One digital marketing skill no modern brand can do without is search engine optimization (or SEO, for short). By optimizing websites to appear at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs—another acronym!), organizations can vastly improve web traffic, customer engagement, and the visibility of their brand.
Learning how to become an SEO expert requires a complex constellation of skills, from keyword research to copywriting. It also involves tweaking the backend of websites to improve their ranking, and diving into data to help devise and amend strategies based on what you find.
In this post we’ll give you a quick guide on how to become an SEO expert. We’ll demystify what an SEO expert does, what skills they need, and how you might go about acquiring them. We’ll also touch on some of the latest SEO trends. While nobody can become an SEO expert overnight, follow the steps in this guide, and you’ll soon be well on the way to developing all the know-how you need!
- What is SEO?
- How to become an SEO expert: Learn the fundamentals
- How to become an SEO expert: Master the basics
- How to become an SEO expert: Use the tools
- How to become an SEO expert: Test and learn
- How to become an SEO expert: Keep up with the trends!
- Next steps
Ready to find out how to become an SEO expert? Let’s jump right in!
1. What is SEO?
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of optimizing your website and broader online presence to increase its visibility on popular search engines, like Google or Bing.
The ultimate aim of SEO is to beat your competitors to the top of the search rankings for key terms that are relevant to your offering. With the launch of search engines in the 1990s, SEO quickly emerged as one of the first forms of digital marketing—although it wasn’t called digital marketing at the time!
Since the early days, SEO has evolved into one of the most sought-after digital marketing skills, with entire agencies now dedicating themselves to this one practice alone. SEO is also one of the fastest-changing fields in digital marketing—since search engines often change how their algorithms rank content, a key aspect of SEO is staying abreast of these changes.
In short, SEO can be a complex beast, bringing together a variety of different elements that we’ll explore in more detail in the upcoming sections.
2. How to become an SEO expert: Learn the fundamentals
Before embarking on your SEO journey, it helps to have a solid grasp of the SEO fundamentals. Since we already know what the aim of SEO is, the next step is to understand how search engine algorithms work. Let’s take a look.
How do search engine algorithms work?
As you’ll know, when you run a Google search, the information you need is soon right at your fingertips. But how does it get there?
Ensuring that relevant content appears when users search for a particular keyword or phrase is the job of search engine algorithms. These complex algorithms carry out three main tasks: crawling, indexing, and ranking.
- Crawling: web crawlers or ‘spiders’ are pre-programmed bots that ‘crawl’ websites to inspect all of their content, from site code to web copy, metatags, and more.
- Indexing: next, search engine algorithms evaluate the content of each website and index them accordingly in their databases. You can think of these as giant digital filing cabinets stuffed with all the internet’s content. This makes finding relevant content much easier.
- Ranking: a search engine’s index has almost countless entries. When you search for a keyword or term, then, search engines must rank content according to relevance. This means they can offer the best results. So how do algorithms rank indexed content? They do so against a variety of factors. These are often a little opaque but include things like content relevance, site speed, and domain authority (which we’ll explore in more depth later).
This three-step process doesn’t happen just once but over and over again. Content online is constantly crawled and re-crawled, indexed and re-indexed, ranked and re-ranked. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge—the task is never complete! However, it does mean that when users search for a particular term, a search engine will deliver the most relevant and up-to-date content. And websites with the highest ranking will appear at the top of the search results pages (or SERPs). And that, in a nutshell, is how search algorithms work!
What skills do SEO experts need?
In casual discussions about SEO, the focus tends to fall on topics like keyword research and copywriting. In case you’re unfamiliar with them, here’s a quick overview:
- Keyword research involves seeking out and identifying which search terms people use when seeking products, services, or information. As an SEO expert, your job is to find search terms relevant to your offering with high search volumes and low competition.
- SEO copywriting involves writing compelling, on-brand copy for websites, blogs, and other landing pages, while incorporating relevant keywords in appropriate places, such as in headings and subheadings.
