Everyone seems to want to start a blog but really should you do it? While blogging is fun and can be quite profitable, nobody wants to point out the pitfalls.
I want to point out some of those traps, so you go in with your eyes wide open. While I am concentrating on food blogging, much applies to starting any blog.
Updated November 20, 2019
This is my take on how to start a food or other blog. Ok, my old grump take on it. There are many “guides” to how to start a blog. Why write another with over 4000 words? I'm tired of the self-serving advice I see out there.
Most of the guides out there are like a blog post on "How to Start Driving a Car for the Total Beginner." Go to this car lot. Buy a car. The blogger makes a LARGE commission. Get in the car. Start the car. Start driving. So simple and so much fun. But you will almost assuredly crash and burn. While you are partial to blame for drinking the Kool-Aid, the blogger cheering you on shares some of the blame.
It seems every blog, whether successful or not, has the mandatory "How to Start a Blog" page alway's touting how easy it will be for you. I'm here to toss some realistic water on that fire.
Recently, a blogger has been asking for help since she has not made a penny. I checked her site, and there are three posts about how to start and make money blogging. The lesson is bloggers can say almost anything they want, and it is entirely buyer beware. Let's be careful out there, folks.
Why are all the bloggers telling you how to start a blog? Well, most of those "helpful pages" are packed with affiliate links.
An affiliate link earns the referring site money for you using that service. You may think, no big deal, so they get a few pennies. Today I got an email from Bluehost offering $100 for referrals that sign up. Any questions?
So my guide will be different. I will have NO AFFILIATE LINKS. I will provide links for your convenience, but they will all be non-affiliated. So I will have no "dog in the fight." But it will make me feel so much better.
Why am I qualified?
Good question. I have been doing this for eight-plus years. Initially on a free Blogger site for 2+ years and now on a self-hosted WordPress site.
I’m very successful by most food blog standards now with well over 1 million page views per month. Plus, I have made almost every mistake available to a blogger during that time.
NOTE: I have added multiple dog pictures for a little fun and to break up this way too long post. Relax and enjoy.
We do need a little vision of why and what since they will affect how.
Is this just a hobby? If yes, then you can get a free Blogger site (blogger.com) or wordpress.com site and just post away. Have fun playing with the food and a camera. It is a great hobby. Mine was a hobby for the first few years, and 35 page views a day was a warm fussy feeling.
You don’t really need to read any more here if we are talking about a hobby blog.
If not just a hobby and you want to get serious, then let's set it up to succeed from the beginning. It gets a better start and prevents messes that need to be fixed later.
You need a vision of what you want to do. A niche, so to speak. If you want to do everything, your competition is food.com and allrecipes.com. Good luck with that, possible, but you will need to become unique somehow.
If you are inspired to do a particular diet style or lifestyle, then you are good to go but be forewarned that popular choices are flooded, and do you really think the fad ABC diet/lifestyle won’t be displaced by the new XYZ diet/lifestyle in a few years.
But it’s fine to jump in the water with lots of other bloggers with the same niche who have a head start, but you will need to swim harder, faster, and better. Plus, a little luck helps.
A name. You need something that somewhat reflects your selected niche. It should be easier to remember. It should be a .com name, and you should also snatch up the .net version. It sounds easy, but it is not. Take your best shot. You can change it later, but it can be a bit of a mess.
Also, be aware that many names, although available for a blog, the corresponding Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or other social media, are already taken and you want those also.
Once you decide on the name and confirm it is available, snatch it up and go to step two. The snatching can wait for a bit if you are getting a hosting service soon, but you don't want to lose it if you have decided.
There is something to be said for the name being registered at somewhere other than your host. It is easier to change hosts later. But it is easier for you now to do it through your host.
HOW TO CHOOSE HOSTING FOR A BLOG
For food blogging other than a hobby blog, you should not go the free hosting route. Yes, you can convert to self-hosting later, but it can be a mess and lots of work. See #1 in Getting Started.
With a food blog, you should be using a self-hosted WordPress blog. You can do another CMS (content management system), but the standard is WordPress for a reason.
With self-hosted WordPress, you will have access to the best themes, recipe plugins, etc. Why limit yourself relative to your competition? So no Squarespace or Typepad for you.
Self-hosted WordPress is not the same as wordpress.com. Self-hosted is a CMS that installs on a server you own or rent space. But wordpress.com offers free sites and hosts them. You can not add plugins nor ads. Occasionally, they will add some ads to your site and keep all revenue.
You can advertise on Blogger, and many successful blogs have started there, and many have stayed knowing the limitations.
