If you are -skimming across this post- now thinking “wow where is that coming from”? Well, deliciousdays.com just turned TWO (Yay!) and we thought about sharing some of our thoughts around blogging.
With two years of food blogging experience on our backs today, we felt it was time for a little reflection, a compilation of the most important do’s and don’ts of foodblogging. Some are obvious and relate to blogging in general, others may not be, and I’m sure there are some you’ll think totally different about. All of them reflect our very personal point of view and are supposed to give food blogging newbies a condensed survey over the most relevant topics when starting your own blog adventure.
Create value – Reader come back!This one almost goes without saying: provide value to your readers. Share quality recipes, restaurant insights or other useful information that makes your readers want to come back for more and become a regular reader of your blog. The number of food blogs has grown exponentially, the daily photo of your dinner may have been getting applause years ago but it won’t attract many readers today – unless it’s accompanied by a mouthwatering recipe that everybody is dying to replicate or a captivating story. Ask yourself what benefits you can offer to your readers and the food blogging community and share your knowledge.
You have prepared the most wonderful Croquembouche, managed to shoot a fantastic photo your readers literally are licking off their screens and then there’s no recipe, no advice on how to prepare such a masterpiece or any tips whatsoever on how to avoid possible pitfalls? That’s like teasing your best friend with a handful of goodies – and then eating them all by yourself. Your kitchen experience is what others can benefit from, share it!
Blog outfit – Dress code! Just like your domain name, the layout and design of your blog is part of a very first impression you leave behind. It doesn’t have to be complex or detailed to the nth degree but should complement your quality content. Remember, most readers give a new site only a few seconds to convince them to stay or leave – just not long enough for the content alone to be convincing! Depending on your web skills, you may use an available template or design one yourself. For an inspirational jump-start, have a look at your favorite websites, or visit one of the many CSS galleries here. Design portals can be good source for the latest trends in web design, but the cleaner your layout will be, the longer you and your readers will enjoy it.
Usability: Another big issue, a 7 pixel font looks great on a 640×480 screen, but the de-facto standard has already passed 800×600 screen resolutions. Depending on how serious you take it, check with different browsers and use tools that help detect possible code errors (e.g. CSS & XHTML validators), but don’t go overboard, it’s virtually impossible to always guarantee 100% XHTML & CSS compliance.
Technology & tools – Make ‘em work
for you! The Internet is constantly changing and so are the technologies that make it hum. Keep an eye on evolving trends, without blindly following each and everyone. A few basic thoughts:
Getting your own domain: Your domain. If you’re happy to be a prefix, ie. myfoodat.blogspot.com you don’t need to get a domain of your own. But make this decision consciously, firstly it’s part of your “business card” and secondly, if you reconsider – just like any other move in real-life – it may entail, albeit temporary, a disruption of your blogging business. Just think of all the other sites that will have linked to you by then. Starter webhosting packages are cheap and can easily, depending on your growing interest in blogging, be upgraded to a more powerful package.
Your blogging platform of choice: Are you a blogger.com, TypePad, WordPress or perhaps Textpattern kinda guy or gal? Think of your individual requirements: How often will you post, what content will you offer (text, podcasts, video etc.), what functionality will you provide and so forth. This chart will get you started: blog software comparison. No worries, none of the available platforms requires you to be a programmer, but a decent understanding of the variety of web technologies helps. Your choice may be influenced on either your existing level of knowledge around HTML, PHP, CSS etc. or your eagerness to dive into it. Knowing how to tweak your blog yourself can be very handy! Or know someone that knows how to…
The geek factor: Some funky features are surely nice to have but do little for usability, while others are expected to be found on your blog. Search and RSS features for instance. With RSS certainly being one of the most controversially talked about topics, the discussion has become a religious battle between full vs. partial content feeds. The net is full of pros and cons, go see for yourself. Our take is simple: We treasure and love to support our RSS readers, but do not want to become an assembly line for content scrapers – we like to present our articles in the context of our blog. Like it or not.
Available bells and whistles: With all the resources available, chances are the functional piece you’re looking for, has been developed by someone somewhere – no need to reinvent the wheel. For WordPress users, a zillion plugins can be found here. A few others here. If you do invent the wheel, sharing your knowledge is not only a fine way of contributing to the blogging community, but also may lead to increased popularity and traffic!
Blog identity – Blog ID, please! Be different: With the many new food blogs popping up every day, it’s important to create your own blogging identity; stand out from the crowd, be unique. Easier said than done, you have multiple options to differentiate yourself: pick an extraordinary niche (Deep End Dining and the Cupcake Bakeshop are good examples here), be visually creative (check out Lobstersquad) or amuse your readers with your witty writing (like one of a kind David Lebovitz).
