Welcome to episode 322 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Sarah Cook from Sustainable Cooks about what specific strategies she implemented to grow her blog’s traffic and increase her revenue.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Joe Valley about making a great exit and maximizing your profits when selling a business. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Going All In
A few years ago, Sarah Cook was feeling burnt out and ready to call it quits on her blog. But after listening to some food blogging podcasts, she decided to switch up her blogging strategy and see if she could turn it into a thriving business.
And today on the podcast, she’s sharing everything she’s done along the way to go from 17k to 600k monthly pageviews with her blog, Sustainable Cooks! She explains some of the unique ways she has invested in her blog, why she decided to delete hundreds of posts, why she loves having a blogging accountability partner, and more.
It’s a really inspiring interview, and we know it’ll leave you feeling motivated and excited to make progress on your blogging goals.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How Sarah decided to go all in with her blog
- How she struggled to define her identity as a full-time blogger
- Where she started investing money into her business
- How she shifted her content strategy
- Why she deleted hundreds of posts on her blog
- How she categorized her content into specific buckets
- Why ad earnings are typically lower in Q1
- How her blog’s success has helped her support causes she cares about
- How she fits work into the margins of her day
- What tasks she decided to hire out
- Why she loves having a blogging accountability partner
- Sustainable Cooks
- 170: What’s Working and What’s Not with the FBP Community
- Casey Markee
- Purr Design
- The Simple Pin Podcast
- Kate Ahl
- Hey Nutrition Lady
- Cook It Real Good
- Follow Sarah on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest
- Check out the Food Blogger Pro YouTube channel (and subscribe while you’re there!)
About This Week’s Sponsor
We’re excited to announce that this week’s episode is sponsored by our sister site, WP Tasty!
WP Tasty offers handcrafted WordPress plugins such as Tasty Recipes, Tasty Pins, and Tasty Links to help food bloggers optimize their content with minimal effort.
- Increase search traffic
- Grow affiliate earnings
- Build traction on Pinterest
- And more!
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Transcript (click to expand):
Bjork Ostrom: This episode is sponsored by our sister site, our brother site, our sibling site WP Tasty. WP, it stands for WordPress Tasty because the focus obviously is on food and recipe sites. WP Tasty makes, what we call handcrafted WordPress plugins. The reason we use handcrafted is because as it’s our team. We are the ones creating it. We’re not outsourcing it to some developer who we don’t really know who it is. It’s us handcrafting these WordPress plugins, and it’s also us using them. The first, and maybe most important plugin, kind of the sweet of WP Tasty plugins is called Tasty Recipes. and Tasty Recipes is a plugin that displays your recipes. It’s going to display them in a beautiful, accessible way.
Bjork Ostrom: We talk on the podcast a lot about how it’s important to make your recipes accessible and your content accessible for your readers, but also for search engines like Google. That’s the important thing with a recipe plugin, is you want it to be great for your readers and great for Google, and Tasty Recipes is the recipe plugin that powers a lot of your favorite food blogs across the internet. Some of my favorite, some of our favorite blogs, and actually the Food Blogger Pro podcast interviews that we’ve done, Kathryne from Cookie and Kate.
Bjork Ostrom: A lot of you’ll recognize cookie and Kate and the content that she creates, cookbooks, incredible recipes, incredible blogger resources. So, be sure to check out Cookie and Kate. Sally’s Baking Addiction. I know so many people who love and appreciate all the content that Sally creates. Gimme Some Oven, Ali has been on the podcast before. A lot of these are kind of OG podcast interviews and extremely popular sites, all using Tasty Recipes, and of course, Pinch of Yum.
Bjork Ostrom: We were the earliest user of Tasty Recipes because we created it to run on Pinch of Yum. We knew that we wanted to have control over what the recipe plugin we were using was, the development of it, and the continued features that we would add. An example of that is … One really cool thing that Tasty Recipes does is it allows readers to easily scale recipes. So, if you go to Pinch of Yum, you can see that you can scale a recipe. Say if you wanted to make a double batch, you can quickly and easily do that with Tasty Recipes.
Bjork Ostrom: You can also do metric conversions, so think grams or milliliters. You can make that adjustment with the technology that’s powering Tasty Recipes with just the click of a button, and that’s actually the readers who can do that. You don’t need to do anything. All you have to do is enter in your information on the WordPress side, as you’re creating the post, in a really simple, elegant field that will collect all the information for your recipe. And then what Tasty Recipes does is it takes all of that information and it packages up to, not only look nice for readers, but also to look really nice to Google when it comes and it crawls your site.
Bjork Ostrom: These are just a few of the features that Tasty Recipes comes with pre-installed. It’s all going to be there. There’s no upsells, like you just buy Tasty Recipes and you have everything that we offer right out of the gate, and it’s going to help your recipes shine and create an incredible experience for your reader. So, here’s the offer. You don’t have to go and buy Tasty Recipes right away. We thought it would actually be better if you want to learn more about it. Of course, if you want to, you can just go to wptasty.com. See the plugins we have there, see more about Tasty Recipes.
Bjork Ostrom: But we thought you might be interested in seeing how we use these plugins on Pinch of Yum. If you wanna get kind of a sneak peek inside look, you can go to wptasty.com/podcast. We’re calling it a webinar, but really, it’s a quick recording that walks through, here’s how we use these different plugins on the site to increase search traffic, increase our earnings, affiliate earnings, and also increase the traction that we get on Pinterest.
Bjork Ostrom: We’ll be talking about each one of the three plugins from WP Tasty in that video or that webinar. Again, you can go to wptasty.com/podcast to learn a little bit more about it, or if you just want to learn about the plugins, maybe download Tasty Recipes, you can go to wptasty.com to check more, to learn more about what we’re doing over there. But if you want to see that video, if you want to see that webinar as we’re calling it, you can go to wptasty.com/podcast, and sign up to get that delivered to you. Great, thanks to WP Tasty team for sponsoring this Food Blogger Pro podcast episode. Now, onto the episode.
