So you want to become an SEO expert.
I can totally understand why.
There are so many reasons to love SEO.
SEO is fascinating.
SEO is a fast-paced, in-demand field with plenty of longevity ahead of it.
But that means SEO also attracts people who just see it as an easy money grab or work-from-home job.
They read some blogs here and there, learn the terminology, and voila! They’re changing their title on LinkedIn to “SEO Expert.”
After only a few days.
Or worse, a matter of hours.
That’s like reading a few medical books and calling yourself a doctor.
That’s not how this works.
SEO expertise, like any other field, requires time, commitment, and experience.
You can’t just declare yourself an SEO expert.
It’s not a young field anymore.
There are experts who’ve been doing SEO for decades now.
Ready to follow in their footsteps?
Here are 21 things you need to know to become an SEO expert.
1. Understand the Basics of SEO
To become an expert, start with the basics. You need to understand how audiences and search engines interact, and what you can do to optimize content effectively.
Learning the basics boils down to three core components:
- The types of content that users want, expect, or need. It’s all about user intent.
- The inner workings of how search engines really work.
- The tools and techniques needed to optimize websites.
Without this background, you may be able to explain the “what,” but not the “why.”
As someone who has worked in this industry for 15 years, knowing the why sets you apart.
When you get into more advanced aspects of SEO, knowing why things are the way they are makes you more effective.
At Search Engine Journal, we created an ebook that covers the SEO basics.
2. Build Your Own Websites
Once you understand the basics of SEO, it’s time to apply them.
Most pros will tell you they learned the most by building sites and breaking things.
Ryan Jones of Razorfish put it well when I interviewed him on the Search Engine Journal Show:
“Don’t just start out trying to do SEO for big brands; start doing SEO for yourself. Make something. Whether it’s a blog, affiliate site, or an app…start doing it for yourself and hone your skills that way.”
Learn HTML. Learn all the tags. Test.
Fiddle with the content and see how it manifests in SERPs.
Pick a topic that you’re into. That’ll make it easier to create content.
You want to spend more time building and optimizing the content, not writing it.
3. Learn WordPress
One-third of websites are built with WordPress.
So if you want to be an SEO expert, you need to know it well.
It’s not just that it’s ubiquitous – it’s also the best CMS for SEO.
WordPress is perfect for functionalities that directly (e.g., metadata) and indirectly (e.g., UX) affect SEO performance.
Start your WordPress education with this great list of resources from Kinsta.
4. Learn Google Analytics & Google Search Console
SEO pros use a wide variety of tools to optimize content and analyze their effectiveness.
Google Analytics and Google Search Console are essentials for any SEO command center.
Google Analytics is all about measurement and reporting.
Google Search Console enables you to optimize your site.
SEO expertise requires mastery of both.
5. Read About SEO Every Day
Remember I mentioned commitment?
You’ve got to have the determination to read about SEO daily.
The major search engines make changes every day and you never know the impact that will have on your rankings.
Your colleagues, clients, and bosses – they’ll expect you to have answers.
Keeping up with SEO content daily keeps you fresh.
Not sure where to begin? Try this list of 25 reliable resources to start with.
6. Understand How Search Engines Work
It can feel like much of your fate rests in the hands of the search engines.
And it does.
That’s why you need to know about crawlers.
These bots are making decisions about the quality and relevancy of your content.
Several key factors drive those decisions.
Understanding search intent, relevance, content quality, links, and usability will help you better grasp why the algorithms operate the way that they do.
Search engines are a black box – they don’t reveal the secret sauce behind their products.
But you can use these known factors to optimize your site and give yourself a leg up.
If you want to get into the real nitty-gritty of Google’s patents, check out Bill Slawski’s SEO by the Sea blog.
Or, dive deep by reading our ebook: How Search Engine Work.
7. Read Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines
For an even more in-depth look behind the curtain, study Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines.
Google hires people to rate websites, and this guide covers the factors they’re told to look for.
It’s not a short read.
You may be familiar with the simplified version of its contents, known as E-A-T:
The simplified version is useful if you’re just starting out or even at the intermediate level, but to become an expert, you need to read the whole thing.
The raters are not SEO professionals – they’re everyday people.
Similar to the search engines’ bots, these raters have an effect on your site’s performance.
8. Look at the SERPs
This is where all the action is.
Look at the search engine results pages (SERPs).
- How are they composed?
- What content do they display?
- Who is doing it well?
Notice how the results change when you search for different kinds of queries.
Look at how this search for “How to make alfredo sauce” differs from “alfredo sauce.”
You can see this featured snippets for recipes because I asked a question in the search box.
Then, here you can see the knowledge panel on the right.
Google is making decisions about the intent behind those queries and serving up content in a format that it thinks users want the most.
So look at the SERPs.
9. Learn About Technical SEO
Technical SEO is everything that you do to make your site easier to crawl and index.
These factors play a role in how well a site ranks in the SERPs.
You can have amazing content, but a slow or site with lots of bugs will hurt your performance.
With so much content to compete with, a website with a solid foundation from technical SEO can make or break your strategy.
Learn more in our technical SEO guide.
10. Learn About Content Strategy, Creation, Optimization & Promotion
While technical SEO helps search engines crawl and index your site more effectively, understanding content will help you improve the user experience, time on site, links, and so much more.
Gone are the days when content was created by a keyword-first strategy.
Since the Hummingbird update and RankBrain came on the scene, content needs to be created in a user-first strategy.
But, just because you published content, doesn’t mean users will find it.
Content needs to be optimized to add context to content to help search engines understand how to categorize it.
That content also needs to be supported by a promotional strategy.
SEO alone isn’t enough – other marketing channels (e.g., social media, email) contribute to the success or failure of your content.
