SEO is not that hard to learn, but it can be confusing and overwhelming to get started. Learning SEO means learning about a long list of individual digital marketing strategies, which can feel a bit like adding new weapons to your arsenal as you learn how to wield them. It doesn’t help that the Internet is full of misinformation about the optimal SEO strategies and best practices, and to make matters even more complex, those strategies often change.
If you’re interested in getting started, follow this roadmap for how to learn SEO:
1. Learn SEO Basics
If you’re completely new to search engine optimization (SEO), you will need to first build out your understanding of SEO fundamentals. There are some foundational concepts relating to how search engines work that anyone needs to grasp before digging deeper into higher-level SEO knowledge areas.
To master the basics of SEO, you should learn more about the following five SEO concepts:
How search engines work
Search engines work by keeping web content in indexes. Each time someone conducts a search for a certain word or phrase, the search engine finds content in its index that matches those terms. Then comes the complicated and mysterious part that SEO professionals must focus on: the Google algorithm arranges the results in an ordered ranking, with the most helpful search results arranged first.
Since studies show that very few people are willing to sift through pages of search results to find what they’re looking for, it is crucial for websites hoping to bring in traffic to rank as highly in those search results as possible — hence the variety of techniques and strategies that make up search engine optimization (SEO).
It is also worth noting that search engines do not have every page on the Internet in their indexes. Instead, search engines build their indexes based on sitemaps — menus displaying all the most important content living on your website — and links from pages that are already indexed.
Link building means getting other reputable websites to link to your site in their content, which are called backlinks. Backlinks are an important signal to Google and other search engines that your content is strong, relevant, and reputable.
The source of the backlinks is also important. Backlinks from referring domains that are considered high-quality websites with highly relevant content will be rated as significantly more valuable by search algorithms.
Keyword research means learning more about what people are searching for on the Internet. If you want to create content that will be discovered through search engines, you have to create content that aligns with the keywords and phrases that people are using to search. The problem is, Google and other search engines do not make that data available to the public.
As a result, you have to use a keyword research tool to get information on the number of searches being conducted around the world for any combination of words and phrases. There are a number of paid and free tools that can help you see search traffic for different keywords, analyze competing websites that are ranking for certain keywords or topics, and audit the performance of your existing site content against any number of targeted keywords.
On-page SEO means taking the content you already have on your website and trying to optimize it to rank as highly as possible in search engine results pages (SERP).
Sometimes that optimization process involves comparing your content to competing pages that are ranking higher to see gaps in your content, and in other cases you might focus on improving the visual appeal or user experience of your page.
Effective on-page SEO requires building a strong understanding of search intent — in other words, it’s not enough to know the keywords that people are using when they’re searching, but also the type of information or page they want to find.
Technical SEO refers to the process of optimizing the technical aspects of a website so that it is fast, easy to find, and digestible for search engine crawlers. Technical SEO also includes considerations like limiting the number of dead links, avoiding duplicate content issues, and ensuring your website is secure.
2. Try Using SEO Tools
There are a range of SEO tools that can take the guesswork out of your search engine optimization efforts, from keyword tools to SEO checkers and analytics software.
SEO tools can be used to help you conduct keyword research, run site audits, analyze backlinks, delve into website analytics, and identify content gaps.
Top tools you should consider getting familiar with include Google Search Console, Google Analytics, Ahrefs, Semrush, and Moz. To learn more, explore our guide to SEO tools.
3. Build Marketing Knowledge Through Online Courses
If your goal is to ultimately work professionally in SEO, you might want to consider gaining some formal training through a search marketing certificate course or digital marketing bootcamp.
Given the range of SEO techniques and concepts that you have to learn — in addition to general digital marketing concepts that will also come into play with search engine optimization efforts — a highly focused, intensive SEO course might be the easiest way to develop those skills and knowledge areas.
Completing a program like BrainStation’s Search Engine Marketing course would also show employers that you are not only a qualified SEO expert, but also committed to ongoing learning.
4. Stay Current with SEO Trends
The ever-changing nature of the SEO world is what makes it both exciting and overwhelming for SEO professionals, so you should make the most of the SEO resources available to you, immerse yourself in the SEO community, and keep learning as much as you can.
From SEO podcasts like Authority Hacker to popular SEO blogs like Search Engine Land, there is no shortage of popular resources where SEO experts can pick up new ideas, techniques, and tools.
What Skills Do I Need to Become an SEO Expert?
To be a truly effective SEO Specialist, you’ll need to be strong in at least four different areas.
