Leaving Work Behind

The (Un)Importance of Optimization

Written by Tom Ewer on September 18, 2013. 58 Comments

Conventional WisdomOver the past two years or so I have spent a good chunk of my time railing against the majority of what most make money online “experts” advise. Generally speaking, doing so has worked in my favor.

For example, it was only when I turned my primary focus onto building a service-based business (and away from passive income endeavors) that I was able to leave work behind. Furthermore, I decided to put my full efforts into building a freelance blogging business when most freelance writing “experts” claim there is little money in blogging for pay. That worked out pretty well too.

I created a successful blog in the make money online niche when just about anyone was ready to tell me that it is already far too crowded to prosper. Not only that, but I managed to do so without bullshitting a single human being (which is all too rare).

With the above in mind, in today’s post I want to focus on one particular action (or inaction, more specifically) that I feel has benefitted me (and my audience) more than most. As you might expect, it goes completely against what you are typically told to do.

The (Un)Importance of Optimization

Optimization is a buzzword in the blogosphere. If you’re not optimizing, you’re not making the most of the opportunities available to you.

Optimization can take many forms. There is Search Engine Optimization (SEO), sales copy optimization, conversion optimization, and so on. But they all share one key characteristic: squeezing more out of what you already have.

By practicing SEO you intend to drive a greater volume of traffic to existing content. By optimizing your sales copy you intend to generate more sales from the same number of leads. By converting say a sign up form, you intend to gain a higher ratio of subscribers from the same number of visitors to your blog.

In my opinion there are two things that are fundamentally “wrong” about optimization:

  1. It rarely benefits the end user a great deal
  2. It can distract you from more important matters

Let me explain to you what I mean with some examples.

How Optimization Has Benefitted A-List Bloggers (Or Not)

Steve Kamb

Steve Kamb

The idea for this post first came to me when I was watching an interview with Steve Kamb on Fizzle.

For those of you who don’t know, Steve is the founder of Nerd Fitness — an enormous health and fitness blog/community with monthly visits in excess of one million. He also happens to be one of the true good guys in the blogosphere — someone who is still happy to reply to emails from readers (with no apparent expectation of potential reward) despite the astronomical growth in his blog’s popularity over the past few years.

What surprised me in the interview was the lack of focus Steve had on optimization. He admitted that he knew next to nothing about SEO and that he had only recently brought someone on board to work on split testing. This is the same guy who makes a very healthy income from a well-respected blog in a highly competitive niche.

Watching the interview brought me back to a guest post I read on Think Traffic over two years ago. It was entitled What Happens When Gizmodo Unleashes a Flood of 42,000+ People on Your Blog and was written by (you guessed it) Steve Kamb. In that post, Steve revealed how an article he wrote on Nerd Fitness was syndicated by Gizmodo (which is an enormous blog for those of you who don’t know), which resulted in a huge burst of traffic to his site.

The cause of all the traffic: one blog post.

The cause of all the traffic: one blog post.

At the time Nerd Fitness was attracting around the same number of visitors as Leaving Work Behind does at the moment and was about two years old (sounds like I’m about ready to get syndicated by Gizmodo, right? ;-)).

Upon reflection Steve knew that he should have done more to convert the traffic, but he wasn’t big on optimization and missed out on an opportunity. Yet, just over two years later, his blog has gone from attracting ~800 visitors per day to perhaps ~30,000. He has managed to prosper without an overarching obsession with optimization. It is no small coincidence that he also happens to produce quality content on a consistent basis.

I’ve known about Steve’s relative lack of concern with optimization for a long time but I only recently learned my lesson from his story.

My Obsession With Optimization

I have spent a large part of my time as a blogger obsessed with optimization. In fact, my obsession only came to an end relatively recently.

I had spent over a month in search of someone to work on the copy of the sales page for my freelance blogging guide. I felt that the existing copy didn’t fit my “voice” or reflect the Leaving Work Behind brand well (I hadn’t written it), plus I thought it could convert better. However, I didn’t want to work on the page myself as I don’t consider myself to be a talented copywriter.

Then I had a small epiphany: I didn’t need a copywriter. I realized that when it comes to growing the Leaving Work Behind brand and doing my best to help people, I was the best person to write the sales page — whether or not it resulted in a higher conversion rate.

My new and improved (albeit still very basic) sales page.

My new and improved (albeit still very basic) sales page.

Once I had given myself the freedom to create my sales page copy on the basis of how well it informed the user and reflected my brand, writing it became a piece of cake. Although I haven’t finished with the sales page yet, I think it is far better than it was. Most importantly, I think it better serves people who are potentially interested in my freelance blogging guide than it did before. And incidentally, it converts better than it did before. I consider that a natural side-effect of working hard to best serve your visitors.

