OFFICIAL LIVE BLOG - Session #1 (9:45 - 11 am), Vocation Track: "How Blogging Best Practices Apply, No Matter Your Blog Niche"

Session Description:

Lots of blogging experts recommend having as narrow a topic as possible. To specialize, especially in an ever-more-crowded blogging world. This panel will outline the universal best practices that will help any blogger, even a niche blogger, serve a wider audience. Topics to be covered include:

  • Designing your blog for user-friendliness, findability and value-add functionality
  • Having recipes that are simple, clearly-written and appealing
  • Using photography to enhance your content and your blog'a appearance and readability
  • Being a good blog citizen: From how to build good community karma, to how to build (and sustain) trust with your readers
  • Staying true to the focus or specialty of your blog, while also offering value to those who aren't nearly as focused as you are!

  • Vegetable-focused Alanna Kellogg moderates this fine crop of niche bloggers: South Beach Diet devotee Kalyn Denny from Kalyn's Kitchen, Vegan Yum Yum's Lauren Ulm, Elana Amsterdam from the gluten-free Elana's Pantry and Wine Girl, Michelle Lentz.

    Session Liveblog:

    Alanna: The very best blogging practice -- getting to know other food bloggers in person!

    Starting with some housekeeping: who's in the room? What's the content of your blogs, and how long have you been blogging? A year or so or under? (Show of hands.) More than three years? (Show of hands.) In the middle? (Show of hands.) It's evenly distributed across the room - about a third for each. Who are recipe bloggers? (Show of hands.) Product review bloggers? (Show of hands.) Restaurant reviewers? (Show of hands.) Politics/food issues? (Show of hands.) Several of each, but no real huge majority.

    We're presenting a diverse panel in terms of blogging niches -- Kalyn's Kitchen - recipe, Vegan Yum Yum - vegan, Wine Girl - non-recipe and localized blogger, Elana's Pantry - gluten-free.

    Michelle: It's about finding your word-voice. A lot more newer bloggers here in the panel than she expected - welcome! One of the things that surprise you about blogging -- it takes up a lot of commitment and time. Think about a strategy for your blog -- realize why you have a blog. Define your goals - are you writing for yourself? for an audience? Determine who's reading you and why they're reading you, why you want to write, what you want to learn and what you want out of it.

    Passion -- if you don't have passion, your readers will be aware and you'll lose them. If you're trying to grow your audience, you have to show your passion and it'll come out in every post -- it will show, and readers love the humanity of you as a writer. Things to be aware of as you blog: have an opinion, but don't be arrogant about it.  Be friendly, encourage discourse -- you want people commenting, discussing, but you don't want them to get out of control. You don't want them to lose focus!

    You want to be open to others, and you want to be honest in your writing and about your reviews -- she gets a lot of free wine, but it's her obligation to tell her readers that someone gave it to her for free.

    Always keep it very conversational - talk to your readers like you talk to everyone. People respond to conversational blog -- get to know your audience, what do they want? Her wine readers tend to be new to wine, want to learn more; she created a happy-face scale for wine so that the readers relate to it. Keep it friendly for your readers.

    Elana: About macro and micro formatting of your blog: How do you format your blog? What is an attractive structure for the content of your blog?

    Not talking about content -- the form and the format for your content. Well-organized, user-friendly, easy to navigate. Clean and calming format for your blog that will create a familiar place for your readers to keep coming back to. Everything's so overwhelming in the world, but your blog can be a respite.

    What makes a blog calming? Sparse, clean design. Her examples: Dooce - busy but clean. Veggie Girl - busy but clean. Attractive and calming all the same. A lot of repetition -- like yoga and mantra, using the same words or positions over and over, which calms the mind down. Using same fonts, using same format for recipes/posts. Consistency pulls readers in.

    Tools for formatting blog:

    - classic features -- have a URL that matches your header/title! It's really important for your brand that your header/title matches your URL.

    - Include a Search bar at upper right or left of blog underneath the header so readers can find info.

    - Include a Header menu at top of blog, preferably horizontal (some people don't like it, and not all blog platforms let you do this).

    - Use interesting numbers: 3, 5, 7 are always good numbers to pull the mind in.

    - Easy-to-find categories for recipes.

