This is a guest post by Francisco Acuña founder of Search Studio.
A couple of years ago, Rick DeJarnette wrote a wonderful article titled “How to Become an SEO (How I did it, and how you can, too)”. In that article, Rick talks about all the areas within the SEO world, the differences between an in-house SEO and a SEO agency, how he began, tips to begin, and he even talks about some tips Rand Fishkin shared with him.
If you haven’t read that article yet, I encourage you to do it. It contains a lot of useful information to initiate yourself in this awesome career.
But, what if you already have a couple of months (or years) in the industry and you want to have a competitive advantage over your peers and colleagues? How to accomplish that?
To get an answer, I reached out to known SEO professionals in the industry and sent them the following question:
What 2 or 3 quick tips would you give to someone looking to become an outstanding SEO?
Luckily for you –and me, they answered with very interesting ideas.
Here are a few tips you will learn from this post:
I hope this article will be useful for you. And I also hope it helps you to give a step forward in your path to become a better SEO.
Work on multiple types of sites to have different lenses / views / perspectives on search. Test a variety of strategies on different sites. Even if you only have access to publishing on a small site of your own, you could also test pointing links at certain sections of different authority sites and/or publishing user generated content on authority sites and tracking how they respond. If you work in-house, it is absolutely worth having a few smaller personal sites for testing purposes.
Presume most of what you read publicly about SEO is usually some mix of: a sales letter to a target audience (typically for brands / enterprise sites), pandering to a search engine (platitudes about putting the user first, focusing on the user, search engine X is so magically great, etc.), polarizing advice for self-promotion (SEO is spam, do XYZ instead), or out of context tidbits (how small change X forever alters the SEO landscape HUGE!!!!) rather than something useful for driving strategy. Be willing to test everything, but consider what is written, what is left unsaid, the motive for the content & the target audience of the content.
I think it’s important to grab ahold of every reputable resource you can. I also think it’s critical to join the conversation on social media. It can take a long time to build up a following and circle of colleagues you can trust and who trust you. But it’s essential to making the contacts you need when you’re in over your head and need advice from an experienced SEO.
Think like a marketer. We know some Google ranking factors, but most are unknowns – routinely coming in and out of favor as Google tweaks their algorithms. But, Google does seem to favor brands that actually create buzz, brand awareness, and do great marketing through PR, content strategy, etc. Don’t just think about technical, or keywords, or links – think about all that and brand building. You’ll get Google’s attention faster.
I think it’s a big topic to cover quickly in 1 or 2 points. Once upon a time there was a subscribed method for everyone getting involved, but with various areas of SEO you could specialize in, now it’s not as linear anymore.
I’d suggest deciding on what you’d like to specialize in and learn everything about that one area you can (such as link building, traffic drop audits, penalty cleanups, etc.). Then you can learn more about other topics as time permits, otherwise you risk knowing a little about a lot which doesn’t have much real world application other than in-house advisor requiring external consultants for any significant insights.
Obviously loads of great people to follow and a wealth of history to delve into which is readily available. For ongoing support from some great minds seobook.com community is amazingly helpful and there’s a ton of resources in there too.
In addition, you should also follow people who publish frequently great content online so you can learn from their experiences. People I would recommend include: Rand Fishkin, Adam Audette, Bill Slawski. There are others, but this makes a strong core.
For that reason, there is no substitute for patience, and learning through experience. That’s the reason for my recommendation in step 1 – so you can learn from the experience of others.
My advice is to fold –test everything. Don’t blindly believe what Google and experts proclaim. Validate their statements by testing on your own site. You never really know what works and what doesn’t until you try it out. Second, there are often a few different ways to implement something. The best solution isn’t the strategy that looks the best on paper, but the one that will actually get implemented.
First and foremost, you should always push the boundaries of your knowledge and experience. The best SEOs are the first to green pasture- and the only way to discover it is to constantly be testing. Set up sites purely for testing purposes so that you can be more confident in your work and recommendations to clients. The more tests you can run the better, because the more knowledge you’ll earn. Make sure to test different things, technical or content wise, and in different industries with different levels of competition. Soon you’ll find a nugget of knowledge which no one else has discovered, and you can use it to your advantage.
I’m very confident that most people in this roundup will say that in order to have to become a good SEO, you need to learn from practice, not only theory. The basics of SEO can be learned within several weeks, but the last 20% come from years of experience. Those 20% are what decides a good SEO from an outstanding SEO. At the same time I think the quality of SEO comes with specificity, meaning we have to answer the question “in what discipline of SEO is he outstanding?” Is he a fantastic SEO project manager, developer, content marketer or allrounder?
