How to start a food blog, part 2: Design and building an audience

Food Blogging

This post follows on from How to start a food blog.

How do I design my blog?

Don’t. Get someone else to do it, unless you’re lucky enough to be a web designer or are keen to use the blog to practice your web design skills. Good design counts.

Firstly, all of the major blogging platforms come with a template system where you can easily pick and choose between their stock (or easy to modify) designs. Links for a few template sites where you can download free to use (or free with attribution) templates are below.

Secondly, you can hire a web designer to make a template for you. This is costly for your average blog, but if you’re setting this up as a part of your broader business, it is well worth the expense for your site to both stand out from the crowd and fit with your brand. For a decent designer building a unique template, budget for between US$450 and US$900+ depending on the amount of work involved. Alternately, you could pick up a non-unique but well designed theme from somewhere like Template Monster for around $45.

Building your audience

Building your audience is not about being the biggest food blog in the world: it is about capturing the readers who you want to be reading your blog. If that audience is just your family and friends, I’ve already told you twice to stop reading this guide to starting a food blog, and get over to Blogger in the previous post. If it’s to capture the minds of other food bloggers and accordant readers with a passing passion for food: read on.

Networking/Commenting

Being social is almost more important to gathering an audience than writing blog posts. Make valuable comments on the blogs or forums (e.g. Chowhound, eGullet) that are similar to yours or you think has the readers who’ll lap up your thoughts on food. As much as I love it when someone writes “Great post!” and nothing else in the comments (cue stock response below), I like it even more if somebody writes something substantial that builds on the post or completely disagrees with it. If they do that, I’m likely to have a look at their food blog. Controversy is good for traffic, even if it makes you look like the fool.

For food blogging, networking isn’t limited to online. You can always try inviting another blogger for a meal/drinks, emailing them for suggestions, or attending one of the organised blogging meets. It shouldn’t be any great surprise to people that food bloggers like free food. Physically meeting people is more powerful than just commenting for building relationships.

Online Food Blog Events

Is My Blog Burning? – tracks blogging events/posts where individual bloggers host a themed post and encourage others to write about the same topic. Both hosting an event and being involved in them are great ways to attract likeminded bloggers and build incoming links to your site.

Menu For Hope – is the food blogging world’s superbowl: a raffle in aid of a charitable food cause (last year the UN’s World Food Programme) hosted by Pim from Chez Pim and others around Christmas.

The cynical web marketer in me still screams out that the money spent on pepper in Cambodia has paid off one-thousandfold in incoming links. You couldn’t pay the world’s bigger food bloggers to link to your site, but once a year, you can get it practically for free. And the money goes to a good cause.

Get listed on the aggregators

At the moment, there are only two important sites that specifically aggregate food blog content: foodpornwatch and tastespotting . Food Porn Watch provides a text link to your updated posts as they happen. To get listed, after you’ve written some quality content on your site all you need to do is email them your RSS feed details at http://foodpornwatch.arrr.net/addsite.shtml . Tastespotting highlights food photography with an emphasis on well-lit macro shots of styled food: the sort of shots that bore me pantless but the rest of the world seems to love with gay abandon. (Thankfully, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl thinks along similar lines, so maybe this trend will swing back to either shots of unstyled food or my hope, to the bad, oversaturated food shots of the 1950s) To get yours up at Tastespotting, go to http://www.tastespotting.com/?action=new.

Writing for search engines (SEO)

When you write for the web, you write for two audiences: your human readers and search engines. At the moment, a search engine reading your site is like a blind person breaking into your house and trying to guess the color of your clothes by the way they smell. If they’re lucky, your clothes will be tagged. If they’re not lucky, they’ll guess that your clothes are all brown.

Writing for search engines is like putting Braille labels on your clothes. If it’s done well, only the actors who matter will notice.

