As Sarah’s Cucina Bella celebrates 15 years in food blogging, here is a look at the past, present and future of the medium.
The year was 2005. It was November, when the evening arrives in the afternoon and coats become everyday attire. George W. Bush was in the first year of his second term. YouTube was a fledgling site, just launched in February. And Hurricane Katrina had recently devastated the Gulf Coast in the United States. My son, Will, was three months old.
That’s when I logged onto a blogging platform called Blogger and wrote about a skillet meal I made all the time when I was single and childless. It was my first attempt at food writing after years of news writing.
Sarah’s Cucina Bella launched on Nov. 9, 2005.
Aspirations and intentions
In the beginning, Sarah’s Cucina Bella was to be the site that launched my food writing career. As a journalist, I wrote in a prescribed way — often using the inverted pyramid method — about court cases, board of selectman decisions, new construction projects and myriad other subjects. My specialty was crime, which meant I often wrote about people in the worst times of their lives. But with a new baby, I wanted to write about something life-affirming. Food, I thought, was just the ticket.
Still, there were growing pains to writing in a way that wasn’t prescribed. On this site, I could use first-person — something that was foreign and unfamiliar to me. I muddled through, finding my voice along the way.
I thought I would write this blog for a few years, get some food writing cred and then move on into writing about food for some big-name publication. I thought, maybe, with my journalism background and interest in eating, it would launch something for me.
It did. And most of those hopes and plans happened.
In the last 15 years, my work on Sarah’s Cucina Bella has led to my working with the companies like Mott’s, Jones Dairy Farm, Starbucks and General Mills brands — Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Tablespoon and others. I’ve developed recipes, written about family meals and encouraged people to cook more. I’ve been flown all over the country for meetings and tours, and it’s been a blast.
My work here has also earned me gigs writing about food for publications like Fine Cooking, SheKnows, The Today Show, Bella Magazine and Yum for Kids. I’ve been invited into restaurants to experience meals and talk with food big-wigs. I’ve interviewed celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and food influencers. I’ve been critiqued and criticized for my views on food (and that’s as it should be). And my work in this space led me to multiple cookbook deals.
Frankly, what Sarah’s Cucina Bella has given me is more than I dreamed could happen when I wrote that first post in 2005.
But there’s one thing that didn’t happen through all of this: I didn’t move on from Sarah’s Cucina Bella.
On the contrary, I have kept at it. As it turns out, I like blogging, creating community around food and having a space on the internet to call my own.
Sarah’s Cucina Bella is where I share things we eat at home, the meals that have become holiday traditions, the lunches that I take a break with and so much more. And my children have grown up with (and on!) Sarah’s Cucina Bella. When the site launched, Will was three months old. Paige was born two years later. Neither remember a time when I didn’t have this site — or a camera close at hand to document the foods we eat.
Looking back on blogging
In 2005 when I launched this site, blogs were a relatively new device. Though they’d existed since the late 1990s, it was the early 2000s that brought expansion to the medium. Blogging platforms like Blogger, WordPress and TypePad were launched. The Julie/Julia Project bought attention to the genre. Bloggers were given press credentials and began to get a foothold in the writing and professional industries.
But most blogs launched in the early 2000s were passion projects launched on free blogging software and maintained by people who just wanted to share their food with the world. Some, like me, had greater aspirations but the blogs were — at their hearts — just about sharing good food. And in those days, it was often just about the words. Many blogs at that time didn’t have photos — let alone videos. My site certainly didn’t. The idea that people “eat with their eyes,” spread soon after though and I was able to learn photo and video skills with each new post.
Having my own site mean I could experiment with writing in different styles and about different subjects. Many posts were about food and cooking, but I also wrote about restaurants, cookbooks, growing your own food and the intersection of cooking and parenting. Eventually, I added travel to the mix as well. I still write about many of those subjects here today — and I can because I am the editor in chief, the writer, the photographer and the chief marketer for Sarah’s Cucina Bella. That is the way of the blog.
As much as my intentions for content have evolved, so has the medium itself.
Blogging wasn’t a money-making activity in 2005. It was a self-marketing one. Indeed, ads on blogs weren’t a thing then and no one had heard of a sponsored post. Although Google Adsense existed (it was launched in 2003), it was only used by low-quality sites. To put ads on your blog was selling out — so no one worth their salt did.
Things shifted rapidly on that front in the following years.
BlogHer launched an ad network in mid-2006. Within the next few years, many would sign on and big-name bloggers would start to earn a few bucks from their work. Other ad networks popped up too, giving bloggers options for their ad manager. Suddenly, it was okay to monetize your creativity — welcome even. And as blogs moved from free platforms to self-hosted domains, advertising income was a welcome offset to the costs of blogging.
But, back then, it wasn’t a big payday. It largely paid its own bills though.