Bjork Ostrom: Hello, hello, you’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. This is Bjork Ostrom. Today’s interview is with a Food Blogger Pro podcast listener, Sarah Cook from sustainablecooks.com. She’s going to be talking about her journey from being on the edge of quitting, but discovering podcasts and discovering the Food Blogger Pro podcasts, listening to an interview that we did with Casey from MediaWyse, and talking about SEO and this realization that, that’s a thing, SEO is a thing, and starting to focus on growing and building her blog, and how she took it from, I think she said 17,000 page views to 600,000 page views by making the decision to taking it seriously.
Bjork Ostrom: She’s going to be talking about the things along the way that helped her to get to that point, and also how that impacted her life, what that means for her and her family to make that transition. It’s a great interview and I really appreciate Sarah being able to be transparent and talk specifically about what her journey looked like, share how things looked in the beginning and how they look now, and how she made that transition from then to here, from there to here, and what that transition looked like. Let’s jump into this interview. Sarah, welcome to the podcast.
Sarah Cook: Thanks. I’m so excited to be here.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, it was fun to look back at, this was a few years ago, I think. You were technically on the Food Blogger Pro podcast, and we had done like a Q&A episode where we took user submitted, listener submitted content, and then I did some commentary on it. You had talked about this moment where you decided to go all in with your site after working on it for a few years. For those who didn’t catch that episode a couple years ago, maybe don’t remember, can you refresh our memories? Can you tell the story of that moment when you had this realization of like, I think I’m … It sounds like you were teetering on maybe going to quit, just call it quits, but then you decided, no, I’m actually going to do the opposite. I’m going to go all in and had 180-degree turn. What was that moment like?
Sarah Cook: Well, it actually involved you and your podcast.
Bjork Ostrom: Great.
Sarah Cook: In 2016, I had my second son and we decided that I would quit my university job, my college job, and stay home to work on the blog full time, and then just also keep the kids out of daycare. At the same time, my parents had moved in with us. I was taking care of them and their health needs. So, it was a lot. I had a newborn, my mom had multiple sclerosis, was diagnosed with cancer kind of thing. I’m like, okay, I’m full-time. Didn’t know what that meant. Didn’t know what SEO meant. Had absolutely no idea what any of that stuff was. I think it was May of 2017, I’m like, you know what? I’m done.
Sarah Cook: I’ve been doing this full time. I don’t really know what I’m doing. Nothing’s happening. In fact, I’m losing page views. I’m just done. Back at that time, with all the responsibilities I had at home, I got one hour a day to like yell walking. So, I had a stroller because I had a newborn and that’s when I discovered podcasts. And I was like, oh, there’s food blogging podcasts. Maybe I’ll listen to this one. And the very first episode I listened to was with Casey Markee about SEO. As I was cresting this hill, like huffing and puffing pushing the stroller-
Bjork Ostrom: Casey speaking into your ears. Yeah.
Sarah Cook: Yes, I was like, maybe I should look into what this SEO thing. I had no idea. At the time, I didn’t even have a recipe card on my blog. I just typed the recipe into the post. That podcast led me to binge all your other podcasts. Then I was like, you know what? I’m not quitting. I’m not deleting this. I’m going all in.
Bjork Ostrom: Man, that’s a really big shift. I’m curious to know, during that time, what did things look like? When you made a decision, hey, I’m going to go full time, was it like, I know this could potentially move into a full-time job and I want to give it the time education to get it to a point where I can earn an income, or were you at the point where it’s like, hey, I’m making some money from this, and if I just increase this, then it will be potentially a full-time job. When you decided to go focus full-time in your blog, what did that look like in terms of the actual blog and the business itself?
Sarah Cook: It wasn’t really defined. I, in my mind, I would quit and I wouldn’t have to commute two hours a day and then I’d have all this time to devote to the blog. Then when it actually happened, I then was also taking care of three other people who had needs. I was like, oh, I don’t have as much time as I actually thought. But in my mind, it was, you quit, you say you’re full-time, and then magically the page views just grow exponentially. Shockingly, when you keep doing the same thing you were doing when you were working full-time on the blog, your traffic doesn’t grow exponentially.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Just because you’ve decided in your mind, technically you’re focusing on it full-time, yeah.
Sarah Cook: I was like, hey world, I’m full-time. Let’s bring on those page views.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.
Sarah Cook: It didn’t work that way.
Bjork Ostrom: Well, and I think one of the interesting things that exists with that change from having a job, to your job being, either early stages building a startup, even if it’s not producing income or growing, or even when you are at the point where it’s growing and it’s sustainable and is a source of income, is that you are your own boss. One of the things that’s different and difficult, and I feel like needs to be acknowledged, is that, as a for instance, for Lindsay and I, we have our almost one-year-old and our almost three-year-old.
Bjork Ostrom: One of the things that we struggle with, and we don’t have a good answer to, is like, anytime that we are working, we are picking not to be with them. And that feels different than if you have a job and they say, here’s when you start and here’s when you’re done. And that’s defined for you. I think it’s one of the struggles that exist for anybody who makes that transition, is then you start to have to pick, I’m going to work at this time, and I’m intentionally not going to be doing other things that I could be doing.
Bjork Ostrom: Whether it’s taking care of projects that need to get done around the house or playing with, in our case, playing with my three-year-old daughter. That’s like a really hard thing that isn’t often acknowledged. Did you find that to be one of the difficult things in making the transition, was suddenly having time that you needed to define as work time and prioritize in a season where maybe it feels like it shouldn’t be prioritized?
