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!

Comments

  1. Ann Smarty February 29, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    Wow, what a great article, Rick! Great chart outlining the differences as well. And Rand’s advice is priceless. My own way of learning SEO was working for free! I’ve been learning, blogging and doing free SEO for about a year before I was able to formulate my own services and started providing them!

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 4:28 PM

      Thank you, Ann! Everyone I talk to in this field has a different story, and each one is interesting. I hope folks interested in this career field find this post to be helpful in finding their focus. There’s plenty of work to be done, and the future looks bright!

  2. Jim Boykin February 29, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    Nice…I do see so much opportunity for people to become specialist in specific areas….since each year there are so many new aspects of what Internet Marketing as a whole is made up of (where are your buyers?…find out where, and be there too…), that there is always new opportunity to become a specialist in one particular field of internet marketing…

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 4:30 PM

      Everyday there’s more to learn (and usually plenty to relearn as changes come along). It really helps to be a self-learner-type of person! Thanks, Jim!

  3. Kifeda March 1, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    Wow! Impressive! This must be more than enough. Thank you!

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 4:50 PM

      Thank you, Kifeda! I hope it’s enough as well, but you know, there’s never enough information — I learn more everyday in this business. And that’s one of the things I like best. I look up and see the sky — a near infinite world of knowledge yet to be explored. But let’s try. Thanks for reading!

  4. Vanessa March 1, 2012 at 8:53 AM

    Great article! I guess I was one of the “lucky ones” – a new, entry-level hire for in-house SEO work. Because it was so new for the company, I have been reading and reading and reading about all things SEO through top blogs like SEOmoz, Distilled, Internet Marketing Ninjas, etc. (and now I’ll be adding The SEO Ace!) as well as volunteering my new skills elsewhere to get more experience for the past year. While I’ve been mostly concentrated on content development and linkbuilding, I’m happy to see there are so many other opportunities out there. Thanks for the great resource!

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 4:36 PM

      As I said, luck is usually the sum of preparation + opportunity. Give yourself a pat on the back for being so “lucky,” then keep up the good work. This field changes so often that it’s almost impossible to stay current on everything and still have time to apply that knowledge to your actual work! That’s why I suggest specializing in a particular aspect of the field. It narrows your focus, concentrates your skills, and makes you more valuable to clients (not to mention employers!). Congrats on your success, Vanessa!

  5. Ryan March 1, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    Great information. I especially like the fact that you broke down the difference between in house SEO vs SEO firm. Many times people think that an outside agency should know all about their area of expertise. The problem is with such a diversified group of clients, it is hard to know all about an area of business. With that said, with any client that you are working with, you should know all about their business and you will be able to serve them just fine.

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 4:43 PM

      Ryan, thanks! My breakdown of in-house vs. agency was done in broad brushstrokes, and exceptions always exist, but the general point is solid. I’m glad you found the post interesting. Keep coming back to this blog — we have big plans for more in the near future!

  6. George Thomas Jr. March 1, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    Great post, Rick! Great to see your continued success!

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 4:47 PM

      George! My old friend from my Bing Webmaster Center days! How goes it? I am living IM Ninjas CEO Jim Boykin’s (and Google’s) slogan: “I’m feeling lucky!” It’s so good to hear from you. Thanks for the kind words!

    2. Ann Smarty March 2, 2012 at 4:53 PM

      It’s a good way to welcome a fellow Binger with Google’s slogan, Rick. :)))

    3. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 5:04 PM

      Another FORMER Binger! :-)

  7. Kathy March 2, 2012 at 12:58 PM

    Thank you very much for this article! I have a question. I coded my business’s website (this is the third iteration) and tried to optimize it for search through good content, keywords, titles, etc. I also update content regularly and post on Facebook. We are very successful in our search results. Now, I’d like to open a side business offering SEO to other small businesses. (Not sure of my specialty, though I am a writer and I enjoy finding good stories to tell others about.) My question is this: What do you do if you don’t have access to the code, or if the code is messy? Ideally, it seems that you’d want to start at the ground floor, designing a site that is easily optimized. What do you do when that’s not possible? What do you do for that business?

