What Is an SEO Specialist? Role Description & Career Guide for 2024

Marissa Sapega, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

The SEO specialist is a core part of any marketing team, responsible for ensuring that a company’s website and content are primed to rank high up in the organic search results. 

Sound confusing? Don’t worry. In this guide, we’ll explain exactly what SEO is and what an SEO specialist actually does. We’ll then cover everything you need to know about starting a career in this exciting field. 

Consider this your ultimate SEO specialist career guide! Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is SEO, and what does an SEO specialist do?
  2. What skills does an SEO specialist need?
  3. How much does an SEO specialist make? 
  4. Should you consider a career as an SEO specialist?
  5. How to start your career as an SEO specialist
  6. Key takeaways and next steps

Let’s go!

1. What is SEO, and what does an SEO specialist do?

If you’re in the marketing or advertising space today, you’ve probably heard the term “SEO” at some point (especially if you work in digital marketing!) But what exactly is SEO, and how can you leverage it to help achieve your goals?

What is search engine optimization (SEO)? A brief definition

Millions of people use search engines like Google and Bing every day to find answers to their queries; hence, organic search is one of the top channels for driving customers to your website. It’s also “free” (though most companies with high-ranking websites spend considerable sums on creating content), so appearing on the first page for popular terms is highly competitive. 

Search engine optimization entails ensuring that your digital content meets as many criteria as possible used by search engine algorithms to differentiate between “high-quality” and “low-quality” content. It’s not easy to do this, especially considering that search engine companies keep the mechanics of their ranking algorithms top secret. 

However, the basic gist is as follows: Create content that a) appropriately answers searchers’ queries, b) is written for humans (no keyword stuffing!), and provides an optimal user experience (e.g., has low loading time, uses proper headers, includes alt text for images, possesses no broken links or 404 errors, etc.). 

What does an SEO specialist do?

An SEO specialist’s main objective is to help their organization’s website rank for key terms that support business objectives. It’s critical to understand that simply ranking well for keywords and phrases and bringing traffic to a website may not actually serve the intended purpose, i.e., generating leads or sales. 

SEO specialists usually work as part of an in-house marketing team or at a marketing agency. In a smaller in-house team, they typically report to the director of marketing. In larger marketing departments, they may report to the director of SEO or digital marketing. They collaborate with other members of their team, which, depending on the way the organization is structured, could include paid search specialists, digital marketing managers, social media specialists, digital marketing analysts, and other SEO specialists. 

While their objective is simple, SEO specialists must juggle a variety of tasks to be successful. 

Tasks and responsibilities of an SEO specialist

We’ve scoured the internet for real SEO specialist job descriptions. Based on our research, here are the tasks and responsibilities that an SEO specialist is generally expected to take on:

  • Perform keyword research and competitive analysis to optimize existing content and uncover new opportunities.
  • Execute recommendations for content development in coordination with SEO goals.
  • Provide technical SEO support and oversee crawling, indexing, XML sitemap generation and implementation, schema markup, etc.
  • Assist with link-building campaigns with other stakeholders in the department.
  • Use web analytics data from several sources (Google Analytics, CrazyEgg) to evaluate traffic building initiatives’ effectiveness and provide recommendations for improvements in content, user experience, and conversion. 
  • Report on current performance and make recommendations for optimization, including but not limited to impressions, clicks, conversions, organic versus paid traffic, and channel performance. Track and report on these metrics bi-weekly. 
  • Use web analytics to create organic search performance reports that will inform content priorities for the Inbound Marketing team
  • Review and analyze SEO performance data in order to make tactical recommendations to fuel traffic growth and generate a positive ARR impact

SEO specialists need top-notch analytics skills and the technical know-how to create and execute SEO strategies. While it can be challenging, such a role is also in high demand.

Where do SEO specialists work?

An SEO specialist can work for any company that has a website, in an agency, or even as an independent consultant. Because it is a specialized field, small- and medium-sized businesses may not be able to afford a full-time SEO specialist, instead opting to partner with an agency or hire a contractor. You’ll usually find SEO specialists in larger organizations, marketing agencies, or firms that are especially keen to boost their sales or lead gen through organic search.