While keywords and copy are probably the most visible aspects of the process, there’s much more to SEO than these two things alone. Other specific SEO skills include:
- Link building—acquiring links from other websites to your own, and vice-versa, to build your site’s authority (a key ranking factor for search engine algorithms).
- On-page SEO—optimizing content like videos, graphics, HTML, image tags, meta descriptions, and web copy.
- Off-page SEO—optimizing content beyond your domain. Again, this includes link building, but it also involves things like brand mentions on social media, forum comments, influencer marketing, and social bookmarking.
- Technical SEO—optimizing your site’s technical, non-content-based elements, such as creating an XML sitemap and improving site speed and navigation.
While these are the specific skills that SEO experts need, you’ll also typically need broader digital skills in web design, social media, content marketing, and data analytics.
What’s the best way to learn SEO techniques?
As mentioned, because search engines often tweak how their algorithms rank content, SEO is constantly evolving. As a result, SEO is not an area of digital marketing you’ll typically learn via a dedicated college degree. That’s because once you’ve completed a degree, many of the SEO techniques (if not the underlying principles) will be outdated!
Instead, people typically learn SEO in the following ways:
- Take a short online course (free courses or paid, depending on what you’re looking for).
- Optimize your website, whether it’s a blog, freelance site, or portfolio. Getting hands-on is the best way to learn.
- Land a job in a digital marketing team or as part of an SEO agency.
- Become a freelance SEO specialist.
Okay, now we’ve got the fundamentals covered, let’s move on to mastering the basics.
Learn more: Free SEO training options
3. How to become an SEO expert: Master the basics
It’s one thing to understand the theory of search engine algorithms, but another entirely to put SEO into practice. In this section, we start by exploring the basic categories that impact how websites are ranked. We’ll then look at two vital skills you need to thrive as an SEO expert.
Which factors determine how algorithms rank web content?
Believe it or not, search engines use hundreds of metrics to rank content. Sites like Google constantly tweak these metrics, moving the goal posts for frustrated SEO practitioners! However, we can categorize them into three broad groups:
Website relevance describes how closely a website’s content aligns with a user’s search query (otherwise known as search intent). Criteria for ranking relevance include content-based elements like written copy, images, video, and other multimedia. Alt-tags, meta descriptions, and other on-page SEO elements contribute to a website’s relevance.
A website or domain’s authority measures the reliability of its content, and a higher authority will help move pages up in the SERPs. Common criteria for increasing domain authority include the quantity and quality of written copy, internal links, and backlinks from other websites with high authority. For instance, when respected, industry-leading publications link to your website, this boosts your authority score. It’s why off-site SEO is such an essential factor in authority rankings.
The more trustworthy a site’s content is perceived, the higher it will appear on the SERPs. Once again, many factors contribute to a site’s perceived trustworthiness, but it’s largely measured through high-quality, original, relevant, and well-linked content. Sites with inconsistent, irrelevant, or plagiarized material, and those that use link farms or other unethical practices will be penalized.
Related article: SEO Basics for Beginners
Next up, here are two vital skills that no SEO expert can do without:
HTML for SEO
All SEO experts require some knowledge of HTML. This is because a site’s HTML code is the first place crawlers look to determine which pages on your site to index and how best to categorize them. While you don’t need to be an expert coder, you should get the basics down, learning how to insert and update alt-tags, headings, and meta descriptions on your website’s backend.
For a quick tutorial, this YouTube video covers a few basic HTML tips for improving your SEO.
Data analytics for SEO
Another skill all SEO experts need is data analytics. Because the factors that drive search algorithms are a little opaque, SEO requires experimentation. You’ll subsequently need to look at the data to measure performance and determine which strategies are working.
Some SEO and web analytics tools (we’ll cover a couple in the next section) can provide much of the necessary data (although data may be differently labeled depending on the tool). Nevertheless, typical metrics include:
- Organic traffic: The unpaid traffic that your SEO efforts are generating.