This led to a number of optimization-related obsessions crumbling to dust about me. No more fretting over SEO. No more making decisions based upon whether I feel something will “convert” better. Instead, my sole focus is on making Leaving Work Behind better for the people who visit it. And believe me, approaching my blog from that direction is wonderfully invigorating.

While my course of action may not result in me leveraging the potential of the blog to its fullest, I spend zero time agonizing over the vagaries of optimization and more time working to help people. That is more rewarding than a higher conversion rate could ever be and leaves me with a clear conscience. Furthermore, I expect it to benefit the blog in the long run.

You Don’t Need Optimization to Succeed (But It Can Help)

I am not here to tell you that you shouldn’t optimize your website. But I am saying that you shouldn’t allow it to distract from the most important thing: serving your visitor/reader/subscriber/customer.

If more bloggers were less obsessed with getting their AdWords perfectly placed or their sales page perfectly optimized and more obsessed with creating something of true value, people would have a whole lot more quality content to surf through around the blogosphere.

This was one of the driving factors behind the decision I made to reduce the number of posts I publish here on Leaving Work Behind. These days, I don’t publish a post because an editorial calendar tells me to — I publish a post because I feel I have something of value to say. Something that can benefit other people.

In short, I don’t let thoughts of optimization cloud my judgment. I do what I do because I think it is best for this blog in terms of how it can serve my readers. Everything else falls in line behind that.

From a more practical perspective, I’ll point to the evidence that the a-list bloggers do not get to their giddy heights by focusing primarily on optimization. The Steve Kambs of this world succeed because they have an overruling desire to create something of true value. That’s what enables them to build blogs that attract readers in their hundreds of thousands (and even millions). By contrast, optimization is a bit-part player.

How this Relates to Leaving Work Behind

New readers of this blog may not know this yet, but the act of leaving work behind means so much more than just quitting your job and creating a successful online business.

Ultimately, it’s about being happy. The further I travel in my journey the more I appreciate how little wealth (beyond what we need to put food in our mouths and a roof over our heads) matters when compared to happiness. I work to be happy and wealthy, but only if the act of obtaining wealth does not affect my happiness.

I don’t pretend to be a selfless blogger. I don’t think true selflessness is actually possible (but that’s a philosophical debate for another time). This blog exists for two reasons:

  1. To make money
  2. To help other people

The benefit to me of the first reason is clear. But the second reason benefits me too — it makes me happy to help people.

There are few things more rewarding than the emails I get from people thanking me for helping them. I am delighted to help people because it is rewarding. To do this and make money from it is a blessing I try very hard not to take for granted. And that has nothing to do with optimization.

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58 Responses to “The (Un)Importance of Optimization”

  1. Jackson Anderson
    September 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Another solid post Tom, I think Steve’s example just truly reiterates what you’re saying here.

    As much as it sucks to not have 2-3 posts a week to look forward to on LWB as in the past, I know when something new pops up it will definitely spark an idea or two and create value.


  2. Kirsty Stuart
    September 18, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Three words: ‘What a relief!’ 😉

    • Tom Ewer
      September 18, 2013 at 5:21 pm

      I know how you feel — when I came to the decision to devalue optimization, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders!

  3. Michael
    September 18, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I think I agree with you, Tom. I’m just about relaunching my blog and would make sure I heed to that. Thanks very much.

  4. Jawad Khan | WritingMyDestiny
    September 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Being natural, honest and not overly “optimized” is the reason why I follow your blog.

  5. Curt Stowers
    September 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    I’ve been wondering about the same thing Tom. Temptation is to “game” the system. Reality is a slow, steady build while staying true to your principles is the only way to go! Thanks for sharing

  6. Donnie Law
    September 18, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    It’s always easy to spot the bloggers who are obsessed with optimization and sacrifice good quality content. The time spent optimizing has to come from somewhere. Hopefully it’s not coming from creative/content producing time.

  7. Daryl
    September 18, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    After seeing how difficult your efforts were to optimize your niche sites which were then slapped silly by Google, I have to admit that efforts to optimize my own content often takes a back seat as well!

    I agree that optimization can help, but you need to get the rest of your house in order before you spend any major time trying to “perfectly” SEO a site.

  8. Josh @ Form Your Future
    September 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    This post hits right to heart with me. Recently I started thinking about how I really need to start optimizing my personal posts on my site. The problem however, is that once I started looking at the keywords to optimize my site, I started to stray off topic (just like you said) and miss the main points that I wanted to hit.

