This includes on-page SEO, technical SEO, and off-page SEO (link building).
Some improve rankings more than others, and some apply to more industries than others.
2. At the top level, tools matter
Most SEOs approach tools all wrong.
Most beginner SEOs look for tools that will do all the work for them. (Hint: that’s never going to happen.)
Tools can make your life easier, but their effectiveness depends on who’s using them.
And as a beginner, you don’t know enough for tools to be useful.
However, as you get more experienced, you will recognize situations where tools can save you time and money. And the better you get, the more your time is worth, and the more important tools become.
Eventually, you may build your own custom tools because none of the public tools are quite good enough.
But let’s slow down for a second. You don’t need to be an expert for tools to be useful as long as you have some experience with SEO and you have a strategy. Then, you can find tools that can help you accomplish that strategy.
Since SEOs need to do many different things, you will eventually compile an arsenal of different tools.
It will likely include tools for:
- comprehensive keyword research and competition analysis
- influencer outreach
- social media
- sales (possibly)
- reporting to client
- email marketing
Keyword research and competition analysis tools
These tools will help you automate finding keywords and evaluating their competition.
Modern SEO involves a lot of relationship building. Reaching out to site owners and contributors is a necessary part of building relationships and eventually getting links.
Outreach tools such as BuzzStream will help you find email contacts more efficiently, saving you several hours per month.
Social media marketing tools
Most marketing plans (which SEOs may be involved in) now include social media marketing.
Tools such as Buffer and Edgar can let you schedule posts in advance and in bulk as well as provide analytics.
SEO reporting tools
I’ve already mentioned the importance of having a process for reporting SEO results.
Email marketing tools
Another area of marketing that has crept into the SEO domain is email marketing.
It is by far the best way to convert your search traffic into eventual customers. You will need some sort of basic tool such as Aweber, MailChimp, or Infusionsoft.
3. Sandboxes are where magic begins
Architects that design giant skyscrapers don’t begin with skyscrapers.
They practice their craft on smaller, simpler buildings first.
And way before that, they build castles in sandboxes as children.
As an SEO, you don’t just start working on a site that gets hundreds of thousands of visitors per month right away. You start with smaller sites and work your way up.
In most cases, these are your own sites—your own “sandboxes” to play in.
Since we lack modeling software that architects have, the only way to see what does and doesn’t work in SEO is to test.
All good SEOs routinely test what is and isn’t working, or they have someone that does it for them (an individual or a private community).
Once you get a good grip on basic SEO (i.e., which factors really matter), you can start testing individual techniques.
And when you find techniques that work, you can keep tweaking and testing them to make them even better. Then, you’ll have something to use that no one else does.
If you’re brand new to testing, here’s a basic overview of what you need to do…
Step #1 – Pick a factor to test: All tests begin with a hypothesis. You should be able to say:
I think, if I do X, it will result in Y.
For example, you may want to determine if Google+ shares have an effect on rankings for new sites.
Your hypothesis is:
I think more Google+ shares will increase my site’s rankings.
Step #2 – Determine a significant sample size: In a controlled test, like split-testing an offer to visitors, you can easily calculate what sample size you will need (how many visitors will need to visit each version).
If your sample isn’t big enough, from a statistical standpoint, you can’t be confident that the conclusions you are drawing are correct.
However, search engine results operate in a very different environment.
In theory, if more shares improve rankings, it should work every single time. There might be some variance in how fast Google picks them up, but for the most part, rankings should increase.
So, while you definitely need a sample size of more than one page or one site, and more is better, most of the time you only need two to four sites to get a reasonable result.
The more important the factor is, the bigger the sample size should be.
Step #3 – Break your sample size into a control group and a test group: The difficult aspect to account for in your testing is the fact that there are many different ranking factors.
You could test a factor on two different sites and get totally different results because the sites have different SEO metrics.
The more sites you add to your test, the less likely this will matter.
That being said, try to run the test on sites that are as similar as possible (same domain authorities, same internal links to test page, etc.).
You’ll need to have a control group (no Google+ shares) and a test group (with Google+ shares).
In this case, you’ll create a new page targeting a keyword (lower competition will make the results clearer later on) on all sites in the experiment.
In phase 1, you’ll just have to wait. See where the rankings initially pop up and settle after a few weeks.
Once they have, you’d get your Google+ shares to your test group pages (however you planned to do that).
Step #4 – Analyze the results and draw conclusions: After giving the test enough time to run, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on what you’re testing, you can look at the results.
If you see that results in both groups slowly crept up a bit or stayed the same, you can conclude that the shares had no significant effect on the rankings.
However, if you see that most of your test pages increased their rankings much more than those in the control group, you could conclude that the shares you got did in fact improve the rankings.
As you start testing, you’ll understand why my example was a bit simplistic. But once you get the basics, you can learn how to set up better tests.
4. Learn, or get left behind
If you weren’t around in the field of SEO 10 years ago, you missed out on some things.
Those were the times when keyword stuffing, along with basic blog comment links and forum links, could make sites rank for competitive terms.
Like most fields, SEO is always evolving.
Which means that SEOs should also always be improving their knowledge and skillset.
But they don’t always. You occasionally come across an SEO who is still talking about Page Rankand building forum links as if it’s some kind of a secret.
SEO is a fast moving industry, and you can easily fall behind if you’re not careful.