Sarah Cook: I think so. But for me, and something that I think doesn’t get talked about a lot was, once I quit, I could no longer really define myself by what I did. I know you’ve mentioned, you tell neighbors that you guys run a food blog, and they’re like, oh, isn’t that cute? People don’t really understand it. So, I went from working since I was 13 and having a job that I could tell people I do and they understood what it meant, to all of a sudden being like, well, I do this thing and I get money from ads. For me, it took a full year. I don’t think most people talk about that, as I would say, especially most because-
Bjork Ostrom: What took a full year?
Sarah Cook: To redefine what I was actually doing and be okay with telling people what I was doing. I tell my husband this because he’s a firefighter so he’s home a lot during the day because he works 24-hour shifts every three days. I tell him, when the neighbors see your home, they assume it’s because you’re not at work. When the neighbors see me home, they think I’m a stay-at-home mom. Whether or not that’s what I want to be or not, and I don’t, I feel like personally, I’m a better mom because I work, I still was in this weird bubble of never being able to define what I did, and people looking in the outside and being like, she does X.
Sarah Cook: I felt like I didn’t have an identity, and it took an entire year for me to just be okay with that, what other people think of what I do has no bearing on how I actually do it.
Bjork Ostrom: Was that the change in that one-year period for you, was being okay with other people’s perception of what it is that you’re doing, like letting go of kind of an identity of how other people would perceive you?
Sarah Cook: No, I don’t think so. I think the real change was actually just figuring out how to blog from a business perspective instead of going from a hobby, but being okay with that change of my definition, then allowed me to tell people like, well, I’m going to this conference to learn about this, or I’m going to a photography class to do this. Because before I’d be like, oh I have this thing that I do. Now I’m like, hey, this is what I do.
Bjork Ostrom: What do you say when you say that?
Sarah Cook: Okay. Honestly, it depends on the age of the person I’m talking to.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. It almost gets easier if somebody’s like in the like 13 to 23 category.
Sarah Cook: Yes.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s like, they get it and they want it. What’s interesting is I had a conversation with somebody who, she used to be an auditor and then she took a job at a college teaching, like business accounting, and she said, every one of my students wants to be an influencer. They want to be on YouTube, they want to be on Instagram. Like, they get it. So, when you’re like, hey, I publish content online and I get paid for it. My guess is, the younger somebody is, the more they get it, and the more, the cooler they think it is. Is that true?
Sarah Cook: It is. Then like, I would say the older generation at my church, they think that I’m a food photographer because that’s something that make sense to them.
Bjork Ostrom: And this is a profession, a photographer.
Sarah Cook: Yeah. I don’t feel like, every time someone asks me a question like, well, how do you make money? How is it a job? And then I have to explain RPMs and things like that. So, I just say I’m a food photographer.
Bjork Ostrom: Totally. It’s one of my favorite conversations when somebody asks and they’re actually interested. I was at this, it’s like a retirement party, and that the person that I mentioned who’s now a professor and used to be an auditor, she started asking these really specific questions. I was like, oh my gosh, this is super fun to explain. Then I realized, I was like, oh, you’re an auditor. You used to look at numbers and understand why they were there and where they came from. So, I was like, that’s why it’s really fun to talk to you.
Bjork Ostrom: But other people, it’s almost like they don’t know what to do or questions to ask because it’s just so unfamiliar. Another thing we say is like we have a food magazine, like online food magazine, and then people are like, oh, magazine versus blog being the key difference. We say online magazine, but just to help close that gap. But I’m interested to hear about that year. So, you listen to this podcast episode, is it literally like, then you get home and pound fist on the table, I’m going to do this. Was that what it was like? And then the next day you are just all in?
Sarah Cook: Yes. Except for, I decided to, as I want to do, complicate things as much as possible. I was like, okay, I’m all in on the blog, but you know what? We also just found out that my mom had cancer, so I’m going to start an Etsy shop so I don’t have to feel my feelings.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yeah, totally.
Sarah Cook: I would be working on my Etsy stuff and listening to blogging podcasts. Then looking back now, I’m like, I could have just been working on my blog, listening to blogging podcasts, but you do what you have to do with the time to protect your brain and your heart. So, all this time I was working on my Etsy shop, I was listening to every podcast you ever had, then finding other podcasts. Then it got to the point where my Etsy shop was taking off and my blog shop was taking off.
Sarah Cook: Then I think I heard it on one of … One of your guests said, when you start to resent orders that come in, or you start to resent something, you know it’s time to be done. One day I just got like a big Etsy order, and I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore, so I just closed everything, and I was like, I’m a blogger now.
Bjork Ostrom: Huh, it’s interesting. I have a friend who’s a wedding videographer and he’s talked about that, where he’s like, man, what is it like when you get to the point where you actually don’t want to book the thing that you get paid to do? I was talking with Lindsay about it the other day, and she was talking about in a conversation that she has, she’s open and doing … Working with, I don’t know if it would technically be a therapist or a psychologist, therapist. But she said like, anytime you have a point of like tension or frustration or resentment, or something like that, it’s kind of an arrow pointing and saying like, this is something you should be aware of.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s important, I think, that you acknowledge that. I think it’s a really good takeaway because I think sometimes we just, especially in Minnesota, there’s this Scandinavian culture of like, you put your head down and you bear through it and it’s going to be miserable and that’s just the way it is. Winters are long and potatoes are flavorless, but you just got to charge forward, but it’s kind of an indicator like, wait, this is something you should address.
Bjork Ostrom: If it doesn’t feel right, if there’s resentment, if you don’t wanna fulfill the order, then there’s probably something there. Was that hard to do knowing that you had some level of success, or was it … Yeah, what was that moment like for you to shut that down?
