29 Feb 2012

How To Become an SEO (how I did it, and how you can, too!)

I see the following question asked all the time: How do I become an SEO? What a great question! And what a hard one to answer.

As I spend ever more time in this career field and meet more and more of my peers, industry colleagues, and of course, the noteworthy thought-leaders in this field, I’ve come to realize how many varied paths there are to becoming a working SEO. And let’s be clear: the career of being an SEO is not just one skill set or task. There are many career opportunities in the field of search engine marketing, with SEO being just a subset of that, and then there are many areas of specialization within SEO itself. There are many people who make full careers by specializing in any of the following:

  • Pay-Per-Click advertising (covers creating compelling search advertising in Google and Bing [which also includes Yahoo!], display network advertising, affiliate advertising, and much more)
  • Social Media Marketing (covers creating fresh, compelling content and drawing followers [and the ultimate goal, sales] via many online venues, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, FourSquare, Pinterest, and many more)
  • Search Engine Optimization
    • Local search (covers getting business profiles created in the major search engines, mapping sites, major search directories for business, niche industry directory sites, local media sites, and more)
    • On-page (covers an examination of all the on-page elements that affect how efficiently and effectively the search engine crawler consumes and interprets the content of a website)
    • Analytics (covers analyzing tracking and referrer data of website visitors and creating reports to identify the user population demographics and their behavior on a site)
    • Mobile (covers all things related to search on mobile devices, including the use of dedicated mobile sites and mobile interfaces like Apple’s Siri)
    • Content development (covers writers of webpage content, social media messaging, and even blog posts!)
    • Link building (covers the process of getting links from external websites to point to a target site)
    • Keyword development (identifies the keywords and phrases to be used by websites to earn relevance to a targeted topic in search)
    • Reputation management (covers the task of maintaining the overall goodwill shown toward an individual or a company or mitigating the damage incurred by the same due to a public relations disaster)

Many of these are interrelated disciplines. For example, PPC advertising is now growing to cover paid ads in Facebook, the ultimate social media venue. PPC requires effective keyword development, as do many SEO disciplines. Social media marketing often ties in with local and mobile search. Analytics can now be done with Facebook pages as well as with websites and PPC campaigns.

The gist of this means that, as an SEO candidate, you won’t likely ever be well-versed in all aspects of the business (especially since it changes and grows so quickly!). A successful career strategy is to become an expert in one thing and conversant in many more. That will help make you more marketable in this career field.


How I began

I was previously a technical writer working in and around Microsoft (that means I worked as both a full-time and contract employee) for 14 years. My last assignment there started as a contract tech writer hired by the then Microsoft Live Search team to update the online Help for the old version of Webmaster Center tools. I quickly finished that task, and was then given the opportunity to work on building up a library of technical content for what became the Bing Webmaster Center blog. I already had a layman’s knowledge of search engine optimization (due to a long, personal interest in web technologies), but I quickly got down to brass tacks by learning details of SEO from folks in the Bing core search team. I also completed the SEMPO Institute’s “Insider’s Guide to Search Marketing.” In addition, to keep up with industry sentiment and perspectives, I became an avid reader of many industry blogs, which contributed to my knowledge, not only on technical questions about SEO, but how SEO is perceived by the outside (non-search engine company-based) world. Lastly, I attended a few conferences, which gave me even more industry sentiment understanding for my work.

My main gig was writing, but I have a personal passion for technology and for helping people succeed. SEO fit the bill for me nicely. I realize I was a lucky beneficiary of serendipity by landing a position with Microsoft’s search engine team. It was a “right place, right time” kind of thing. But not completely. If I had not been a successful writer, taken on new work I was not specifically hired to do, and not had the passion and interest to quickly learn about the field, I would not have lasted.


How do you get started?

You don’t have to be a writer to get started in SEO. Jim Boykin, the founder and CEO of Internet Marketing Ninjas, has a great life story. He describes himself as an “old hippie.” Way back when, he traveled and lived in various parts of the country for years, working in restaurants and elsewhere, doing the hard work people do in their youth when they are discovering who they are. But he was watching and thinking as he worked. In the late 1990s, he decided that the emerging Internet-thing might have legs (good call!) and moved back home to Upstate New York to become an entrepreneur. He knew what all small businesses needed – promotion and customers! He thought he could help those in his home town by starting his own business to create business websites for others. But shortly after founding We Build Pages (the predecessor to Internet Marketing Ninjas), he realized the web was already getting crowded, and online users were turning to search engines as a way to find websites and content. That’s when he shifted the focus of his business to SEO and link building, and as a result, he was a huge success.

Ask a hundred SEOs about how they got their start and you’ll likely get 99 stories (yeah, there’s always that one unexplainable one). They likely started with an existing job skills, such as:

  • Web development
  • Web design
  • Graphic design
  • Writing
  • Business marketing
  • Online advertising
  • Print advertising
  • Online consulting

Next, they added their own brand of passion, and usually a little bit of luck, and voila, an SEO is born! (Note that “luck” is usually the sum of preparation plus opportunity.)