Unlike blind burglars, search engines are more easily tricked and this manner of prestidigitation forms a whole new field of marketing called “Search Engine Optimization”, the goal of which is to list your site as highly as possible on a search engine for a particular keyword and thereby attract more readers when they search for that keyword. Most of the tricks are as easy as finding Braille labels. Here are the five most important things to do to raise your website’s profile in the unseeing eyes of the search engine:

  1. Keywords in your titles – if you’re writing about “How to start a food blog”, name it thus. As much fun as it is to write wacky titles, search engines can’t find them because they have not got the semantics worked out yet. I will be a happy man when search engines like a pun.
  2. Keywords in incoming links – Incoming links from other websites form much of the basis for your ranking in search engines and are even better when they contain the keywords that you target. For me “Cambodian food” is a better link than “Phnomenon”. You can encourage this by writing them yourself. If you’re commenting on another site and have a post that illustrates a point, make a proper link (e.g. “I’ve written about Cambodian food before” rather than “I wrote about Cambodian food at http://phnomenon.com“). For businesses, do the same in press releases, which often will end up on news websites unedited. Having keywords in your titles also helps this because when another blogger writes about your fantastic post, they’re likely to link to the title.
  3. Incoming link quality and quantity – Lots of incoming links from respected sites helps.
  4. Relevance of the page that the incoming link is on – submitting your site to off-topic pages will not help. Get a mention on a Wikipedia page or a University research site dedicated to your niche helps a great deal
  5. Age of your site – Older sites rank more highly. Stick with what you’re doing and it will come to pay off.

Social Media (apart from blogs)

“Social media” is any site that relies on user generated content and where said users can interact with each other. The most important thing to remember about using any social media to promote your blog is to maintain a consistent presence. Saying that you know nothing about food on your Facebook page then writing about eating in all its glory on your own site is inadvisable. The amount of work that you put into promoting your blogs on social media sites is limited only by the amount of time that you can spare.

FlickrFlickr is a handy place to store and share your photos as well as build links back to your blog. On every single photo that you post on flickr, provide a link back to the blog beneath it. On the social side, there are ten thousand flickr groups devoted to food, so post your photos to likeminded groups.

Technorati – is useful to see how your blog links to every other blog (if you’re not keen on doing any further analysis); and adds yet another place for people to find you.

StumbleUpon – I discovered StumbleUpon recently, but it seems to deliver a much more relevant food audience than other social networking tools. Login and “stumble” through sites tagged by other users, tag your own sites as “food”, tag your friends’ sites, and get in touch with other Stumblers.

Del.icio.us – Amongst the bookmarking tools del.icio.us is a favorite. It doesn’t send huge numbers of people to my sites, but the ones that it does send are pure gold: they spend more time reading multiple pages than any visitors from other directory sites.

Facebook – Like most web marketers, I regard Facebook as a marketing tool where I can harvest demographic information from anybody foolish enough to post their personal details there and then use it to target them with closely tailored advertising in perpetuity.

I also use it to play Scrabble.

You can certainly use it to pimp out your food blog – David Lebovitz, for example, has six hundred friends whom he spams with links; I’ve got a Facebook fan page that I don’t promote because I’m too busy playing Scrabble. In Australia, Facebook is becoming the dominant social network.

Digg – Digg is nigh on useless for most food bloggers at the moment unless you’re blogging about the intersection of food and technology, humour, or junk food. The traffic spikes that I have received from having the occasional article being “dugg” have not translated into my goals of attracting long term readers, rss subscribers, or even ad clicks.

Twitter – Twitter, the social network that just wants to know what you’re doing, seems like a distraction rather than a useful tool for food blogging with one caveat. If your audience is interested in you as a person rather than food content (you chose “I’ll write about whatever I like” as a reason for building a food blog), twitter is a simple tool to let them know where you’re at. As Twitter grows and slips into the mainstream, it will become more useful.

Next Thursday, I take on maintaining your audience and making money with your food blog.

Links of note:

Blog templates

Search Engine Optimisation

Five links on ummm…Sunday

Sorry…I made a quick trip to Sydney and forgot that I was meant to be posting this on Friday. Enjoy your long weekend, Australians.