Sarah Cook: It was really freeing. I just sold everything and donated a bunch of the proceeds to a charity. And then I was like, I’m done with it. It’s in the rearview mirror. It’s funny that you joke about the culture there because I’m Norwegian and our family motto is no one ever said life is fair.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, instead of like, live, laugh, love, that’s the words that you have on your wall. Yeah.
Sarah Cook: Not in our house.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I’m curious to know, at that point then, so acknowledging part of that is what you had talked about, which is like, in this season you’re processing through, there’s a certain level of grief, I would imagine. I can relate to that idea of like, what do you do when you experience that? For me, in my moments of grief, it’s like ordering and organizing, like it’s almost like that’s how my brain needs to process. It’s like doing something that is like the simplest version of something that a brain can do like shredding paper or alphabetizing files. But then, getting to a point where you say, you know what? This isn’t serving me in the same way anymore.
Bjork Ostrom: So, I’m going to shift, I’m going to shut this down, and I’m going to focus instead on my blog. And you have this kind of bank of content that you’ve consumed that’s kind of actionable content. What does that look like to then start with your blog and say, “Hey, I’m going to …” And talk a little bit about your blog. We haven’t done that yet. We’ll talk about it in the intro, but talk about your blog and talk about some of those first things that you did to start to focus on growth and building that.
Sarah Cook: Sure. My blog is Sustainable Cooks, and up until January of 2018, it was called Frugal By Choice, Cheap By Necessity. To any new blogger out there, just a hint, if someone falls asleep by the time you finish saying the name of your blog, it’s a good idea to rebrand. It’s so long. One of the first things I did was I got on a, I think, an audit waitlist with Casey from MediaWyse, and then I got on a waitlist to be on a waitlist to have my blog redesigned and rebranded and all of that.
Sarah Cook: Because to me it was like, okay, I want this to be a full-time job, but I was treating it like a hobby. You can’t open a restaurant without a bunch of pots and pans and plates. To think that I could just keep going with all the free resources available was … It’s not realistic. So, I started investing money.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How is somebody who is frugal, like literally the name of the site was frugal, it had frugal in it. Was that a hurdle for you to say like, hey, I’m going to put some money into this?
Sarah Cook: No, because I’m always willing to invest in things that are going to last, and since I wanted this to last, I was okay with it. We had moved … Sorry, this is telling a story like my mom used to tell a story. We had moved to Los Angeles from Seattle so that my husband could work in film and television. He was what’s called a grip, so behind the scenes, you do lighting electrical. We did that. I went, got the full-time job with the benefits to support his dream. We did that for four years. We moved home during the recession.
Sarah Cook: I got a job that was fine to support his dream of now becoming a firefighter. So, once you got that firefighting job, and then once I decided to blog full-time, I was like, listen, the amount of time and money we’ve invested in chasing two of your dreams, I’m like, I’m going to take 1% of that and I’m going to make this happen.
Bjork Ostrom: It was like spouse negotiation.
Sarah Cook: No, it wasn’t because I handle all the money. He’s like yep, fine, do it. Whatever. But I was like, I think I went from always asking like, should I be doing this, to telling people, this is what I’m doing. I took ownership of it. I had pride in saying what it was, that kind of thing. But it did, it took money, and it’s not a popular thing to say.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What were the best things that you spent money on in the early stages, or just in general?
Sarah Cook: Getting a new site. I’m terrible with design. I’m terrible with anything tech-related, and so having someone completely do that for me was huge. Then going from like a free or cheap theme that I didn’t know how to work to this, I’m going to say beautiful, because I’m now like site that someone else helps me manage, it was like, oh, okay, this is what it can be. Then doing the audit with Casey. I mean, I knew I lots and lots of problems, like lots of problems with how my site had been. So, just getting that 43-page report of these are the things you need to fix, like it gave me marching orders. I’m type A. If you give me a to-do list, I’m on it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can you talk about, so you talked about Casey doing the SEO audit, are there people that you worked with or companies that you worked with in the early stages, just to give them a shout-out for people who would deserve a shout-out?
Sarah Cook: Yeah. So, I started working with Lindsay from Purr Design. She did my site. I started listening to Simple Pin Media podcasts, Kate Ahl from Pinterest. I had zero knowledge of Pinterest. I didn’t even have a personal account. I didn’t have a blog account. I worked with her, she did a Pinterest audit, so I could just … I guess it was called a board clean up just to get me set off on the right foot.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Awesome. When did you start to notice an impact then? You do these things, you’re investing into Pinterest, you’re investing into SEO. You’re actually doing the work. That’s the other important piece. An audit doesn’t do anything unless you actually do something with the audit, whether it be Pinterest, SEO, technical. At what point did you actually start to see an impact and a change, and what did that look like?
Sarah Cook: I had my audit with Casey in May of 2018, and then, by the next month, I had just put my head down and churned through that checklist. By the next month, I qualified for Mediavine. I saw results within 30 days. But I would say from the time I decided to like be serious to the time I actually started making money was almost 12 months. Because I said, okay, I’m going to be serious, but I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t know what it looked like. I would say it took a full 12 months of just researching and education to figure it all out.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. On that day one, when you said, I’m going to do this, to 365 days later, how did your day look different than it did 12 months before? Were you doing different things? Were you thinking differently? Were you producing different content?
Sarah Cook: Absolutely. I had never done keyword research before, and as I said, I didn’t even have a recipe card on my blog. I converted all my old recipes to a recipe card. I think I did that three different times because I switched so many recipe cards. I started doing keyword research and so that meant going back through all my old posts that I thought were actually worth keeping and retitling them. So, going from the best thing I ate all week as the title to air fryer pizza rolls or something like that. I mean, that was a slow and long and painful process.