11. Use Link Building Tactics That Actually Work
Link building is one of the first things you learn about when studying SEO.
And it’s also one of the topics with the most dubious advice out there.
To benefit from link building, you need quality links, not just quantity.
Getting there requires a mixture of good reporting and relationship-building.
Relationships are super important for link building. I was asked to contribute to this post on PointVisible, and that resulted in a nice link back to SEJ.
If you’re a beginner, start with our ebook, Link Building for Beginners.
If you’re a little further along, check out our more in-depth link building guide.
12. Don’t Develop Checklist Mentality
Checklist mentality is when you’re so focused on following a regiment that you become inflexible and unaware of when that routine isn’t working anymore.
Search engines are changing all the time.
You need to be adaptable, and checklist mentality means blindly walking through a to-do list.
Over time, the items on that to-do list become outdated or don’t account for new updates.
Eventually, the checklist mentality will negatively affect your outcomes.
Instead, be open-minded and outcome-oriented.
If your rankings have dropped, despite adhering to your checklist, think creatively.
Ask for help.
Be prepared to change.
Just don’t be held captive by your checklist.
The following tips will point you in the direction of good resources to help you continually develop.
13. Join Facebook Groups
Facebook is full of active, helpful groups for SEO professionals. Here are just a few:
Facebook groups give you access to a ready-made network of peers.
Don’t just look for SEO groups, look for groups that also include marketers, content creators, and social media pros.
If you have an interest in e-commerce or B2B marketing, look for groups with those areas of focus.
The sheer breadth of the network you can access on Facebook is unmatched.
14. Follow SEO Experts on Twitter
Sometimes you need a break from your typical blogs and news sites.
Following SEO experts on Twitter gives you one more way to access their wealth of knowledge.
Use Twitter to keep up with the latest news, participate in conversations, and get opinions on SEO topics that aren’t black-and-white.
To start, follow other SEO experts that top SEO blogs are already following.
When you follow the right people on Twitter, it sharpens your SEO knowledge and connects you to opportunities that you may not have heard about otherwise.
I’ve curated a list of experts to help you get started.
15. Attend SEO & Marketing Conferences
Another way to level up your skills is by attending events.
Conferences and webinars are excellent resources for learning more about specific aspects of content marketing.
In-person events may be on hold for now, but there are plenty of virtual conferences still going on.
The presentations feature expert guidance on the topics that are top of mind for most SEO pros.
They can be pricey, but a great conference is totally worth the investment.
Attending events gives you a chance to hear directly from industry experts, an opportunity you may not get otherwise.
Here’s a list of great events to check out this year and next year.
16. Listen to Podcasts
When you need a break from reading and watching, try listening.
Podcasts have exploded in recent years, and that includes podcasts that cover SEO.
Listen on your commute, or while you’re cooking or working out.
Podcasts are the best way to feed your brain while multitasking.
You can find any number of formats, show lengths, and hosts to suit your fancy.
I’m admittedly biased, but check out The Search Engine Journal Show for lots of great insights and tips from some of the brightest minds in SEO today.
17. Grow Your Personal Network
You don’t know everything.
You don’t have all the answers.
And in SEO, you likely never will.
But that’s OK!
Other people in our industry are amazing at content strategy and promotion, but terrible at some technical aspects of SEO.
At some point, you’re going to need help from someone else in the industry.
So start building connections.
Use social media to start building relationships.
Platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn make this fairly easy.
The best way to make connections and grow your network is to be willing to share information.
Don’t just take and take.
Give and take.
Remember, relationships are a two-way street.
Share your own experiences and expertise.
The idea is to continually stay in touch and develop a rapport with people.
Over time, these connections will start to see you as an expert.
Also, share and comment on content others have shared.
Eventually, you’ll want to build a trusted network of people with whom you can troubleshoot, bounce ideas off of, and share tips, strategies, and other learnings.
18. Take Advantage of Free Courses
One of the great things about learning SEO is the wealth of free information available to you.
Sure, there’s a lot of junk to filter through.
But there are also plenty of free courses from highly respected companies and instructors.
Moz, for instance, lets you explore by topic:
19. Keep Learning & Growing Your Skill Set
There’s no endpoint to becoming an expert.
And there are many other skills adjacent to SEO that make you more effective.
Study web development, copywriting, or even graphic design.
Get familiar with a particular industry or specialize in a certain type of content.
Continually expanding your skillset deepens your expertise and sets you up as a knowledgeable resource.
And it also makes YOU more valuable – so you can earn more or charge more.
20. Learn from Your Mistakes & Repeat Your Successes
SEO isn’t an exact science, and experts learn a lot through trial and error.
Mistakes are inevitable.
Learn from them and move on.
On the flip side, when you do something that works, make a note of it.
Do it again.
Until it doesn’t work.
Then it becomes a mistake that you can learn from.
The point: never stop learning and improving.
21. Be Patient
Like I said at the beginning of this post, becoming an SEO expert takes time.
Ride the wave of algorithm changes.
Get thrown off by updates to search tools.
Build your community.
None of these things can be rushed.
But if you have the passion for it, the payoff is a rewarding, in-demand career.
Being an SEO expert opens up a world of opportunities.
You can play a vital role in launching a startup.
You can upgrade the online presence of a 50-year-old company.
You can help a solopreneur reach new audiences.
You can help a retailer crush its sales goals.
There are a lot of skills you need to develop to become that trusted resource.
But it all starts with patience, integrity, and hunger to learn.
- 3 Places for SEO Beginners to Focus Their Time
- 8 Ways to Become a Great SEO Consultant
- A Complete Guide to SEO: What You Need to Know
Featured Image: Created by author, July 2020
All screenshots taken by author, July 2020