Published September 13, 2017.
Welcome to my grumpy “way too long” guide on starting a blog. So do you want to start a food blog? Are you a dedicated foodie? Or you want to start a blog about x, y or z? I won’t judge why or what. I’m going mostly with how. But more importantly, the pitfalls.
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This is my take on how to start a food blog. Ok, my old grump take on it. There are many “guides” to how to start a food blog. Why write over 3000 words? I’m tired of the self-serving advice I see out there.
It seems every blog, whether successful or not, has one. Alway’s touting how easy it will be for you. I’m here to toss some realism on the fire.
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-affiliate. 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 six plus years. Initially on a free Blogger site and for 3+ years 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.
The multiple dog pictures are to add a little fun and break up this way too long post.
We do need a little vision about why and what since they will affect how.
- First. 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 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. If you are inspired to do a particular diet style or life style, 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, 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.
- Once you decide on the name and confirm it is available, snatch it up and go to step two. The snatching can wait to step two if you use a host that can also handle it.
HOW TO CHOOSE HOSTING FOR A 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 an other CMS (content management system), but the standard is WordPress for a reason. You will have access to the best themes, recipe plugins, etc. Why limit yourself related to your competition? So no Squarespace or Typepad for you.
A brief aside: 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 on. 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.
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, 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 support and reliability. 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 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
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 through them? Nice to begin with but if you chose 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 is 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 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 false economies.
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.
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 update and bug fixes. 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 floors, paint, furniture, etc. which will determine the ultimate look of your site. You can even move some walls around if you want.
There is a default child theme in Genesis that some will use. Fine, if you like it. 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. A well-spent dollar for me. For the none food-blogger or just for more choices, see StudioPress for some other great choices.
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 a consistent 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 click 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. They 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 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 other social media. In food blogs, Pinterest is where it is at for food bloggers. 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. Maybe a click through rate of 1-2%. I have 15,000 plus followers but usually is only 2-5% get to see my post even though they asked to see my post. 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 click on it to 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, no 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 you content. Talk about an ideal audience.
I just have a signup in the sidebar (desktop) and menu (mobile). Most use a popup of some type, and I do not. 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. I swear 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 package.
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 you 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 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 super computer. 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 “built-in” recipe markup, get a new theme, they never keep up and will only cause you grief.
- 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. 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. The above is my quick summary and subject to change at any time and may all be wrong anyway. But it works for me.
PHOTOS OPTOMIZATION 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. No so fast there.
I don’t believe you should have photos greater than 50 to 70 kb on your blog. Most experts with say 150 kb or more. Why do I, not a photo expert, disagree? More than half your traffic (75%+ for me) is mobile. So you have your users download that large photos just to have them resize in the phone. It slows everything down and ultimately does not look any better to the viewer. (Did I say Google loves speed?).
Also, the visitors are paying to download them. I would call that user unfriendly. You may argue that you are targeting desktop. Good luck with that. That market is disappearing rapidly.
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 the photos.
Give me one 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 should get traffic. Maybe a little but not so much. At least Google is much more concerned about other things.
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 40,000+ 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 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 needing to be spent doing this. More time than I think most mothers can spare. Add in the need to get to critical mass in the number of recipes which 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 3500 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.
September 13, 2017