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 2, 2012 at 5:03 PM

      Kathy, this is life for an agency SEO. When you can’t physically implement the changes you want to make on a client site, you still have something to offer — your knowledge. Depending on what a client wants or needs, you can create detailed reports on recommended changes the client can give to their webmaster/IT team. If the client site is simply a tragic mess that would be more trouble than its worth to optimize, you can either explain to the client what your service would entail in terms of time, you can pass on the business, or perhaps subcontract out to an expert in web design who can fix the spaghetti code!. Getting cakewalk clients will not be an everyday occurrence, unfortunately. Managing how you accept and decline clients is a big determining factor in how successful you’ll be as an independent SEO. You’re in good company. Welcome to the club!

  8. Forhad March 4, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    Wow, Awesome post! So much stuff here . . . I’m starting a freelance web development business and this will be invaluable information. These are the kinds of SEO questions I wanted to know so I thank you for putting it all together in one place. This is a great guide and I will start to fully look through all of the links and resources you’ve recommended!

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 6, 2012 at 12:45 PM

      I’m glad you found it to be useful! Best of luck to you in your career move, Forhad!

  9. Donna Duncan March 12, 2012 at 12:04 AM

    Hi Rick,
    Solid advice you’re serving here, based on my own experience. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts. First, I think it’s important to reiterate the need to stay current. You simply cannot fall asleep at the wheel and continue to sustain a career. Second, as a generalist, I think you need to maintain a broad knowledge of the best tools and resources available for the job. SEO’s are excellent about sharing that information too, it’s just you can spend a lot of time wading in the mud before you look up and see that clear sky above you.
    Thanks for this.
    Saved for future reference. Donna

    1. Rick DeJarnette March 12, 2012 at 1:15 PM

      Donna, yours are excellent additions to this post. My post, as lengthy as it was, really only scratched the surface of the topic. I totally agree with you — staying current is one of the hardest parts of the job. You could easily spend 8 hours a day reading blogs, Twitter feeds, and industry news, keeping up-to-date, but getting no work done at all. And knowing about which top-notch tools to use is an indispensable part of our work. Frankly, I am really excited about the new free SEO tools we are releasing here at IM Ninjas. Be sure to bookmark http://www.internetmarketingninjas.com/tools/ in your browser as I have. Thanks much for the contribution, Donna!

  10. Kar Cheung March 19, 2012 at 6:25 AM

    Hi Rick,

    I’m a new SEOer and I find the information you provided extremely valuable. It’s so important to be learning from articles detailing experiences as well as reading articles about the actual industry.

    Thanks!

  11. Admin Ninja April 6, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    Kar, that’s what it’s all about. Thanks for writing!

  12. John Methew May 1, 2012 at 11:53 PM

    Great post, happy see your continued success!

  13. UMAIRSHAIKH August 23, 2012 at 5:57 PM

    KEY TO BE EXPERT IN THE FIELD ARE PROVIDED

  14. ebook secrets exposed review November 14, 2012 at 5:23 AM

    I personally recommend you to not implement or practice SEO only on client sites but also create your own site, build links, rank your keywords higher, attract huge traffic and try to implement all new strategies that strike your mind. As you learn what works for your blog or website you will help others in better way with their SEO.

  15. Jeff December 24, 2012 at 4:43 PM

    Great information. When I got started with SEO I don’t think it had a name. I realized that the yellow pages were no longer worth paying for and had to keep my site being seen. Learning the process was just part of keeping my business alive.

  16. facebook_christydlove February 8, 2013 at 4:12 PM

    Hi Rick, Interesting article! I am a college student studying Digital Retailing. I am starting to learn about SEO, Social Media Marketing, and Advertising. What would you recommend that a college student like I do in order to get the hands on-experience needed so I can be successful in these areas, and could eventually get a postion in these fields? Thanks!

  17. twitter_KasiaJazdzewska March 25, 2013 at 6:55 AM

    I’ve just read the article, one year after it was written and find it of high relevance to anyone who would like to become SEO practitioner. I have only started developing my personal brand online so I could become visible in the industry of SEO and Social Media. Not an easy task for many, including myself but as an old saying says: faint heart never won fair lady. Thank you for the article :-)

  18. facebook_matthewperfectstorm June 12, 2013 at 6:55 PM

    Just stumbled upon this article. Really good stuff Rick thanks! My interest in this field only grows as I read articles like these.

  19. Automobiliu nuoma April 16, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    Very nice post. Every business now has to be on the internet. And if You are on the internet – You need traffic. Your website is nothing without traffic. And if You are not making a lot of money via Your website – there is no other way to get traffic but the SEO. Adwords are just too expensive for low income websites. So thank You for showing us the points of SEO!

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