When it comes to competitive niches in SEO, food blogging is often at the top. With so many similar recipes, guides and tutorial videos, the competition is fierce. If you are hoping to rank well in the food blogger industry, there is one go-to-expert you have to talk to, Casey Markee.
Casey Markee is the Founder the digital consultancy Media Wyse and the on-staff SEO Expert for Search Engine News and Food Blogger Pro. Casey has over 20 years experience in the fields of SEO & Digital Marketing and has trained digital marketing teams on five different continents.
1. You have a lot of experience working with food bloggers. Can you tell us a bit about the size of the industry?
I wish I could give you an idea of the sheer size, but even I have a hard time coming up with accurate numbers. There are millions of food blogs covering dozens of different culinary niches, but there is a clear lack of current demographic information on just how many exist.
I have personally audited hundreds of blogs covering everything from desserts to gluten-free recipes to vegetarian recipes to beef jerky to Indian cuisine, but that barely skims the surface of what exists in the niche.
2. Do you see a failure to use AMP and Schema often? And what is the impact?
Well AMP is something that has not caught on at all in the recipe niche, and I don’t recommend it for the vast majority of food bloggers.
AMP is cumbersome, hard to implement correctly, and provides a horrible UX for most recipe blogs. Further, the whole benefit of AMP initially was to qualify for specific carousel consideration on mobile, but then Google announced they were going to extend carousel benefits to non-AMP content and thus the need to convert to AMP really died down.
AMP clearly has a page speed benefit but for the average food blogger, as long as they are using image compression, a quality caching setup, a tier one server, and not stuffing their pages with ads, they are more than fast enough to offset any perceived benefit that would come from converting pages to AMP counterparts. In fact, since Google pushed out the mobile ranking update in July 2019, a recipe site that is AMP has no real increased ranking benefit, speed-wise, over a recipe site that is non-AMP.
Schema though is something that will always be of paramount importance to the average food blogger and getting it “right” is something I target ruthlessly in my audits.
The food blogging niche has tended to DRIVE most of the new schema changes with Google historically. From the introduction of JSON-LD markup to the adoption of carousels to voice search optimization, the recipe niche has been at the forefront of all those innovations.
And this makes sense because recipe sites live and die on the generation of rich snippets in search, which are visual manifestations of structured data. You can only prepare a banana cream pie so many different ways, so how do you stand-out in search? You do so by enabling breadcrumbs, fully enhancing your recipe card to show calories and cook time, and generating star ratings to increase the CTR of your existing Google search snippet.
This is why it’s so important for bloggers to use the BEST plugins out there. Plugins like WP Recipe Maker and WP Tasty are head-and-shoulders above other options due to their adherence to constantly-shifting Google schema guidelines, superior customer service, and that they are optimized for the pending seismic shift on Wordpress called Gutenberg.
3. What are some other common SEO fails you see food bloggers making?
Unfortunately, there tends to be a lot of “herd mentality” in the food blogging niche. A bigger or more successful blogger will mistakenly tell another group of bloggers that “this is working for them” or “I was told to do this” and other bloggers latch on to that advice or recommendation when it may be completely incorrect or run contrary to very public statements by Google.
Case in point, ALT Tags. ALT Tags are something that food bloggers horribly misunderstood for years. They were told, repeatedly, that ALT Tags exist to repeat your most important keywords or to stuff them with taglines or Pinterest descriptions.
As you can imagine, this was terrible for the actual target audience of ALT Tags, those using accessibility tools or screen readers to “see” what was in the photos; this was also completely contrary to what Google had been recommending for years (like in this 2007 video from Matt Cutts).
Fortunately, bigger sites like Pinch of Yum slowly realized they were making these mistakes publicly and even launched tools like Tasty Pins which make it easier for bloggers to optimize for both Pinterest and Google. This tool works by generating custom ALT Tags and Pinterest Attribute Descriptions on each and every photo embedded in a recipe post.
What Google Is Looking For
Another issue that I see repeatedly is a failure to write for the user. Most food bloggers these days strive to be the next AllRecipes.com. The problem is that in most cases the recipes that AllRecipes.com publishes are actually crap. They are thin content, low user-intent, and have limited photos. But they do well because AllRecipes.com has 99,000+ linking root domains. I don't need to tell most people reading this that “link equity” is still a big part of the Google algorithm.
The problem here though is that smaller bloggers mistakenly think that they too can write these “thin content low-user-intent type of recipes” and expect to also rank on Page 1 of Google. They are quickly disappointed.
In contrast, Google is looking for complete recipes and resources that ask and answer questions of the user. Smaller blogs can and do compete and DEFEAT sites like AllRecipes.com every day, but they do so by putting together complete recipe posts that provide the users with all the information they need to make the recipe perfectly the first time, and the one hundredth.
And that is the main focus of my auditing service, teaching bloggers that process.
4. Often I find a recipe I want to review, but there are so many ads, I have to work hard to find the info I need — why is this so prevalent?
Unfortunately, all that content isn’t free. Although most food bloggers start their blog as a hobby and because they have a real passion for the subject matter, their end goal IS to provide for their families and make this a “business” where possible. As such, monetizing with ads is a common end goal for most food bloggers.
As you said though, the number and frequency of ads on desktop and mobile have increased NOTICEABLY in the last couple of years. It is something that I as a site auditor have to physically push back on with many of the blogs I work with. Most bloggers are just left at the mercy of the ad company they are using.
They are told, “we have an algorithm that tells us how many ads to use.” And yet, 9 times out of 10, that “algorithm” results in so many ads being generated that a physical disdain by the user is guaranteed to be the result. When you can physically look at the page and realize “wow, that is a lot of ads” that is a good sign we need to cut those back.
What I try to teach food bloggers is that “less is more” with ads.
Ad companies exist to monetize a site so the food blogger can make money. But they are also there to make THEMSELVES money as well. What I try to teach food bloggers is that “less is more” with ads. I have dozens of cases where I have convinced the bloggers to cut their ads by 20-50%, and their traffic has gone up 200-400%. It is like taking the parking brake off the site.
I empathize with bloggers and want them to make as much money from their sites as possible. But sacrificing UX, page speed, or just common sense in the pursuit of increased bottom line ad revenue is never the way to go.
5. With so many recipes being similar, what does it take to rank highly?
Good question! As I mentioned above, there are only so many ways to make a banana cream pie. But there is an optimal way to present that content so that it has the best chance of “sticking” on page one for such a competitive query.
First, is the content itself.
- Can I make this recipe and actually have a quality banana cream pie?
- Are the instructions clear?
- Are there detailed photos and steps that will assist me in making this recipe correctly the first time?
- Does the recipe contain user feedback from others in the form of ratings or reviews on the veracity of the recipe content?
- Can this recipe and the author be trusted?
Second, there are technical considerations that go into ranking a recipe competitively.
- Does the recipe itself use a quality recipe plugin that generates the accepted and recommended JSON-LD driven schema with all the required attributes?
- Are cook time, prep time, and nutritional information marked-up correctly and easily visible to both users and Google on the page?
- What about the page speed?
- Does this page load quickly over a standard 3G and 4G connection?
The difference in ranking between a page with a Time To Interactive load time of 20 seconds in comparison to one that is 40 seconds cannot be understated. What about the Speed Index number? A quality recipe page should have a Speed Index number of 10-13 seconds if at all possible. One with a Speed Index number of 20+ may not do as well competitively in the scheme of things.
Finally, what off-site factors are contributing to this recipe ranking?
A site like AllRecipes.com again has an incredible amount of earned authority and trust and usually has dozens if not hundreds of individual linking domains going to each of their recipes. Can you compete against that?
The goal as always for the average recipe blogger is to BUILD-UP their demonstrated expertise. Doing so will indirectly give their recipes an increased level of success in Google.
6. What advice would you give a food, DIY, and lifestyle blogger about whom to trust for SEO advice?
Well as you and I both know there is a clear difference in the level of advice, knowledge, and service you will get from an SEO that is not invested in a specific industry. And your mileage, as they say, will vary.
For example, if I had a food blog, I would be looking for advice from someone who does a lot of auditing in that niche or who speaks at food-specific conferences on that topic. I would also be looking for someone who is active in food, DIY or lifestyle forums and volunteering their time to answer questions of that audience. You need someone who is vested in the success of that niche, not just in filling-up their own calendars or selling a course.
You also need to be wary of taking advice from ad companies or from an SEO that specializes in a niche that doesn’t have real-world insights to share with food, DIY or lifestyle bloggers. An in-house SEO for an e-commerce company or someone who is trying to sell a self-starter course and doing little “hands-on” SEO work is someone whose advice may have limited value in addressing your needs.
Most importantly, do not be afraid to do a Google search. Where has the SEO been cited? Where have they been interviewed? Do you see citations from within the niche they are providing said advice?
Also, check their reviews. Find a Facebook or Linkedin page and look for REAL-WORLD feedback. If they know what they are talking about you will find dozens of examples from real-world people telling you – this guy (or gal) can be trusted!