Therefore, here are my answers:
Becoming an outstanding SEO comes from having a strong understanding of two areas: the technical side and building an effective user experience. You don’t need to be an expert or even able to personally do them both, but you do need to understand what they are and how they work together.
On the technical side, there are many, many things that can impede a search engine from properly crawling and indexing content (which will make it very difficult for your clients to earn traffic). And unfortunately, there is a lot of temptation to indulge in shortcuts and poor practices that can result in penalties. Certainly an outstanding SEO is aware of what all of these things are and ultimately knows how to remedy them (or work directly with people who can) or avoid them all together. Which is where UX comes in.
As for building an effective user experience, the best SEOs understand that this comes from helping your clients build a business and brand that their customers will support. It’s imperative to create a cohesive and genuine experience for customers at every possible point of interaction – your landing pages, website, blog, social media, email, on the phone, at events, on the street – so that you’re presenting customers with something that builds trust over the course of your entire relationship with them (and makes them want to tell their friends). This means not only understanding how to generate and optimize valuable content, but also how to strategically integrate that content across channels to help your clients reach their goals.
An outstanding SEO also understands the importance of this process:
Lastly, an outstanding SEO must be very knowledgable about trends and tactics so that they can withstand the constant evolution of our industry. Read insatiably, make good friends, and have smart mentors who continually push you to be better.
Not too long ago just about anyone could learn quickly how to make a website rank better on Google. However, most of the techniques that were easy to learn were also techniques that went against the quality guidelines. I have seen many small business owners who learned that low quality article syndication sites and directories could work well, so they did lots of those and now they have Penguin troubles.
In today’s age of SEO, there is a lot more to learn. I would urge someone who is just starting out to learn all that they can about on-page technical SEO. Cyrus Shepard from Moz has some great posts (such as https://moz.com/blog/7-advanced-seo-concepts and https://moz.com/blog/keywords-to-concepts) that help site owners determine how to structure their on page content.
I would be careful not to offer SEO services until you have successfully ranked a few sites for medium competitiveness on Google. That might mean creating your own site and learning how to rank it well. Or, it could mean helping out a friend or family member. But, be careful not to do harm to the site! Be sure that they know that you are learning.
And finally, always be learning. I spend 1-2 hours a day reading SEO articles and commenting and asking questions. The field of SEO is constantly changing. It can be a challenge to learn, but if you can get to the point where you understand how to make Google like your website and treat it well, there is huge opportunity for success!
In the current search landscape, I believe it’s key to have a good eye for content that succeeds online, coupled with the outreach skills and ‘hustle’ to help promote it. During the outreach phase persistence is key, don’t be disheartened when people turn you away, and instead try to keep the conversation going and at the very least lay down the foundations of a relationship. You may even be able to change their mind!
It’s also important to be technically minded, and one of the best ways of building up your onsite SEO knowledge in the beginning is to experiment with your own sites. Try things, break things. Fix things.
If you want to be an outstanding SEO, you need to be creative. Everyone can learn on page optimization or manual link building, but the SEOs that do the best are the ones that are creative. They look for unique things that can give them an edge on their competitors.
I’m finding this question harder to answer than it should be and I think it’s because SEO is very nebulous. That being said, I think the only decent advice I can give is figure out what you want to do after SEO. If you want to ultimately focus on a broad range of marketing, make sure you learn some of the more ad revenue and technical sides of SEO. If you want to eventually focus on product marketing, work closely with content and UX teams.
I’ve always had a hard time seeing SEO as its own industry, as it has such close ties with several industries. SEO has limited impact without a good product, without good development, without good UX, without good funnel optimization… However, those things aren’t necessarily limited without SEO. By finding what you want to eventually grow into or focus on, you can use SEO as a stepping stone, as there’s typically a need for someone to “step up” and manage it at a company.
If I were to give someone some advice on how to become an outstanding SEO, I’d first suggest practicing by establishing your own site in an area you’re passionate about. Even if you have a full time job somewhere, you can’t fully understand the ins and outs unless you are working in multiple verticals, and also, controlling everything.
Second would be to join a company with a good product in a competitive vertical, and start cutting your teeth that way as well. You’ll eventually learn it if you can join and up and comer trying to disrupt, and you’ll have a ton of fun in the process.
Third would be to stay up on the industry, keep an RSS feed and follow the best of the best on Twitter. I find this makes it more fun and also, can reveal new approaches you might not have thought of otherwise.