- Positioning: How high in the search engine index your site or web page ranks.
- Page impressions: How often users see your site or web page in the SERPs.
- Clickthrough rate: The ratio of users who click on your search results versus the number of page impressions.
- Keyword rankings: How successfully keywords drive traffic to your site (note: a single keyword ranking may not be that valuable on its own, but measured over time can help track your strategy’s ongoing success).
- Page speed: How quickly page elements are displayed when users click on your site (generally, the higher the speed, the better your ranking).
- Conversion rate: How many visitors to your site convert to leads or customers, for instance, by signing up for your newsletter or purchasing a product.
While this is not a complete list of all the metrics you’ll use, they are some of the most common ones. Once you get hands-on, you’ll soon learn how they relate to each other.
Working within digital marketing analytics is an entire role in its own right. Learn more about it in this article.
4. How to become an SEO expert: Use the tools
Now we’ve got the basics covered, how will you implement these tips? Fortunately, many high-quality tools are available that make the process much easier. Some, including popular ones like Semrush and Ahrefs, are subscription only. However, to get you started, here are three free ones to give you a taste of what’s available:
A free Google Chrome extension, Keyword Surfer is a nifty little tool that allows you to see SEO data for entries on the SERPs. Type in a term, hit search, and you’ll find each result accompanied by its monthly search volume, the number of words on the landing page, and the number of times the page uses that search term. It also includes a panel with keyword suggestions… a handy place to start your keyword research.
Answer the Public
Answer the Public is a visual SEO tool that shows what people are searching for. It uses auto-complete data from sites like Google to quickly provide you with every related phrase and question containing your keyword. Beware, though, that this tool offers limited daily searches unless you pay for the full version. That said, it’s best to see it in action—check out this search we ran for ‘homemade cheese’. Who knew so many people had questions about this topic? (We’ll stick to store-bought, though, thanks!)
Google Search Console
Probably the most effective free SEO tool available is Google Search Console. While you can only use it for websites you own and can verify as your property, if that’s the case, it offers clear and detailed reports to help improve your website’s search traffic and overall performance. Once again, the best bet is to have a try!
Unsurprisingly, there are many tools out there worth exploring. Research your own or check out this detailed list of free SEO tools.
5. How to become an SEO expert: Test and learn
Wherever you’re applying it, good SEO requires solid data-driven testing. By tracking some of the performance metrics outlined in section 3, you can determine which strategies are working and which need to change.
That said, SEO is never an exact science. In 2020 alone, Google launched nearly 5,000 changes to its search algorithms. Many of these were likely relatively minor. But the sheer number of algorithmic tweaks suggests that organic search rankings will naturally fluctuate, regardless of SEO efforts.
SEO easy wins
When testing, the best tactic is to track website metrics over time, targeting your SEO efforts on certain pages to see your strategy’s impact. A simple technique is to amend one or two high-impact (and relatively low-effort) aspects of your site, which are well-known contributors to higher SEO rankings.
- Title tags: Optimize your page’s title tags by using keywords relevant to the page’s content. Try to include your brand or company name and experiment with different lengths (in general, title tags should be about 50-70 characters long).
- Content format: From video to images and written copy, experimenting with different content types will help you determine which pages rank best. Does a page with a lot of copy but few images rank better than a page with several videos but minimal text, or is a combination of these more effective? You’ll really only learn by trying!
- Copy length: It’s not 100% clear what length the optimal landing page’s copy should be. However, SEO experts generally accept that longer copy ranks higher than short texts. Experiment with this, though—is there an optimal page length? What’s too long and what’s too short? Trial and error will tell you.
- Internal links: One way in which algorithms rank the trustworthiness of content is to cross-check internal site links. If you can produce a web of interlinked content, this may improve your rankings. But don’t overdo it! Experimenting with this can help you determine the optimum number of internal links.