Sarah Cook: But I noticed that the SEO, once I started going, things snowballed quickly, because I was fixing the old stuff that already had a little, I would say juice behind it, like content juice behind it. Then, all of a sudden, Google’s like, oh, this chick is serious, let’s give her another look.
Bjork Ostrom: This is what you mean. Yeah. What tool did you use for the keyword research?
Sarah Cook: I used Keysearch. I still use Keysearch.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay. Got it. One of the things that I think is so great is you’re looking at the content you currently have in optimizing that alongside or even before you started looking at producing new content. What did that process look like? Was it a long season of focusing on the assets you currently had? Because it had been six, seven years of producing content?
Sarah Cook: Yep. Yes, it was definitely looking at what I had before moving forward. I also, I think I went from like 3,000 posts, and then I deleted all, but 800 of them. Now, some of those that I left were like a weekly wrap up post or something that I just wanted for myself that I de-indexed. Doing that deep clean, like you talked about, when you’re in a time of stress, you like to deep clean, it was so wonderful to just get rid of all that old junk. Then once I had the posts that were left, I’m like, okay, so what do I do with these now? And then I started working my way through them.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about why you would do that? I think that’s a foreign concept for a lot of people, that you would have so much content, and as a strategy to get more or traffic, you would delete the majority of it. It seems kind of counterintuitive, but why did you do that?
Sarah Cook: I think you can think of it like a playroom that is completely full of toys, and then your kids come upstairs and say, “We don’t have anything to do.” Whereas you get rid of 80%, do a huge goodwill run, and then they go downstairs and they’re like, “Oh, look at all this stuff we have to play with.” Because it’s not cluttered, it’s not overwhelming, and I was overwhelmed with that almost 3,000 posts. And a lot of that content was super thin. It’d be like an old cell phone picture, like from 2010 with like 10 words, like nobody needs that.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. By thin, you mean not a lot of content and not valuable content that is there.
Sarah Cook: By any means. What Casey explained to me, and I’m not going to put words in his mouth, this is just my interpretation of what he said was, you only get so much crawl allowance by Google, so they can only look at so many of the pages you have on your site. If the vast majority of your pages are junky old content, they’re not going to see and index any of your good stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: Almost like another analogy would be, if you have a luxury, or like an antique store, and you had these like beautiful, incredible antiques, but then you also had like … Then additional 75% of it was these crummy antiques that weren’t valuable and were not well taken care of. When you go in, what you see isn’t like, wow, this is a beautiful antique store. It’s like, oh, this is kind of crummy. If you get rid of all the crummy stuff, you walk in, you’re like, oh my gosh, this is incredible.
Bjork Ostrom: Similar concept to content where it’s like, man, if you just have incredible content, the general ideas, all of your content is incredible. It’s not hit or miss. And if content is crawled, the pieces, the articles, the posts, the pages, whatever we want to call it, that are crawled are all like, wow, this is good, this is good, this is good. In doing that, did you notice an increase in traffic pretty quickly just from doing that, or was it a cumulative effort of a lot of different things?
Sarah Cook: It was a cumulative, but by deleting, as a first step, I was unable to see what was left and then work on it and categorize it. One thing that, getting rid of all that junk, one thing that it did is it helped me see themes, so which posts were popular. And then, by seeing that, I was able to put my content into three categories. I have three very distinct audiences and they have nothing to do with each other. I have people who love the can and garden. I have people who want like fast weeknight meals, and then I have people who have been with me since the beginning, and they’re just there for whatever.
Bjork Ostrom: Friends.
Sarah Cook: Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Like internet friends, whether you know them or not.
Sarah Cook: Internet friends, exactly. By being able to focus on kind of those three groups, I was able to then build out content plans going forward. So, instead of wasting all my time on, oh, I should do this because it’s popular or I should do this because it’s popular. I think, would one of my three readers, do they want that? I went from a cheesecake factory menu to a tasting menu, as opposed to, everything we have, you can have whatever you want, to, hey, this is what we have, if it’s not for you, great.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And you could, especially if somebody’s starting out, probably just one of those buckets, like here’s the bucket where we produce content. It’s canning or it’s like a whole 30, or whatever it might be. But as you start to grow, in your case, it was like you had all this stuff and you compartmentalized it into three, down from a lot, but especially if somebody’s starting out, and even just have one of those and expand maybe later on. I think of it almost as like, when I text my friends, I know like, okay, I have my friends who are really into tennis and then I have my friends who are really into business, and then I have my gadget and tech friends, and I’ll text them about stuff.
Bjork Ostrom: But what’s nice is, you know, okay, here’s content. What I hear you saying is you almost have these kind of personas, and you know, okay, I’m going to create this content. Here’s the person that I’m creating this content for. Do you have any type of schedule where you’re like, the canned people are going to get four pieces of content every month, or is it more like, here’s what I feel like creating content, here’s how it will fit into the site and then I’ll schedule that?
Sarah Cook: One of the benefits of having that, like canning gardening niche, is that it’s only seasonal. I only have to push that stuff out May through early October.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. If you’re doing it in January, I think it’s going to be like how to eat canned goods…
Sarah Cook: That’s exactly right. What I do for my quick weeknight meal recipes is I’ll often link back to a canning recipe. Let’s say this stew requires canned tomatoes and I can … I’ll just put a little link within the post that said, interested in preserving your own food, check out this recipe on how to can hold tomatoes. It’s going to make making this dish next year be a lot faster, kind of thing.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Cool. Can you talk about the impact that some of these changes actually had? You have this moment where you are like, you know what? Casey’s speaking to me on the Food Blogger Pro podcast. As you’re coming over this hill, the sun is rising. The smoke off your coffee is slowly rising.
