The best time to start blogging is now.

The Flickr Curve.

Something I discovered pretty early on in managing social media is that the lifecycle of most social media channels follow the Flickr curve. There is the same shape to search volume on Google over time: 3 years of growth followed by slow decline.

Even successful ones, like Facebook

They do so for different reasons. Flickr boomed and died, Facebook boomed and then moved into an app. Nobody is googling for the Facebook login page any more because they’re always already logged in on their phone (and every other device). With the benefit of hindsight, search behaviour for any social network looks cyclical. At the time, you have no idea where on the curve any social network is.

There’s weirdo outliers like tumblr. You should buy tumblr and work out why.

Blogging has followed a similar trend with an imaginary golden age from 2004 to 2007 followed by a slow decline.

Visits from Google once mattered for blogs and now it’s much harder to reach those people who no longer search for blogging as a genre. The search engine has recently announced that it prefers to show restaurant reviews from “reputable publishers” rather than from smaller fry which is as good as a death knell for small review blogs.

Blogging (and especially food and travel blogging) has returned to the state where it is as unpopular as it once was when I started a decade ago for three reasons and it’s both amazing and kind of shit.


As the mainstream food and travel media has collapsed in on itself, the mainstream blogging that has replaced it is as tone-deaf as before. Half the fun of my early days of blogging in Cambodia was taking the piss out of travel journalists parachuting in for the weekend, who filed the same food story about spiders and then retreated to cooler climes. Now journalists can no longer afford a parachute and land on the ground in a fine pink mist, the food and travel bloggers that have filled the airspace are more amoral than simply misunderstanding the cultures they cover.

Whether it’s video-blogging on behalf of the North Korean government or the Thai military junta, we’re left with as Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson puts it

…content creators so determined to deliver an upbeat, brand-friendly message that the uncomfortable truths of the world—personal and political—go mind-bogglingly, witlessly ignored.

This is where we were a decade ago.

Nobody is going to make any money

In the medium- to long term, there’s only three ways to make decent money out of writing your own blog posts without using it to bring in links to some other business.

These are:

  1. Gather a team with an obsessive focus on a single vertical (e.g. Skift, Digiday, Food52, Lucky Peach) and build something that looks literally nothing like personal blogging.
  2. Con other bloggers to work for you for free (e.g. Huffington Post, Medium, tumblr).
  3. Con other bloggers into believing that they too can make money with their blogs and then sell them ebooks/courses/nomadic lifestyle.

If you get in now and aren’t prepared to do any of those things, it’s for the love of the game and not to make any form of remuneration. Around ten years ago there was no real expectation that any money could be made from it until people started posting $100,000 cheques from Google, and then expectations began to change. There’s a chance that blogging will never again be profitable which leaves the field open to the committed amateur.

The end of the blog influencer market

Even though I’m a firm believer that influencer marketing does next to nothing for most food and travel businesses, the last five years has seen a change in the way that businesses measure the initial value of influencers. Now, businesses look at their social media following first and not their written work on their own sites which ends the market for blog influence.

If you’re the sort of person who wants to be Instagram-famous and wallow in the spoils that come with that fame then you’re no longer likely to be evaluated by your blog, because you don’t have one. This has the positive effect on blogging in that it keeps image-obsessed wankers away from writing more witless listicles and instead focussed on which VSCO filter to use. It’s like watching the shallow end of the pool recede in favour of the depths.

Early on, bloggers never expected to be influential because there was a fair expectation that nobody would read your blog. Most of the time, nobody did. Now they’re no longer seen as influential because businesses have picked a different arbitrary and pointless metric to value online work.

The conditions of the early-2000s are back. Nobody looks for blogs actively. There’s a mounting ressentiment with the state of food and travel media. There is zero chance that bloggers will earn any money or wield any degree of influence.

I used to tell people that the best time to start a blog was ten years ago when the conditions were identical. I’m beginning to think the best time to start is now.

When food blogs stopped being food blogs

According to the data: 2010.