    - If you have a recipe blog: printer-friendly recipes are extremely important!

    - Pages to include: a Comment policy page stating your policies for comments. FAQs are fabulous and save you time when you get the same questions. Include a Contact page so there's an easy way to people contact you. (She just put hers up a week ago, as did Alanna.) Press page -- even if you don't have regular media covering you, use internet links where people have linked to you. Include an About page with a photo of yourself. Include an easy way for your readers to subscribe via email or RSS.

    Microformat: How do you present each post? For each post, use relevant titles for SEO but also common sense -- include the name of the recipe or item in the post title. Start each post with keywords that sum up entire post so they pop up in initial Google results. You can make it personal, but do it a paragraph later. After summarizing topic and feature, add in your personal tidbits, because Food is very personal.

    From audience: There's an All-in-one SEO pack to help get it Google-ready -- but it's Wordpress-only, and Typepad. If you're still using Blogger, you can't really use it...

    Elana: Her recipe format is always in a little drop-screen box, so she has repetition and format consistency. Like the mantra -- you always want the repetition. Add numbers to the steps in your recipe. Whether you're blogging the recipe or writing it up for cookbook/magazine etc., make the ingredients in the same order they're used in the recipe. (Alanna: This is a very American way to write up a recipe; the European way, the first ingredient is most important ingredient. Elana: There are exceptions to the rule, but do keep it consistent.)

    From audience: There are books on writing up recipes: Recipes into Type, the Recipe Writer's Handbook. They're very handy for terms -- some of the books are available at BlogHer Food Bookstore. Definitely look at Strunk and White's Elements of Style!

    Elana: Structure each post simply and consistently. It makes your blog attractive, calming, and it pulls your readers in from chaotic media-filled world.

    Alanna: She makes sure to include hands-on time, time to table, servings and nutrition measured by cup but not by how many people it serves -- not judging your serving sizes!

    Kalyn: SEO is definitely what you want to come away with from this conference. (SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.) Basically, it's learnin about "Speaking Google". Optimizing your blog is about you adapting to them versus them adapting to you.

    As a blogger, she's focused on earning money, and her blog focused on recipes, so SEO is very important for her blog itself. If you want your blog to be found by Google, tell Google right away what the post is about. Google-bots crawl around on internet and indexes your blog -- the bot can't read pictures, it can only read text. It's very important to have text that tells exactly what's in the post.

    When determining keywords -- think of what you'd Google for if you were looking for it, and then put those keywords in your post. She gives credit to Elise Bauer here for all of the SEO knowledge she's learned. First place for those keywords is the title of your post. Funny, catchy, interesting titles -- they add interest, but it doesn't help Google find your post. You can do a combination, but you need to have the main topic/keywords in there. If you're doing something with multiple ingredients, you eventually have to draw the line, but as much as possible is a good thing: "Black bean soup", "black bean and rice soup", "black bean and rice soup with cilantro and lime". The more specific, the better the chance someone will find what they're looking for. A good tip - for double-named things like "garbanzo and chickpea", put in both.

    Question from Audience: All-in-one SEO pack - is that duplicating this same information? Will Google pick things up from the SEO pack and my blog? Kalyn: I'm not really sure. Lolo: Never screw with your title. Title always needs to be SEO-happy for happy little Google spider. Kalyn: Go ahead and test it out; keywords do need to be in the front of the post. Alanna: Definitely keep it early in so that your readers don't bounce.

    Kalyn: Always always always always put the word "recipe" in the title if it's a recipe! Always! If a recipe's what they're looking for, that's what they're Googling. Repeat the keywords in the first couple of paragraphs. Don't keyword-stuff -- it's boring to the readers, and over-repetition is no good. When you put pictures in your post -- always have a great picture of your finished product -- change the ALT tag of your photo in the HTML view. < alt="title of your post" >. You don't have to put the word "recipe" in there, but definitely the title of your item and your post, like "black bean soup". It's just one more place for the Google bot to find it.

    Lolo: If you use Flickr - select "All Sizes" and copy paste the code to post image on your blog; it will give you ALT text that's same of Flickr title of your photo. Don't forget -- Flickr photos have to link back to Flickr as part of TOS. Put the URL in your Flickr description so that if Google results find your Flickr before your blog, people will go to your URL from your Flickr.

