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Focus on Your Readers and Relationships, Not Search Engine Optimization

Credit: CharlesHBass

Credit: CharlesHBass

A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of meeting up with old friends at Fincon, a fantastic personal finance blogger convention put on my buddy Phil Taylor of PTMoney. I contributed to two panels and the one that I wanted to talk about today was titled “Panda, Penguin, and the Future of SEO.”

I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Viet Do of Dealzon (who set the whole thing up), Greg Go of Wisebread, and Ryan Guina of The Military Wallet and each one of them has had far more experience battling the animal spirits of Google than me, though I’d like to think that I held my own with my general knowledge of SEO.

While we went through some site reviews (I’m sorry if I was a little brutal in my honesty), I wanted attendees to take home just one idea from everything I said:

Focus on your site’s usability and on connecting with readers,
don’t worry about search engine optimization.

Don’t Worry About SEO

Bloggers shouldn’t worry about SEO because it’s an issue of resource allocation. You only have so much time and energy, it’s better to spend it on things with an immediate impact than things that might help you later on. Answering an email, replying to a comment, writing posts, being active on social media, and many of those “blocking and tackling” types of activities have an immediate impact.

Not so much with SEO.

SEO can be broken up into two major areas – on-page and off-page. WordPress and a variety of plugins solve 95% of the on-page issues regarding SEO. Off-page factors, which you can improve primarily through linkbuilding, is a time intensive process with practically no immediate impact.

Your resources are better spent in other activities.

Do Worry About Your Readers

Fortunately, there are so many things you can do to your site that improve usability and can also improve your SEO. These are the things you should focus on.

One such example from the panel was concept of tag clouds. A Tag cloud is simply a wall of text that links to archive pages for posts that have a specific tag. The size of the tag is bigger based on how many posts use that tag.

Tag clouds look messy and very few people use them, so why not remove it? (I asked the crowd of maybe a hundred attendees, there was one hand that went up — most people don’t use them)

I think that hand was @MeganTwoCents – thank you for being honest and brave enough to share you clicked on a tag cloud πŸ™‚ – nothing wrong with that at all!

Site speed is another great example. Google uses site speed as a (small) ranking factor and readers use site speed as a measure of credibility. The faster a site is, the better it is for users and the better Google feels about sending people there.

In Matt Cutts’ words: “…if you’re the outlier. If you’re at the very bottom end because your site is really, really slow, then yes, it might be the case that your site will rank lower because of its page speed.”

SEO Is a Passenger, Not the Driver

Years ago, Google loved blogs and you could pump out almost anything and get it to rank. That’s why I wrote three posts a day and it’s why content farms got popular and went public. SEO became the driver.

Today, you need great content and a connection with readers. SEO can be incredible if you manage to rank highly for some terms. Bargaineering was built on strong rankings and efficient monetization. That was before all the algorithm changes, that was before Google started emphasizing bigger brands, and that was after I had the resources to put towards it. SEO shouldn’t be driving anymore, great content should be the driver.

SEO Isn’t a Panacea

There is an entire industry built upon the fears and uncertainty surrounding SEO, Google, and ranking. Don’t buy into it. Everyone who ever learned about SEO learned it on the job. There’s an existing body of knowledge but it’s not something you can’t learn in a short period of time – it’s not like becoming a doctor or a lawyer or even an accountant.

As an aside, I think SEO can sometimes be a little ridiculous. Check out this Matt Cutts video where he says there is no SEO impact between using the bold tag vs. the strong tag. It’s dated October 21, 2013!

SEO is important but this borders on ridiculous in terms of minutiae.

Write great content, interact with your readers and fellow bloggers, and enjoy the process of creating and connecting.

Focus on readers & relationships, not on SEO! — Click to Tweet

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In 2005, I founded a personal finance blog ( that became successful enough that I quit my career as a software developer in the defense industry. It is my goal to share everything I learned so that you can do the same - build an online business that let's you pursue your passion.

23 responses to “Focus on Your Readers and Relationships, Not Search Engine Optimization”

  1. Michael says:

    Yeah, I’ve always felt that you should spend most of your effort controlling the factors that you can control. While it can’t hurt to exert some effort trying to influence factors that are out of your control, don’t go overboard with it. If you’re doing everything else right, the payoff will (hopefully) come.