An SEO specialist sitting on a sofa with a laptop

2. What skills does an SEO specialist need?

There are usually two types of SEO specialists: ones who lean more towards technical SEO and those more concerned with content. The skills they need to succeed for each track are mostly identical, but there is a slight divergence. Here are the overlapping skills:

  • Fluency with tools like Ahrefs, Screaming Frog, Google Analytics, Excel, SEMRush, MOZ, and Google Search Console
  • Analytics know-how to evaluate campaign results and make strategic decisions for what keywords to attempt to rank for (and the content to accomplish this)
  • Excellent communication capabilities for acquiring backlinks from other high-quality websites, collaborating with the rest of the marketing team, converting data into insights to demonstrate how SEO efforts have contributed to business KPIs, and explaining to stakeholders the reasoning behind your efforts
  • Reporting and presentation skills
  • Meticulous organizational skills to manage all moving parts of different SEO efforts

Technical SEO skills

An SEO specialist who is more focused on technical SEO will need to conduct technical audits. This includes identifying and resolving broken links, web crawler issues, toxic backlinks, and more. They’ll also need a keen eye for internal link building, adding schema markup to HTML, and creating an XML sitemap, among other competencies.

Content SEO skills

SEO specialists who focus on content need to possess the writing chops to create the content that will draw the traffic to their website, or be able to provide guidelines for writers so they can create content that adheres to SEO best practices. They should also have a good understanding of the type of content that not only serves SEO, but also aligns with the brand, is relevant to the target audience, and helps to build credibility.

3. How much does an SEO specialist make? A brief salary guide

Compensation for SEO specialists can vary depending on geography, skill level, company size, and other factors. However, U.S. salaries range from around $49,000-$77,000 (according to Glassdoor).

Outside the U.S., SEO specialists can expect to earn:

For more information, check out our SEO specialist salary guide. For comparison with other roles, check out our comprehensive digital marketing salary guide.

4. Should you consider a career as an SEO specialist?

How do you know if you’re a good fit for a career as an SEO specialist? Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I enjoy analyzing data and searching for the “why” behind results?
  • Am I interested in keeping up with search engine algorithm changes and adjusting my strategies accordingly? 
  • Does the technical side of SEO intrigue me?
  • Am I a strategic thinker?
  • Can I translate complex ideas into concepts non-technical people can understand?
  • Am I a good writer or editor, or am I interested in collaborating with content creators?

Given that Google serves an estimated 2 trillion search queries per year and eCommerce sales continue to take an ever-larger share of the retail pie, search engine optimization is a great field to get into. As more businesses compete for limited search results real estate, paid search will get more expensive, making organic results an attractive alternative. 

An SEO specialist sitting at a desk, looking through documents

5. How to start your career as an SEO specialist

You can do several things to get your career as a search engine optimization specialist off the ground. For example:

  • Test out some free trials of popular SEO tools like Ahrefs, Screaming Frog, and Google Analytics to familiarize yourself with how they work. 
  • Enroll in a digital marketing bootcamp or take a few courses on SEO fundamentals and best practices to get a better understanding of its compelling combination of art and science. 
  • Talk to SEO specialists or digital marketers with SEO experience to learn what they like and dislike about their jobs. It’s important to understand different aspects of the job so you go into the field with your eyes open! 

Rest assured you’ll have plenty of options for moving forward, whether you want to go all in on learning SEO or are just keen to get a better understanding of what it takes to be an SEO specialist. 

6. Key takeaways and next steps

SEO specialists are a mainstay of the digital marketing continuum. Due to rising online sales and stratospheric traffic, their skills are in high demand—and this is not likely to change any time soon.

If you’d like to learn more about a career in digital marketing, why not try your hand at this free, self-paced short course? We can also recommend the following guides:

What You Should Do Now

  1. Get a hands-on introduction to digital marketing with a free, self-paced short course comprised of five short tutorials.

  2. Take part in one of our FREE live online digital marketing events with industry experts, and check out digital marketing student Adelina’s portfolio project.

  3. Become a job-ready digital marketer in just 3-7 months—all backed by the CareerFoundry job guarantee.

  4. This month, we’re offering a partial scholarship worth up to $1,365 off on all of our career-change programs to the first 100 students who apply 🎉 Book your application call and secure your spot now!

What is CareerFoundry?

CareerFoundry is an online school for people looking to switch to a rewarding career in tech. Select a program, get paired with an expert mentor and tutor, and become a job-ready designer, developer, or analyst from scratch, or your money back.

Learn more about our programs