Sarah Cook: The birds are chirping.
Bjork Ostrom: Birds are chirping. There’s a bear in the forest waving along. What did that look like in terms of traffic growth? To the extent that you’re comfortable talking about that, was it at the end of the year, you were like, hey, now I’ve gotten to this point. I got accepted to Mediavine, or whatever it was, and I’m able to earn enough to justify this. What did that look like? Just so people can get an idea of, if they were to do this, not that it’s guaranteed that the same thing happens, but just results that can come from taking it seriously like you did.
Sarah Cook: Yeah. I’m happy to share numbers because I feel like too often people keep that stuff close to their chest, and that’s fine.
Bjork Ostrom: Super valuable.
Sarah Cook: I don’t think it actually helps anyone by saying, well, I improved. One thing I’ll just note, especially for newer bloggers, is back when I joined Mediavine, the qualifications to join were 25,000 sessions. Now I believe it’s 50,000. So, it’s hard to compare those apples to apples exactly. At the time, I had my audit with Casey, I was probably at like 20,000, maybe like 17,000 page views. I also had my audit during the slowest traffic time for me, which is April and May. And then, by June of 2018, I was able to get over that 25,000 session mark.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Then that’s when you applied for Mediavine.
Sarah Cook: And was accepted.
Bjork Ostrom: And that’s when we started to see like, oh, just from ads, I’m able to earn $10, $20, $30, and that’s when you can start to get into the numbers game a little bit, where you’re like, okay, 30 is actually pretty close to 100, and 100 times 365 is 36,000. That’s where it starts to get kind of cool.
Sarah Cook: But then you learn the defeating truth of the first quarter of the year in which…
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Sarah Cook: Your RPM-
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about that for those who aren’t familiar?
Sarah Cook: Yeah. So, each quarter of the year has kind of a different average in terms of RPM, so how much you can expect to earn from your ad company. The first quarter, so January through March, is always the lowest because that’s when budgets reset for the new year, that kind of thing. The fourth quarter, so October through December is usually the highest for most bloggers in food and wine and that kind of stuff. For me, it’s actually July and August and September, because that’s when all the canners are on my site, and those posts are very long because people don’t want to kill their families with botulism, so they read everything in-depth, so the time on page is extended, that kind of thing.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s a certain level of like that … It’s accountability for you to be like, I want to make sure that all of these steps are correct and yeah.
Sarah Cook: Oh yes. The fear-based earnings are high in summer. So, I went from like 17,000 to 20,000 page views in spring-ish of 2018 to just finishing my best month ever yesterday in which I hit 600,000.
Bjork Ostrom: Wow. That’s awesome.
Sarah Cook: It’s like, an overnight success took me 11 years.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, but I think what’s really cool for me to hear is this moment where you said, you know what? I’m going to take it seriously, and we talk about this a lot, but it’s because there’s truth to it. It’s showing up every day, figuring out how you and your site can get a little bit better, making those improvements, and you had used this phrase, but that starts to snowball. And that results in something that I would assume, in some ways, is life-changing? I mean, I don’t know if that’s too significant of a word to use, but can you talk about how that has changed things for you and your family and this new kind of reality that you’re living in?
Sarah Cook: I’ll note that last spring, I switched from Mediavine to AdThrive, and everyone’s experience is different making that switch, but for me it was like 100% the best decision. As soon as I made that switch, my income skyrocketed, at the same time that everyone is trapped at home because of the pandemic and they’re online. So, it was good timing on my part. Last year, just the increase in page views and the increase in earnings, I was able to save enough rom a few months to complete really remodel our kitchen, which has been driving me crazy for 10 years. It was-
Bjork Ostrom: Life-changing in that way.
Sarah Cook: It was. It was what we call the one-butt kitchen. We’ve basically done all the things we haven’t been able to do since the recession. We’ve remodeled things. We’ve put more money aside for retirement. We’ve padded our kids’ college fund, but I would say, the best part about making more money is the freedom that it gives me to support causes that I care about.
Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about some of those?
Sarah Cook: Yeah. I mean, obviously I love the fact that I got a new kitchen, but I also love the fact that I can see something and see a need and be like, well, here’s some money. Being able to bless people that never even have to know about it, supporting things through our church. We just had a neighbor’s son pass away from COVID, left a family, and so I was just able to just throw some money at a GoFundMe. The material things are great, but being able to do all the things I’ve wanted to do for so long but couldn’t, it’s been much more exciting.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s really cool. This is something that we … I’m trying to remember when this was. Part of our story, which some people know, some people don’t, is our firstborn son, Afton, was born and passed away. So, massively life-changing for Lindsay and I just in terms of how we view the world and context for just everything, really. One of the things that we did to tie this in with like business and blogging and the things that we talk about is we created what’s called a donor-advised fund.
Bjork Ostrom: The reason I’m saying this is because one of the things that I’ve wanted to do a better job of, and you are encouraging me to do this in this interview is, to not only talk about best practices with like, hey, how do you grow? How do you establish a strong business? What do finances look like? But also talk about, then what? And to your point, like great, you can do some incredible life-changing things for your family, like say for college or remodel kitchen, but there’s so much more that you can do and so much more that can be life-impacting.
Bjork Ostrom: So, we created, what’s called a donor-advised fund and we call it the Afton Fund, which has the name of our son, and we just have a process, and I think this is an important piece of it, to say every year or every month, we look and say, okay, cumulatively, what did the tiny bit companies profit? What did they make? And we take 10% of that and we just put it into the donor-advised fund. The reason I’m saying that is because I think somebody will hear this and they’ll hear you sharing your story, and they’ll say, you know what? I want to do that.