  2. Good post Jim! I would agree that you should really try and focus on the content and connecting with the reader as opposed to being focused on something that can change like SEO. I view it as a supplement or tool to what I am already doing on the site and try to be balanced with it. If your site looks like crap and you’re not connecting with the readers then all the SEO in the world won’t help much at all in my opinion.

    • Jim says:

      Yes, it’s definitely a supplemental nowadays. I was fortunate with Bargaineering because it was more reliable, nowadays you really need to think of it as a bonus.

  3. I couldn’t agree more! I spend most of my time working through the various components of blogging that aren’t SEO. I pride myself on having personality and connections rather than being chained to keywords and worrying about where my rankings are. The more organic approach has served me well and I continue to grow slowly but surely. πŸ™‚

  4. I think many people think SEO is why they don’t have readers when the reality is bloggers may not be writing what people want to read. If it isn’t something that helps people answer a question, fix a problem or something that inspires or entertains, why would people want to read it, let alone find it in a search engine.

    • Jim says:

      This is a tough thing to handle, it’s easy to blame something you can’t control for your results. It’s harder to take a hard look at what you’re doing and seeing if you should be taking a different approach.

  5. Martin says:

    The best quote I ever heard was from Neil Patel where he said that you have to keep on writing great content and the search engines will be forced to catch up πŸ™‚

    And I would never rudely interrupt you like Viet did.

  6. Susan Neal says:

    Hi Jim,

    This post is music to my ears. Since getting to grips with the basics of SEO, I’ve long stopped worrying about keeping up with all the penguins and pandas of this world. As you say, SEO is a complete industry and most lone wolf bloggers don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of keeping up with all the latest developments.

    The point you make about best use of time is a good one – we need to prioritise our resources, and it just doesn’t make sense to waste time on stuff that’s going to have minimal impact.

    Producing great content and developing relationships with our readers are the things that really matter – and, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to help our SEO, isn’t it?

    • Jim says:

      Exactly! If you do all the other things right, you’ll have covered the vast majority of SEO (especially if you use WordPress or some other mature CMS, they have much of that handled already).

      I just recently discovered your blog Susan and I’m loving it!

  7. I’m not sure I agree completely (and I sometimes have a problem NOT mincing words as well) LOL

    While I agree SEO minutiae like bold vs strong tags is ridiculus, a basic understanding of SEO is imperative to maximize overall exposure. It sounds like you’re trying to say is that readership is the holy grail of blogging. While I understand, it’s hard to tell a new blogger to focus on that while ignoring SEO when a little bit of effort in that department can make a difference in earning $ vs $$$ in a month’s time.

    The plugins available nowadays like All in One SEO pack and even Thesis settings do a great job of prompting bloggers to think in the right direction, but I’d say it’s helpful for everyone to understand WHY the plugin asks if your focus keyword was found in:

    Article Heading: Yes (1)
    Page title: Yes (1)
    Page URL: Yes (1)
    Content: Yes (2)
    Meta description: No

    Those who are newer to the blogosphere might not have the background to know what exactly you even mean by “SEO.” But to say it’s not important and not even introduce them to basic concepts is leaving money on the table and potential encouragement to stick with it before their readership base grows.

    • Jim says:

      Please be honest, I think that’s the only way we can have good debates and I appreciate that you’re willing to spend the time to share your opinion!

      I agree 100% with everything you said. There is a basic understanding that everyone should try to learn and a minimum everyone should be doing when it comes to SEO but I think many bloggers get fixated on it. They start worry about the bold vs strong issue after they’ve done the basics and it’s overboard. I considered what you said to fall into the 95% solved by plugins (like the All in One SEO pack).

      Once you do that, the next step isn’t to start getting into the nitty gritty for SEO if you’re new to blogging. The next step should be social media, connecting with readers and other bloggers, wouldn’t you agree?

      • Yes, I can live with that. πŸ˜‰ I heard someone at FinCon say he buys domain after domain to point back at a post in order to get backlinks. That’s NUTZ.

        I think a basic understanding is all you need these days because Google has changed so much with Panda, Penguin, and especially Hummingbird. I think it’s only a matter of time before we have to change directions completely.