Take it from Elon Musk:
“I think the first is you need to work, depending upon how well you want to do and particularly if you’re starting a company, you need to work super hard. So what does super hard mean? Well when my brother and I were starting our first company instead of getting an apartment we just rented a small office and we slept on the couch. We showered at the YMCA, and we were so hard up we had just one computer so the website was up during the day and I was coding at night; Seven days a week, all the time.”
The first tip to becoming an outstanding SEO specialist is: Work hard at it. Read a lot. Test. Get to conclusions and write about it so you don’t forget. That’s how I did it over at SEO Hacker. I put in more hours than any other teammate I had – and managed operations and accounts management of the company at the same time. And starting an SEO company isn’t easy.
The second tip comes from Malcolm Gladwell:
“When we become expert in something, our tastes grow more esoteric and complex.”
Keep it simple. SEO has over 200 publicly known factors with 50 variations each. That’s 10,000 potential things to keep track of. And you can easily lose the simplicity of the goal of search: To enable people to find what they are looking for – immediately. If your entire focus is on that one simple thing, the 10,000 potential variables suddenly become one big idea at your command.
People who do SEO and write about SEO sometimes get so caught up in the complexity of it all that they remain dull. They never stand out.
If you want to become an outstanding SEO, what I would recommend is to become an outstanding spy first.
The first step I would take is to spend some money in SEO tools, for example AHREFS, Majestic or Moz. Then I would devote myself to researching all the link patterns of the first 3 results of at least 15-20 different niches. Knowing how these sites have been positioned and seeing the different blogs or platforms that linked them, it’s very easy to make a list of good sites (free in many cases) from where you can get backlinks to your projects.
This works especially well in niches where affiliate sites or Adsense pages are positioned in the first places. More than anything, because these sites are usually positioned through links of free sites (many times powerful sites) and hidden link opportunities. The big online stores usually receive links in an automated form and from unattainable links for many. But the smaller ones have to fight and search. And that’s where you can analyze the work of the good SEOs, analyzing the sites they have found to position themselves.
My three tips would be simple ones that are as relevant to SEO as they are to any other career path: be passionate about what you do and focus on reaching a goal, whether that’s to be a leading expert in a particular area of search or a career aspiration. Also be incredibly inquisitive. If you combine that passion with the latter you will quickly absorb knowledge and build a habit around learning; something that is critical if you are to keep up in this amazing, fast-paced world.
My first suggestion would be to create a blog about online marketing/search. Writing about a topic is the best way to learn, because it forces you to be up to date continuously. Besides, explaining a concept requires understanding it to perfection, so you force yourself to pay attention to detail that otherwise would go unnoticed. And if you make a mistake, there will always be someone smart correcting you in the comments.
The best part? Since SEO is 75% content, UX, optimization, etc. A blog allows you to implement all those abilities and experiment.
My second suggestion would be to contact people in your same condition. There are always people starting in the SEO world, and taking part in groups where you can discuss and learn from others -offline, but above all online- is an important plus. The advantage? In the long run SEO depends greatly on your contacts and your network, and this will allow you to grow and have a list of freelancers, people with different expertise, possible employees or employers that will accompany you through your professional path.
Looking back at my own experience with SEO and the way I coached a few guys, I can give you this bulletproof formula to becoming an “outstanding SEO”:
1. You have to love it
Yeah, you can get some success even if you simply push yourself though all the challenges while hating every single minute of it.
But once you fell in love with SEO/Marketing – things will become so much easier.
If you don’t love it – maybe you should devote yourself to something else.
2. You have to read a lot
Books, blogs, message boards, conferences, top people in the field – you have to keep up with all that stuff.
The technology is changing too quickly (so do the marketing tactics) and you can’t be an “outstanding SEO” unless you’re aware of all these changes.
3. You have to learn to write
Those who read a lot (see point #2) are probably aware that much of today’s SEO is focused on producing high quality content.
So how can you be good at SEO if you can’t write?
Even if you’re some kind of “SEO Team Lead” and you don’t have to write yourself, because you’re in charge of a bunch of writers, how do you know they’re doing a great job with content if you know nothing about it?
Shameless plug: “The Guide To Strategic Writing: How to Get Traffic, Subscribers & Sales With Your Articles”
4. You have to study the tools
Backlinks still have a huge effect on rankings. And you can’t tap into the backlink data of a website without a solid backlink tool (hint-hint:Ahrefs)
Same with keywords. How do you pick the keywords to target? How do you track your rankings for a certain keyword? You need tools for that! (hint-hint: Ahrefs)
SEO tools will make your job so much easier and so much efficient, but that’s why you’ll often have to pay quite a lot of money to own a solid tool.