Bjork Ostrom: Maybe I’ve thought about it and I’ve never done it, but I’m going to take that next step forward. I hope that they do because that’s the kind of stuff where, and I know it’s true for me and it sounds like it’s true for you, year or two years, three years, 10 years, 20 years down the line, you’ll look back and you’ll say, hey, kitchen remodel is awesome. We’ve done that twice, two different houses, but you’ll say, I’m so glad that I did these things that actually truly matter. So, if anybody would ever be interested in hearing more about it and how we do that, please drop me an email, we’d love to talk about that, and thanks Sarah for bringing that up, because I think it’s such an important thing to do.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s something that’s not talked a lot about when it comes to building a sustainable, profitable, strong business. What does that look like for you, where you are right now? You’re at the point where you just had your best month and you have a successful business.
Sarah Cook: I do.
Bjork Ostrom: What does it look like now moving forward? Are you still looking at things the same way where you say, hey, I’m going to keep doing this because it’s working, or is it like, there are some things I need to change and do a little bit different moving forward?
Sarah Cook: Well, I think, like all parents, I’ve been in survival mode for the last 18 months.
Bjork Ostrom: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Sarah Cook: The west coast, most schools start after labor day, and this will be the first year that I’ll have both my kids in school. Honestly, I don’t know what the next few months hold for me or any of us. But what I really want to do is just take one to two months and figure out what my workflow looks like when I’m not rushing or yelling at the kids like, don’t touch the food, move out of the way, stop hitting me with a Nerf dart, I’m trying to take pictures. I just want to give myself a few weeks or months to just figure out what it looks like to run a business, not in chaos.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. How do you do that now?
Sarah Cook: Not well.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s margin. I remember in the interview did before, I think you mentioned like super early mornings or late nights, or is that fitting in the kind of margins of the day? Is that still the reality of what it looks like?
Sarah Cook: It is. It’s still super early mornings, but that’s because I’m an early morning person, and I realized, once I started making a certain amount of money, I’m like, my late nights are no longer productive, so I’m just going to stop doing this and I’m going to try and survive having my kids home for the next week and then see what that brings me. So, it’s still really early mornings. We were able to put one kid in preschool three days a week so that became like my work time, that kind of thing.
Sarah Cook: I think the best thing in terms of business that I’ve done since the pandemic started was hiring out some photos and some videography. I do not enjoy taking photos. It is my least favorite part of the job, but it’s one of the most important. By hiring out to the same person that I trust very much, hiring that out, frees me up to do the creative things that I actually enjoy.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I heard you’ve mentioned that a few different times and it’s something that I’m trying to teach myself continually still, is like, who, not how, and this idea of, who’s the person who’s really good at it that can get it done? I don’t necessarily need to know how to do it, especially if it’s something that would be in the like joyless category, which it sounds like photography is for you. I had a friend who had a blog and he was like, I learned that I just didn’t like photography, and why am I blogging then?
Bjork Ostrom: The hard part is like, oh, you could still do recipe development. You could do the things you want to do if you can figure out a way to get to the point where you can hire somebody to help with it. The hard part though, is getting to that point. Did you just kind of grind and be like, I know that I don’t like this, I know that I like it even less when I’m getting shot with a Nerf dart while trying to take a photograph, I know that I need to get to a certain point, and until then I have to do it myself? But eventually I want to hire for this. Did you always have that in mind?
Sarah Cook: In the back of my mind, it was always a dream, but I never thought I would make enough to make it a reality, and then I did. I was like, all right, first thing off my plate. I still do take photos. I took a bunch this week. Batching photos has become like my thing. It’s much easier for me now. I still do it because I think no matter what aspect you hire out, it’s still important that you know how to actually do a thing, because if that person quits or something happens, you still have to be capable of doing this aspect of your business. But it doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time on it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That makes sense.
Sarah Cook: Or in it.
Bjork Ostrom: What was it like to go through the process of having somebody else take over photography?
Sarah Cook: It was awesome. The second I signed that contract, it was just like deleting all those old posts. Once I signed that contract, I’m like, this is awesome. I feel so free. Now, I’m going to go do something I want to enjoy doing.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What are the things that you enjoy doing?
Sarah Cook: I actually love writing blog posts. It doesn’t bother me whatsoever. I know people have writer’s block. I rarely do. But my favorite thing is responding to comments and emails and things like that from my readers. Hands down, that’s my favorite part and something I would never outsource. Outsourcing the things that took up the most time has given me the time to do the things that are the most valuable to me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. That’s awesome. If you were to look back at your journey from 17,000 pages to 600,000, which is so cool to say that, and I’m sure it’s like anything where, I’ve used this analogy so often I just talked to somebody about it the other day, but it’s like, there’s this guy who raised, did a fundraiser by crawling the London marathon, and I feel like that’s such a good analogy for building and growing a blog. As you look back to your crawling a marathon, 17,000 to 600,000, what were the checkpoints along the way that were most impactful? So, for somebody else who’s looking to make a similar journey, that they can maybe shorten that time period and say like, hey, I’m going to try and condense these significant steps along the way sooner if possible. Maybe it’s not.
Sarah Cook: Sure. I think one of the things that new bloggers have going for them is there’s a lot more information out there on how to actually do things. Back when I started, most people started as a hobby. There was no course on SEO, there was no photography courses or anything like that. I think just having all that information out there will help most people shorten that timeline. I think just finding podcasts and the education … Your podcasts, especially, and education was huge. Then my audit with Casey was huge. Then getting a new site so I felt proud of what I was putting out there was huge. Another, like I would say for me, was getting out of my silo. I assumed this is the stuff that I know I’m not going to share it with anyone.
