipe, which takes me oodles of time. Witness how that good comedian can make a big impression with just a couple of well-placed lines. Apply the same principle to writing about shopping or dinner. Find something interesting to say; make a cultural observation, present an unusual recipe (or give an old one your twist), show a technique, or write an opinion about something that you squarely believe in. Do it in sound bites.
Break up large blocks of text. When I want to read something long and involved, I will park myself on the sofa and dive in for a while. (Actually, I usually put on my pajamas and get in bed, even if it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon.) But on the Internet people have a lot less time; many are at work (and would get funny looks if they slipped on their jammies at 3pm), or commuting on a subway, or simply roaming around online reading things here and there.
Break up text with those pictures, dashes, spaces, and paragraphs, much more so than you might normally. I have zero attention span and if I see extremely long paragraphs, I don’t read a post or I go back when I have the time. If you’re a very good writer, like Brooke of Food Wolfe, Melissa of Travelers Lunchbox, Alec Lobrano of Hungry for Paris, readers like me will take the time to read whatever they write because they are compelling storytellers.
Do something daring. I just posted about white wine being good with cheese, better than red, and people really responded to that. Much more than I thought. Or take on something like, say, why the hoopla against regular corn syrup is misguided, etc…but you have to be prepared to back it up and deal with whatever ensues. A while back I had a very long talk with an author friend about presenting less-controversial since you have to deal with the aftermath. But if we become afraid to raise controversial topics and disagree, then everything just gets vapid and governments run amuck. That’s not to say we should all get nasty, but that it’s simply okay to disagree. A good conversation presents a few points of view, and what follows should be a spirited but respectful interchange between the various viewpoints. Perhaps I’m optimistic, but in spite of cable news and virulent radio hosts, I know we as a collective whole are capable of having intelligent, respectful conversations with each other. I just know it.
8. Make sure your blog is usable.
A while back I was having a conversation with someone who worked on a food-related website that was making people click 3 to 4 times to get to the content they were looking for, presumably building clicks (impressions) for revenue-related purposes, which shows they were more concerned about racking up clicks than user experience. I advised that making their site easy to use and not frustrating for readers should be of utmost importance. Plus every time they give someone a chance to reach for the mouse, they’re giving them a chance to click away and leave. (Which I did whenever I went to their site and tried to find anything.) People nowadays want a clean, quick user experience. They want to find things fast. Don’t irk people and make them work harder than they have to.
Check your commenting process. Spammers have discovered blog comments, unfortunately, and there’s often no other way to get around those captchas where readers have to type in a code, I’m afraid. But I recently visited some blogs where one could only sign in and comment using Open ID or AIM, or jump through various other hoops. I don’t use either so I didn’t leave a comment when I really wanted to. (I may be dense, but I don’t even know what AIM is.)
Get rid of widgets that aren’t doing anything for you or that seriously increase the time it takes for your page to load. There are websites that will help you gauge how long your site takes to load, which you can find by doing an online search. Assess how badly your readers want to know what countries other readers come from, how’s the weather (which I had here for a while, but took off), your Twitter ramblings (which I have, and will keep, thank you very much), traffic conditions at your local airport (if you’re a travel blog…perhaps…), or what time it is where you are. Am not sure why anyone would care about that. But then again, I’m someone who had the local weather on my site for over a year. So what do I know?
On a similar note, I recently went to a blog and the sidebar widget identified not only where I was from, but a lot more about me than I cared to have shared. Thankfully it was a food blog, not necessarily something I needed to keep private. But still, it was unnerving to see my presence in the top position on their widget, so I won’t be returning to that site.
(On another similar note, folks may want to dial back notifying and thanking people immediately who follow them on Twitter. The first time it happened to me a while back, I got really startled. More about that in a bit.)
Another usability tip comes from Elise Bauer who recommends that people check for broken links on their blogs. If you’re on WordPress, Todd from White on Rice Couple pointed out that one can use the Broken Link Checker plug-in. (Do check the forums as it has some issues loading up servers while it’s trawling sites.) For other platforms, Elise recommends DeepTrawl.
I ran the WordPress plug-in and found over one thousand broken links, many from commenters who had left links to their sites that we no longer valid, or they’d shut down their sites and the links were dead. And I was actually surprised how many still-operating bloggers had misspelled the name of their own blogs when they left comments.
And while you’re checking comments and links, run a few cuss and naughty words used by spammers (ie: erectile dysfunction drugs, nubile Russian teenage cheerleaders, white underwear, etc) through your comment search field; I found a few smutty surprises in old posts as spammers and their ilk can escape detection. And it’s not too pleasant for readers to come across those, which I learned when a reader pointed out that a link I had that used to lead to a site about how dirty French sidewalks were had changed and was now something completely different. I won’t mention what it was now, but if people are looking for links to sites about women’s backsides, my site probably isn’t the right place. (Even though the backsides were, admittedly, pretty awesome.)
