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Career Guides

How to Become an SEO Specialist

Want to pursue a career in search engine optimization (SEO), but don’t know where to start? BrainStation’s SEO Specialist career guide is intended to help you take the first steps toward a lucrative career in SEO and search engine marketing (SEM). The guide provides an in-depth overview of the SEO skills you should learn, the best SEO training options, career paths in SEO and SEM, how to become an SEO Specialist, and more.

How to Become an SEO Specialist
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How Do I Become an SEO Specialist?

While there are a number of ways to become an SEO expert, there is no single path to becoming an SEO expert. Many people working in SEO began in traditional marketing roles before narrowing their focus to SEO, but that’s far from a hard-and-fast rule. There’s no specific background experience required for you to become an SEO Specialist. People often transition into jobs working in SEO from a range of different fields, including marketing and communications, business, and IT.

In fact, less than 30 percent of search engine optimization job postings require a bachelor’s degree, and nearly two-thirds have no degree requirements at all. The most important requirement is to have up-to-date SEO skills – and be able to demonstrate them.

How to become an SEO Specialist in five steps:

  1. Learn SEO fundamentals
  2. Get to know key SEO tools
  3. Keep growing and practicing your SEO skills
  4. Develop a portfolio of projects to showcase your SEO work
  5. Optimize your own website to develop your SEO skills

1. Learn SEO Fundamentals

There’s never been a better time to grow your search engine optimization skills. According to one study, over 93 percent of online experiences begin with a search (and a search engine). And here, ranking matters more than ever – one study found that the click-through rate for the top-ranking search result was nearly 30 percent, but for the fifth-ranked result, that number plummeted to four percent. Only one percent of searchers, on average, click through to see the ninth-ranked result. Clearly, ranking well can make a significant material difference to a company’s success.

So it’s no wonder search marketing experience is one of the most in-demand skills, whether it’s a full-time career or just one element of a job in marketing or promotions. In fact, one recent study found a 43 percent year-over-year increase in postings for SEO jobs.

With the ever-growing intricacy of search engine optimization – and its vital importance to driving traffic – SEO experts are becoming an indispensable member of any marketing team, and even non-specialist team members, from interns to CEOs, should be familiar with SEO as well. In other words, understanding how search engines work and improving your SEO skills is always a good idea. Even if “SEO” isn’t in your job title, being able to put SEO expertise on your resume can translate into a bump in compensation.

But while a degree is not typically necessary, many SEO job postings do require familiarity with one or more specific SEO tools. A search engine like Google never rests – they’re always updating the techniques they use to bring the most relevant results to searchers. SEO experts need to continuously update their methods as well, adapting to the changes search engines make and learning new skills to keep up with best practices.

The rise of voice search, to choose just one example, is already having a transformational effect, as a significant portion of searches made through Google’s platform is now voice searches. The way results are displayed can have an equally powerful effect on SEO: the sudden prominence of rich snippets and knowledge boxes, for example, are already having a game-changing effect for SEO experts. And most professionals are readying themselves for a larger-scale shift to mobile, given that Google has already confirmed that over half of all searches are conducted on mobile.

Given the complexity of the current field of SEO, it can be difficult to know where to start. A digital marketing bootcamp or other SEO-focused course is a great way to learn the fundamental technical SEO concepts and tools SEO Specialists need to know in a structured environment that prioritizes thorough, efficient, and up-to-date learning. With the help of an instructor, you’ll know the time you spend learning is focused on what matters most, and with feedback to keep your progress on track. BrainStation’s Search Engine Marketing course even includes coursework that will form the basis for a professional portfolio – an indispensable tool in your future job search.

2. Get to Know Key SEO Tools

SEO (and the related practice of SEM, search engine marketing) is about far more than just keywords. To effectively create and optimize content across all platforms – different search engines, search methods, and display types, and even social media platforms – requires a multilayered approach that takes a lot of work and a lot of strategizing.

Fortunately, there are tools to help you conduct research and analysis to develop new insights; create, format, and post your content; and monitor what’s working and what needs improvement. There are also tools to help automate many of the most time-consuming tasks for an SEO expert, boosting your efficiency – and making sure you can focus on creating great content.

Some of these instruments are the platforms themselves – SEM systems like Google Ads or Microsoft Advertising, or the social media channels where you’ll be posting your organic content. Others are analysis tools closely related to these platforms, such as Google Analytics or Google Trends.