    Kalyn: Use internal links on your blog to your own content - every time you have a recipe, refer back to similar things from your archives. The more people link to a title, it's better for Google, but also better for your readers. Anchor text: when creating links, it's the text of the link itself. Use keywords in your anchor text. Don't use "this salad", use "spinach salad with shrimp". It helps everyone -- you and other bloggers. Don't just link to yourself, though. Never never never never never say "click here" or "this post" for the link text. It's worthless! People notice and appreciate it when you link to them with keywords.

    Use your stats program to analyze results from your certain keywords and see what brings people to your blog for future posts. Check and see where you land on Google's results pages -- if you drop down, it could be because you've been scraped by a higher page ranking website, and now they're replacing you in Google.

    Lolo: We're not the visual track, but she's going to cover some brief techy things about photography. Do go to the Visuals track while you're here! If you're using images on your blog -- whether taking your own or using others, you need to put a nice shot at the beginning, and having multiple images is awesome -- summarize your post through pictures. If it doesn't catch the eye, people will click away. Catch people's eyes -- if you summarize with pictures, then people will know what you're about without even reading it. Bring the readers in without reading it. Hook them with pictures.

    Grocery shop for blog posts with photos in mind -- think about color, texture, cut. Even if it's delicious, if it's bland-looking (white pasta, white sauce, white bowl -- Kalyn says, throw in parsley and basil!)... Think about color and contrast for more interesting photos. Don't throw random ingredients in for color, but do try to offset it before you get to the actual cooking. Look at other photos on Google Image Search or Flickr for inspiration.

    Build the plate up as you take shots -- add and take photos throughout to see what looks better as you go. Check in on it as you go to get the right photo. Think about your recipe - is there a special technique? Is there a special ingredient? It's more interesting to see how to cut something, how your hands work (get a tripod and a timer for this), things bubbling and boiling, versus just glamour shots. When it comes to technique photos versus arty photos -- it doesn't all have to be finished products. You can include basic ingredient shots too. Break up blocks of text in your post with photos of ingredients and techniques. Use a closing photo -- but make it different from your opening photo. She always likes to see the food again before we leave. For example, show a slice of cake versus the whole cake, a different serving idea, a different angle -- keep it consistent, but try a different view.

    Kalyn: She was told, "Do step-by-step pictures!" "I don't have time!" She started adding in step-by-step pictures and it made a huge difference. She also includes a small thumbnail photo at the beginning of the recipe itself.

    Question from audience: What about video? Lolo: Her digital camera does video, so not really aware about video cameras themselves, but... Audience: Flip video! Lolo: She edits in iMovie -- but it doubles blogging time if you do video. So budget your time for it. But if you get into the habit, the video gets easier to add in. Be prepared to eat a lot of cold food! Definitely get into the habit of taking pictures when you cook.

    Kalyn: "The Link Love You Take is Equal to the Link Love You Make". "Wow, someone linked to me!" The real value is not the traffic, but that links are the currency of the internet. Links and PageRank is what determines how much a blog is worth, how much a post is worth, what a photo is worth (when on Flickr). Google ranks your blog from 0 to 10 -- most food blogs rank between 4 and 7 -- with a PageRank. You can install the Google Toolbar or Alexa Toolbar, which will tell you the PageRank. (AlexaRank is but backwards from Google PageRank -- 1 is best.)

    Your PageRank is about how much traffic your blog gets, but how many people link to you and their PageRank values themselves. If someone with a high rank links to you, it's worth more as a higher value versus a brand-new blog linking to you. (Alanna: Pay attention to food blog events -- they're all link schemes, and they're useful and fun -- but they're great ways to get high-value links.) The higher the PageRank of your blog, the higher your blog comes up in search results. The right keywords help you get higher, and so does your PageRank.

    Blogging is kind of like a popularity contest if you want to be successful and make money -- so linking is a way to get other people to help you, and you help them. It makes you look generous (which you are!), and it's a double-benefit to them -- it's about the traffic you send them, and it's about raising the Google value of their blog. It's good blogging karma. (Alanna: Don't forget, we're writing for our readers too! Readers appreciate the links and other ideas.) Any time you write a post and you don't link to other blogs, you're missing out on a chance to invest in your blog. You link to people, they link to you. Always always always link to someone if you get inspiration from them. Food Blog Search is great for food bloggers to find other links valuable for your readers, particularly for recipes. Linking to others builds friendships.