5. Prefer an elevator to the stairs? Find a mentor!
All the above might take you years of trial and error. You never know if you’re reading the right blog or playing with the right tool.
If you want to fast forward your way to the top – find an experienced mentor.
Just work for free!
I’m sure if you approach 10 prominent people in the field of SEO and offer them to become their VA for free – at least 3 of them will say “YES”.
Yeah, doing work for free is not cool, because everyone has to pay their bills. But what you get in return is a direct access to an authority and the ability to ask him any questions and have him coach you. How valuable is that?
I’ve seen many cool guys seem to pop out of nowhere and gain traction super quickly. And after some digging I was often able to discover a great mentor behind them.
If you’re a total SEO Noob, I highly recommend you to check my YouTube video series for beginners called “Oversimplified SEO“.
I would say that you should become a great “social selective” person. If you want to be one of the best you don’t have the time to go to each and every marketing conference organized every month. On the contrary, in your path you’ll find some people who are very good in this SEO thing and web traffic growth. Stick with them until you learn all you can and then keep looking for similar people.
Like any other professional practices, in order for you to become successful in your field, you need to apply the following tips:
It depends on what you understand by “Outstanding SEO”. Do you want to be famous? Then write articles that resolve questions of your future fans every day. Do you want to be good at your job? Then work and don’t create an “experiment site” or a “blog to destroy”, but two or three projects, and manage them differently, that’s how you’ll learn.
The thing that is not told is that you’ll have to execute actions one by one and wait a couple of weeks to see results. If I make changes On-Page and create 10 links in the same day, then there’s no way to know which action has been more important. If I create 20 different types of links and then Google penalizes me, how do I know which links to remove? You can’t always go giving little steps, but you must find a way to measure the impact of your actions.
And I say three (the final number depends of the work you want to do and how you’re studying the actions) big projects because too many small projects will give you the same amount of work and less profitability, while having just one very big project is risking too much in my opinion (also three big projects could become in three giant projects tomorrow). If you have several projects you can allow yourself to wait and see the result of every technique without having to wait doing nothing.
Another good idea is to search for a journey companion, if possible one better than you in some aspect; you’ll get to do more things and learn a lot.
I’d advise anyone who wants to truly take their SEO to the next level to get involved in testing. You obviously don’t want to do anything wild on a client’s site, but you need to find a way to test. That way you can learn how to come to your own conclusions and wade through the countless theories that we keep seeing written about.
I’d also suggest learning to code, even if it’s learning basic HTML. In my opinion, any technical knowledge about how a site is built can do nothing but help your knowledge of SEO.
Anyone can be a so-called “SEO Expert”, but if you really want to find success and drive real results, you need to know where to focus your efforts and how to build content. These are two of my recommended methods for becoming a better SEO professional.
1) Niching Down as Much as Possible
SEO and search rankings is all about ranking at the top of the search results. In most cases, the best option is to go after long tail keywords. Most expert SEOs know that not only are long tail keywords easier to rank for, they are also more valuable as you know exactly what the audience is looking for. For example, someone searching for “best widgets under $5” is already in buying mode — you just need to provide them with what it is they are looking for. In short, know your audience and niche down as much as possible.
2) Building Relationships through Guest Blogging
Why do some web sites and blogs get massive backlinks on high authority sites, while most sites don’t? This comes down to the grunt work and relationship building that site owners and entrepreneurs must have in place before getting featured on such high profile sites. Don’t expect to send out email to a bunch of sites and magically get backlinks without offering anything of value. SEO experts and site owners who build their own links all know that relationships must be built before high quality backlinks and content outreach take place. To learn more about outreach and guest blogging, check out these two articles here and here.
Now it’s time to take a look at your niche and audience to see how you can take your SEO to the next level through the use of infographics and guest blogging.
I want to give special thanks to all the experts that answered the question for this roundup.
If you think this post could be useful for someone else, please share it. Also, I would love to read your ideas, opinions and tips you would give to someone looking to become an outstanding SEO.
About the author
Francisco Acuña is the founder of Search Studio, a web design and search marketing consultancy based in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico.
Zeph Snapp is the CEO and founder of Altura Interactive, a digital marketing agency focused on helping international companies reach Spanish speakers in the US and Latin America. His data driven, customer-centric approach has been trusted by brands like Expedia and Shopify. His work has been featured in top industry blogs like Moz, RavenTools and Outspoken Media.