    So basically now I try to lightly sprinkle seo into my articles. If I feel like a keyword strays me away even the tiniest bit, I’ll leave it out.

  9. Craig
    September 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I’m so glad you’ve written a blog post about this!

    Thanks Tom

  10. Ashley J. Saunders
    September 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Glad you wrote this Tom.

    Seem that alot of people (me included) spent hours working on the site’s design or thinking about whether using a word twice in the same paragraph would help increase SEO or wasted countless hours searching for links (only for them to be delisted or shut up down).

    I’ve changed! I now limit coding time to a min and working on blogging more. I’ve seen more traffic in the last month through writing longer post – more often than i had seen through SEO work!

    Funny that!

  11. Therese
    September 18, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    This is the best ever, Tom. I’ve recently made the switch to writing whenever I have something important to say, too, rather than on a schedule. Recently I’ve also stopped overanalyzing every little thing and just listening to my intuition about what will serve my readers the most. It’s an incredibly liberating and powerful feeling, and I have more than a notion that focusing on this is the “80%” part of the 80/20 equation ;-).

    What’s more, I’ve found that I enjoy the process of my work much more when I’m not overly focused on optimization and results. And that’s what we’re all after, right? Enjoyment of the present moment? 🙂

    To continued success –


  12. kevincarlton
    September 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    I’m all for optimisation.

    But how I view optimisation is probably just how you do Tom.

    I see it as giving search engines and visitors what THEY want rather than some kind of self-serving exercise.

    Do it this way and the results will come.

  13. Razwana
    September 18, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Tom – your authenticity comes through in your writing. Please don’t ever write for SEO purposes and risk sounding like a robot on repeat!

    One question for the post by Nerd Fitness – how was hit post found by Gizmodo in the first place?

  14. Eli
    September 18, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Hey Tom,

    I’ve experienced first hand the kind of destruction over-optimization can cause. For about two years I wrote a travel blog while traveling through Southeast Asia and New Zealand. I had built up a small following, slowly but surely, and my end goal was to monetize the blog to fund my travels.

    What ended up happening was that I became obsessed with the things the successful travel bloggers were doing “right.” I started mimicking one blogger for a week, and then another the next week. My blog’s style and voice was jumping all over the place. It got to the point where it wasn’t “me” anymore. I sucked the joy right out of it. My final post ended up being an apology to my readers for becoming a fraud, and just like that, I let the blog die. It was a dream of mine for so long an I killed it because I became obsessed with keywords and Google and finding a magic formula.

    In the end, if your not writing for yourself, the readers will get a sense that it’s just not genuine. That seems to be the quickest way to lose a following.

    • Tiare
      September 18, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      Thanks for being so candid, Eli. Too many people try to gloss over their blogging experience and not accurately define the reasons for their results. I hope you find success with your new blog.

    • Tom Ewer
      September 19, 2013 at 10:18 pm

      Sorry to read of your experience Eli, but if nothing else, it taught you a very important lesson.

  15. Jo
    September 18, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Definitely a refreshing read! I am a newbie, currently learning about SEO and I feel I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it… I want to write good articles and have people share them because they are good, and they want to read more like them… SEO seems so forced sometimes, so I am happy to have someone who is successful tell you it is okay, and sometimes better, to just not worry about SEO and write what matters.

    • Tom Ewer
      September 19, 2013 at 10:19 pm

      Hi Jo,

      My advice to any beginner blogger looking to create something of true value would be to not even worry about SEO. Focus the more important things, like building a compelling brand and great content.



  16. Tiare
    September 18, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Yes! Thanks for helping spread the message of writing for humans instead of machines.

    Moderation is more important than optimization. Trying to “squeeze out all you can get” makes for a robotic, mundane, off-putting, and forgettable experience for both the writer and reader. So, yes, install a SEO plugin and try to make your site readable. But the most important thing to optimize is the experience; not the expectation.

  17. Nick Loper
    September 19, 2013 at 6:13 am

    Hey Tom, interesting take on the whole optimizing thing — but brings up an important point, and that is we can trick ourselves into thinking optimization is “doing the work.”

    I would argue it’s part of it, but it’s incremental, not exponential. I think the biggest takeaway here is to focus on what you KNOW works and delivers results, instead of spending your time fretting over whether the green button or the blue button as the best CTR.

    Just downloaded your interview w/ David Hutcherson — looking forward to digging into it!