Be yourself: Yet above all, be yourself, show personality and develop your own style! Why do you appreciate the company of your real life friends? Because they are who they are, a good mix of lovable traits and individual quirks. Give your readers a chance to get a glimpse of the person behind the blog and allow them to connect with you, setup an about page with a portrait. Part of human nature is curiosity, if a blog doesn’t reveal anything about its author and I can’t find an about page, I’m not very likely to return. If you don’t want to be approachable and stay anonymous, fine, but maybe a public blog is not the perfect choice for you.
Posts – Daily business! Posts are the publishing unit, the body of your blog. They may consist of food essays, food-related anecdotes, news, recipes, how-to instructions or restaurant experiences and the list goes on.
Focus: Keep your focus. Dedicate your blog to a certain subject and stick to it. An occasional excursion is a non issue, but readers may stay away, if you keep mixing unrelated topics within one blog.
Content: Avoid useless content, the web is already full of crap nobody needs. Don’t go for mass production, put quality over quantity (see “Create value” above). One well written post a week is better than a poorly written daily post with no point. Time is precious, you don’t want to bore your readers. This applies to a chosen subject as well, don’t follow each and every hype or trend: if 99 bloggers have already written about the wondrous no-knead bread, what are the odds your readers go crazy about your article?
Regularity: Write regularly. Cautiously reflect what posting frequency is best for you and your schedule (less oftentimes is more!) and stick to it. New blogs often make the mistake to post daily, until they get struck by blogging antipathy and continue to only blog twice a month. It puts readers off, when they check back with your blog just to find no sign of life for weeks. While there’s no limit to the blogging frequency per se other than the concern of the quality of your content, a minimum of one post per week keeps a steady lifeline.
Headlines: Pay attention to your headlines. They not only assume an important role with search engines, but can function as a door opener (think of your RSS feed subscribers) and are supposed to create curiosity and lure encourage your readers to read the entire article. Philosophical headlines do work, yet when they get too blurry, people may miss your point. Food blogging is not really about creating tension, so you may as well tell your readers in your headline what your latest post is all about.
Sustainability: Keep in mind that every word and photo you publish on the web can not only be seen by friends and readers at large, but of course by your co-workers or future bosses. As soon as the site gets indexed by search engines and caching proxies a simple delete won’t do. Sometimes it’s good practice to sleep over a post (e.g. a bad restaurant review) before finally publishing it, giving you time to re-think your claims. Don’t get carried away by your inital anger. Especially negative press can have a huge impact, so write your conclusions with caution and rationalize them thoroughly.
Commenting – Say it! Comments are a fantastic way to communicate with other bloggers, to stir discussions and exchange experiences.
Leaving comments: Think of your comment as the written equivalent to how you’d address somebody in real life. And beyond just expressing your thoughts, it is a key way for others to discover your blog. A few simple rules: Make what you have to say understandable, avoid spelling mistakes, be polite. Read the whole post before commenting, to avoid asking questions which already have been answered in the post. Avoid two word comments like “Great pictures“, “Fantastic post” or generic questions that Google would be quite happy to comprehensively answer, e.g. “What is cumin?“. Don’t promote your blog in your comment text, usually your name will link to your blog already, an extra URL in the comment itself may appear a bit desperate. If the comment section doesn’t support link tags <a> (for useful information, interesting cross references), use TinyURL to turn a long and cryptic URL into a short one. Nice side-effect: The blog layout won’t get all messed up. Don’t advertise in comments.
Answering comments: I’m sure everyone has gone through the same process: In the early beginning of a blog life you are eager to answer each and every comment right away (and drive comment count up), but there comes a time when it just isn’t possible anymore. At least when your having a regular day job and a life outside of the blog. Remember, you started your blog to have fun, not to have a burden to deal with. A good workable trade off we usually achieve: answer each question or inquiry before writing your next post. We try anyway!
Spams comments: As soon as your blog is online you will have to deal with spam comments. Different systems, filters, plugins and/or using moderation queues may help to cope with it, it’s annoying nevertheless. Any comments obviously not related to the associated post, instead containing questionable content and/or linking to a companies’ website, we consider spam and delete. That happens at the speed of light.
Insulting comments: There’s no need for rude and hurtful comments in this world, it’s your blog, you make the rules. Some trolls out there get a kick out of this, don’t give them room for their screwed self. Would you welcome visitors insulting you in your own home? Don’t argue with them, send them straight to the trash bin (the comments of course)! It’s not worth a second thought.