To really make the most out of these useful tools, you’ll want to begin with a clear understanding of how search engines work, and how the process of searching translates into search results—concepts like site crawlers and page indexing; meta descriptions, on-page optimization, and answer boxes; Google Search Console, rich snippets and data highlighter; and pay-per-click advertising, ad groups and remarketing.

That’s not to suggest that keywords aren’t important! Once you have a grasp of the search landscape, you’re ready to move on to higher-order digital tools like Ahrefs, which is specifically designed to help you conduct research on SEO keywords, and hone in on the best search terms for your content – whether you’re creating a blog for your customers or adding enhanced descriptions to your product listings.

Other tools that help conduct keyword research and develop content include Linkio, Alexa, SEMRush, Serpstat, Google Analytics, and Google Keyword Planner, to name just a few. The best of these tools combine a number of features to optimize content and content marketing into a single platform. With Ahrefs, for example, SEO experts can explore relevant keywords, check ranking factors and backlinks to their website’s pages, pull up related keywords based on searches, analyze competitors’ content and SEO, and even discover the most shared content online.

In fact, there are tools for almost every aspect of SEO management:

  • Moz to audit your audience targeting

  • Cyfe to consolidate your social media channels’ metrics

  • SpyFu to monitor changes to your competitors’ traffic

  • Google PageSpeed Insights to check your page loading times

The list goes on. While SEO professionals and digital marketing experts don’t rely on all these tools every day, this list speaks to the wide variety of different considerations they have to evaluate when trying to develop content that is based on keyword research and optimized for search engines.

3. Keep Growing and Practicing Your SEO Skills

Knowing how to use the right digital tools is the foundation on which your career as an SEO expert is built. Once you’ve learned how to use them, you’re ready to move on to the higher-order skills and best practices that will give you an extra edge, including more sophisticated techniques for optimizing your content, as well as soft skills, like strategic thinking, which should underpin your entire approach to SEO.

A good way to develop these skills is simply through practice – creating your own SEO campaigns and trying different things to see what works and what doesn’t. Remember to keep thorough records of your SEO efforts! This will be important later.

A good strategy to practice at this stage is technical SEO – reshaping the technical aspects of a website to improve its ranking and visibility. Technical SEO tactics include indexing, rendering, and website architecture with the goal of making a website faster and easier for web crawlers to find and understand.

If you're a small business owner, or if you’re working at a smaller company, or on a consulting basis, it’s more likely that you’ll be required to make technical SEO adjustments to your web pages yourself. While keywords and content are often the biggest piece of the SEO puzzle, other factors – like page loading times, lazy loading comments sections, HTML tags, metadata, and microdata – also have an impact on SEO. In situations where you don’t have a webmaster to rely on, you may be required to go in and make these changes yourself.

Because you’re practicing, you shouldn’t hesitate to jump in before you know exactly what you’re doing. Just try things out. With even a single strategy in mind, you can begin making changes and seeing what effect they have. Even when you’ve mastered these techniques, there’s still more you can learn, like how to audit your ad click-throughs for fraud, fine-tune the microdata in your HTML tags, or find ways to boost your page loading times.

As you add to your arsenal of SEO tools, you’ll be practicing essential SEO expert soft skills as well: communication and interpersonal skills, organization and admin skills, and especially analytical and strategic thinking.

Working in SEO almost always means working as part of a team and working hands-on with textual content. Connecting with an audience is a major part of the role, so knowing how to communicate well isn’t just an asset; it’s a necessity. Even if you’re not writing a website’s content yourself, you’ll very likely be finessing the work of a writer work to boost specific keywords – not to mention writing headlines, abstracts, snippets, and captions – so your strong writing skills will definitely come into play.

Running a campaign also demands organization. There’s no avoiding Excel, or the research that goes into the nearly infinite variables SEO experts weigh. Even simple tasks like managing your budget require at least basic administrative skills, and as you get deeper into research – including A/B testing, or conducting long-term analysis on the way your SEO strategies are affecting your organic traffic – keeping things organized will only be more crucial.

In the end, though, SEO all comes down to strategy. Optimizing content is part art, part science – and, at least when it comes to the science side, you’ll need to be able to look at the data in front of you and understand what it means. Analytics tools can help you run A/B tests or see where your traffic is coming from, but the question of what to do with that information has no definitive answer. You’ll need to think critically about what techniques are appropriate and effective and think strategically about how to apply your resources toward seeing the largest gains. But you won’t know which instincts to follow until you try – practice is key.