How to start a food blog

Honestly ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”

I want to share recipes/restaurant recommendations/my boundless food wisdom with friends – If you want nothing more than to share your thoughts about food with people whom you already know (and you are being honest), your best bet is to get over to Blogger.com and start writing as soon as you finish reading this sentence. Reading their help section is all you’ll need.

You are wasting valuable time reading anything past this point.

I want to meet people who write on the web that aren’t freaks and be a part of a community of like-minded, passionate food junkies
– I haven’t physically met any food bloggers whom I don’t like, but then again, I was living in a country where I was the only food blogger. My neighbours in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China and Laos were all fantastic as were the few that dropped by Cambodia.

I want to make money – If you’re in Australia, writing about Australian food, this is not going to happen in at least the next five years. The online advertising market in Australia is growing but is too small at the moment. If you’re going to rely on Google Ads, Yahoo or other big ad networks, you need either a huge number of visitors to your site or to attract a very valuable niche who will be convinced to buy whatever products you pimp from Amazon or Chitika.

The alternate route is to sell ads directly to businesses – which is not impossible – it’s just that you’ll probably end up spending more time pitching to businesses than you will writing about food. I briefly made a living from my blogs alone but this was because I was living in one of the world’s poorest nations and I sold ads directly to an ad agency who thankfully hadn’t noticed that I had called the product that they were advertising “insipid”. In the First World, I’d have starved.

I want to be a famous food writer/photographer
– Name five famous food writers that began as bloggers. If you said Clotilde or Julie five times, it does not count. I’d doubt that you’d know who they are unless you have already started foodblogging, in which case, this guide is not for you.

Sure, blogging has only been around for a few years but it doesn’t yet seem like the springboard to you being the next Steingarten. If you want to be a food writer in the offline press, your time is better spent hassling editors and pitching stories to the offline press than it is blogging. A great place to start this is Mediabistro or with your local media. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do both but every minute that you spend on your website is time that could be used to develop your offline work. As I mentioned earlier, every major food media outlet will have a food blog within the next few years and it requires a skill set different from your average journalist – starting blogging now will put you a long way ahead.

If you want to publish a recipe book, why would you give away all of your valuable content for free on the web? Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are clavicle-deep in experimenting in this model, as is science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. More relevant to food writing, Chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot from Ideas in Food have self-published a photobook of their molecular madness but still haven’t landed that publishing deal that they richly deserve.

Any writing is good practice and doing it in public gives you the chance for people to write back to you, telling you that you’re crap (or otherwise). If you want to be well-known amongst a small cadre of other food bloggers, food blogging is the best avenue for this. I imagine that it’s kind of like being world famous in New Zealand. Domo Arigato, Dr. Ropata.

I have a food business/restaurant/am a food professional and need somewhere to honestly link up with the punters/debate my awesomeness – There is nothing better than blogging to keep you connected and no easier way for people to meditate on how terrible your business is, to your face. You need a thick skin and to be responsive to criticism.

I love writing about food and photographing it and don’t honestly know why I want to start blogging
– my guess is that 90% of food bloggers have this as their sole reason to start writing about food on the web. It is not a bad reason. At least you’re being honest.

If you answered honestly, this will divide you into two categories:

I don’t care how many people read my blog, apart from my friends
– You said that you just wanted to share things with friends. I told you to stop reading earlier, and go over to Blogger, which I guess means…

I care (or at some time in the future, I might care)
– from here on in, I talk about the nuts and bolts of building your blog; then attracting, maintaining and measuring an audience.

What to write about


I’m going to write about X
– You have an unwavering passion for or business interests in X. You might be addicted to eggs, bacon, chips and beans; eating what you shoot; or Cambodian food. In the biz, this is called your niche and if you’re doing this for any sort of professional/money-making reasons then it is easier to build an audience if you start like this. People who have a vague interest in X will gravitate towards you and over time, you’ll become the world’s leading proponent of X. It’s also a great way to link up with others who have an unhinged obsession with X.

Every single post that you write on the web should somehow add value to X. Linking to someone else’s news article about X doesn’t add any value to your blog unless you have something insightful to say about it.