Now time for grumpy me to come out. There is lots of money to be made in getting you to sign-up for hosting. My first self-hosted host was with Bluehost. I left after two years of hours and sometimes days of “downtime,” and it just kept getting worse. I was way too patient and nieve.
So, as a general rule, I would avoid EIG owned hosting. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endurance_International_Group for an ongoing list. This includes Bluehost, Host Gator, and many more. They all seem to suffer the same issue with speed, support, and reliability from what I hear, and I would definitely avoid Bluehost.
I will go as far as to say if an established blogger is suggesting Bluehost, you probably should not trust anything else they say since they should (or do) know better. If it is a new blogger, why are you listening, anyway?
I use a managed dedicated server at Liquid Web. I pay $300 per month, but I’m good for anything that comes my way. You will not be starting at this level.
One true-ism about hosting is everybody’s host is the best… until they aren’t. So here are some suggestions from sources I trust. All are non-affiliate links. If you want, donate the $100 referral fee I would have gotten for your signing up to your local children’s hospital.
But wait; if you see an ad on my site advertising one of these or other hosts, I apologize, but I can't control all the ads from the agency.
Liquid Web - my current and I believe “forever” host. https://www.liquidweb.com A bit more expensive but worth it.
WPopt https://wpopt.net Seems to be a great choice. Highly recommended, very fast, plus reports of excellent support.
Bigscoots https://www.bigscoots.com Also recommended for beginners.
Cloudways https://www.cloudways.com/en/ Recommended by several of the pros I know. Fast cloud-based hosting. Affordable but maybe a bit more than the novice should try. Do you know what a DNS is and how it set it up?
SiteGrounds https://www.siteground.com Ok on speed and support but down from a few years ago. Not as bad as EIG hosts but seems to be going downhill.
I'm sure there are other fine choices. You will want to avoid the EIG owned hosts I discussed before. I don't see GoDaddy as a good choice. Some of the more expensive hosts really don't perform as well as they claim. This is not a "the more you pay, the better" type thing.
What do you need in a host?
- 24-hour LIVE support. For newbies, you need somebody to talk with when you have issues. Not just email or live chat. Those may be ok for the techies but not for most of you.
- Do you want your domain (your blog name) registered with them? Nice to begin with, but if you choose unwisely about the host, you might need to transfer it later. Not hard but just another thing to do.
- Do you want an email for your site like mine is email@example.com? Or just a Gmail account will work.
- WP hosting is hosting that specifically designed for WordPress, and with this type of account, they handle a lot of the tech stuff. Now that sounds wonderful, but for me, it would be a waste. I have a way I want it done and can do most of it myself. It is half the fun for me. If you are a non-techie newbie, you should at least consider WP hosting. They will decide a lot of the backroom stuff like cache programs, backups, etc. for you.
- You must have an automatic backup, and if it does not come with your plan, you will need a plugin to do it. It is not if you need it, it is when and how often. And it needs to be not on the same server as the blog. My site is hosted in Michigan and the backup in Austin.
I’m going to end this with a few comments about the levels of plans the hosts offer and cost.
Many hosts will offer a very cheap entry level that is so stripped down; you should avoid it. It is there to get you hooked. Somewhat like themes (next topic). If you spend hours every month doing things like manual backups or fighting for support, saving $5 per month is a false economy. Your time has some value, and it could be used to create the great content you need to be successful (more on content later.)
HOW TO CHOOSE A THEME FOR A FOOD BLOG
You all want that custom looking beautiful site, Pinch of Yum comes to mind, and that will make you successful immediately. Well, no, it won’t. They use custom programming and lots of it. Get over it since you and I are not there. And that "special look" is not the key to your success.
So, I hate white cars, but I won’t send the Uber driver away if the car is white. So if a site looks nice, the post was well written with useful information, I may look around and signup for the email list. Plus, I will come back for more. So nice-looking is important, but a beautiful site with crappy content is still a crappy site. Get it nice but don't obsess over every little detail initially.
We are now going to pick the “theme” which determines the look of your site. You can go with a free theme, but the old saying "you get what you pay for” seems to apply to some extent. I see many bloggers “fight” with their free/low-cost themes for hours or days and still not get what they want.
Any theme can be made to do almost anything. It is just programming, but are you able to do that? Plus I worry about updates and bug fixes down the road. It is up to you.
I have a great prejudice here. I like Genesis based themes. Genesis is a “framework.” Think of it as the frame of a house with the wiring and plumbing. They will keep that stuff updated with their updates.
Now you need to add a “child theme” to that which is the floor covering, paint, furniture, etc. which will determine the ultimate look of your site. You can even move some walls around if you want with a little programming.