Or at least, that’s when interest in them began to plateau as a search term on Google and it’s probably a good marker of when they stopped growing as a medium in their own right and simply became part of the regular food media ecosystem where supply of food media well and truly outstripped demand. What hasn’t ever peaked is the nostalgia for the past era of food blogging where blogs were more fun, a nostalgia that started to coalesce around 2005. From Amateur Gourmet, today, commenting that food blogging is over:

Don’t believe that’s happening? Consider this:, one of the most significant food blogs in existence, just hired three full-time restaurant critics. Meanwhile, the most popular recipe blogs are looking more and more like magazines. Can you really detect a difference between the imagery and presentation on blogs like Smitten Kitchen and 101 Cookbooks from the imagery you find in Martha Stewart Living or, more aptly, Bon Appetit?

As food blogs grow more and more professional, I’m left with a feeling of nostalgia for the “anything goes” era of blogging. That looseness, that scruffiness, was why food blogs were such an appealing alternative to more traditional media.

Goodbye, Rosemary

Goodbye, Rosemary

I pulled out a rosemary hedge that’s been growing down the side of my house for a few decades, in about two hours. Not even the keenest lamb cook can eat that much rosemary and I still have a massive plant in the backyard to attract bees to pollinate more desirable food. It’s somehow emblematic of the life that I’m interested in. Where in the past I was probably more interested in whatever food flowed past the front of my house, over the past months, I have become more absorbed in looking inwards. Staring towards my backyard is more fulfilling than writing about eating outside.

Pulling out the rosemary had nothing to do with food, it was to enable a team of hazmat-suited asbestos removalists to back a truck down the driveway and give the impression that my house was cooking the largest batch of meth in the Western suburbs. If you live in a house built between 1920 and 1960 in Melbourne’s west, there’s asbestos in it, which isn’t a problem until you need to knock out a wall or drill some holes. Asbestos sheets sit dormant under the eaves, surrounds sagging sheds and provide structure for the mid-50s lean-tos that creep across Melbourne’s backyards.

It’s distributed across Melbourne in a map that reflects mid-century poverty. Being a cheap building material, the poorer a suburb was in the postwar era, the more asbestos is in it. Rich people only built their beach house with that cheap grey sheetrock. As the wave of gentrification sweeps across Melbourne’s inner suburbs, so too does asbestos removal. The garage and bungalow in my backyard were reduced to grey rectangles of cracked clay spotted with a veritable trove of zinc roofing nails, construction aggregate and broken shards of glass that my daughter calls “treasures”. A backyard in readiness for architecture.

I think this is why people quit food blogs, not so much because they’re less interested in food, but because their inward lives become more enthralling and less explicable. Work, kids, health, sex, politics: they’re more consuming than what you eat or at least, what you publish about what you eat. There’s bolognaise sauce bubbling on the stove while I’m writing this. As much as I know you want to pin it on Pinterest, nobody pins beige food. I’m not going to take a decent photo of it because people who style their own food aren’t worth knowing. I’d add nothing worthwhile to the world by publishing my vision for the perfect meat sauce but also I’m not at all interested in presenting some perfectly curated version of my new domesticity.

So how do you food blog an imperfectly curated life?

Part of the nostalgia for the blogging days of yore, before food blogs died, is to do with its low fidelity, the technical imperfections that made it seem more authentic. Apart from the dopamine bursts from endless information, this is what draws me more to Twitter and less to blogging. When you follow any group of people, it’s riddled with idiosyncrasy and when you know virtually nobody is paying attention to you most of the time, it gives you freedom to write a sentence about anything. It the past I would have written a few sentences of blog post about an interesting link; now it would be 120 characters of a tweet. Something was lost when this happened.

Like Steve Cumper has decided to embrace lo-fi in his food, I’m going to do the same with my blogging. More paring back to the things that I’d otherwise tweet about, like pulling out hedges and short-form, short-lived criticism, less 600 word missives like this one.

How to make money with your food blog in 2013

Selling eggs near Psar Toul Tom Poung, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Selling eggs near Russian Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’ve been trying to update this post for about a year. My first attempt ended in me saying that you shouldn’t bother trying to make money from your food blog, or at least, you should not feel entitled to recompense for your creative endeavours.

It’s pretty hard to find a food blogger who makes a living from it who started food blogging after 2007. Google tends to favour those with a deep history. It’s also hard to find one who’s not in a partnership with somebody who makes or has made a decent income elsewhere. Any food blogger (or journalist for that matter) can look wealthy with the backing of a generous benefactor or understanding partner.