Traditionally, this is what most web marketers will recommend that you do when starting your blog but ultimately, most food bloggers don’t stay on mission. Once you’ve built an audience of readers, they’ll either forgive you (or love it) when you stray off topic. Here is RealThai eating real Swedish, Ed Charles talking about his dog, me talking about obscure Cambodian/Vietnamese geopolitics.

I’m going to write about whatever the hell I feel like. Not even food sometimes. You can’t stop me
. – This is a harder path because the appeal of your site isn’t going to be the subject matter; it’s going to be you. If you’ve got self confidence and know that your voice alone is going to attract readers, then go for it. I’ve begun thinking that one of the reasons that many food bloggers burn out within a year is that they run out of subject matter (X) and don’t know what to do next.

Michael Ruhlman, David Leibovitz and Aun from Chubby Hubby all tend to write about whatever they choose but the focus stays on food. They all also have offline food industry experience (or readers of their books) to back them up.

Technical issues – the nuts and bolts

Which blogging platform?

I’m not going to do an in-depth review of the best blogging sites and software out there. Others have already done this in an approachable manner – see the links below.

As for my recommendation for food blogging, I choose WordPress – It’s flexible, relatively easy to extend and most foodbloggers who start with another platform and don’t quit within the first year of blogging end up moving to WordPress. The downside is that you’ve got to pay for hosting (between US$6 and US$12 a month) and have some confidence with technology. I recommend Bluehost for hosting – they have an auto-install function for WordPress and they’re currently less than $7 a month.

For more information on WordPress, visit their site. Their documentation on getting started is expansive and tailored to all levels of knowledge.

If (after looking at WordPress) you’re not feeling confident with the technology (or simply, just don’t want to pay), sign up at TypePad, Blogger or LiveJournal. It’s as easy to start blogging there as signing up for email. If you don’t mind paying just a little, I’m impressed by newcomers Squarespace – their stock blogs are world’s apart of getting something off the rack at a free blog site.

Regardless of which platform you choose, I strongly recommend buying your own domain name (e.g. www.yourfoodblog.com) before starting for a few reasons:

  • It is painful if you move platforms and lose the incoming links that you’ve built over time
  • If you’re good at blogging, someone else will buy it before you. This happened to Pim of Chez Pim, who only recently moved from Typepad to chezpim.com

For more information on choosing a blog platform

For more “getting started in food blogging” articles

In my next instalment (next Thursday), I fill in how to design your blog, attract the audience that you want to attract and make (a little) money. Continued at “How to start a food blog, part 2“.

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Kimchi jeon (김치전)

kimchijeon ingredients

I’ve personally eaten half a kilo of kimchi this week. There have been no ill effects. Something about the idea of Korea’s national obsession being shot into space has piqued my tastebuds. Their mastery of the controlled fermentation of coleslaw is no longer earthbound.

A recipe for kimchi jeon is about the laziest that a recipe can be before it becomes a convenience food. If I described it as a kimchi pancake, then chances are that you could cook one just by guessing, even if you didn’t know kimchi from Lil’ Kim. There are four ingredients and if you’re reading this blog, I’ll bet that you already own three of them.

Ingredients:

100gms of plain flour
150gms of kimchi
2 eggs
100ml of water

Kimchijeon batter

Mix flour, eggs and water, stir through kimchi.

Kimchijeon

Fry on both sides, then cut into bite-size pieces.

I can’t believe it’s not Chợ Bến Thành ™

Ben Thanh Market?

There is nothing like a high degree of architectural verisimilitude to brighten up my day, be it a Big Banana, Giant Merino or in this case, a fake Ben Thanh Market building in the middle of Melbourne. This model of Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market is so accurate that the clocks are all set to the same incorrect times that they are on the real thing.

Ben Thanh Market?

Rather than the tourist gewgaws that pack most of the Ho Chi Minh City prototype, this one houses one of the more useful Vietnamese grocers in Melbourne, Huy Huy, reliable stockists of the herbiage for great pho (and other Vietnamese soups) such as ngo om (limnophila aromatica), sawtooth coriander (eryngium foetidum), fishwort and a range of basils.