For food bloggers, I suggest the child themes from Feast Design. Foodie Pro (I’m using it now) is almost the “standard” theme for a food blogger, but Feast has multiple themes all of them nice-looking in just standard configuration. That is a well-spent dollar for me.
For the none food-blogger or just for more choices, see StudioPress for some other great choices. If you are going to use a Feast theme, PLEASE buy direct from Feast for the best support.
I will apologize for not having a more diverse opinion on themes. I’m sure there are many fine choices out there. Like cars, I like Jeeps and Jaguars, but your Ford works just fine. But beware, there are Yugo’s out there.
WHERE DO I GET TRAFFIC ON A FOOD BLOG
While every blogger would love to have thousands of followers who check their site daily generating consistent traffic and income, it just does not work that way.
You need fresh people coming to your site, so you get page views for display ads or to use your affiliate links or buy your products.
First, a general comment about Google (and other search engines) and social media platforms (Pinterest, Facebook, and many more here now and to come). They are in business for themselves.
Search engines and social media don’t exist for you. They have a business, and they strive to serve their customers the best they can for repeat traffic and income. They owe you nothing. They don’t care if you live or die. And they change what they want when they want.
When their objective aligns with yours, you get some traffic which is good for them and you. But Google is not the internet police, and I’m sure will they will agree.
But if you want to be ranked high by them, you need to do the things they like. They want to serve what they analyze as “the best” content to their users. Hopefully, it will be your content. We will cover search engines under SEO (next section) but first social media.
In food blogs, Pinterest is where it is at. You can show off your photos; you can get your ingredients displayed with direct links to your site. Wonderful, many blogs get over half their traffic from Pinterest (I get about 5%).
All the other social media, not so good. Facebook, while the king of social media, just doesn’t produce well for me or food bloggers in general.
FB has maybe a click-through rate of 1-2%. I have 18,000 plus followers but usually is only 2-5% get to see my post even though they asked to see my post. So of my 18,000 followers, only 500-900 see the post and only 10-20 click-through. Grump, grump, grump.
FB wants you to pay to “promote” your post. I have done this some. The return on investment is only about 2%. But I still post there since it is expected. Everybody has a Facebook page. There are some things you can do to increase Facebook, but Pinterest is still better.
I don’t do Instagram. Maybe it is a generational thing. But there are no direct links to the post on your site, and you can’t post pictures directly from the site. So if I put a picture of my cheesecake on Instagram, you can go to my profile then to my site from there and then search for cheesecake. Umm, ok.
There are ways to make it more convent for the users but still awkward workarounds. You can use it to "build a community," but to drive traffic, not so much.
Twitter, again maybe a generational thing. I use it to follow some news like CNN and local TV news etc. but the food blogs I follow on Twitter just seem lost in the flow and I miss them frequently. So if I follow a food blogger on Twitter, I also get the emails. So I just don’t post on Twitter.
Newsletters, emails, and RSS feed. This is where many beginners should spend some energy on after Pinterest. Because here you are marketing to people who have asked for your content. Talk about an ideal audience.
I just have a signup in the sidebar (desktop) and menus. Most other bloggers use a popup of some type, but I do not (I hate them). But I’m out of the norm here.
I use old fashion feed burner for my email and RSS feeds. I don’t do newsletters, but they are a great help for those who want to expend the energy. MailChimp seems to be the standard out there.
First, a joke that is unfortunately true. Where do you hide something on the internet where nobody will ever find it? Answer: the second page of Google.
So what is SEO? Search engine optimization AKA how to make Google happy. I will just use Google in my discussion, but this applies to Bing and the others. But they just follow along since Google so dominates.
Google may like my post on pork chops more because I have an extensive discussion on pork chops and not just a recipe and a few pictures.
One blogger was crying online about her photos were so much better, and it was “not fair” others were ranked above her because from her point of view, it’s a photo contest. No, it is not a photo contest. It is the total presentation and information provided.
What is important to Google? (my opinions only)
- Speed. Google likes speed. There seems to be some general agreement that TFB (time to the first byte) is important. This is the time it takes for your server to respond. Read that as a quality host is needed. For now, I believe this needs to be less than 0.4 seconds, and less than 0.2 is where you want to be. Also, the total time to load a page is important.
- Security. All new sites should start out as https, not http. Just do it from the start.
- Mobile friendly. Google will be moving from desktop focus to mobile focus in the next few months. If you went with a Genesis theme, as I suggested, your site is probably good already by being “responsive.”
- Size of the page. With food blogs, this usually means the size of images. While this guide is long, it’s total download size for the text is less than one skimpy photo. See the photo comments below.
