We’re fortunate in this industry that so many SEO professionals generously share their knowledge and experience to benefit others – and the industry as a whole.
After all, SEO isn’t something you take a degree in at a traditional educational institution.
The top SEO pros are self-taught and learned through hard work (and many mistakes made).
I originally put together this article back in 2017, and one of the contributions came from the late Hamlet Batista. I was fortunate to have spent time with Hamlet, talking about SEO, life, Python, and everything in between.
When refreshing this article, I felt it’s only right and fair to share his advice for the benefit a new generation of SEO professionals four years on.
Hamlet Batista, RankSense
Oftentimes, you are going to hear conflicting recommendations from reputable SEO experts, between experts and Google, or even between SEO tool vendors. Who do you trust?
Always trust the data you get from your client Analytics package, and validate it using Google Search Console. Treat each recommendation as a thesis you need to validate through experimentation.
Traffic, leads, sales are what ultimately matter if you want to keep clients (or your job) in the long run.
Here is one example. Google says they don’t use CTR data in their ranking formulas, but some well-known experts say that is not the case.
Fortunately, it’s easy to confirm or deny this using Google Search Console data. If the experts are right, you should see position improvements every time you see CTR improvements.
But you can see a recent example where that is not the case, above.
Please test this for yourself with your client’s data (in Search Console, go to Search Traffic > Search Analytics).
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Chris Johnson, Bamboo Nine
Accelerate your skillset by creating your own sandbox website with WordPress. Use this as a playground for implementing SEO experiments and best practices as your knowledge grows.
By understanding how a basic WordPress website is constructed and how to apply optimizations, you’ll be able to better serve your clients.
Once you’ve got to grips with a stock WordPress install, start to experiment with the different WordPress page builders available on the market.
This helps you develop a deeper understanding of the challenges you’ll face as you work with a diverse range of clients.
A little web development knowledge will go a long way.
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Dean Cruddace, Cultured Digital
Build a site around something you have a passion for, there are plenty of free website building platforms around today.
Before you begin creating any content hook the new site up to Google Search Console & Google Analytics. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with both tools, there are lots of links to tips & how to in both.
Next up familiarise yourself with a search result page for a term where you would expect your new site to appear, make notes about what’s great, what’s missing, how can your site take the best of what already exists and improve upon it?
These small steps will inspire you to begin planning how you will construct your own site. Don’t worry about code, that’s later on in your journey, right now you’re looking to improve upon something that already exists using your passion for the subject and using 2 free Google tools to understand how your audience grows, what worked & what didn’t.
- Build at your own pace, there is no right or wrong answer.
- Don’t obsess over ranking.
- Every page on your site needs a reason to exist, what are your objectives?
These initial steps will remain similar but get more granular the more sites you build or sites you may be tasked to take care of.
When you get stuck, ask the community, there are hundreds out there now but Twitter is a great starting point for SEO-related questions.
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Barbara Klonowska, SALT.agency
There are two parts of learning SEO – the theory part and the practical part.
To learn the theory, be curious! Read good quality articles and books recommended by experts in the industry. Try to gain knowledge using different resources such as videos, courses, and conferences. Look for case studies of companies that you are interested in.
Also, don’t only read about SEO, but try to follow business, ecommerce, and general marketing news. Find inspiring people (online and offline) who can pass their knowledge in an interesting way.
When you grasp the theory, be proactive and look for tasks to try your knowledge in practice as soon as possible. It is the best way to remember all the cool things you have learned. You can read all about the SEO tools but to really understand how beneficial they are, you need to simply use them!
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Pierre Far, Deliberate Digital
Starting out, I suggest having two long-term career goals:
1. Learning how a search engine works, and why search engines even exist. These are two parts of the same goal.
The first part is learning the technical topics of what Google calls crawling, indexing, and ranking, and the more in-depth the better. Of course, you don’t need to become a search engineer, but you need to understand how search works, why it is this way, and the differences between the search engines.
The second part is understanding the business and market context in which search engines operate.
Search constantly evolves. Why a search engine exists today, how searchers use a search engine, and what a search engine aims to achieve for searchers are very different than from 20 years ago, and will be different in 20 years’ time.
Search engines innovate and drive new user behavior, and they respond to new user behaviors. You need to be mindful of how user behavior is changing.
2. The second goal is to become a better communicator and negotiator. Soon you will be championing changes, for your organization or for your clients.
How you explain the changes, how you describe the benefits and how you prioritize based on the wider context can enable or block your recommendations from being launched. Even if you have the best knowledge in the world, if you cannot affect change, you’re going to fail in this career.
Success in all of the above requires dedication and deliberate practice, and, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun.
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Brogan Renshaw, Firewire Digital
Anyone that I talk to starting out in SEO I always tell one thing. Whether in-house or agency is do your own thing on the side. Build your own site, learn how to rank your own content.
Find out what works and what doesn’t. There is no quicker way to learn than by making missteps on your own site and learning how to correct them.
When you build your own site, you are forced to learn the basics of SEO. It pushes you to research solutions to problems – find the best resources available online, what are the good (or not so good) resources. There is no better playground to grapple with the early stages of learning SEO than tackling your own website.
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Ammon Johns, Consultant
I’ve been honored to be in a position to have helped many newcomers to SEO get started, find their passion, and go on to be very successful. Here are some of the major observations I have about those who went on to greatness.
1. Don’t try to be an expert.
Many of the absolute best in the field of SEO completely eschew the “expert” label, while every know-nothing braggart touting for business proclaims to be an SEO expert.
SEO isn’t something you ever know and are done. It is a path of continual learning, experimentation, long research, and always looking to be able to do more tomorrow, better than you did today. To be an SEO professional is to be a life-long student, fascinated with the field, or you’ll fail, and make a fool of yourself doing so.
The entire field is still in its infancy, still changing and growing with new innovations, platforms, and technologies, every day. I myself started several years before Google and was lucky enough to be able to adapt to the changes as they happened, and I still had to push hard, incredibly hard, just to keep up with everything and remain at the cutting edge.
If you are not fascinated with continual learning, then in all care and respect, you may be better off in a more settled, stable industry, with less change.
2. Don’t get blinkered.
Always try to see the big picture and the broadest perspective. There are many different ways to do almost anything in SEO. Always be looking out for the risk of getting your thinking or approach into a rut so deep you can’t see other paths.
For example, there are millions of ways to get genuine links, yet some people always think only of guest posting or of link-swaps or purchases and are weak link-builders for that lack of creative thinking ability or perspective.
Removing the blinkers is when you realize that you don’t even absolutely need to get links directly to a specific page, if you can instead create a page they will link to that in turn links to where you want the “juice” to go.
Lateral thinking is the greatest tool, while blinkered thinking makes a fool.
3. Play to your strengths.
One of the greatest things about SEO, and indeed all of online marketing, is that creativity matters, and there is no single one way that beats all others.
Just among the greatest names and reputations in SEO you can find people who are incredibly charismatic and confident, and use that to power their understanding and approach. And at the same time find equally respected and capable people who are quite high on the autistic spectrum, who have all the charm of a slide rule, but their ability to spot patterns in data, and to use that knowledge is simply breathtaking.
Complete opposite approaches, yet both equally viable if leveraged correctly.
Early on, some quick and easy wins will help not just boost your confidence, but also reward the hard work. So identifying and then playing to your own personal strengths and abilities first will always help you.
Later on, you’ll want to broaden your skills, and at least be aware of the workings of other approaches, just for your own versatility. But early on, feel free to specialize in what you are particularly good at, or suited to. It will give you a solid foundation to build on.
4. Above ALL else: Be humble.
We are not just coming back to the faked “expert” label here. One of the most important skills you can have in SEO is doubt and questions.
Question your data, and your conclusions. Look for the things you may be missing, and always assume you are missing something.
There are times when a newcomer, unsure and doubting, is in the very best mindset for their entire career. Free yourself to be skeptical, to always look for more corroborative data, and to eradicate assumptions wherever you can.
In doing so, you’ll be at your most inventive and innovative, and at your most likely to spot new paths and approaches.
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Serge Bezborodov, Jet Octopus
A house without a foundation is not durable.
As physics starts with Newton’s laws, SEO should also take its logical beginning from the fundamentals and the basic principles of work. One of Google’s first patents was on “how a search engine works,” and I think this is a very good place to start to understand the initial laws of a search bot’s logic.
To get a better understanding, I would recommend taking a deep dive into technical SEO, how a page gets indexed, and why crawling and indexing are different things.
Why isn’t JS content getting directly indexed (or why it may never get indexed at all)? Why thoughtless use of non-canonicals can lead to unfortunate consequences? And, why is a page blocked by robots.txt but still visited by search bots.
Now it’s time you should learn about the Crawl Budget, and if you’re lucky enough to work on large websites, it will be practically your mantra. It will lead you to the log files analysis which will show you the problematic places in the technical SEO of your site. Log files analysis will show you what to fix first to improve your SEO and much more.
The importance of external links and content are worth mentioning but I am sure that many SEO experts have already written extensively about it.
The bigger the website you work on, the more tools you’ll have to use and the more data you will have on hand. Therefore, the ability to work with big data will become a very important skill set for you. Thus, I strongly recommend learning the basics of statistics, like Gaussian distribution, sampling, reliable sampling, etc.
The fundamental approach to SEO will let you become a true SEO expert who is able to build hypotheses, make experiments, analyze their results correctly, and not just blindly copy the practices of “TOP SEO experts.”
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Sam Carr, PPC Protect
My advice for newbies starting out in SEO is to build your own website (or websites) ASAP. Not only does it help you get used to content management systems like WordPress and the technical part of setting them up, but they’re also a great environment to test new SEO ideas and even earn some money.
When working on a client’s website, the chances are you’ll have strict instructions and processes to follow, which gives you little room to try new strategies. By running your own website, you essentially have your own playground to test anything from links to on-page tweaks.
This will also help any SEO newbie build a solid foundation in SEO testing and not just believing any old, outdated SEO advice they read on the internet. Ultimately implementing and testing these recommendations in the field is the best indication to see what really moves the needle.
And depending on what type of website you make, you also have the chance of making money from affiliate programs. This means you can essentially earn while you learn!
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Craig Harkins, IHG
Remember that your topics and optimizations don’t come just from the tools. When starting out doing SEO for a company, talk to the people in sales and customer service about the common questions and answers. Even better if you can talk to customers and end-users.
Your superpower as an SEO is the ability to talk all of that input (from tools and real-world interviews) and combine it all together into the topics that you should be writing about. Find the common threads between customers, sales, and service/support and you’re providing the content people want to see at the different points along the sales cycle.
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Dragan Berak, dberak Consulting
Make sure to learn general SEO concepts such as ONpage, OFFpage, Technical, etc. so that you can understand how stuff work. However, choose your area of expertise and focus on that. You cannot be an excellent link builder and an awesome Tech SEO at the same time.
You can (and should) know basic concepts but try and focus on one particular area that interests you. For instance, link building became a service for itself. Tech SEO as well. In order to deliver quality work, don’t try to sell everything to everyone. Even people that are not into SEO will figure out that you cannot maintain the quality of offering multiple services.
Especially if you still don’t have your team. In short – think about productizing your services. Make a product of KW research, internal links audit, etc.
A business owner will be happy to pay for particular activities (productized services) instead of paying for a 12-month contract and expecting wonders. Been there, done that, doesn’t work in the long run.
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Jen Penaluna, Evoluted
I think the most simple way to get started and fall in love with SEO is to be the user first and foremost.
It’s easy to get caught up in keywords and search volumes, to view targeting as simplistic as more search + good rankings = more traffic, but not all traffic is equal.
Remember that there are real people with a real need for something behind those searches.
As you’re evaluating keywords, search them yourself. What comes up? If there are shopping ads, there’s a good chance that this is an intent-to-buy term. If there are informational articles and People Also Ask boxes, it’s probably more of a research term. By manually checking the SERPs, sometimes you’ll discover that a search term that looks great in terms of numbers, isn’t what you thought and could be someone’s brand!
Once you have established the most suitable intent for terms that you/your client offers, look at what page the user is landing on and evaluate if it meets their needs. If it’s purchase intent, are they landing on a product or category page, and how easy is it to buy?
Once you start getting the right kind of people to the right kind of pages, you’ve pretty much cracked it.
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Jess Joyce, Consultant
There’s a lot to read out there about SEO and it can become overwhelming very quickly so start by reading as it’s a wonderful base to guide you in a direction and give you ideas and a guidepost.
My real advice is to take that learning and apply it.
Go buy a domain, get some hosting and apply what you’re reading about. It doesn’t have to be a client website or an agency website, you don’t need an internship. Pick a topic and build it all out.
Add all the elements you’re reading about, connect the site to all the endpoints for tracking/analysis, watch the metrics and diagnose/fix anything along the way. See your speed go up/down and apply that core web vitals reading to it. Write the whole article and check how it’s doing, then iterate on it.
Reading is wonderful and there is such a large amount of information out there but reading and doing are very different. Applying the information to something tangible will give you practical experience to speak to and a bit more confidence when you have to apply it with clients or talk in an interview.
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Lucy Dodds, Evolved Search
Ask a lot of questions and never apologize for it.
I’ve gained a bit of a reputation for asking questions at my current agency, but honestly, I won’t stop anytime soon because of how much I’ve learned. Take advantage of your colleagues’ experience.
Pick their brains every single day to discover how the different parts of SEO work. You can also use Twitter to join the conversation if you don’t know anyone to ask. Many people working in SEO are very passionate and will happily give advice online.
Remember that you’re new and not supposed to know all these things. Don’t expect to! Even when you gain experience, you’ll find that you still don’t have all the answers. Let your knowledge evolve as search does; it’s ever-changing and so will your understanding of SEO.
A lot of SEO success comes from being curious, figuring things out, and exploring what works and what doesn’t. So, keep up to date with search news and ask how it might impact the site you’re working on.
If you come across something more technical, just ask – it’s not stupid. Don’t wait six months to figure out what disavow means, as I did…
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Barry Adams, Polemic Digital
When you’re new to SEO it can seem an overwhelming industry with lots of drama, nonsensical jargon, clashing personalities, and contradictory advice. The more you can park that to one side and focus on the substance of the game, the better you’ll be.
Feel free to ask advice as SEO professionals love giving it, but always get multiple opinions on an issue. No one is always right and SEO pros can sometimes give out poor advice, especially if they don’t have all the context in which you’re trying to solve the particular issue.
There’s an old joke in the industry that the one true answer to every SEO question is “it depends.” The more you know about SEO, the more that becomes true.
There is no One Single Truth in SEO – it’s a vast landscape of interwoven disciplines touching on marketing, web development, UX, information architecture, computer science, and much more. The Dunning-Kruger effect most definitely applies to the industry, so be wary of the pitfalls of both overconfidence and a lack of confidence.
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- 3 Places for SEO Beginners to Focus Their Time
- Elevating Your Analytics: A Guide for SEO Beginners
- SEO for Beginners: An Introduction to SEO Basics
Screenshot taken by Hamlet Batista, October 2017.