4. Develop a Portfolio of Projects to Showcase Your SEO Work

The projects you put together as you hone your skills can live on long after the practice stage is over. Especially if you’re not currently working in SEO, these practice campaigns will form the basis of your professional SEO portfolio – perhaps the most important aspect of your job search. This is why record-keeping is so important: now that you know what works, you can package the work you’ve done to demonstrate the different strategies you’ve tried – showing that you know how to make use of them and know how to make them work.

Especially for SEO experts, whose work outcomes play out behind the scenes, and aren’t necessarily well-represented by content the user sees, this kind of hard evidence is crucial. Rather than showing off a finished website, an SEO expert needs to demonstrate that they have a firm grasp of processes and outcomes in a way that showcases their research, planning, analysis, and strategic thinking.

In this, as in so much of SEO, data is everything. Potential Hiring Managers are most impressed by hard information. In a portfolio, this can be presented in two ways. The first is to emphasize your skill and training by walking the reader through how you’ve done what you’ve done, perhaps using a single project as the basis for a narrative – the SEO courses you’ve completed, the techniques and strategies you’ve used, the insights you’ve gained, and so on. In this way, your portfolio can tell an interesting and unmistakable story, beginning with what you set out to accomplish, what challenges you faced, and what you did to overcome them. Even if you have no paid experience working directly in SEO, your portfolio can feature the results of the hands-on exercises you conducted in your SEO course.

The second thing a portfolio can do is dig deep into the data. Statistics are your best endorsement – try to identify meaningful metrics that speak to the success of your SEO projects, such as growth in total pageviews or new visitors, an expanded audience in the mobile market, a jump in your page rankings, or even a measurable improvement in your page loading times. For this, you’ll need to rely on numbers. Here, you’ll want to think of ways to present this data using beautiful images, if possible – more data is typically better, but it’s important to present it in a way that makes an impact but doesn’t overwhelm. Charts and graphs are great; long lists of numbers are not.

5. Optimize Your Own Website to Showcase Your SEO Skills

You’ve got a portfolio of projects, beautifully presented to demonstrate your skills. To really show that you're an SEO expert, apply them to your own website – not only to put your money where your mouth is but also to attract potential employers.

Of course, other SEO Specialists are taking the same approach. To help your website stand out, you’ll need to be proactive – and one of the most effective ways to do this is by becoming active off your own website. Engaging with your professional community, by writing posts and articles for other websites, for instance, will not only establish you as a thought leader and raise your professional profile – it will also drive incoming links and traffic, a factor in your site’s ranking.

The wider your network, the bigger the effect. Unsurprisingly, developing a wide network as an SEO expert begins online. But there are excellent opportunities to meet and network with others in your field – and in the related fields of digital marketing, promotions, user experience design, and advertising – offline as well. SEO conferences, workshops, virtual summits, and resources like Search Engine Journal give you the chance to connect to others in your line of work while also brushing up your skills.

Is SEO a Growing Field?

Yes, SEO is a growing field, with SEO skills and digital marketing still in great demand. According to LinkedIn, there were more than 47 thousand job openings that matched the keyword “SEO” in 2019 alone, and given the increased digitization of 2020, these numbers are likely to increase.

What Is the Salary of an SEO Specialist?

According to job site Indeed, the average salary of an SEO Specialist is $52,590. This rises to an average of $87,267 per year for the more senior SEO Manager.

How Do I Become an SEO Specialist With No Experience?

Whether you’re a business owner or currently working in digital marketing or a totally unrelated field, it’s possible to become an SEO expert – it’s simply a matter of acquiring the right set of skills. If you’re a Marketer looking to learn the basics as a way to help yourself stand out from the pack, the first step is to acquire the core technical competencies that an SEO expert needs – in SEO and SEM techniques and best practices, HTML and CSS, analytics, and link building, as well as related expertise like content marketing and raising brand awareness.

If you’re looking to focus on SEO and SEM as a full-time Specialist, the first step is the same: to learn the most fundamental SEO best practices and get familiar with the tools SEO experts use. To take your skills to the next level, keep practicing and learning new skills, like content development, on-page SEO, technical SEO, and JavaScript. Alongside these skills, you’ll also need to find ways to demonstrate that you have the many soft and transferable skills an SEO Specialist should possess, like a feel for the online landscape, strategic and critical thinking skills, communication and interpersonal skills, organization, and attention to detail.

If you’re trying to pick up experience using different SEO and SEM strategies in a piecemeal way, it may take a few months for you to turn your passing familiarity into a coherent skill set. Courses like BrainStation’s Search Engine Marketing certification are specifically developed to immerse you in the most crucial aspects of SEO for efficient, accelerated learning.

