Getting Started in SEO

Skills to Pay the Bills

This article – the second in a multi-part series – is tailored towards people entering the workforce and considering a career in digital marketing, or for people looking to switch career paths.


In the last article we talked about why someone might want to make a career in SEO and some of the key traits you need to be successful. This time, we’re focusing on the skills and knowledge you’ll have to develop in order to get a job and grow your career.

No Experience? Not Necessarily a Problem

There are a lot of different elements to SEO and a number of different skillsets that come in handy. People with writing and editing backgrounds often are interested in and excel at content strategy. Coders may take more to the technical side of things. Social media and PR experience can come in handy in content promotion. The list goes on. Even if you’re just starting out, you may have experiences that are relevant. Below are a few things you should learn and experiment with before your first interview.

Build Your Own Site

I can’t stress this enough. I’m a little worried when I interview SEOs that don’t have their own sites or side projects. Especially when you’re starting out, it’s hard to prove your interest in the field if you don’t have a website. Whether it’s your own blog or a friend’s site, you should have a place to try out the things you’re learning. From keyword research, to front-end development, to analytics implementation and measurement, it’s hard to learn web marketing without a website. If your dev skills are basic, start a WordPress blog. If you have your own site but want to build experience, you surely have family or friends who’d appreciate free marketing help.

Learn How To Do Keyword Research

No matter how many contextual factors Google includes in their algorithm – and as advanced as persona development gets – SEO still comes down to keyword research. Start doing it now for your own site. Play around, find the most expensive keywords you can find. Look to see who ranks for them and see if you can figure out why. Start with the Moz guide, this article on Bruce Clay’s site, and this one from KissMetrics.


Study Marketing Basics

Digital marketing is still marketing, and you can’t help businesses grow if you don’t understand how they work. You don’t need a lot of marketing knowledge to start out, but you need to understand the basics. Knowing the principles and the language will also help you communicate with clients and other agencies and give you some context. People have been selling things for a very long time, and though the tools have changed, the fundamentals principles behind the process haven’t. There are a lot of marketing books out there, but I recommend getting the basics down by picking up a marketing 101 textbook.

Get Comfortable With Web Technology

To be a good SEO you need a solid understanding of how websites and search engines work. A basic comprehension of how search engines crawl and index is mandatory (and, surprisingly often, lacked by candidates). It’s not enough to know a bit of HTML and CSS anymore. You need to at least understand how JavaScript is used in webpages, and a low-level understanding of server-side technology (things like rewrites) is useful as well. There are a lot of free books and online courses available. Look at source code, look at generated source code, and understand the difference. With all things SEO, you should always be trying to take break things apart – from website design to ranking strategies — to see if you can figure out how they work. Check out CodeAcademy (free), Code School (some lessons are free), and about a million other online learning guides. If you’re a student, take advantage of educational discounts.

Be Excellent With Excel

SEO is a data-driven discipline (or at least it should be). We look at Excel competency as a leading indicator of how comfortable someone is with data analysis. And the better you are, the more time you’ll save and the better the insights you’ll be able to uncover. Hang out on and Excel forums and get you mind blown about how much is possible. If you’re not an Excel nerd, SEO is going to get painful. Data is a hot topic right now. While more advanced analytics aren’t widely adopted yet in the industry, a working knowledge of SQL, R, Python, or Tableau can definitely come in handy, and in the future may be a requirement. Avinash Kaushik’s books and blog on web analytics are a great place to learn about measurement strategies for websites.

Read A Lot and Try Things Out

There are countless SEO blogs, and some of them are very good. Most of them focus on the news of the day and while this can be useful, you’re better off spending more time with books and longer guides. Focus on the skills and information before diving too deeply into the trends. While SEO techniques have changed over time, the basics really haven’t. I’d hire someone good at Excel or front end development over someone who can list off the last three Google algorithm updates but can’t explain how they’d change (or wouldn’t) their SEO strategies. Learn by applying. Build your own projects, find ways to try things out, think about how the examples you see could apply to your own sites.

Have Fun

Doing SEO will always require a lot of learning — technology changes, algorithms change, trends change. Different people like different kinds of learning, but if you don’t find methods that you enjoy, or if you don’t love any of these topics, SEO might not be the job for you.
Most of the topics above are technical, but “softer” skills like being able to write, speak, and design decks well are also extremely important, and at times in your career, may be more important than “harder” skills. Work on becoming a better writer in different formats (emails to proposals), a better verbal communicator, and a better listener. A huge part of the sales process, and human interactions in general, depends on the ability to listen well. Learn more about consulting (I highly recommend Gerald Weinberg’s The Secrets of Consulting. Learn more about your clients’ industries. Try to identify trends that have lasting power.
Figuring out how to focus your explorations can be tough (one of the reasons I recommend books and projects over blog reading), but the more efficiently you can learn, and the more you enjoy the process, the more successful and enjoyable you’ll find SEO. Tune in next time to learn how to nail an SEO job interview.