Eleven years ago…
- an unknown student called Mark Zuckerberg went on TV to talk about his little-known website called The Facebook (which only had about 100,000 subscribers at the time)
- 52.2 million TV viewers tuned in to watch the last ever episode of Friends
- the Queen Mary II, the largest cruise liner ever built, made her maiden voyage
- Hot Fuss (The Killers) and American Idiot (Green Day) and Funeral (Arcade Fire) were released
- 344 people, mostly children were killed in the Beslan school massacre in Russia
- Janet Jackson’s costume slipped during the Superbowl halftime show, exposing a nipple and giving us the term “wardrobe malfunction”
- terrorist bombs on a Madrid commuter train killed 190 people
- Britney Spears got married. Erm… twice.
- Edvard Munch’s The Scream was stolen at gunpoint from the Munch museum in Oslo (it was found, unharmed, in 2006)
- Google introduced a webmail service called Gmail, which everybody thought was a joke as it was announced on 1 April
And in other news, a South African living in London sat down one Sunday night back in May 2004 and started a blog – this blog, in fact – and she hasn’t looked back since. It does not feel like I have been blogging that long, and yet when you look at the newsworthy events listed above, you realise that eleven years is in fact rather a long time. And if I am honest, I can barely remember what it was like not to have a blog constantly craving new content, like a hungry cat twirling about my legs, in my life. Every year when this anniversary rolls around and encourages me to engage in some bloggy navel-gazing, I think I must by now have said everything that can possibly be said, and yet every year the wider context of food blogging has changed a little more and I find myself formulating new responses to these changes. This year is no different.
So what’s up with food blogging these days? Two things recently made me ask that question. First there was a post in a Facebook group recently where a blogger lamented: “I’ve been blogging for four months now and I am still not getting really good traffic – what’s wrong with my site?”. Four. Months. Talk about the desire for instant gratification… It seems to me that people are getting into blogging now thinking that the mere ability to take a decent photo and string a sentence together will guarantee instant Pinch of Yum style success, preferably in four months or less. The other thing was a rather depressing conversation with a fellow-blogger who told me that a blog is a granny’s online journal where bad food snaps taken on a mobile phone are shared with their granny friends; that any blogger who deals with PRs or free meals/samples must immediately stop being a hobby blogger and “turn pro” and stop calling themselves a blogger; and that they did not even want to be called a blogger any more as they think the term now has negative connotations attached to it.
It all makes me feel as if blogging is kind of losing the plot at the moment – wasn’t it meant to be fun? And isn’t it still possible to have fun even if you are earning money from it? All of the above got me thinking whether my eleven years in blogging had provided me with any useful insights or observations that I might share with newbie bloggers to try and bring some of the joy back to blogging, and here’s the list that I came up with.
1. There is no shame in being a blogger. I am one of those rare creatures who has never tried to distance themselves from being “just” a blogger. Yes, I know I have been snubbed by print journalists at events when they hear I “only” write for my own blog; or been told that bloggers are all in it “just for the freebies”, and you probably will too at some point. Pay no attention. Journalists receive at least as many freebies as bloggers and nobody thinks less of them for it. And instead of wishing that you wrote for a print publication, revel in the complete editorial and artistic freedom that your blog gives you.
2. There is no set of rules for how to blog “properly” – ignore anybody that tries to tell you this. I had a debate with somebody recently who said that a food blog is ONLY an online recipe diary and as soon as you branched out into doing tutorials or reviews or anything not written in a diary style, then you can no longer call yourself a blog. I have also had somebody say to me that anybody who uses pre-made ingredients has no right to call themselves a food blogger. Oops. Best I hide the Bisto gravy granules now, or turn in my blogging badge forever ‘cos clearly I have been doing it wrong for 11 years.