    The big companies are posting recipes and are in it now to make money (AllRecipes, etc.), so by linking to each other, food bloggers promote each other and help each other. Credit sites like AllRecipes to source the recipe if you were inspired, but Kalyn never links to AllRecipes etc. for "see more recipes". Again, use strong anchor text. Linking sets a tone in your blogging -- if you don't link, or only link to yourself, it's selfish, but if you do link, you're community-minded, people notice, and people like it. Don't only link to big-name bloggers -- link to up-and-coming bloggers and they'll link to you. Don't just link to your blogging friends over and over and over. Don't give link exchanges or sell links for money, as Google will ding you. Set up a Google alert to see who's linking to you, check your stats and see who's linking to you -- it's good karma to acknowledge it and to visit their blogs in return. Link others' posts, Twitter others' posts, Stumble others' posts -- it's all good blog karma.

    Lolo: Talking about recipe development for niche bloggers -- no matter what you're blogging about, you want people to be interested in it. Explain things that your core audience might already know but the non-core audience (her example: explaining what seitan is in a vegan blog) isn't aware of. I do techniques my way, but what's your way? Readers are always interested to read personal experiences. When it comes to substitutions -- talk about where you can find it, where to look for it, what to sub in (and how it might turn out), what can't be substituted full-stop. The experience is what makes the post -- was it harder or easier? Would I change it if I made it again? What surprised me? What she likes about Cooks Illustrated is when they discuss the process that went into developing the recipe itself.  Be specific about what it was like, and what you would do differently. People do love to read about mistakes -- it makes us human and like we're all cooking together.

    Alanna: She has a blog post up on BlogHer.com this morning on how to maintain a good blog -- different content from today's panel, but very good and important content to know!

    Question: I understand about the Alt tag, but what about the title tag? Should they be the same or different? LinkWithin -- which adds in related content at the end of your posts -- what do people think?

    Kalyn: Changing the title tag is fine, but it doesn't really do anything for SEO as far as she knows. LinkedWithin only links within your own blog, and she's not sure about SEO value of it. (It does work for Blogspot blogs.)

    Michelle: There's a similar plug-in called Arkayne for Typepad and Wordpress -- it's nothing to do with SEO, but it's valuable for readers so they can look in your content for similar things; it keeps people in your blog longer and the bounce rate is not as high.

    Alanna: She preferes to do it manually so she can pick what's showing up in related posts, versus letting a plug-in do it for her.

    Question: About PageRank -- apparently if you're super-highly ranked, it'll ding the value of the links that go out. Kalyn: Not so sure that's how it works, as per Vanessa Fox at BlogHer '09.

    Question: Are we relying on paying it forward energy to get people to link to you?

    Kalyn: Nothing is more important than having good content on your blog. No matter how nice you are or how good your keywords are -- you have to have good quality recipes/content.

    Michelle: Don't email me asking me to link to you -- but I get people's attention by commenting intelligently. Don't make it an ad, but you're leaving a link and letting their community know that you exist.

    Elana: Passion! If you love what you're doing, and you're having fun, that's going to attract people to your blog. The heart of it is having a passion for what you're doing, and that's attractive.

    Question: In regards to link karma - if you're linking to magazine-recipes on Epicurious, don't link to Epicurious -- link to the magazine's recipe itself (Bon Appetit, Gourmet), because they notice.

    Kalyn: She just got a comment from Fine Cooking because she linked to them because they pay attention to their Google Alert.

    Question: How do people use Chowhound/Chow?

    Kalyn: She thinks it may be running into the whole duplicate content issue -- they'll probably find it on Chow first via Google.

    Lolo: Submit to Tastespotting or Food Gawker -- just include one picture of your recipe and people will click through.

    Alanna: Sign up for BlogHer.com and post on BlogHer.com -- do a teaser post and link back to your post.

    Kalyn: Optimize your photos for web -- reduce file size for the photo so it loads quickly. Google tracks bounce rate -- if it's not loading quickly enough, people will close it and bounce away. Reduce your file size so people load faster.

    Thank you!

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