- Backlinks: We’ve already discussed the importance of backlinks, but how do different link-building strategies impact your rankings? Is it worth investing time getting your site mentioned on forums like Quora, for example? Or is it better to focus on building links from a few higher authority influencer websites?
While these suggestions might sound challenging, they’re not as intimidating as they seem, especially as it’s better to start small. It’s better to avoid rolling out an SEO approach across your entire website in one go because this requires a lot of effort and might ultimately have little impact on your rankings.
SEO A/B Testing
A common approach for evaluating your search rankings is what’s known as A/B testing. This is when you create two landing pages (one being A, the other being the B page) that are very similar but adapt each using subtly different techniques. For instance, maybe you have one landing page with text between 1,200 and 1,500 words and another, similar page, with text over 2,000 words. Which one ranks better? By tracking their performance over time, you’ll gradually be able to determine the optimal copy length. You can use this approach for any kind of SEO technique.
Ultimately, SEO involves plenty of trial and error. But once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll be in a much better position to judge the effectiveness of different approaches.
6. How to become an SEO expert: Keep up with the trends!
Finally, when starting your SEO journey, aim to normalize keeping up with the latest research, theory, tools, and techniques. Your research efforts don’t end once you deliver your first project! In SEO, it’s often a case of one step forward, two steps back. Once you’ve figured out what works, all it takes is one major algorithm update and you’ll be back to where you started!
How you stay updated on the latest SEO trends is up to you. Maybe you enjoy reading blogs, or perhaps you’re more comfortable listening to SEO podcasts. Either way, take the initiative to learn what’s happening in the industry.
To get started, here are a couple of emerging trends to keep an eye on:
SERPs are becoming more diverse
The SERPs used to be pretty straightforward: Google something, get links. Easy! These days, however, Google is creating more diverse and interactive SERPs, creating opportunities and challenges for SEO experts. Increased content snippets, related questions, and localization features are all great examples. Google has a habit of secretly sneaking new features in, but learning to spot them as they emerge will help you identify their intent and find the best way to optimize for that feature.
Unique images are ranking higher
Not all web pages lend themselves to imagery, but there’s no denying they help bring content to life. This is especially true for younger audiences that are more accustomed to multimedia experiences online. Furthermore, Google Image Search is becoming increasingly prominent on the SERPs, with images rising up the ranks of importance. While it’s legitimate to use images from elsewhere online (so long as you credit them), unique images are set to rank more highly than second-hand ones—something to keep in mind for your graphics team!
Mobile content is becoming increasingly important
Mobile devices have now been with us for some time, and, in 2019, Google rolled out mobile-first indexing. This means algorithms now prioritize the mobile experience. For SEO, this means taking care of mobile UX design, layout, and security issues. Interactive clickable or swipeable content also impacts your SEO rankings—something to consider as mobile device use evolves.
Voice search is growing more prominent
With the increase in voice-activated assistants like Siri and Alexa, voice search is expected to play a more prominent role in SEO. Optimizing content now means considering the different ways people use these devices compared to typing. Think about longer, more linguistically natural search terms. For instance, people who are interested in homemade cheese (for whatever reason) might ask a voice assistant: “Please can you give me a recipe for homemade cheese?” Meanwhile, if they were typing, they might write: “homemade cheese recipes” (again, in this case, we’ll stick to store-bought!)
7. Next steps
There we have it, your comprehensive guide to how to become an SEO expert! In this post, we’ve covered the fundamentals of SEO, the basic techniques and tools you’ll need to learn, how to test out different SEO strategies, and a few of the latest trends. SEO is a fast-paced and constantly changing area of digital marketing. But if you love innovating with new digital technologies, it can be a rewarding field to work in, both creatively and financially.
Want to learn how to become an SEO expert in a more practical manner? Check out this free, 5-day Intro to Digital Marketing short course. Sign up and you’ll receive a lesson a day straight to your inbox. Alternatively, check out the following introductory guides: