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20 Things I Learned From 20 Years of Working in the SEO Industry

A seasoned SEO professional shares 20 of the most important lessons she has learned from two decades of experience in the industry.

7 Lessons From Leading SEO at a Digital Marketing Agency

Being an SEO professional has its challenges and its rewards.

After working in the SEO industry for more than 20 years, I have come to learn a lot about myself and the peculiarities that come with optimizing websites.

I started my career in 2000 optimizing my pet supply website for search engines Excite and Lycos.

I learned from Microsoft’s bCentral for Business helpful tips and search engine submission.

My career took a turn when I jumped from the pet industry to the SEO industry working for an agency.

Since then I have managed SEO as a consultant and in-house for startups, medium, and enterprise organizations.

I now manage SEO for one of the largest and well-known companies in the technology world and throughout my years, I have come to learn a lot.

Now that I have reached my 20-year mark, I felt it was perfect timing to share the 20 most important lessons I have learned working in SEO as the landscape of search engine optimization has drastically made twists and turns.

With that has come lessons from 20 years of working on many different types of websites and organizations.

1. Things Change

In the early years of SEO, optimizing a website was less of a challenge than what SEO professionals face today.

You could pick a few keywords to work into a website’s content, in the title, description, and keyword meta tag.

They would submit the website to search engines and various directories to find the site would drive traffic and business would pick up.

There were no keyword tools or analytics, but there also wasn’t much competition.

Now there are more complex algorithms that filter out spam and black hat SEO tactics.

There is personalization, localization, machine learning, neural matching, RankBrain, and E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness).

We have insights into keyword data, complex data-driven environments, analytics, and data science that drive the strategies we choose to make for optimization.

SEO has become a complex and more challenging world that is ever evolving.

2. SEO Was Dominated by Men – Not Anymore

Being a woman in SEO, I have taken notice of my surroundings and the people that I have come to know in this industry.

In the early years, search publications, agencies, conferences and reputable blogs were dominated by our male counterparts.

There have been many speculations as to why that is, but the number of women who are in SEO – and those who are being recognized for their work – is changing.

I have seen more women applying and interviewing for roles I have had open.

There are more women speaking at conferences than in the past.

There is even a Women in Tech SEO organization started by Areej AbuAli, who is transforming the way SEO pros look at women in our industry.

The women in SEO today all have the early adopters of SEO that include Rhea Drysdale, Dana Lookadoo, Ann Smarty, Lisa Myers, Jackie Hole, Laura Lippay, Cindy Krum, and my personal closest friend and mentor, the co-founder of, Gillian Muessig.

These ladies lead the industry and paved the way for the women that are now taking SEO by storm.

You can support women in SEO by giving them a follow on Twitter (check out my SEO Women list and Enterprise SEO Women list) and give them a seat at the table.

3. It’s More Than Just Knowing SEO

An SEO professional who delves outside of their roles and responsibilities will allow for creative approaches to solving problems.

SEO is about:

  • Knowing the keywords a user is searching.
  • Having an understanding of why they are searching it and what they are expecting to get out of the result.

Going beyond keywords in the content, URL structure, and structured data shows your users that your site is exactly what they are looking for.

Having an eye for design, a feeling for usability, marketing toward a target audience, and understanding the technology that makes a site run will aid in the overall success of SEO.

4. Tech Is Important

I can count on both hands the number of times I have been turned down for roles in SEO because I wasn’t technical enough.

While I may have started my career out as a developer and I tried to keep up with the latest technologies, I seemed to often come up short in my knowledge for some roles.

Ten years ago, I made it my goal to be the smartest in technical SEO that I possibly could and to know how to work on a large scale website – both backend and front-end – the same as the engineering team would.

That hard work has paid off in my career.

I can edit parts of the site just as any engineer would (which comes in handy when resourcing for SEO) and I am able to come up with creative solutions to extremely complex problems.

5. Relationships Are Important

To be successful at SEO, you need to know more than the best practices.

I often say that 90% of success in SEO is relying on the people you work with.

If you can’t convince engineers, content writers, designers, and even the stakeholders within an organization, then the effort optimization will be low and can lead to a lack of results.

If leadership within an organization doesn’t understand or believe in SEO, then the work that supports SEO won’t get prioritized and therefore could take months or could never get done.

If content writers don’t understand SEO then they won’t worry about the balance of keywords and synonyms.

If engineers are complacent about optimization then the site will have issues that drive the quality of the domain down.

I speak to this in more detail in my Search Engine Journal article Why Enterprise SEO Needs a Champion.

Getting buy-in from others and finding your champion within the organization will help get work for SEO completed and ultimately drive results for the business.

6. Argue without Arguing

Search engine optimization is often reliant on the SEO fighting for the work to get done.

While frustration is a daily occurrence in this industry, I have learned that arguing my case doesn’t get me anywhere, and certainly doesn’t get any work done for SEO.

Finding creative ways to express the importance of doing the work needed for SEO takes finesse and patience.

Letting numbers and small wins speak for themselves and presenting them in a clean precise manner will often get buy-in for you from the people that make decisions.

7. Understand Your Users

Taking the time to understand the people you are optimizing for will not only get you results, but also encourage users to complete the action that the business needs to drive revenue.

I will often tag my keywords with what the user is trying to understand when they search that term and guide the strategy around that intent.

A prime example is with an ecommerce website.

A search for a “tie” could mean anything from a men’s necktie or bowtie, a railroad tie or even a twist tie.

If a user is more specific with the keyword “necktie” then they could be searching for a tie to purchase or looking for ways on how to tie a necktie.

By taking the time to understand what the user’s intent is and creating the content that matches that user’s intent will ultimately help your SEO.

8. It’s a Nuance

There is a particular craft to getting SEO right.

It’s not a calculation, formula or exact strategy to follow that gets results every time.

It’s about:

  • Understanding what users are searching for and matching that up with the website’s content.
  • Understanding the competition and knowing what you need to do to obtain the position above them.
  • Spending the time on what matters – adding structured data, writing title tags, and crafting descriptions that users will want to click, as well as URL hierarchy that matches the navigation so that search engines understand the topic flow of the site.

9. Telling a Story

SEO is about telling search engines the story you want them to know about your site.

If it’s an ecommerce website for shoes, then tell Google that you’re selling shoes and add content around:

  • How to fit shoes.
  • How to choose the right pair of shoes for a specific occasion.
  • Maybe even what to look for in the quality of shoes.

When optimizing a site, I have learned to tell the complete story and present it in a way that search engines can digest it and fully understand what the site is about.

10. Agency Is Different from in-House

I have worked for an agency, as a consultant and in-house for startups and large organizations.

I have come to learn that working for an agency on client websites is completely different than in an organization and working on just one website.

With agency work, the focus is on keeping the client happy. I cover this in my article Partnering with an Enterprise SEO Agency: What You Need to Know.

A part of keeping the client involves getting results.

But if the client isn’t happy with the level of communication or the work you are doing, then they will choose to cancel the contract.

When working in-house as an SEO, the pressure is on driving revenue.

The shift in thinking changes to focus on SEO work that helps you report on revenue increase.

11. Enterprise Is a Different Beast

When I moved from working for a medium-sized company to a large organization, my work and how I approach SEO completely changed.

I talk about this in my article Has Your Company Reached the Enterprise SEO Level? How to Know where I cover what it takes to manage a site that sees billions of impressions.

SEO becomes this complex beast that needs to be understood and organized with a strategy that is communicated clearly.

I went from picking a few pages that were low-hanging fruit to optimize and see quick results to now managing millions of pages of user-generated content that have different topics.

I learned to weed through the noise to define the blanket strategies that influenced billions in revenue.

12. The Loudest Aren’t Necessarily the Best

Throughout my years, I have gotten to know other SEO experts and practitioners in the industry.

I have seen many SEO professionals come and go, and some who have stuck around.

I have been in awe over the speakers at conferences who run agencies or own companies that produce SEO tools.

Over time, I have come to realize that not all of the popular and loud SEO professionals are true experts.

There was a point in my career that I passed the knowledge those people had and was forced to carve out my own expertise in SEO.

The level of sites and complexities of the environments I was working with were something that Joe Schmoe SEO had no concept of.

I learned that, while they were experts in their own right, they weren’t necessarily the best in SEO.

13. Some of the Best Are the Quietest

To follow-up on number 12, I have learned to get to know the quiet SEO professionals.

The people who don’t speak or frequent conferences.

The ones that focus on being really good at the job they have.

These people are hard to find, but have been a true value in shaping my career and helping me where the others couldn’t.

14. Do Research Before Making a Decision

I have moved through three large organizations over the last four years.

Each time I have come into the new role with my usual SEO hat on and jumped to decisions before truly getting to know the site and the user base.

At one of these companies, I was told of an SEO problem in which one set of pages were developed and optimized specifically for local searches.

These pages were orphaned (meaning they had no links to them) because over time, the business decided to spend the time and effort to create similar pages but that didn’t focus on SEO.

The pages that the business created linked from the homepage and used parameters to set the very graphic-heavy content.

I was told that the pages the business created converted better and drove more revenue than the ones for SEO.

The business was convinced to get rid of the SEO pages and focus on optimizing the business-created pages.

However, after digging into the data, I found that the business-created pages only ranked for terms that included the brand.

The SEO pages ranked for terms that were outside of the brand, which drove a decent amount of revenue and drummed up new business.

Because the business created pages only ranked for the brand, on the surface, it looked like they were converting and ranking better because the users were already familiar with the brand and there was no competition for brand terms.

In the end, I used the data I had pulled to convince the SEO team and leadership of the company to change their view on which pages performed better.

The strategy was set to merge the two using the learnings from that data.

I have learned from that experience, and many others like it, to take the time and question the data that is presented.

I learned to spend the time to dig deeper and get a complete understanding of what is going on before making any SEO decisions.

15. SEO Pros Almost Never Agree

In all of my years working in SEO, I have almost never found an SEO professional who agrees with me.

I have had many work for me that I had a very good relationship with, but we still didn’t approach things in the same way.

It doesn’t mean that either of us was wrong and the other right.

It meant that we had different ways of thinking.

And that’s what makes a good SEO great.

The out-of-the-box creative approach to solving a problem is what drives the success of any SEO team.

16. More Than One Way of Doing Things

I worked with this SEO once that was very different from me though we often worked well together drafting up creative and bold solutions for SEO.

Our office was a maze of hallways broken up by meeting rooms and offices.

There were always 3-4 different ways to get from point A to point B, and he and I always took different routes even when we were in the middle of a conversation.

We would still find ourselves both at our desks to continue our conversation where we left off.

The funny part of it is that it was indicative of how the SEO mind works.

That we both went our own way but ended up at the same location.

It’s OK if we don’t agree with each other.

In the end, they will most often get the same result – and that’s all that the company needs.

I have learned to let my teams discuss ideas and strategies, but I let the one who is an expert at the approach (technical, video, content, whatever that may be) make the final decision and lead the initiative.

17. Talk to Different Teams in Their Language

When working in large organizations, there will always be different personality types and individuals that are extremely intelligent and experienced in their field.

From working with product to marketing, engineers to designers, content writers, and the executives that lead them all, I have found that each speaks a different language.

Because SEO relies so much on all of these people, I have learned to approach them in different ways.

When talking to engineers, I show them the problem I am seeing and allow them the space to help with the solution.

When talking to content writers, I show them the data around how often keywords are being searched so they can use those words to write about what their audience is interested in.

Executives want to know how SEO will impact their part of the business, so I cater my approach to show them how SEO will make them successful.

Everyone’s an expert in their own right, and their role fits a part of the whole that makes SEO great.

Talking to them in a way that makes sense gets work done and everyone wins.

18. Respect the DevOps Process

Every company has a way of doing things and it’s up to me as an SEO to work within that process.

Understanding the DevOps process established by the businesses and what their priorities are, will ensure that SEO gets worked into that process.

When engineering teams are meeting to talk about the issues they are working through in their Sprint, I will ask if they can pick up one or two.

If there are large projects being worked on over a few sprints, then I ask them to work any optimization they can for the pages being touched.

By working with the flow rather than trying to cut it off and redirect it, the work for SEO will get done and get completed faster.

19. Be Patient

I started my career optimizing my own websites, then working for an agency that managed websites for clients and startup environments.

The work needed for SEO was done quickly and saw nearly instant results.

When I moved to in-house for a larger company I had to learn to slow down and be more methodical in my approach.

Larger organizations with bigger teams have a lot to coordinate, which adds time to the process.

Around the time I moved in-house, Google released their Rank Transition algorithm which was Google’s answer to the spammer that is constantly manipulating SEO to get quick results.

The world around me was slowing down, and I had to learn to be patient with it.

20. How Many Years You Do This Isn’t Important

Just because I have 20 years working in this world of SEO, doesn’t mean I am any more of an expert than someone who has been doing this for 10 or even 5 years.

The technology world is ever-evolving and SEO is constantly changing with it.

Google announces changes in how they look at your site on a near-monthly basis.

The SEO professionals who pay attention to these changes – constantly working on approaches and testing optimization strategies – are the ones who are the experts.

I have met SEO professionals who have been working for two years for big agencies and are seeing great success.

I have also met some SEO professionals who have been optimizing sites for 10 years.

While they may speak at conferences, some have no idea what they are doing.

In the end, it’s about seeing results and paying attention to what is going on in this crazy SEO world.

More Resources:

Category Careers SEO
Jenn Mathews SEO Manager at Github

Jenn Mathews is the thought industry expert in Enterprise SEO. Also know as the SEOGoddess since 2004, Jenn is currently ...

20 Things I Learned From 20 Years of Working in the SEO Industry

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