Sarah Cook: Then taking on more of a rising tide lifts all ships. There’s also another word that’s escaping me. It’s not surplus, but just an attitude of there’s enough here for all of-
Bjork Ostrom: Abundance mindset.
Sarah Cook: Abundance, yes. There’s enough here for all of us. That led me to going into blogging Facebook groups. Through that, I met my blogging accountability partner, who’s Katie from Hey Nutrition Lady. We’ve been through the fire together. Our audits were at the same time. We started doing everything, improving everything at the same time, so having kind of a battle buddy for me was huge.
Bjork Ostrom: You have neighbors. In a typical job, you have coworkers, you have connections from church maybe, and you all have these central shared pieces, but it’s really hard to find somebody who gets what we do, and if you can, what a gift it is to be like, hey, what did you do when you came up against this? Or I just got this comment and it’s a bummer. It’s like, if you share that with your neighbor, they’ll be like, oh shoot, but not really get it, but if you share it with someone who-
Sarah Cook: Right, they won’t get it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Can you talk about what that’s like and how other people could look to replicate having an accountability … Is it accountability partner? Is it like friend? How would you classify that and what do you view as the main focus of that relationship or a relationship like that?
Sarah Cook: Katie definitely started out as an accountability buddy. We were going through our audits at the same time working through the checklist at the same time. So, it was like, hey, do you want to bounce this idea off of me kind of thing? Then it developed into like a true, true friendship. But I still talk to her every day. And she’s a Canadian living in Sweden. There’s like four hours a day that we’re both awake at the same time. But I still chat with her. We still talk about the slogging through of it. Cassie from Cook It Real Good. We discovered each other because she was also going through a rebrand like I had done.
Sarah Cook: We joined Mediavine at the same time. We moved over to AdThrive at the same time. And it turned into, from sounding board to, this is someone I want to talk with about my life and my kids. And oh yeah, maybe we’ll talk about business too.
Bjork Ostrom: Totally. It’s almost like those are the best connections because you can be your most real self in those. Personally speaking, so much of what we do overlaps with home and connections, friends, relationships, and then you have the business and blog and building that stuff as well, and there’s just this kind of … It’s a web for sure. There’s no clean lines between…
Sarah Cook: Yeah. I have lots of friends who now work from home because of the pandemic, but none of them are their own bosses. Being able to joke with someone like, oh, my boss is being a real brat today and is making me work late, like someone who gets it, it’s huge. It’s huge.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, that’s great. For those people who are where you were starting this journey, maybe they are literally, we know that at least they are literally listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast in the same way, maybe this is their moment that you had three, four years ago. You said it was 20 …
Sarah Cook: ’17.
Bjork Ostrom: 2017, so four years ago. What would you say to them? What would be your kind of words of inspiration as we’re closing out here?
Sarah Cook: Well, first, turn off this episode and go listen to Casey.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.
Sarah Cook: Also, and I’ll say, this is what Casey always says is, you don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s okay that you don’t know everything. It’s okay that you’re not an expert at everything, but once you learn that there’s a part of this job that’s important, really dig into that and figure out how to do it, how to do it well, and then move on to the next thing. You can’t drink from a fire hose and be okay at the end of it. So, it’s okay to learn little aspects of this business one at a time, and once you feel comfortable, just know to move on to the next one. You’re never going to stop learning, but at some point, it gets a lot easier. I promise.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. Sarah, super fun to talk to you. I was looking forward to this interview. I knew just a little, kind of a little bit of what we’d talk about, but I think folks will really get a lot out of it. I know that I did. If anybody wants to connect with you, anybody wants to follow along with what you’re up to, where can they do that?
Sarah Cook: The easiest way to like message me would be through Instagram. I hate Facebook. I mean my blog’s on there, but I’m not.
Bjork Ostrom: Don’t message through there.
Sarah Cook: Yeah. You can also check out my site, sustainablecooks.com, and email me through there if you want. I’m always happy, whenever I do a podcast interview, I have people email, and they’re like, oh man, I’ve felt like such an idiot for so long, and thanks for saying you were an idiot. So, if you’ve felt like an idiot and you want to like just e-cream with someone, I’m always happy to do that too.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. I appreciate you coming on, Sarah. Thanks so much for chatting. It was great to be here with you.
Sarah Cook: Thanks so much for having me.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s a wrap for this episode. Another thank you to Sarah for coming on for sharing her journey. So fun to hear a success story like that. I know a lot of people listening will, not only have takeaways from it, actionable, tangible things that they can implement, but also will be inspired by somebody who has made the decision to take it seriously and then saw results from that, so thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story. Thanks for listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast, and really appreciate you coming on.
Bjork Ostrom: As a reminder, if you haven’t yet, go ahead and hit subscribe or follow, depending on where you listen to podcasts, that will make sure that anytime that we publish a new episode, that you’ll get notified of it. If you haven’t yet, you can check out Food Blogger Pro. If you want to learn a little bit more about who we are, what we’re about, you can simply go to foodbloggerpro.com, and that’ll direct you to all these different places.
Bjork Ostrom: We have a blog. We have, obviously the podcast, you can search past podcast episodes. You can sign up for some of the informational content that we have. One of the things that you can see right away when you sign up on the homepage, this isn’t signing up for membership, is just something that we offer. It’s a little download, quick tip, PDF, 16 ways that you can make money from your food blog. A lot of us think of one, two, maybe three sponsored content advertising, but this PDF is going to offer you even more ways and ideas that you can be thinking about creating an income from your site.
Bjork Ostrom: So, you can see that by going to foodbloggerpro.com and checking that out. Thanks so much for tuning in. As always our hope with these podcasts is that they help you get a tiny bit better every day forever, and that’s why we show up each and every week, just like we’ll do next week. Until then, we’ll see you in the next episode. Make it a great week.