Technical SEO skills
SEO Specialists use a number of technical tactics to boost their pageviews, including improving page loading times, optimizing HTML tags, metadata and microdata, and more. It goes without saying that, as an SEO Specialist, your first priority should be to get comfortable with the techniques and tools it takes to do the job.
But, as mentioned above, you don’t need to know them all before you begin trying things out. With even a single strategy in mind, you can begin dabbling in SEO, making changes and seeing what effect they have. It might take time to learn every SEO technique—they can often be simple in concept and difficult to execute—but if you think of SEO as a palette, it’s possible to begin painting right away, using as few or as many colors as you have available to you.
As your technical expertise grows over time, you’ll be able to do things like audit your ad click-throughs for fraud, or fine-tune the microdata in your HTML tags, or find ways to boost your page loading times. Learning how to code can also help your SEO career. All of these techniques will give your SEO an edge—and there’s always something new to learn.
Analytical and strategic thinking
SEO is part art, part science. And, at least when it comes to the science side, it helps to have strong analytical skills—to be able to look at the data in front of you and understand what it means. As you continue to make tiny adjustments to your SEO, what’s working and what’s not? How might further changes have a stronger effect? What areas of interest are worth focusing on, and which trends are worth building on?
In many cases, the data will point the way—if you know how to read it. Analytics tools can help you do A/B testing, or see where your traffic is coming from. But often, the question of how you respond to that information has no clear 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.
Communication and interpersonal skills
Working in SEO almost by definition means working as part of a team. For that reason, the same communication and interpersonal skills you’d need in any collaborative role are also valued in SEO Specialists. When you work in this field, leading team meetings, talking to clients, and giving presentations to other stakeholders are all par for the course.
But SEO Specialists also work 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 other writers’ work to boost specific keywords—not to mention writing headlines, abstracts, snippets, and captions—so your strong writing skills will definitely come into play.
Organization and administrative skills
There’s no escaping Excel. Given how research-intensive SEO is and how many different variables SEO Specialists weigh, excellent organization skills are a huge advantage. Even simple tasks like managing your budget will require at least basic administrative skills.
As you get deeper into research—including A/B testing, or conducting long-term analysis on the way your SEO strategy is affecting your traffic flows—keeping things organized becomes even more crucial. A knack for keeping your information in good order is a must, especially if you’re managing a team, or are responsible for oversight of the various activities you’re carrying out and the innumerable variables at play.
There are a few other attributes good SEO Specialists should have—creativity and an intuitive sense of what your audience wants, for example, as well as a thick skin (failure is a big part of the SEO process). But if you can demonstrate the technical expertise, a good head for strategy and analysis, and sound communication and organization skills, you’re already well on your way to becoming an SEO guru.
Do You Need a Degree to Be an SEO Specialist?
No one will expect you to have a degree directly related to SEO—simply because there’s no such thing. What you really need in order to become an SEO Specialist is an ability to demonstrate your skills and a passion for the work.
That said, looking at job postings for SEO Specialists and Consultants, you will likely find that many do require a Bachelor’s or equivalent diploma, usually in a related field like business, marketing, communications, or IT.
While there is no “correct” background for people working in SEO—virtually every industry can benefit from better online reach—SEO Specialists tend to work in or adjacent to marketing. While not strictly a marketing position, SEO is so closely related to it that some experience in marketing is definitely an asset.
Can I Learn SEO on My Own?
Very few people begin their career in SEO per se. It’s far more common to transition into a career as an SEO Specialist by building on transferable skills acquired in another field, then developing a specialization by focusing on the specific set of technical skills someone working in SEO needs to possess. These technical skills can be developed on your own, but may take some time.
To speed up the learning process, you can also take SEO courses like BrainStation’s Search Engine Optimization course. If you have no on-the-job experience in SEO, an SEO course like this is a great way to not only build new skills, but also to produce concrete work that demonstrates your abilities.
It’s also worth noting that even if you already have a degree in marketing, business, or communications, you may still lack many of the core competencies crucial to working as an SEO Specialist. Keeping up with SEO’s changing tools, technologies, and channels requires curiosity and continuous learning, and an SEO course is an easy way to bring your skills and knowledge up to date.
For this reason, and because the field of SEO is always evolving, a proven commitment to continuing education is another factor employers look for. In addition to digital marketing bootcamps and SEO courses, you can display your commitment to ongoing learning by participating in SEO workshops, webinars, and conferences, and by establishing your profile within the industry—for example, by maintaining an active online presence.
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