Photography – Say cheese! With digital photography entering all areas of our daily life, we’re almost always armed with a camera. For good and for bad.
Food photography: A (good) image speaks more than a thousand words (a bad one does too, but different words), if you can handle your camera well, mouthwatering photography can become a principal reason for others to visit your blog. Although high-quality food photography is tricky, some food bloggers manage to show fantastic and professional looking results. These tips help you getting started.
Restaurant photography: Common sensus is to be as discreet as possible (no flashes) and respect a restaurant’s explicit wish not to have pictures taken, more details here. Think about the patron’s position for a second, who wants to find blurry pictures with an unappetizing yellow tint of the dishes and restaurant on the internet? Who wants to see blurry restaurant shots anyway (outside of the occasional exception to the rule)?
People photography: Different laws apply in different countries. To be on the safe side – and there is no reason not to – ask for permisson to take the photo and if they mind being published on a blog.
Recipes – Feed me! Food blogs make it dead easy to find tempting recipes from all over the globe. Ever spent hours in the kitchen, sweating to get that superb looking recipe from your glossy cookbook right and then fail due to nonsensical/incomplete instructions? Got to hate it, a waste of ingredients, time and muse. You don’t want to do that to your readers, do you? Be as precise with your recipes and instructions as possible. Do mention issues that may arise throughout the process, provide workarounds if you have them. Every little bit of information that will help your readers to successfully recreate your recipes will be appreciated. If your recipe is an adaptation from a cookbook or was inspired by another blogger, give credit. Never copy a recipe verbatim from a book, unless the publishing house has approved!
Copyrights – Copycats aren’t cute! When does inspiration cross the line and become plagiarism? Admittedly, it’s a bit of a gray area unless someone is bluntly taking your content and claims it as his/hers. And better yet, put their own copyright underneath it. Remember, while copyright law protects code, images, audio and text – anything that’s tangible – it does not protect the idea of a site layout – it does however protect the code pieces you used to achieve your own Look&Feel. Many bloggers and readers have a tenacious memory and will alert the original copyright holder about possible copyright infringement. So if you intend to use a photo, podcast etc. from another blog, ask for permission, host it on your own webspace giving proper credit with a link back to the original source. No hot-linking whatsoever! Respect the effort others put into their work and don’t copy it!
Links – Group hug! If blogs had a monetary currency, it would be called links. Links are the most powerful tool in the blogging world, your blog will literally stay invisible, if no one links to it.
Blogrolls: A summary of your favorite links, usually placed on your blog’s homepage (sidebar), reflecting your regular blog reading routine. If the list gets out of control and you end up with a gigantic link farm, the whole purpose of showing your appreciation for those blogs is defeated, well, at least diminished. Keep the list up to date. There’s no excuse to not have a blogroll – remember, if nobody would have your blog on their blogroll, only very few people would find you.
Links to posts/trackbacks: Trackbacks (your blogging platform of choice will handle those) and links within your posts to other related articles keeps the blog world interconnected. They helps to discover related topics and foster community networks. If another blog links to you in an article and drives a great number of visitors along your way, you’re happy and thankful. Why not do the same for other bloggers? Linking is the easiest way of actively participating and becoming part of the foodblogging community; don’t wait for others to start, go for it! It’s also a good way to get discovered, since your blog will appear in the other blogs’ referrer statistics, this blogger is likely to check out your blog! Share some link love!
Reciprocal links: Never ever ask for link exchange! The emails we get in that regard, all sound like something a child would say in kindergarten: “If you do this, I will do that”. If you want to be recognized, work for it, leave quality comments on your favorite blogs and link to them; chances are you will be linked after some time – but don’t ever claim the right to be linked – that’d be simply counterproductive!
Increasing traffic – This way, please! Mingle! Be out there, don’t hide behind your blog thinking that someday someone will notice you – it may happen, but why not be a little pro-active: participate in blog events, conversations on other blogs, link to other blogs, leave valuable comments (see thoughts on links and comments above), but don’t overdo it. The term comment whoring sounds a bit harsh, but you get the point.
Self-promotion: If a blogger takes himself too seriously and self-promotion becomes a constant theme on his/her blog, it may put off readers. Social bookmarking sites of the likes of del.icio.us and Digg can help to promote your blog. Although submitting your own posts can be viewed as a narcissistic thing to do, offering functional elements on your blog (read: buttons) to encourage submission of your content can help to get the word out. What it comes down to is a debate about organic growth versus forced growth, apply common sense. Directory listings we find useless concerning the additional traffic they bring, further Technorati has been very unreliable we think and so do others.