How Do I Start a Career in SEO?

Getting the skills that make you an SEO expert is half the battle – but once you have those skills, you still face the daunting task of connecting with employers and getting hired.

In most cases, your resume is your first contact with a potential employer, so it pays to get it right. Here, it’s best to keep it simple. Research shows that you have about six seconds to make your first impression, so keep your resume’s layout clean and well-organized, and the information concise. Use bullet points where appropriate. The emphasis should be on your SEO training, skills, and experience, using hard numbers to back up your accomplishments (bearing in mind that your portfolio is the place to dive into details).

SEO skills typically fall into three categories: technical skills (including expertise with the software, platforms, and digital tools of SEO), transferable skills (like sales, marketing, or communications skills), and adaptable skills (like strategy, teamwork, and organization). That first category should get top billing on your resume – knowledge of technical SEO best practices and techniques should be the first thing the reader’s eye lands on when they look at your resume. Transferable and adaptive skills can then be cited at the bottom of the page or woven throughout.

Build an SEO Portfolio

For an SEO expert, whose work outcomes aren’t typically well-represented by the kind of content the user sees, putting together a portfolio presents an added challenge. Instead of simply showing a finished product, you’ll need to demonstrate your processes and outcomes in a way that showcases your research, planning, analysis, and strategic thinking.

Here, what will impress potential Hiring Managers most is hard information. This can be presented in two ways. First, emphasize your digital marketing training and skills by walking the reader through the how of what you’ve done, perhaps by focusing on a single project – the SEO courses you’ve attended, the techniques and strategies you’ve used, the insights you’ve gained, and so on. Your portfolio can tell a story, beginning with what you set out to accomplish, what challenges you faced, and what you did to overcome them. Even if you have no paid experience working directly in SEO, your portfolio can feature the results of the hands-on exercises you conducted in your SEO course.

Then, dig deep into the data. Statistics are your best endorsement – see if you can identify meaningful metrics that speak to the success of your SEO efforts, such as high-ranking blog posts or web pages, growth in total pageviews or new visitors, an expanded audience in the mobile market, a jump in your page rankings, or even a measurable improvement in your page loading times. For these, you’ll need to rely on numbers – and while more is typically better, make sure you’re presenting them in a way that makes an impact, but doesn’t overwhelm. Charts and graphs are great; long lists of numbers are not.

Keep Building Your SEO Knowledge

The Internet never sleeps – to remain viable as an SEO expert, you’ll need to continue upgrading your skills over the course of your career (and demonstrate to potential employers that you are doing so). This means that your resume and portfolio are never complete.

For instance, a study of all web searches conducted in May of 2018 found that the click-through rate for the top-ranking search result was just under 30 percent, a number that plummeted to four percent for the fifth-ranked result. By the ninth result, a meager one percent of searchers, on average, were still interested in clicking through. Compared to a few years earlier, that’s a much more dramatic drop-off. Much of this change is likely a result of the number of searches conducted on desktop versus mobile – and the trend toward mobile searches has only grown since. For that matter, voice search accounted for one in five searches as long ago as 2016, according to Google. Knowing these facts not only underscores the importance of SEO; it also offers important insights about how optimizing for mobile or voice searches can improve your overall traffic.

Audience behaviors change – and so do search engines. Large players like Google and Bing are constantly making updates to the algorithms that drive their search engines, using new metrics and emphasizing or de-emphasizing others in an arms race to stay one step ahead of people trying to game the system. As a result, SEO strategies that worked well just a few years ago might already be hopelessly outdated. Refreshing your SEO knowledge periodically is crucial to staying on top of an endlessly evolving field, and making sure you know what you need to know.

Network to Make Marketing Connections

Once your career as an SEO expert is underway, take it to the next level by networking with SEO agencies, as well as other professionals in SEO, digital marketing, and content marketing, and raise your personal profile. Unsurprisingly, developing a wide network as an SEO expert begins online. Consider starting your own industry-related website to showcase your own SEO efforts, demonstrate thought leadership, and share your work while also growing your personal platform. Here, your own page ranking is your best endorsement; building out a strong online presence is to one’s benefit in virtually any field, but particularly in SEO, where the proof is in the pudding.

There are also several networking events for people working in SEO, both online and offline, which offer excellent opportunities to meet people in your field. SEO conferences, workshops, and resources like Search Engine Journal can help you stay connected and in tune with the industry.

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