Oh, and let’s not forget to throw in some cake, restaurants, Pizza Hut, coffee, and Food Network while I’m at it.
What the heck am I talking about, you ask? Well, I’ve been following the shenanigans from the IFBC (International Food Bloggers Conference) both through the twitterstream (#IFBC to find it) and through some of the live videos and podcasts. Reading the live tweets as they scrolled down my computer screen was a real hoot; as one tweeter referred to the process, it was like passing notes in school, everyone reading on the sly and giggling as they simultaneously attended to the speaker up at the front of the room. Considering that I didn’t even know the IFBC existed until the middle of last week, I became a convert pretty quickly and have enjoyed eavesdropping on all the goings-on over the weekend (well, as much as one can from 3000 miles away).
The contents of the sessions were, from what I could tell, both incredibly professional and also incredibly useful to bloggers. I learned that Robin Goldstein spawned a thousand drooling crushes because of his supremely good looks and humor; that Wine Spectator magazine’s reputation has been severely tarnished (and deservedly so); that three ingredients does not a new recipe make; that food bloggers who want book deals must be stalkers and proffer lots of chocolate; that food photos need heart, good lighting, patience, and sometimes, a good-looking guy walking through a beam of sunlight; and that, to become popular, you must invoke the wisdom of SEO and Google bots.
SEO (search engine optimization) and Google bots? What the–??
That’s right; one of the sessions [Pizza Hut] focused on [anti-candida] Search Engine Optimization. And while I’ve read about this [recipe] concept before on other [gluten-free] websites and [sugar-free] blogs, I could never get entirely behind [restaurant] deliberately crafting one’s [vegan] words so that [coffee] sentences contain a smattering of [healthy] keywords, simply to draw Google searches to your blog. Seriously, what fun is that? And must blogging really be that calculated?
[This ain’t no Pizza Hut pizza.]
Of course, anyone who blogs (myself included) would love it if their blog became as popular as Smitten Kitchen or The Pioneer Woman Cooks or Oh She Glows. But surely there is more to it than deliberately crafting posts so that they attract the most hits possible?
When I began DDD in late 2007, I hardly knew what a blog was. As someone who’d written a journal basically since she knew how to write, it seemed a natural extension of something I did anyway—with the added bonus of food.
[The first food photo I posted on my blog, with recipe for Baked Oats. OUCH.]
After that first comment appeared on my blog (thanks, Sally!), I was immediately hooked and went through a honeymoon phase during which I seemed to live, eat, sleep, and breathe blogging: I woke up each morning excited to check my blog stats and comments; topics for blog posts swirled in my head while I exercised, drove to the grocery store, or watched TV; I cooked constantly and snapped endless photos (eventually learning that camera flashes were evil) and I was easily able to churn out post after post, sometimes daily (though once per day did seem to be my limit, even at the best of times; I truly envy those bloggers who can write two, even three times a day).
I loved everything about blogging, and felt as if I’d discovered a truly magical realm where I could express myself freely and exchange ideas wtih others of like mind. People began to read and react to the posts. The idea of slanting a blog post to increase traffic was as foreign to me as the idea of mugging a centenarian, stealing the Hope Diamond, or eating crab cakes. It would feel unethical, it would make my skin crawl a little bit, it just wouldn’t feel like “me.”
There’s a certain frisson you get when you see that spike in the statistics graph; when you check your blog after a break and there are ten new comments since the last time you looked; when someone writes something laudatory about the particular story, or joke, or recipe. And that’s when it becomes far too easy to begin writing posts that are skewed toward keeping those same responses coming.
In the early days, I never thought about who was reading my blog because, let’s face it, nobody was. But once I realized there actually was an audience out there, the tone, or the structure, or the topics in my posts began to shift almost imperceptibly–and without my awareness of it. If that silly post about edamame and haiku garnered such a a huge number of views, well, then, silliness and poetry suddenly feel like the right thing to write. If people respond to funny stories from your adolescence, then you may just find yourself raking through teenaged memories attempting to unearth more of those anecdotes. Is writing this way simply a different form of pandering to the search engines? Or just an inherent desire to please people?
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that my writing style and the types of posts I write have begun to lean toward what’s popular the way a ficus tree leans toward the light. Rather than the initial stream-of-consciousness (mine or The Girls’) posts with which I began this blog, I’ve begun to rely more on the established persona who makes her habitual appearance here. Instead of using the blog as outlet for unfettered self expression, it’s become a platform for what I now see as a predictable type of recipe post, based on what has received reader approbation.
I think Shauna James Ahern summed up this phenomenon best when she discussed it in her own post about her “true” self versus her blog persona, in “Why I Write this Site.” Ahern articulates beautifully and eloquently how the expectations of an audience can take over at some point, and the blog begins to shape you instead of the opposite being true:
When I write as the Gluten-Free Girl, there’s a pattern, a comfortable place, like the dent in Archie Bunker’s chair. My words sit there, and those of you reading might recognize them. Hopefully, you recognize something in yourself. But when I write to that pattern, when I write as the Gluten-Free Girl, I lose myself. Whoever that is.
And this brings me back to the topic of SEO and Google bots. If we’re writing only for the search engines, only to fulfill the expectations of an established pattern of posts on the blog, then we’re like the child who’s been dancing with abandon in the back yard who stops abruptly when she notice that her brother is watching: we lose ourselves. Of course we don’t ever want to disappoint our readers, and there is so much to love about writing a blog even when we do reinforce that comfortable dent in the armchair. But we need to be true to ourselves at the same time. And sometimes, those selves change over time. And sometimes, they don’t even wish to write about food.
In the end, I think the gist of that particular session at IFBC was saying the same thing. Molly (she of the iconic Orangette blog) tweeted, “SEO can’t be all about bots, right? You can optimize to death, but if a site doesn’t connect with people, it doesn’t work.” In other words, a blog still needs to come from a place of authenticity, it needs to be genuine, it needs to be true to the writer, it needs to flow from the heart. And to me, deliberately inserting keywords into my sentences, or structuring sentences and paragraphs to include the most popular keywords on Google Insights just doesn’t do it.
I agree with Molly. People are drawn to stories; they’re drawn to authentic ideas and expressions; they’re drawn to real people behind the blogs.
So here’s the message I got from the SEO session at IFBC: be true to your real self. It may not work in the way that you’d hoped, and your blog may not skyrocket to fame, a million hits a month, or a book deal. But you’ll still be having fun. I know there will be days when the snark muse doesn’t spur me on. There will be days when I don’t feel like posting a recipe. Some days, I’ll feel like telling stories about my childhood, and others, I won’t. Like me, this blog will continue to evolve and be shaped by what happens in my life.
Sure, I want my blog to be popular; who doesn’t? But before anything else, blogging has to make me feel as if I’m still here, still–at the core–writing for myself, even if it’s also to thousands of readers at the same time.
Writing in my own inimitable restaurant, healthy, anti-candida, coffee, sugar free, cake, Pizza Hut, recipe, vegan, way.
How do you feel about this issue? What motivates your choice of post topics? How much of the business of blogging makes its way into your blog writing?