The people you meet in this industry are extraordinary. They are very willing, often surprisingly so, to help out their peers and up-and-comers – note how much of their “proprietary” knowledge is shared with one another in the blogs and through social media, all for free! In my experience, when my contract position with Bing Webmaster Center expired, I was unsure if could continue in the field, given my relatively short experience. In that Bing role, I happened to have met Rand Fishkin several times, one of the kindest and friendliest people I know (oh, and coincidently also the CEO and co-founder of the highly respected SEOmoz, and without question, one of the SEO industry’s top thought leaders). He gave me an invaluable piece of advice, which I will share here with you.

He told me my academic knowledge of SEO was pretty good, but I lacked real-world experience. (You never know how important that is until you get it.) He advised me that I needed to do two things:

  1. I should create a new website and optimize it well (not over-optimize it; just appropriately optimize it for search). This effort could then serve as my professional calling card. In fact, he said, as I was an SEO blogger for Bing, he suggested I create my own SEO blog site. (That suggestion became The SEO Ace.)
  2. He then said I needed to volunteer my time as an SEO with a local non-profit who could really benefit from the help (I now advise a local, 501c3, live theater company in Woodinville, WA).

He said doing both would teach me invaluable lessons on doing hands-on SEO and also help give back to the online community. He was right on all counts, and I am forever indebted to him for his sage advice.


What kind of SEO do you want to be?

There are really two main types of roles you can play in the SEO world: in-house or agency (including self-employed). There are countless nuances to each opportunity, but from a broad brush perspective, the differences are as follows:

In-house

Agency

  • Total, in-depth focus on one client – the house business
  • Better knowledge and experience of house business, competitors, and industry overall, but potentially modest SEO knowledge
  • High potential for broad, jack-of-all-trades experience (social, PPC, SEO), especially in a small shop
  • Diversity of clients and SEO opportunities that brings
  • Likely deeper SEO knowledge and experience in aggregate in agency, but typically very little specialized business niche knowledge
  • Likely focused on developing narrow but deep skill set

Your opportunity to learn is great from both sides, but in-house opportunities, especially for new hires, are likely to be harder to get, as companies will expect some previous industry experience (that said, transferring to an SEO role from within your existing company might be a great way to start in your career, assuming you’re “lucky” (as defined earlier). It’s often that “right place, right time” thing again. Agencies, on the other hand, can be great places to start and learn about the business from agency veterans.


How do you learn SEO?

I love this question. There are ample opportunities to learn about SEO for free because of the preponderance of information available and the willingness of SEOs to share their knowledge publicly. I strongly recommend that an SEO newbie read and reread both the Google SEO Starter Guide and the SEOmoz Beginner’s Guide to SEO documents.

I then recommend they begin reading the important blogs in this field. There’s a great list of SEO blogs on the SEO Resource List of The SEO Ace (if I may say so myself). It’s far from complete (my apologies to my industry peers who are not listed!), but you can’t go wrong starting with these folks. I also recommend you get a Twitter account and start following the authors of these blogs to read the invaluable advice they dispense on a daily basis (but be aware that some SEOs have, well, we’ll call it “colorful” and “spirited” personalities. Strong opinions are the norm, not the exception).

If you can afford it, you should also invest in attending an SEO conference or two. I have found that SEO conferences are a great way to learn tons of new information (it comes fast and furious, akin to drinking from a fire hose!). You’ll also get to see (and if you have the gumption, meet) the experts in this field. And, in addition to that, conferences are great venues for career networking (I can personally attest to that).


White hat vs. black hat advice

I do offer one caution about learning SEO from the Internet. There is an abundance of information out there, some good, and much bad. You must quickly become aware that not everyone who proclaims themselves to be an expert is really an expert. (Tip: If they claim they know “the trick” to getting #1 rankings in Google, overnight, guaranteed no less, they are NOT the experts you want to follow.)

Moreover, to protect yourself from those who make such false claims, be aware of the concept of “white hat” versus “black hat” SEO advice. As a former technical writer in the IT security field, I was already aware of the concept: there are folks who choose to play by the rules and others who choose not to. The “rules” of SEO are the official webmaster guidelines set forth by the search engines, Google and Bing.

You see, some folks (white hats) want to be successful over the long haul, protect the reputations of their brands and websites, and do the hard work to earn long-term success with legitimate page rankings. The black hat folks want to maliciously exploit weaknesses in the search engine ranking algorithms to fraudulently attain higher page rank than what is otherwise deserved. To be honest, sometimes these efforts do work – for a while. However, once the methods and techniques are discovered by the search engines (and they invest enormous resources to discover and combat this), the sites using black hat techniques can be penalized. Search penalties can range from having their placement in the organic search results artificially lowered far down the list to, in some cases, having the website domain permanently purged from search indexes. Beware of taking advice from the black hats, especially if you want a career as an in-house SEO.

To start as an SEO, start doing SEO. Learn about SEO from the reputable information publicly available. Find (or create) a site to which you can contribute, note its current ranking for key queries, and then optimize the site and retest the rankings. What the rankings change and the traffic grow in analytics. Then start sharing your knowledge with others, giving back to the community and to the industry. If you’re serious about your work, and you have the skills and passion needed, you will see success. Good luck!