SEO: Search Engine Optimization = optimizing your content to rank well in the search engines, involving the use of targeted key words in specific places (like headlines) to cater to a search engine algorithm. Many perceive it as being overrated and value referral traffic (links from other bloggers) much higher and those will automatically come with quality content.
Blog statistics: Be on top of what’s going on on your blog, but don’t get obsessed with it and more importantly take those numbers with a grain of salt. Comparing your own stats with those of others is difficult, due to the use of different nomenclature (hits vs. unique visitors vs. page requests vs. http requests) and tools used to measure those. It’s great to find out who links to you, the posts your visitors frequent the most, but again keep in mind that these analytical tools not always produce accurate results.
Advertising – Payday! In principle: Regardless of the level of idealism you throw into the mix, the more successful you become the more you’ll realize that owning a blog comes with hidden costs. Cost associated with reviewing products or simply hosting costs per se. With all the time and effort going into the writing, why shouldn’t you be rewarded?
Ads: Beware of changing the sole purpose of your writing towards appeasing current and attracting new sponsors. If your focus shifts from living your passion to making money, it’ll be obvious to your readers and will possibly drive them away. Proper ad placement without being obnoxious is key, rather to the expense of the one or other click than throwing flashy ads at your treasured readers. Worse yet: ads within posts. Shoot for subtle ad placement versus a cluttered up blog. You can always learn a thing or two from the problogger. Most important: keep your blog integrity. So far, we’ve declined more than 50 % of all incoming ad requests just because we didn’t feel comfortable running them. Money’s not everything – anyway, it’s solely your decision.
Interaction with readers, press and
public relations Emails: You’ll be getting a lot of these. Some asking for link exchanges, some want to send you stuff, others request foodie tips and there’ll always be a few that are just simply weird. These inquiries are mostly kept in a kind tone, but you’ll be surprised how demanding people can get. And those oftentimes don’t even bother to reply with a Thank You note. Lesson learned: take incoming emails seriously (unless they’re obvious spam) but watch your enthusiasm in responding – you may never hear back!
Interviews: Don’t be shy about giving interviews, it’s a great way to shout out your mission statement outside of your blog and helps to broaden your audience. Most times you don’t get to review the interview before it goes live, but it can’t hurt to ask for an upfront copy.
Reviews: Do product reviews go against the basics of good ethical blogging? There is nothing wrong with accepting freebies, what is important is transparency. Be upfront with the inquiring company, that you don’t promise anything, especially not a positive review in exchange for a free product sample, and give them a chance to back out. Alert your readers and make them aware when you talk about a sponsored product, especially when doing so positively. We have not yet heard of food bloggers reviewing products for money, but that would certainly cross the line of what we consider ethical blogging.
Public relations: Sadly, many companies still don’t have a clue about how to properly approach bloggers in marketing matters, we get embarrassingly bad written emails every other day – how about this one we just found in our inbox (from an online business company): “Can You add my link to your blog? I’ll add your blog to our directory of course. I can add your link first.“
Elise wrote a very helpful guide for the ambitious but incapable PR person.
Have a life – and live it! Let’s recap, you started your blog to have fun, it’s not meant to become a burden. Work your blogging frequency around your business and private life, don’t cut back on relaxing and meeting friends. You don’t want to become a square-eyed geek who rarely sees the sun, do you? Before blogging becomes an unloved discipline and you’re running out of energy, take a blog break, enjoy real life and refresh your perspective. Don’t become obsessed with blogging rituals, try not to annoy friends and family with taking food pictures while everybody is dying to start, keep the pawlow reflex under control and your camera (at least occasionally) off the table. And surprise your friends by declining an offer to take pictures of their dessert with a generous “nah, not right now, let’s eat“.
Have fun and break rules At times a blog can be hard work, time consuming, tiring, requiring discipline, but overall IT’S FUN! Remind yourself that writing is not a race, shouldn’t stress you (much) and if you made a mistake – so what? Just like in real life, be upfront about it and move on. Don’t force it, good things will happen over time or as a surprise, cut yourself some slack. Don’t define yourself through your blog and do not take ups and downs personal – simply don’t take yourself too seriously…and break some rules – if you do, do it all the way and make it a virtue.
I’m sure we missed to mention the one or other point (check out Foodblogscool for even more infos), feel free to add your take and perception in the comment section. What do you like in particular, what annoys you on a foodblog?