Everything on your site and in the sidebar should do something. Look at Google, Facebook, and Ebay. These are the top sites on the Internet and there’s
little nothing on their pages that doesn’t perform some sort of task. (Well, on Facebook there’s all those odd groups and games and stuff, and I have no idea why they’re there.) The person who designed my site told me “Tag clouds are the mullets of the Internet.” Do you click on tag clouds? If not, consider if your readers find them useful.
Lastly, go through your blogroll and weed out dead links and sites. I can’t tell you how many links I’ve clicked on recently in the sidebars of other people’s blogs that led to sites that haven’t been updated since 2009, or the link didn’t work at all.
9. Be a great commenter.
I’ve made several good friends (real and virtual) because of bang-up comments they’ve left on my blogs. Comments make a blog lively and make them different than other forms of media that aren’t interactive. They can be the most lively, important part of a blog. I love my commenters (except for the dude who asked if I wore tight white underwear, which was a little personal). You don’t have to go to extremes, but do take time to interact with readers and in return they’ll continue to interact with you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been steered toward something interesting related to food or in my travels because locals have left valuable information in the comments. (Thanks guys!) As a blog author, it’s not always possible to answer every comment but jump in once in a while as best you can.
Of course, it’s fine and a-ok just to stop by and comment to say hello and say they you liked a post or recipe with a simple “I love Brownies too!”, but the comments that get the most notice are ones that are funny or that capture your attention in other ways. I should mention that folks might want to let go of the word “drool.” The only people over the age of two who drool live in assisted-care facilities. And the idea of saliva pooling on someone’s keyboard isn’t everyone’s idea of appetizing.
And if you’re a blogger leaving comments on other blogs, you’re more likely to get people to visit your site if you give them a reason to come by. Informative or humorous comments, I think, get the most notice. Good questions and astute observations are also welcome and can prompt interesting discussions in the comments. Those are usually when I pop in myself and participate.
If you want to get noticed, comment quickly so you’re near the top. You don’t have to be Hemingway, but do scan for typos and punctuation. Especially if you’re leaving a comment pointing out someone else’s typo or bad grammar. I’d say 100% of the rude messages I have received regarding typos or grammatical errors contain worse transgressions than mine. Just remember that people are going to read what you wrote and that the comment will represent you and the writing style of your blog. Some bloggers go through and edit comments left on their site for grammar and spelling, which I sometimes do, especially for people whose first language may not be English. Although I sometimes find those goofs kinda charming and leave them.
If you’re going to leave a link within the comment field of the blog, make sure it is properly hyperlinked. (There is an excellent article about commenting, and leaving URLs and such in comment fields and elsewhere at Design*Sponge Biz Ladies, as well as tips for dealing with comments.) Normally your blog is automatically hyperlinked when you add it to the field where it’s asked for. If leaving a link in a comment, it should be relating to something about the blog post, such as if you have a similar post, or tried the recipe too, or can shed some interesting or new information about the topic. Long URLs can blow out site designs, so you can find out about to easily hyperlink your URLs at this tutorial and do that. It also makes it easier for people to visit your site and see what you have to say.
A few bloggers don’t allow any outbound links and be aware that spam filters often flag comments with URLs in them since that’s a common thing found in spam comments, and your comment may go right into the spam folder and whisked away without anyone seeing it. I recently learned that some anti-spam programs will mark your address as that of a spammer and you’ll get blacklisted from other sites as well. Yikes.
I have a “show recent comments’ in my sidebar because the comments are a prominent part of the site and I like to give them more visibility. Remember that the comment that you leave is like leaving a calling card, as well as a way to say thanks or to offer additional information. In my opinion, comments are at least 75% of what makes a blog and blogging interesting.
10. Social networking.
Think of tools like Twitter and Facebook as big gatherings where people gather around to discuss topics, or parties where you interact with friends and aquantances. Everyone wants to be in a room with interesting people around them and both of those social media sites allow you to pick and choose who’s in your “room.”
Social media spots are fine places to disseminate information including new books or products, store openings, stories about you life, daily happenings, or whatever, but you should pass along information as you would to a group of friends and not just a convenient place to pitch things. “Social media is about giving, not getting”. So please do post when you update your site and let us know if you have a new project coming out or would like to announce an event. It’s great to spread the word to all, but be wary of going overboard. If that’s all you’re doing on your Twitterstream, it’s not likely to attract others. I like to follow people that have something to say themselves, who pass along things they genuinely find interesting.