When I talk about making money, I mean making a living wage, not just a few dollars to pay for your web hosting or the occasional pint of bitter. You could do that by signing up for Google Adsense or Amazon Affiliates.

Most food blogs never plan to make any money, but if your goal is to make money online, the best thing for you to do would be to quit food blogging and start writing about something which is more lucrative and has less competition. When you blog about food for money, you compete with some of the world’s largest and best resourced media organisations for visitors. I’ve worked for a handful of these: a TV station, newspapers, magazines and a state tourism bureau. Most of them know what they’re doing online and while they have no monopoly on audiences for food, they do tend to have the lion’s share.

Bloggers can certainly pick over the carcase of the food media and occasionally hit some rich marrow but it is a very occasional and unpredictable feast.

While not the only source of income, the biggest problem for selling advertising with a blog now is scale. As the web keeps expanding so to does the potential advertising inventory, which makes advertising ever cheaper. From the blogger’s point of view, this means that there is incrementally more work that needs to be done to make the same amount of money over time from advertising. Bigger websites tend to win. They have the sales staff to work directly with media buyers; bigger audiences to segment; deeper inventories.

While in 2007, I might have recommended a handful of different ad networks or affiliate sites for your food blog, online food media has matured. If you want to work alone, it’s almost impossible to compete for a huge audience. At this point, I think that there are only two broad strategies to make a living by writing a food blog. They’re not mutually exclusive.

1. Going alone.

Get a job that you love in a related field.

No writer starts out as just a writer. Everyone has worked in the employ of others, attempting to do the work that enables a writing habit. The difference with blogging is that there is a variety of fields that contribute to being a better blogger. The direct path to this is somewhere in the web industry: writing editorial content for websites, and if you’re lucky enough, one that keeps you in touch with food.

There is no shortage of the types of roles that fit into the broader spectrum of jobs that train you to be a more rounded blogger: community management, analytics, search marketing, the digital side of public relations. There’s plenty which are almost impossible to break into, but where your blog is a calling card: food journalism, photography, styling.

This is how I make most of my living: variously, managing websites, social media, copywriting, SEO, analytics. At least over the last ten years, all of my work has contributed directly to the way that I write and much that I’ve learnt from writing a blog can be fed back into much larger websites. Often my blogs have become testing grounds for ideas that I’ve had for far larger projects. It’s a lot less costly to fail quickly on a blog than it is on a huge corporate budget.

Start a food business, not a blog.

I shouldn’t need to say this but the easiest way to make money is selling something. Blogging doesn’t do that directly but can act as a proof that you can build sorts of communities to whom you can sell. I’m in no position to tell you how to start your own food business and having worked in a few from farm gate to factory floor didn’t convince me that it was an altogether good idea.


There are no shortage of bloggers tracing a path in this direction. Tammi Jonas (and family) started a free range rare breed pig farm, which is a complete extension of the food philosophy that she espouses on her blog. Jackie Middleton from Eating With Jack started EARL Canteen, serving some of the best luxury sandwiches in Melbourne. Aun Koh from Singapore’s Chubby Hubby started his own PR firm with a focus on food and lifestyle.

2. Going together.

You need a lot of people visiting a website that doesn’t sell anything to make an amount that approaches a living wage from affiliate sales and advertising. Not only do you need many people, but increasingly, those people need to be homogenous: same country, same demographic, same purchasing power. To some extent, this dictates the sort of blog that you’ll need to write. One that is mostly inoffensive and advertiser-friendly, low to middle brow, easy on the eye. A blog wherein you will know the exact demographic of the reader just by glancing at the design.

To get to an appropriate size, you need to publish more than your average food blogger. Plan for at least three posts a day, every day, forever. Unless you’re prepared to burn yourself out within a scant few years (or publish vast seas of utter shit), you can’t do this alone.

If you’re looking to make money from it, this starts to look much more like a business than a hobby. You’ll either need to convince other food writers and photographers to ditch what they’re doing and join you in partnership; work out some way of compensating others for their work; or take the Huffington Post model, where authors mostly work for “exposure“.