3. Invest heavily in your core skills – and I mean an investment in time rather than only in money. At its core, a blog is a collection of words and pictures (and, increasingly, video), nothing more. It is the quality and usefulness of those words and pictures, as judged by your readers, that determines whether your blog attracts a following or sinks without a trace. There is absolutely no point in having a huge Twitter following or being the SEO ace on the block or being best friends with every PR agency in town if your blog is so full of ugly pictures and sloppy, boring, bad writing that nobody wants to read it. Attend fewer lectures on SEO and blog monetisation and attend a few on writing and photography instead.
4. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for blog success. People blog for different reasons, and success does not mean the same thing to every blogger. For some, success is getting a book deal, getting to the top of a ranking table, or hitting a certain number of visitors per month; while for others success is measured in the number of comments a post gets, or in the awards that their blog has won. More recently, monetisation has been a major goal. Each one of these goals has a different path that leads to its attainment. The blogs that win awards are seldom also the blogs earning the most money, or the blogs at the top of the ranking tables. Decide what it is that you want to get out of YOUR blog (and remember that it’s also OK to have no idea what your goal is for the first year or so!) and stop looking at what everyone else is doing and trying to copy their “formula” for success. Plough your own furrow.
5. Write for people, not for search engines. Yes, we all know Google sends us more traffic than any other referrer. Yes, we know we can make our site more Google-friendly by using clever SEO techniques. No, what is attractive to Google is seldom attractive to real human beings – and you should never forget that it is humans you are writing for, not Google. Write in proper English, without keywords to the max, and don’t get bogged down by silly “rules” about the ideal post length. If you write 250 words per post and your readers flock to you; or you write 2,500 words per post and your readers flock to you, then what difference does it make if some SEO geek in Silicon Valley wrote an article saying the ideal post length for Google is 500 words?
6. Don’t over- or under-value yourself. Nobody likes a diva. And they are even less keen on a blogger who calls up a restaurant and demands a freebie because, like “I have a blog – do you know who I am? I could take you down with a bad review.”. And said blogger looks even more ridiculous if they have 100 hits a month and 10 Twitter followers: aiming high is one thing but behaving in an entitled and petulant fashion is another thing entirely. On the other end of the scale, however exciting it may be the first time a brand offers you a free product, don’t slave away creating content for a brand in exchange for a free packet of crisps or a spatula. Obviously the bigger your audience, the larger the fees you can charge, but bear in mind that even a hobby blogger’s time has value. PRs don’t work for brands for free, so why should you work for the same brand for free when they plan to make money out of your content?
7. Choose your blogging friends carefully. Much as I’d like to say that the food blogging world is one big happy family, it is now big enough to be quite fragmented and cliquey. There are long-standing feuds, there are scandals, and there is drama – just like The Bold and the Beautiful (but with fewer shoulder pads). Public mudslinging is a bad idea and mud always ends up on the shoes of the slinger, so try to maintain a professional courtesy towards all your fellow bloggers. On the other hand, try not to get too close to the volatile crazies who might be amusing to watch but tend to suck you into their dramas; and avoid permanently negative and critical people like the plague. Find some like-minded people who share approximately your goals and blogging aspirations; who are willing to be supportive and helpful; and who inspire you in some way, and hang out with them, support and try to inspire them. No blog is an island.
8. Don’t publish anything on your blog that is not useful to your readers and that you are not proud of. You never know when the editor of Time Magazine will stumble across your blog while researching a piece on “Top Food Blogs to Follow Right Now”. Make sure that if today turns out to be that day, the image at the top of your blog is gorgeous, and that the post below it is free from typos, text speak and packed with useful, timeless information. Sloppy, clickbait-y lazy, ugly posts should never see the light of day – rather post nothing that day. Your blog is, for most bloggers, your most significant body of work – make sure that it’s a body that makes you glow with pride rather than cringe with embarrassment when you look back on it.