- Structured data. This means the recipe (we are food bloggers right) are “marked up” in a special way that Google can really understand well without using a supercomputer. It was Schema and now going to J-SON. Why do you care? Do you want that nice little picture next to your recipe on Google search? You need to do this. That is not all but a big part. This is done by a recipe plugin like WP Recipe Maker. If your theme has a "built-in" recipe markup, get a new theme, they never keep up and will only cause you grief.
- Content that answers the common questions related to the post's subject. Not just a list of ingredients and instructions.
- Good user experience. Text above the fold, a good organization making it easy to navigate and lots more. In general, if something is good for user experience, it is good SEO. If you remember nothing else about SEO, remember that. Speed, security, and mobile-friendly are all user-friendly.
- Good links both into and out of the site are important. Not spammy. You can not buy good links. Do not exchange links. Mostly they are earned by having good content.
- Not too many ads. Not well defined, but “you will know it when you see it.”
- Lots and lots of other things.
So that is a very very brief introduction to SEO. I’m not (make that NOT) an SEO expert. It is a full-time job for them to keep up, and there is lots of disagreement on many details.
PHOTOS OPTIMIZATION ON A FOOD BLOG
I’m not a photo expert. In fact, if you look around at my photos you will be right to assume I’m a bit of a hack. But I’m good enough to get my point across. I’m working on it.
But what I want to discuss is photos size and number and their effect on site performance.
One of the mistakes we see young bloggers make is image size. This is my grumpy old blogger take on it. Many (most?) will disagree with me.
You took that wonderful photo, and it is 10mb, but you edited it down to 2mb. You are so proud. Not so fast there.
I don’t believe you should have photos greater than 50 to 70 kb on your blog. Most experts with say a size limit of 150 kb or even a little more. Why do I, not a photo expert, disagree?
More than half your traffic (75%+ for me) is mobile. A compressed image will look the same, and the page will be smaller. So you need to resize and scale those large photos. It slows everything down. Did I say Google loves speed?
Next, the number and type of photos. I don’t need to see five finish product photos that are almost identical. They pat your ego and make your mom happy. But I scroll and scroll because you made my phone download five large photos to show off your photography skills. I came to your site for a recipe and information. Thanks for all those photos.
Give me one nice photo at the top, maybe one at the bottom and everything in-between needs to have a good reason.
I do step by step with many photos usually 20-40 kb each. Plus my readers like a good dog picture or two with every post. My total photo load is usually less than 250kb for everything but the long pin.
What about those “long pin” graphics for Pinterest? I will give you those. They are useful to you, Pinterest and most visitors will choose those to pin if given a choice. I use a program (Social Warfare) with does not download them unless a Pin image is requested. I keep mine about 100kb.
CONTENT ON A FOOD BLOG
Now we get the important stuff. You need to produce lots of content.
Many newer food bloggers like to say how often they post and believe that they should get traffic from Google. No, Google has specifically stated that the frequency of new posts is NOT a ranking factor.
Google is much more concerned about quality, not quantity. So if you want traffic, it takes lots of great content, each contributing some to your traffic.
As I write this, I have 473 published recipe contributing to the 45,000+ page views I will have today.
Since I have retired from my day job, I have gotten lazy. I do 2-3 new recipes per month and alternate with buffed up older recipes with re-edited photos and discussion. Plus a dog picture of course.
My traffic continues to grow. So not frequency but the total number of quality posts seems most important to me.
In a way, being a food blogger helps because most of our content is “evergreen.” A cookie recipe from 2010 works just fine now.
But evergreen is not just set and forget. Standards will change over time, so you need to update as needed, and Google loves a good update.
My daughter Christine at 15 Minute Beauty Fanatic has very little evergreen content since beauty products change continuously. She works a lot harder than I do.
Can You Make a Living Blogging?
Yes, maybe. But, I was around 200 recipes before I realize there might be a little money in this.
Before that, I was an aggressive hobby blogger treating blogging as other doctors might play golf. Just a distraction for my mind. I frequently did 3 or more recipes per week since it was great fun. The more stressed I was, the more I posted.
I think the idea of the “mommy blogger” staying home with the kids and earning a large income with their little spare time is the exception.
I suspect many attempt it, but few succeed. There's a lot to learn and do. You need to get it right to compete, and you need lots of content.
Which all gets to lots of time needed to be spent doing this. More time than I think most mothers can spare. Add in the need to get to a critical mass of good content to make money; it may be several years or more.
It is by no means impossible, but you are my hero if you make it.
Now wasn’t that fun. Over 4000 words. I'm tired. And you think this is hard and complicated? It is just an overview. There is so much I left out, which is why I'm not calling this "a guide."
If you want to be serious about food blogging, you need to join Food Blogger Pro.
Post questions in a comment since others may have the same questions. If you need to, email at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 9, 2018