If you were to head down the path of starting a group blog:

  1. Write some objectives for the blog
    1. Why are you doing this?
  2. Work out how you’re going to compensate people. Or not.
  3. Write some editorial guidelines.
  4. These don’t need to be huge, especially if you’ve already got a good relationship with a small number of other contributors. One of my favourites is this gaming blog’s guide – they’re short and easy to understand. At a minimum, I’d include:

    1. Objectives for individual posts on the blog
      1. What is each post supposed to do? Is it to keep people reading and subscribing, or is it to make people click ads?
    2. Describe your audience: who do you want to read the blog? And are there enough of those people to be valuable to advertisers?
    3. Style guide: Is it a free for all, or are there minimum standards to adhere to? Images? Video?
    4. Write a linking policy: can authors link anywhere? Can they link back to their own writing elsewhere?
    5. Copyright terms: Can writers republish/resell what they’ve written? Who owns the work?
    6. Position on gifts/freebies. Can writers whore for swag?

Australian food blogging list updated; no longer tracking freebies

I’ve updated my Australian Food Blog list: it will forever be incomplete but the best that I can do. I’ve decided to stop tracking bloggers who receive free meals, cash or other incentives in exchange for writing posts because I can’t keep up with them and for the most part don’t ever read them.

It’s safer to assume that all do or will unless they categorically state otherwise.

Bloggers that aren’t open to free things are incredibly rare; probably numbering less than a dozen amongst the entirety of Australia’s hundreds of food blogs. Australia doesn’t have an independent food writing community, we have one that is increasingly bonded to the restaurant industry, corporate PR and advertisers. Some of this is positive: more insider views from the food industry; fascinating feedback loops between diners and chefs; blogger-led events; deeper criticism of marketing tactics.

[pullquote position=”right”]Just as an aside on the probiotic juice: I can’t imagine the scale of the legal risk when a company is not correcting false health claims made by bloggers that it has sponsored to post about it. Probiotics probably don’t do anything. [/pullquote]

Most just adds to the Internet’s neverending pile of detritus like another few hundred gushing reviews of probiotic juice and dim paragraphs for Urbanspoon.

Recompiling the list made me realise is that how little diversity there is amongst the Australian food blogs. Almost all either contain unfocused restaurant reviews or random recipes but it makes the ones that don’t stand out gloriously: local blogs like Fitzroyalty or Footscray Food Blog, the callous wit of cooksuck, or the short-lived noodle illustration blog.

When most people are inspired to write a food blog, they’re more inspired to clone a food blog that already exists. Part of this is natural. It is much easier to sate the urge to start a personal online food diary rather than it is to plan for the future of a blog or pick a particular, sustainable niche that won’t bore you to death. Part of it is slavishly following convention. I own the same f1.4 lens that everyone else does and that influences the terrible short depth of field cliché shots that I take.

A good deal of the blogs on the list are no longer updated, but I don’t want to remove them. I’m trying to work on a solution to auto-update the list by frequency of posts.

The end of food reviewing

I’ve just read all 94 reviews of Melbourne restaurant Chin Chin on Urbanspoon. Few are longer than a hundred words and a handful of photos, so you don’t come away feeling any great sense of achievement. If I was to then describe Australian restaurant review bloggers in a single word, it would be “compliant”. In general, restaurateurs have nothing to fear from Australian food bloggers apart from the risk of a damp backside from the prodigious arse licking.

There aren’t many barbed tongues.

When I started blogging, it was very much about having and fostering an alternative voice. For me, an alternative to the lazy, parachute travel journalism deployed in Cambodia and the sincere but ill-informed backpacker blogs that hopped from the Killing Fields to orphanage visit to “happy” pizza. The difference between the blogs that I liked and the ones that I avoided (or mocked) marked the difference between food criticism and food reviewing. Food criticism links what happens on the plate to the rest of the world, or at least, to the rest of the writer’s world. Food reviews just look at the plate in front of them and then move onto the next one; an endless stream of disconnected meals to be consumed in any order.

In the age of ubiquitous social networks and historically high patronage of restaurants, one of your friends has already been to somewhere that you want to go and has probably pressed their Like button. Facebook and Twitter provide a vast architecture of personal recommendations that sate any possible peccadillo.

The presses can’t keep up with the constant online feed. By the time a food review hits the newspapers, I’ve seen it on Twitter, discussed it at work and generally had somebody that I know visit the restaurant in person. There is no longer a need for printed food reviews when the ambient noise about them is faster, more trustworthy and tailored to my tastes.

I imagine with the collapse of metropolitan dailies in Australia, we’re going to lose most, if not all food critics. I don’t imagine that any of the food liftouts from Australia’s newspapers are financially viable and who knows if Gina Rinehart likes her food? If you’d like a summary of how this has happened elsewhere, Eater picks over the bones of newsprint food criticism in the US. Newspapers are not the lone bastion of food criticism in Australia but they are more likely than elsewhere to provide it and pay for it. Criticism is more important than ever because there is so little of it.

It seems to suggest that the era of earning a living wage through either food criticism or reviewing is well and truly over and the only financially viable platform is blogging. At least, financially viable for those rare few that can wrangle community management, SEO and sales whilst finding time to eat and write.

Blogger entitlement: Not making money with your food blog.

For quite a while I’ve been meaning to update the “making money with your food blog” post that has drifted out of relevance over the past few years. I’m no longer certain that you can make money with food blogs, reliably, through advertising or affiliate links.

By reliably, I mean a predictable minimum wage, $589.30 a week in Australia, paid on a regular basis. If you’re willing to put in the hard work of conning advertisers out of their money, I think you’d need to pull in around 20K visitors to your blog each week, who look relatively homogenous (e.g. are all Australian). The best way to make money from your blog is by getting a related job with a wage or building something to sell.

Amanda Hesser recently wrote a great piece on her advice for future food writers, which is do something that pays and write on the side. It’s what writers have always done and it has never been a better time to be a writer. Publishing isn’t an industry, it’s a button that you press. You can break into what’s left of the industry by owning a smartphone.

There seems to be a sense that bloggers are somehow entitled to make money from their work; that by posting a slice of your personal creativity is in itself worth cash.

In a purely economic sense, creativity is worthless. If you can’t find a way to make money from it, it isn’t worth money. The great thing about working in a creative industry is that you realise early on that the ability to convince people to pay for creativity is worth more than the creativity itself. The realisation that making beautiful objects and ethereal writing doesn’t pay for itself is overwhelmingly awful but good ideas don’t sell themselves.

The three decade span where you could aspire to be a professional food writer is over, so you should probably get back to creating something which is useful.

Do online consumer reviews affect restaurant demand?

One of the more difficult questions in social media is the degree to which online reviews impact upon the bottom line of businesses; and whether bad online reviews cause declining patronage. Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca says yes, and very much so [PDF]. There is not only an impact, but that impact is causal:

Do online consumer reviews affect restaurant demand? I investigate this question using a novel dataset combining reviews from the website and restaurant data from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Because Yelp prominently displays a restaurant’s rounded average rating, I can identify the causal impact of Yelp ratings on demand with a regression discontinuity framework that exploits Yelp’s rounding thresholds. I present three findings about the impact of consumer reviews on the restaurant industry: (1) a one-star increase in Yelp rating leads to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue, (2) this effect is driven by independent restaurants; ratings do not affect restaurants with chain affiliation, and (3) chain restaurants have declined in market share as Yelp penetration has increased. This suggests that online consumer reviews substitute for more traditional forms of reputation. I then test whether consumers use these reviews in a way that is consistent with standard learning models. I present two additional findings: (4) consumers do not use all available information and are more responsive to quality changes that are more visible and (5) consumers respond more strongly when a rating contains more information. Consumer response to a restaurant’s average rating is affected by the number of reviews and whether the reviewers are certified as “elite” by Yelp, but is unaffected by the size of the reviewers’ Yelp friends network.

It is pretty grim news, if you’ve spent the last hundred or so years building up the strength of a chain restaurant’s brand, only to find that increased reviewing is replacing your hard-earned equity. The recognition that certified reviewers actually do have a greater impact in systems like Yelp raises further questions whether these “elite” users follow the crowd or lead it. Duncan Watts and Matthew J. Salganik have done some great research into this, in which perceived success of cultural products online translates into actual success regardless of content, so it is altogether possible that people who contribute online reviews continually reinforce each others reviews for the good or ill of businesses.

Hat tip to Adam Ozimek from Modeled Behavior for the article.