Like that virtual party, if you’re just standing there promoting something or repeating things that others say (retweeting), folks will probably not gravitate toward you. Friends are interested in your participation in conferences, camps, blog events, and other things you’re doing, but be careful of going overboard because it may not be so interesting for non-participants whose Twitterstream gets filled up for hours (or days or weeks) by a topic they’re not interested in. There’s programs like Proxlet that let you mute users or block hashtags.
(There are some sites that are aggregators that I follow simply because they are set up as such, like Food News Journal, which are curating sites. A few people I follow often point out great sites and posts, but they don’t do it as a rule and is a adjunct to their regular comings and goings.)
Some bloggers set up a separate Twitter stream for their site updates because more and more people are using Twitter like an RSS feeder and they want to keep their regular Twitter stream open for everyday conversations. So if you’re running a special event, you might want to just set up a special Twitter stream for that so folks can join up and follow along there. I have just one stream, but denote when I update my blog as [newblogentry] before the Tweet. And I only post that once.
Who do I follow, and why? I think people that say something funny or interesting, or helpful. In my Twitterstream, there’s people in my line of work—cookbook authors, chefs, and folks in Paris, as well as food bloggers and a few food companies. Justin Timberlake is in there too, as is Andrew Zimmern. And Paris city hall is in that list, although how they have time to Twitter but can’t answer a simple question over the phone is beyond me.
Who don’t I follow, and why? Those who are just retweeting other people’s tweets all day long. People who link to old posts on their site constantly. People who pick on other people.
Not everyone is going to ‘Like’ you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter and you’re not expected to like or follow everyone. Be cool with that. Follow people you want to follow and don’t worry about gaining or losing followers. Look, no one loves Andrew Zimmern more than me (and don’t even get me started on that Timberlake guy), but if they don’t follow me, the world will make another full turn tomorrow, and the next day and the next. If it doesn’t, we’re all got greater problems to worry about than if someone isn’t following you. The number of followers you have doesn’t really mean anything and some people follow anyone and everyone, and others don’t.
And the tribe has spoken about sending out tweets thanking people for following them; they’re not only not effective, but a majority of people find them unwelcome and automatically unfollow those people.
Don’t say things you wouldn’t say to someone in person. I’m constantly surprised at the things people say online to others. Or things I read in my Twitter or Facebook stream about others. I recently saw some comments on Facebook about a friend and former employer which were snarky and impolite and it just wasn’t very nice to read to see them. Bottom line: No one likes to read bad things about their friends, especially coming from other friends.
Like in comments, it’s fine to disagree, but I always wonder how some people behave in real life with family, friends, and co-workers. (I sometimes get a pass because I’ve worked with some wacky co-workers who would be surprised at nothing. And I encourage people not to follow me on Twitter, or to hold their peace.) As noted having worked in restaurant kitchens, there is nothing that shocks or surprises me anymore, and I’ve been called, and have called others, every name in the book. I’ve had people expose themselves to me, I’ve seen rampant drug use, and I’ve witnessed and experienced more harassment than Gloria Allred ever dreamed possible. I was that crazy person that threw frying pans at other cooks. Plus I live in France and have to deal with fonctionnaires at city hall. And I’d love to see anyone who think they’re so tough have to go and face one of those bureaucrats.
But now that I’m grown up and joined the “real world” (ie: one where insane people like me aren’t allowed to interact with others without supervision), it can be hard to not be snarky at times. However do resist the instinct to send off a nasty tweet or comment; even if you think it’s in jest, it may not be taken that way. So think before you act. Or if you’re the impulsive type, send an apology afterward, which is always appreciated. It’s really not that hard. I do it all the time.
People are busy or messaging on-the-go so you won’t always get a response if you write them a message. Like blogging, just be friendly, write something interesting that folks will want to read, and share things that are going on in your day-to-day life. Then hit the button to send it out. Because I’m busy, and work at home, I often pop into various social media outlets to check in with others, but sometimes stay in the sidelines. To keep my sanity, from the start, I’ve adopted what I call an “Exit Only” strategy of just doing what I can. Not everyone is comfortable with that and it’s hard to manage others expectations. But in the end, you have to think of how to best manage your own life. There are some people that will always want more than one can give, but in the words of Miss Diana Ross, “…there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”
We Americans are always trained to say “yes” and in France, the answer is often “non“, so I’m working on making that transition. Blogging (and social media) are a lot of “giving” and it’s great to give, and it’s great to get. However your ultimate responsibility is to yourself, so participate in whatever level works right for you and find the balance between the two.
In the end, social networking is not about numbers or collecting followers; it’s about communicating with others. I’m sure many of us have experienced the joys of overhearing someone’s cell phone chat so be wary of carrying on lengthy private conversations in a public forum unless you’re certain it’s going to be of interest to more than just the two of you. (I use the direct message feature on Twitter a lot.) Re-tweeting is fine but do make sure you contribute tweets about yourself as well. I follow people because I am interested in them and what they have to say.