9. Create original content. You’d think that this goes without saying, now that blogging has reached a fairly advanced stage of maturity and everybody has heard the news that not everything visible on the net is available for the taking. You’d be wrong. I am personally dismayed at the number of blogs that I have come across that “borrow” content without crediting a source. Whole tracts of Wikipedia appear on some blogs without credit; images are blatantly lifted from Google image searches without credit; whole recipes and backstories are lifted from old or defunct blogs and presented as original work. Bloggers who think this is OK and that nobody will ever know need to remember that Google, the Wayback machine and Copyscape make plagiarism easier than ever to detect. Rather post nothing that stealing somebody else’s content.
10. Blogging is a marathon, not a sprint. Fact: most blogs fold within six months. And even if you manage to keep yours going, don’t get depressed if you don’t have hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors, a book deal and a salary from your blog within the first year. Or even the second year. The more content your blog has and the longer the domain has been active, the more traffic Google sends to it; and the longer you have been blogging, the more people will be inclined to bookmark your site and keep returning. Unless you actually are Kim Kardashian, blog success is not something that happens overnight. Keep at it, keep improving, and good things will come. And remember – if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong!
So how did I celebrate my 11 years of blogging? With dessert, of course! Shocking as it may sound, I have never been a fan of traditional trifle. I can take or leave custard, and putting multi-coloured cubes of jelly in a dessert just seems wrong if you are serving anybody over the age of six. But that was before a friend introduced me to Black Forest trifle: think Black Forest cake, but in the form of a trifle: chocolate, cherries and booze Seriously, what’s not to like? The lovely folks at Bonne Maman recently sponsored the food photography and styling workshop that Meeta and I ran in London and one of the items they generously sent us were their milk chocolate madeleines. How to make a madeleine even more perfect? Dip half of it in chocolate of course! Nibbling on them got me thinking about how they might work as a trifle base, paired with the essential elements of a Black Forest cake, so that’s what I did. Two observations: trifles seem far less daunting and far more attractive when made in single portions in pretty glasses; and why has nobody told me about the cheat’s way to make chocolate custard before? Custard, chocolate, heat, stir, et voila! Dangerous. The only thing I would say is that the custard ended up a bit runny and headed for the bottom of the glass rather than forming a layer on top of the cherries, so if you were to make your own you could make the consistency less runny. But other than that, this was a perfect dessert – quick to make and decadently delicious to eat. Roll on the next eleven years!
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like to read my 10 year anniversary post including six things that ten years of blogging have taught me. If, unlike me, you are crazy for trifle, here are some other recipes for you to try:
- Gary’s Royal Wedding trifle
- Sarah’s mini chocolate-raspberry trifles
- Meeta’s rhubarb and raspberry trifle
- Jac’s banoffee trifle
- Ren’s tiramisu trifle
- Emily’s chocolate Bailey’s trifle
Let’s keep in touch!
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- 120g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
- 500ml good quality prepared custard
- 1 x 425g tin of cherries + extra to garnish (I used glacé cherries to garnish)
- 75ml brandy or kirsch
- 6 Bonne Maman chocolate madeleines, sliced or crumbled
- 300ml double cream
- 200ml crème fraiche
- 25g caster sugar
- grated dark chocolate to garnish
- The day before you plan to assemble the trifles, drain the tin of cherries and place the fruit in a shallow bowl together with the brandy. Cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight.
- Pour the custard into a pyrex bowl set over a pot of simmering water on the stove and add the broken dark chocolate pieces to it. Stir continuously as the chocolate melts. Once there are no lumps and all the chocolate is melted (under 5 minutes), remove from the heat and allow to cool fully.
- Slice or crumble the madeleines into bite-sized pieces. Place the pieces from 1.5 madeleines in the base of each of four pretty glasses (wide whisky tumblers or brandy balloons are the best). Drain the brandy from the cherries and sprinkle an equal amount of brandy over the madeleines in the base of each glass. Divide the boozy cherries between the four glasses and arrange in a layer on top of the madeleines. Carefully spoon the custard over the cherries.
- In a clean bowl, whip together the crème fraiche, cream and caster sugar until soft peaks form, then spook the mixture over the custard in each glass. garnish with the extra cherries and top with grated dark chocolate.