        I was looking at my stats today. Out of all the page views I’ve had I’ve had in the past month, Mobile views seemed to be gaining traction (even though it’s still a small proportion of overall views). However, mobile views resulted in ONLY ONE CLICK! That’s not good when I think of all the times I conduct research on my iPhone. :/ Could blogs go the way of traditional newspapers? Are we looking at paid membership sites being the only way to make money? In the future will the only way to make money blogging come from topics that require the user to be on a desktop? I don’t know…

        I’m just trying to have fun and make a little money while doing it for now. πŸ™‚

        I’m starting to become really interested in other platforms as their own contained search engines. Like Pinterest or Etsy. I’m planning on experimenting with commenting, keywords, etc. Do you have any thoughts on this? Maybe that’s the new frontier for now….

        • Jim says:

          NUTZ… but it works (until it doesn’t). This was a big strategy several years ago but Google has gotten wise to that. I knew people who would buy any high PR domain to point back and eventually the effects were minimized or they were penalized. (another fun strategy from back then was to buy a domain, 301 to a high PR site, wait for Google to assign that PR to your crappy site, then turn off the 301… instant high PR!)

          Hmmmm… mobile is getting to become a bigger and bigger slice of a site’s traffic, hence the big push towards “responsive” design (ie. stuff moves around when the column is thinner, like on a mobile device). I doubt blogs will go the way of traditional newspapers but I do think a mobile friendly version of your site is crucial. In the end, it’s about meeting the needs of your visitors right? Whether that’s fewer readers paying a membership fee or more readers not paying and fueling the advertising engine, a blogger will only continue if he or she is fairly compensated.

          I think they’re new frontiers only because they’re new platforms. Pinterest is no different than a Digg of five years ago, the strategies for standing out might change but the basic premise is the same.

          • “I think they’re new frontiers only because they’re new platforms. Pinterest is no different than a Digg of five years ago…”

            Would you believe I’ve never visited Digg until 5 minutes ago? I completely missed that loop.

            Totally agree about the compensation needing to be there. I’m sticking with it as long as I can make more than I pay the babysitter. LOL

            Pinterest is where it’s at for women, at least. πŸ™‚ I’ve found myself going directly to Pinterest lately when I need to find something crafty/meal-related/birthday party planning, etc.

            Thanks for going back and forth with me this evening!

          • Jim says:

            Digg is completely different now but back in the day it was kind of like how Reddit is, except it was bigger and didn’t have as much personality. πŸ™‚

  8. Wanted to say – I attended your session and really enjoyed it – I didn’t realize my tag clouds (which I always thought were pretty to look at) might be hurting me. πŸ™‚

    • Jim says:


      Honestly, I think they can be pretty if well organized and thought out. All too often people use tags like keywords and it becomes a mess.

  9. Susan Neal says:

    Why – thanks, Jim – you just made my day πŸ™‚

  10. Megan says:

    Hey – thanks for the shout-out!

    I really enjoyed your talk at Fincon as well. I agree that spending a lot of brainpower on SEO is a waste – Before publishing I run a quick keyword check to see if there’s a variant of my topic that happens to be searched frequently, and just use that as the basis for my headline etc.

    As to tag clouds – I stand by the act that they’re totally useful – but maybe not from a reader’s perspective. When I’m looking for blogs to build relationships with / comment on / pitch guest posts too, if they’ve got a tag cloud it’s SO EASY. Say, I want to write about debt elimination – oh look – these guys write about debt elimination all the time – click, scan click, confirm topical fit, start commenting.

    As a reader, I do use them sometimes as well, just so I can quickly sort through the topics I’m most interested in – which I like a lot. From a bloggers perspective, I think this is a mixed bag, however. I want my readers to be able to find what they’re interested in – but I don’t want them to like me just for my recipes, you know? I’m a whole blogger. πŸ˜‰

    Cheers – and thanks! (MeganTwoCents)

    • Jim says:

      If you’re being very careful with what tags you use, then tag clouds work. I think that oftentimes people don’t think about the tags they use (they just put whatever comes to mind) and then the tag cloud looks like a mess. You have a bunch of tags with just one post, a few tags that have a lot of posts, and then you end up with something that’s both unusable and bad for SEO. If you’re intentional about how you organize it, then there’s no inherent reason why a tag cloud is bad.

      I’d be curious if anyone ever tested how often tag clouds are clicked. πŸ™‚

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