It all comes down to balancing it all and finding out what works right for you, how you want to be perceived, and how you connect with others. No one can be all things to all people, but this big mix of us all is so exciting and I’m interested where we’re all going next.
A few other points:
-Let posts rest. I took a while with this one because I knew some of the points might raise eyebrows and wanted to explain things better. A few folks who were at my talk at Food Blog Camp recently told me that that advice was something they realized a few weeks later was really helpful to them, to let things brew. Most writers go back and edit, correct, explain, or delete.
-Consider adding metric conversions to your site. A majority of the world does not measure with cups and tablespoons and it’s nice to invite them to your site and to use your recipes.
-Don’t take content, including recipes and pictures, from other food blogs or media without asking for permission. Material online is copyrighted, just like books and printed media. Do not copy people’s posts or recipes word-for-word and the Geneva Act and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works extend internationally. Check out an article I wrote about Attribution for some guidelines when and how you should attribute recipes. Online images are protected as well and you can be substantially fined for using them.
If someone sends you a message about a post that you’ve written using their material without their consent, don’t take it as a personal affront or respond negatively, but take the time to rewrite or modify your post and send them an apology. People are simply protecting the hard work they’ve done creating recipes, photographs, and content.
-Do not take content, including recipes and pictures, for other food blogs without asking for permission. (Just in case some didn’t get it..)
-Don’t beat yourself up, or let anyone beat you up, for making some goofs. Yes, you’re going to upload a picture that isn’t perfect, get snarky, bungle some grammar, or publish a post with a typo. But we’re not curing cancer or sorting out the situation in the Middle East, we’re making pie and cookies. Sometimes it’s helpful just to relax, take a deep breath, and realize that it’s just about food and has no greater meaning than just that.
-Be a part of the community and link out. Food blogs are like antique stores and we thrive when we’re together.
-Post once a day. Or once a week. Or once a year. Gripe about something, or be angelic in your praise. Write in incomplete sentences, or go over your copy twenty times before posting it. Buy the best camera you can afford, or draw scribbles of your food, then scan and upload them. There’s no fixed rules, and even if there were, there’s none that apply to everyone and the medium changes so fast, what works today may be passé tomorrow.
After the most recent Food Blog Camp, I was excited when nearly every blogger who attended went home and made substantial changes to their sites, and they all look great. Some added logos, cleaned up their designs or theme, upgraded their photography gear, or started writing posts with a purpose.
The final day of the camp, I asked leaders; Matt Armendariz, Todd Porter & Diane Cu, Elise Bauer, Jaden Hair, and myself, some blitz-style questions reflecting on food blogging. Here are the responses:
Q: What was the single most important thing that you did to ‘dial up’ your blog?
Elise: Getting a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera.
Matt: Posting regularly.
Todd & Diane: Deciding to focus on storytelling. And to do what we wanted to do.
Jaden: Getting my own URL (moving from steamykitchen.worpress.com to www.steamykitchen.com) and having a professional logo designed.
Q: What was the turning point of your blog, when it became satisfying and you were happy with it?
Matt: When I realized I had met a lot of amazing people.
David: When my site was professionally redesigned a few years ago.
Q: What do you wish you could do better with your blog?
Matt: I wish I could understand the technical aspects better.
David: I wish I caught all the typos.
Elise: I find the challenge of telling the story and writing hard.
Todd and Diane: We wish we had more time to visit more blogs.
Jaden: I wish video and photos editing were more fun.
Q: What advice, in one word or sentence, would you give to people to improve their blogs?
Matt: Be yourself.
David: Find a niche, and try to fill it.
Elise: Be generous.
Jaden: Know what you stand for professionally and personally.
Todd and Diane: Put up your best content.
These are some posts that I’ve found that offer particularly excellent advice about blogging and social media. At the end, I’ve listed some resourceful sites for networking and learning more about food blogging:
13 Steps for Establishing a Popular Writing Blog (Anne R. Allen)
Food Blogger David Lebovitz Interview (Dianne Jacob)
10 Mindful Ways to Use Social Media (Tricycle)
How to Manage Expectations with Your Blog Readers (Problogger)
Ten Things I Learned About Food Photography (The Pioneer Woman)
How to Handle Criticism (The Positivity Blog)
The Do’s and Don’ts of Marketing to Bloggers (Elise Bauer)
Advertising 101 for Bloggers (Design*Sponge)
Ten Rules for Foodblogging (The Amateur Gourmet)
Foodblogging—Do’s and Don’ts (Delicious Days)