7. What are some Google myths that bloggers should ignore?
Wow, there are a lot. I recently did a podcast on SEO myths that may be of value here. But briefly, here are my top three that I tend to run into with audit clients all the time:
1. That Bounce Rate is a Ranking Factor: Google has actually come out and said that bounce rate is a muddy signal and is not accurate enough to use for ranking purposes. Google has stated publicly they don’t use any GA information in their algorithm and when we do testing, we find little evidence that a food blog with a 90% bounce rate does any better than a food blog with a 60% bounce rate.
Further, a high bounce rate can be a sign that a user found precisely what they wanted and left the page. I use the Google query Is it Christmas all the time. If you click on this query in Google, you will find the same page has been #1 for years, this one at https://isitchristmas.com/. And if you were to click on this page, you would find it is a one-word website, it says “No” on every day of the year, EXCEPT December 25th.
This site basically has a 100% bounce rate because users don’t click through to anything else. That is a great example of why bounce rate should not be something most food bloggers worry about.
2. That there is a Minimum Word Count for Google: Building upon our “one-word website” example above, this is a popular one I get from food bloggers. They are being told, relentlessly, mostly by their ad companies, to make longer posts. Because “longer content” does better. On the contrary, longer content does not do better; BETTER content does better.
What I tend to see is that ad companies push this “longer content is better” because that allows them to STUFF THE CONTENT WITH MORE ADS. They want bloggers to write longer posts so that they can show more in-content ads, not necessarily because the blogger has more qualified content to relate.
As Google has said repeatedly, they want to rank quality content, not longer content. Sure, there exist studies that show longer content does better. But none of those cover at all the recipe, DIY or lifestyle niche. Trust me; I have looked. Bottom line, bloggers need to worry less about word count and more about “meeting the needs of their user.” In some recipe posts that’s 200 words, and in others, it may be 1000+.
Your ideal word count should be whatever YOU need to present the required information in the recipe for a user at that point in time.
3. That you should not use Jump/Print Recipe Buttons: This is a big point of contention in the food blogging niche. These buttons have been a trend over the last couple of years as a way for food bloggers to meet the needs of users. And by that, I mean that there exists, especially on mobile, a large number of users who just want to get to the recipe card in a post. By including Jump/Print Buttons at the top of recipes, food bloggers can provide a way for users in a hurry to get to the most essential information on the page, that recipe card.
As you can imagine, ad companies HATE this idea because it can lower viewability scores and decrease income. And that can absolutely happen since you are allowing users to JUMP PAST a lot of ads to get to what they are looking for.
But do you know who loves these buttons? Google! And that is because it is the most visible example of YOU the blogger trying to meet the needs of your users.
Whenever you meet the needs of your users (specifically users who are in a hurry and looking to qualify their time on your site), you are always going to be rewarded. For these reasons, I am a big advocate of the use of these buttons both on mobile and desktop. If your content is top-notch, you don’t need to “trap users” and make them read everything to get to your recipe card. They will read your content. Just have some faith.
I always use the example of my wife an immigration attorney who looks at recipes over lunch. She LOVES finding blogs who use the buttons because she is busy and wants to “qualify” her time by getting right down to the recipe card and determining two quick things: do I have the time to make this recipe tonight, and do I have the ingredients? Once she makes those qualifications, then she can invest more time in the recipe.
I have dozens of examples of sites using these buttons and generating more traffic and making more money than ever before. And it makes perfect sense; whenever you make it easy for users to complete tasks, you are going to be more successful.
8. How can bloggers keep up with all the algorithm changes?
This is a big one since a lot of bloggers were negatively impacted this past summer with the core updates that Google started pushing out the 1st of August. I believe this is where a quality tool like SEMrush can come into play since you do track these updates via your Notes section in user accounts.
Lots of great information there on “increased activity” tied to specific indices and general commentary on announced and unannounced updates by Google.
I would also recommend bookmarking Marie Haynes fantastic Google Algorithm Update History page. She does an excellent job tracking and updating reported and suspected Google algorithmic changes and providing links to more information where possible. It is a resource I share with my bloggers all the time.
Key Takeaways for Food Bloggers
- Casey doesn't recommend AMP for the vast majority of food bloggers.
- Schema will always be of paramount importance to the average food blogger.
- Take the steps needed to increase the CTR of your existing Google search snippet.
- Avoid the “herd mentality”.
- Smaller blogs can and do compete and defeat larger sites, but you have to give Google what they want.
- While monetizing with ads is a common end goal for most food bloggers, there are mistakes you must avoid to keep your readers.
- Don't take content advice from ad companies; their goals and yours differ.
- Check out Casey's tips for getting your recipe to rank.
- Avoid the SEO myths.
- Longer content isn't always the best content.
- Use resources to keep up with algorithm changes.
I want to express my gratitude for the great amount of time Casey spent answering questions for us. If you have any questions for him, please leave them in the comments below, or you can find him on Twitter.