Working with SEO is profitable for most of those involved. I often get asked the question: ‘How do you become an SEO consultant?’ The answer to that, is there are no simple answers. There is no formal education, and there are few companies where you can really learn the craft and much of the information that can be found online is just wrong. So, how do you actually get good at it?
During my years in the SEO industry I have both hired and worked with the best in the country when it comes to search engine optimization. The way we see it, we also demand more from our specialists than other Swedish agencies. Our aim is to be the best in the field of search engine optimization. To get there, you need highly skilled staff. I also think there is reason to distinguish between general consulting skills, such as managing staff welfare, upselling and similar things, and the actual SEO knowledge. What we are about to discuss today, is how you get skilled enough at search engine optimization to be able to get a job as a specialist at our agency. I am convinced that you can benefit from in all organisations.
Search Engine Optimization Is Not Technology
One thing we often encounter when we recruit is that many of the relatively good search engine optimizers are best at the technical part of the job. Sure, it’s a good skill to be able to run Screaming Frog on a site or change 16,000 titles and handle regex. But that is (mostly) not a job for a senior specialist, as I see it. If you want to get a good job as a search engine optimizer, it is more important to understand what factors affect a site, both today and in the future. Our specialists do perform work where they run Screaming Frog, but that is not the knowledge that defines their expertise. It’s the ability to interpret the result that makes the difference between being hireable or not.
Assessing which pages out of 16,000 should be placed in which category is a more common task, and that is the skill and understanding you need. Now you ask yourself: How the heck do you acquire that knowledge? Well, that is unfortunately a bit fuzzy. You need to have the ability to separate between what is relevant to the human eye, and what is relevant in the eyes of the search engine. In Sweden in particular, and in other smaller countries, Google and other search engines are not as good as they claim to be at understanding what things are actually related. For a long time, Google didn’t even realize that SEO and search engine optimization are related – searches for those two terms in Swedish turned up two completely different search results. There are several cases where it’s evident that it’s really difficult to take a position on these two words with the same page, even though the human brain – unlike Google – can easily tell that they’re the same thing.
What complicates it even further is that you also must be able to produce relevant landing pages for your prospective clients. They are looking for as much relevance as Google is, but they define it a bit differently. The challenge here is to find a solution that satisfies both parties.
Learn How Filters Work, It’s Vital
What separates someone who really understands search engine optimization from someone who has at some point made something rank, often comes down to understanding filters. A lot of people that at some point have taken a position on a semi-difficult keyword will feel as if they have found the solution. Taking a position and earning money on it in six months is all well and good, but that does not automatically mean that you can repeat the same feat with another 100 sites, with 100 keywords each, over a period of several years. Many search engine optimizers have found a way to take good positions, only to get caught in a filter and disappear after a few months, a year or even several years later. We know of two great examples here, two sites that for different periods of time were number one for the prestigious keyword ‘sökmotoroptimering’ (‘search engine optimization’ in Swedish). The sites I’m talking about are sokmotoroptimering.nu and smotop.se. The latter was recently sold for a pittance and neither shows up in search results anymore, even though sokmotoroptimering.nu from time to time shows up on place thirty or so.
We have nothing bad to say about Helena or David, who made it to the top of the rankings with their sites. That was profitable as long as they could keep their position, and it’s always a hard blow when Penguin or some other filter hits the site like a sledgehammer (taking that position is a great achievement – except for Wikipedia and those two, the only other site in recent years that has held that position is sokmotorkonsult.se, while I was in charge of it). To take that position, or any other position, and keep it over time is a completely different from keeping it for a short period of time. To keep it over time, you need to keep track of Google’s filters and manual actions. Often, these directly contradict the normal algorithm. One example is that Penguin penalizes links with keyword rich anchor texts, something that the normal algorithm rewards.
Contrary to the previous point, the filters are in some ways easier. There is a lot theoretical information about them available on the internet; however, understanding their effects in practice does require some experimenting. Always remember to sift through the information though. If you start talking about Hummingbird or Caffeine, we will stop listening.
Understand the Technology
I did say that search engine optimization is not about technology, and I stand by that. But there are a number of things that you just have to know. One of those is the PageRank algorithm, which forms the basis for how Google ranks pages. The algorithm is well known, it’s published on Stanford.edu. There are no excuses for an aspiring search engine specialist to not understand PageRank. Lacking that knowledge can lead to a lot of silliness. For example, that’s where the recommendation of having the flattest possible site architecture stems from, something which is directly harmful to search engine optimization.
A search engine is a crawler, a series of algorithms and a way to present data. It is a machine. A machine that is so complex that it’s quite common that not even those who work with it have the ability to predict the results of any change implemented. But it is also a machine that is easy to overestimate. Saying things like ‘Google should know’, or ‘real facts will rank better’ means that the job interview will end as sooner rather than later and ‘we will get back to you if something turns up’.
What you need to do is to be thorough when you learn the basics. Don’t skip the fundamentals about Google just because you want to believe that social signals will be important. If what we needed was a Facebook expert, there would be hundreds of thousands of good candidates in Sweden alone. What everyone needs is someone who actually understands what a search engine is today.
Half of The Job Is People
A huge part of search engine optimization is understanding people. If understanding the mythical algorithm is important, understanding how we act on the internet is almost as important. If you don’t know what I am looking for when I type a keyword in Google’s search bar you will never be able to present a solution to my problem. If you don’t understand how a blogger links to a product he or she likes, you will never understand how a link profile actually looks. In addition, people act differently online than out on the town. Learn to understand people on the internet.
How do you do that? In my point of view, it is a question that has as many answers as there are people who have been successful in doing so. One alternative is to be active on forums or social media. You might start a blog or even become an editor on Dmoz (no, that was not a serious suggestion)?
One of the most important pieces of advice I would like to give is to listen less and do more. The internet is full of nonsense, the SEO industry is no different. In many ways it is rather the opposite, as soon as someone hears about the concept of search engine optimization, they run off to start a blog and explain to the world about it. You need to learn yourself, not just follow in someone else’s footsteps. You need to get through a few dozen projects to get a basic understanding of search engine optimization. You are the one that needs to learn, and no matter how much we bloggers tell you stuff – it is the execution that matters. What separates a great search engine optimizer from the rest is how you do SEO in practice, even though, oddly enough, the better you get the less you work with the practical implementation.
But, you ask, there are lots of SEO consultants who don’t live up to these standards?
Isn’t the bar set rather high? Is it possible to become an SEO consultant without knowing Panda? Yes, it might be. But not with us.