Location: 240 Victoria St Richmond, Vic, Australia.

Five Links on Friday: Leap Year Edition, 2008

Sausage Fancier

sausage fancier: urban garden

Once you’ve seen how sausages are made, you’ll want to eat nothing but sausages. This was my first impression of home sausage making; my second was that making sausages is possibly my true calling and that my university loan debts could have been better spent on a meat mincer and practicing the barbecuing arts rather than on undergraduate degrees.

I started with a setup familiar to all new converts to the testaments of sausage making: a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie and George Foreman’s Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine. That George Foreman lends his moniker to an electric meat mincer is no great surprise to me. I discovered years ago that Foreman had made not less than nine billion American dollars from selling a multitude of appliances in no way limited to the indoor grill. The hypocrisy of adding the word “Lean” to a product that should be pumping out sausages that should be about 25% fat is not lost in me.

If you’re looking to lose weight, eating pork fat stuffed into a tube is not your best option. I’m sure that George would argue that his Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine means that the home sausage fancier could control the fat content in their sausages just like he himself took control of his 1971 battle with Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, but I’d rather be eating richer, fattier sausages in moderation than the fat-free simulacra of a sausage. Fat is vital for human survival, just like the footwork Foreman displayed in his 1987 fight with Steve Zouski.

My first batch was perfect. I followed Ruhlman’s basic garlic sausage recipe and added a tablespoon of roughly crushed cumin seeds, chilli flakes, Kampot pepper, then lowered the salt content. The Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine shudders away. I achieved the “primary bind” that Ruhlman mentions; once ground, the meat turns sticky as the protein breaks down. The casein skin burst only once while stuffing.

sausage fancier

I grilled the sausages over charcoal as slowly as possible. I ate them with friends in absolute stunned silence.

I’ve begun eyeing off the greying cut-price meats in the supermarket refrigerators with a single question in mind: will it mince? What else can I stuff? What memories of sausages past can I recapture? How much of my life has been wasted not making my own sausages?

If there is one thing you can expect from this blog in the coming years, it is more sausage.

My basic garlic, cumin and pepper sausage recipe

(based on Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Fresh Sausage Master Recipe: Fresh Garlic Sausage”)

Yields: about two and a half kilograms of sausages.

The original Ruhlman/Polcyn recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of salt. I ground in two tablespoons of this and fried up a patty of the mince to test the flavour before stuffing the casings. For me, it was salty enough but add more or less to your taste. Real intestine casings are tough to find in Australia. I went with casein.

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon of cumin seeds, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
1 tablespoon of Kampot pepper (or the best quality black pepper you can get), coarsely ground.
2 tablespoons of the cheapest salt available*.
3 tablespoons of minced garlic
2 cups of white wine
2.5 kilograms of fatty pork meat (approx 25% fat. I used 2 kilos of shoulder to 0.5 kilo of belly)

Method:

Pound the cumin, pepper and chilli flakes in a mortar and pestle until most of the cumin seeds are broken. Finely chop the garlic. Chop the meat into pieces small enough to fit into your mincer. Mix meat, spices and salt together in a bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Soak casein casings in one cup of white wine.

Mince all ingredients into a bowl set in ice, on the fine (0.25cm) grade. Add one cup of wine and mix the mince until it becomes sticky. Fry up a patty of meat to test flavouring, then adjust anything to taste.

Change mincer to stuffer attachments. Thread about a metre of casings over attachment and tie the end in a knot. Pour mince into mincer and stuff away!

Section the giant sausage into odd lengths by twisting the casings – it is much easier to make one metre-long sausage and do this at the end of the process rather than juggling the sausage and the mincer. Charcuterie has a twee picture of measuring a sausage with a ruler as to ensure uniform size; my approach is less anal but equally obscene. Cook over a fire, as slowly as you can bear.

For a much more pictorial recipe, buy Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

* – Expensive salt makes no difference when dissolved in food, especially in sausages such as these which are packed with other aromatic components. Jeffrey Steingarten tests this out in It Must Have Been Something I Ate.