I think I first began having ads in early-2007, right around when I moved from the Blogger platform to the WordPress platform. By 2008, I was being hired for sponsored work on this site and being asked to write about food on other sites. The combination of ad income, sponsored content on this site and writing for other sites turned blogging from marketing activity for me to part of my career.
Blogging became a lucrative part of my career — one that both sustained itself and sustained my family. I welcomed that.
At the same time, my traffic was growing. More and more people were visiting and following this site. They came through recommendations but also through search engines like Google, social media shares on Facebook and Pinterest and bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon. My stories of kitchen life with my kids seemed to resonate with readers. My blog was both personal and useful.
In the 2010s, the number of blogs on the internet exploded. So did the number and range of ad networks. Agencies devoted to negotiating sponsored work on blogs began popping up.
As blogging became a more lucrative medium, the nature of blogging shifted. Newer bloggers approached their work in a different way than the old guard, and with different goals. They wanted the most pageviews, the most notoriety and the best paying gigs. Search Engine Optimization — SEO — took hold and bloggers became obsessed with it. Although SEO had been used for years in other web writing mediums, it was slow to take hold in the blogging world for fear it would take the art out of the writing.
Newer bloggers didn’t mind though. They learned SEO, hired self-proclaimed gurus to help them do SEO better and tried to master the Google Algorithm. Google though won’t be gamed, so that algorithm is an ever-changing thing that the company won’t fully explain or expose publicly. That’s what makes SEO so challenging.
A similar thing happened with Pinterest and Facebook Pages — newer bloggers focused on maximum attention. Instead of the homespun, devoted communities that had cropped up around blogs like Kalyn’s Kitchen, Creative Culinary and Simply Recipes in the early days, newer bloggers focused on gathering as many followers as they could, whether or not they were invested or devoted.
None of this is to say that one approach was right and one was wrong. On the contrary, it’s just to say that they were vastly different. When you’re a blogger who values the writing aspects of the blogging medium, you are in a different place than the one who wants to quickly build a well-paying platform.
Can you do both? Write well and generate big traffic, thereby making a lot of money? Maybe. But that’s a lot.
Passion projects have decreased. Some of the old guard of blogs — the ones who were passion project bloggers in 2005 — still exist. Some have been sold to corporations. Some have folded or otherwise moved on. Some dug their heels in and refused to become an SEO-driven publication.
And then there’s me and Sarah’s Cucina Bella.
The future of storytelling
After 15 years, I understand SEO and use that understanding in what I do — both here and at my day job. I’ve successfully launched and grown blogs and sites using the principles of good SEO and social media best-practices. But here on Sarah’s Cucina Bella, my goals have shifted how I do things.
On Facebook, I strive for that smaller, devoted community. On this site, I aim to write well and inform readers. I want to teach people to cook well, easily and quickly. In recent years, I have backed off of telling stories of my kids. They are getting older and deserve some degree of privacy. I still tell stories, but they are often shorter and less articulated than they once were. And while I do aim for good SEO in my posts, it’s not my main focus. The writing is.
It has, at times, left me feeling adrift.
I’ve seen other blogs start up and get major attention. I’ve seen top blogs falter. Where do I fit?
That, I think, is for me to decide.
After 15 years in blogging, I’ve seen passion bloggers come and go. I’ve seen semi-successful bloggers launch themselves as experts on blogging. I’ve seem new bloggers with exponential growth. I’ve seen a loud public that loved bloggers — and then hated them. If one thing is certain, it’s that blogging is always changing, shifting, adapting. What’s true about blogging now won’t be true in two years or five years or another 15 years.
So as a long-standing blogger, I get to decide what comes next for me. I get to decide the style of blogging I want to promote through my work.
The style I choose is storytelling is first, food second and SEO third. That’s the kind of blogging I hope to see more of from more sites in the future. Even as society pushes back on this classically-driven model, there is value in it — personal is powerful.
This was always meant to be a blog filled with writing about the experience of food and life. It wasn’t meant to be just recipes or just stories. Finding the sweet spot — the balance between education and storytelling — is where I want this blog to dwell.
And it’s okay if Sarah’s Cucina Bella isn’t for everyone. You can’t please all the people all the time, and there’s no sense in trying — it just leads to bland writing.
15 Years of moments
The interesting thing about blogging for so long — and about being part of the industry that remembers a time before influencers, power bloggers and blogging as business — is that I have had a front-row seat to the changes and adaptations its undergone
Blogging isn’t dead. It’s evolving. And if we don’t learn to evolve with it — while also using our voices to shape the industry — it will become a land of bots and cons. Let’s not let that happen.
Friday 13th of November 2020
What a thoughtful and well written piece. Glad to have been along for at least some of the ride.
Sarah Walker Caron
Sunday 15th of November 2020
Thank you so much, Faith! I am so glad you've been along for some of it too!!