  18. Jackson Davies at Blogprefect
    September 19, 2013 at 7:34 am

    Hi Tom,

    I agree with you on this! Over-optimization totally distracts from writing quality. I have found that it is actually more important writing consistently with articles that people want to read. Of course I still try to instill a form of Kaizen into my work (there is always room for improvement) but moving forwards and engaging is often more important.

    I recently used a different search engine called Duck Duck Go which seems to skip out of Google’s “Filter bubble” as they put it. SEO just becomes a more laborious way to try and please Google and less about reaching people when you should be rewarded on the merit of your content. That’s a rant for another day.

    • Tom Ewer
      September 19, 2013 at 10:20 pm

      I’m all about creating a blog that does not rely unduly upon external sources. Obviously that is unavoidable to an extent, but worrying less about any one source of traffic means that I have built a diverse number of traffic sources.

  19. Lucian
    September 19, 2013 at 7:34 am

    I totally agree that optimization is not the only thing to pay attention to. I am starting to take a similar approach to link building and I am trying to see how it would be if I tried to do everything naturally and not spend a second building links. It’s a huge risk and right now the results are not that good, but it’s worth trying.

  20. Terrence
    September 21, 2013 at 4:20 am

    Hi Tom,
    Interesting article. I think Steve was actually optimizing all along … by writing helpful and interesting articles that people want to read. The people at Google are smart enough to know where our site should rank in search engine base on the quality of our content.

    As writers our first concern should always be writing for people. SEO later.

    • Tom Ewer
      September 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Hi Terrence,

      While I certainly agree with your sentiments, Google certainly aren’t smart enough to rank sites based upon the quality of content. It’s still mainly about links and optimization.



  21. Iain
    September 21, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    I really like what you said about what you create should help or give value to your reader in some way.

    If what you’re writing is strictly for the search engines, the value most likely isn’t going to be a great for them.

    It’s all about resonating with your readers.

    How are you going to implement this philosophy with your freelancing?

    I ask this because most people will want articles to be SEO optimized.

  22. Joyce
    September 22, 2013 at 7:23 am

    As a newbie I found this very useful. It has helped me understand that the most imp[ortant thing in this blogging business is to deliver something that people will value and find useful. This has given me much food for thought. I’m so grateful that I came across your website and subscribed to it yesterday. I definitely look forward to reading other posts that you have here and that are coming in the future. It’s a great relief to read soemthing so easy to understand. Thanks.

  23. Kaya Ismail
    September 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

    “The further I travel in my journey the more I appreciate how little wealth (beyond what we need to put food in our mouths and a roof over our heads) matters when compared to happiness. I work to be happy and wealthy, but only if the act of obtaining wealth does not affect my happiness.”

    Nail. On. The. Head.

  24. Mallie Rydzik
    September 23, 2013 at 5:15 am

    I have an SEO optimization plugin on my WordPress-based site, which I use as a general guideline, but it usually tells me I’m using words that are too big for optimization.

    I refuse to talk down to my audience for SEO purposes. Sheesh, I think they can handle a few longer paragraphs and an SAT word from time to time.

  25. Jon Patrick
    September 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Great post Tom.
    I had a conversation last week with a lady about to start her blog, and she is ALL stressed about changes to the Google algorythms and how they may affect her in the process. Someone she’s been talking to has got her all worked up.
    When I explained to make a simple, attractive blog, post when you have something valuable to say, and don’t worry too much if one “expert” tells you that you need a 2% keyword ratio but another tells you 2.3%
    Write to your reader, use their language, make it long and be natural. Optimization can be fantastic, and I don’t get 30,000 visitors on anything, but my blogs did better when I just started to write… and nothing google will ever change will minimize a blog that offers lots of real, valuable content.

  26. Jeff
    September 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    The right approach is to find an audience that you can bring something of value to. For you it is freelance writing and writing about WordPress (seems I can’t do a search for something WordPress related without your face showing up). For me, after years of trying, it is WordPress plugins.

    Optimization is not bad, as you stated; but can be detrimental to the growth of a venture when it becomes more important than providing value.


  27. elk
    September 25, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Great post Tom. It’s about keeping it real. On ya

  28. Lisa
    October 5, 2013 at 5:39 pm


    Excellent blog! What I love most is the permission you give people to focus on what is most important; the value of the content. Just starting to get into this type of work, and learning how to create websites and write blogs is overwhelming enough. Since so much content exists out there about what you “should” be doing, it is easy to “should” all over yourself. Your blog clears the clutter, and gives people permission to do the important work first. Once people get really good at that, they can hire someone else to worry about the backend SEO stuff! Love it!


  29. Nicolas
    October 17, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Nice to read that you are here to help us out Tom! I had no doubt!

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