Testing, like I outlined above, will go a long way to keep you ahead of the curve. In addition, you can learn about how the field is advancing through other sources.
I’ll outline the main areas that you should stay updated on.
Area #1 – SEO news
SEO changes in a few different ways. One of the driving forces of the SEO evolution is search engines. As they get better at providing results to searchers, it gets more difficult to manipulate those results.
Any major search engine change is reported on the main SEO news sites.
If your client calls you panicking about something, you need to know why it happened and how to fix it beforehand.
Even if your current clients aren’t affected, a change to the search engine results could impact future clients.
The main sites that you should follow (at least one or two of them) are:
Area #2 – SEO tactics
Link building has undergone one of the biggest transformations in SEO. Instead of using automated tools to create thousands of low-quality backlinks for you, you have to earn your backlinks these days.
That being said, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to earn links. Here is a list of just some of them.
As I mentioned before, new tactics are always the most effective. As more and more people start using them, they become less effective.
For example, when infographics were new, everyone was blown away by them (“They’re so pretty!”). But now, everyone who owns a site receives several infographics with requests for links every week. The novelty has worn off.
New tactics, or improvements to old ones, are typically created in private. Then, they make their way through forums and blogs.
So, while you should keep testing things on your own, your time and resources are limited. That’s why you should follow blogs that focus on SEO tactics. Here are a few to get started:
Area #3 – Marketing education
I told you earlier that most SEO agencies have turned towards digital marketing, which is actually a pretty exciting change in my opinion.
Instead of just working off-site, modern SEOs get to be involved with marketing strategies and other parts of the business.
Digital marketing is a big topic, which can be split into two main types of marketing:
- Inbound marketing – You create content that will attract links and visitors.
- Outbound marketing – You use advertising to get people to your site.
And within those two types of marketing, there are many other types of marketing.
There are too many good marketing blogs for me to list here. But here are a few from different areas to get you started:
5. Don’t ignore the human element of SEO
Depending on how old you are, you might already know the importance of networking.
This is most evident in colleges and universities.
Some students don’t get high grades but still end up with great jobs when they graduate because they know the right people, and those people like them.
Alternatively, some students ace every course but have terrible people skills and end up with mediocre jobs upon graduation.
Having all the SEO knowledge and knowing SEO tactics isn’t enough. You also need to have a minimum degree of “people skills.”
It comes up all the time in SEO:
- when you’re asking influencers and site owners for links
- when you’re interacting with your readers
- when you’re training interns, freelancers, or support staff on what you need done
I’m not saying that you need to be extremely outgoing and likeable to be a successful SEO, but you can’t be completely unlikeable either.
If speaking isn’t your strong suit, that’s not a problem. Most SEO work is done online, in text.
For example, if you’re training someone to write guest posts for you or a client, you need to be able to communicate your ideas clearly in a guide.
They spell out what they’re looking for, and they tell you how you can make it work for both you and them.
There are a variety of ways to learn communication and social skills, but here are three books that are must reads for people in just about any field.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book, written by Dale Carnegie, should be mandatory reading in all schools. He breaks down how to connect with people and often does it in the context of sales, which is particularly useful in many aspects of SEO.
- Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion. This legendary book is all about persuasion. It addresses the question: how do you get people to do what you want them to do? There are obvious implications for SEO. When you’re asking for a link, guest posting opportunity, or any other favor, you want to be as persuasive as possible. In addition, if you’re helping with sales, knowing how to influence buyers is necessary. While there are some quick “hacks” in the book, it’s not really about tricking people. It’s about framing your request in such a way that it would make sense for someone to want to help you.
- The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism: Almost all leaders are charismatic. While most think that charisma is something people are born with, this book proves that it is a learned trait.
Being charismatic will help you acquire clients and will help you feel more comfortable in a variety of social settings.
6. Code isn’t just for nerds
This last skill—coding—is arguably the most intimidating.
HTML and CSS: By far the simplest place to start, if you haven’t already, is HTML and CSS.
HTML contains all the structure of every web page, while CSS applies styling (formatting) to the page to make it look nice.
As a modern SEO, you will inevitably need to edit webpages on a regular basis, and HTML and CSS is how you do that.
You could, of course, hire someone to do it for you, but you’ll waste a ton of time waiting around for them to do it if it’s something very simple that you could do yourself.
Start learning HTML and CSS with these resources:
PHP: The final piece of the puzzle is PHP. This is a back-end programming language widely used on the web, even if it might not be the best language.
In particular, you might recognize PHP because it forms the back-end of WordPress. It’s the language used to automatically add new posts to your blog pages, for example.
When you’re looking to modify a theme or fix an issue with a plugin, knowing some PHP will come in handy. Instead of waiting around for a developer, you can make the necessary simple fixes.
Here are two good resources for learning PHP:
Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an expert with these four types of code—I’m not.
What is important is that you understand where and how each of them is used on a basic level. It only takes a few days (or a few weeks/month if you do it only in your spare time) to get to this level.
Here is one more resource that has tutorials on all four of these: HTML.net.
Being an SEO doesn’t just mean knowing that backlinks are important.
As you can see, a good SEO needs to know all sorts of things, including technical SEO, marketing, and coding.
Determine how good of an SEO you want to be, and then work to build the skills to match.
If you want to be a great SEO, a highly-paid one and in high demand, you need to be more knowledgeable and up-to-date than almost all other SEOs.