How to Start and Develop Your Career in SEO
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes, 10 seconds
There are not many people who study SEO at University. Most people who I know and who work in SEO are those who “fell” into this line of work. It is hardly surprising considering the internet is still relatively new and ten years ago, no one knew much about online marketing, yet alone SEO. Being a passionate SEOer who also “fell” into this field of work, I wanted to share with others how they can start working in SEO and develop their career. This post is the first in a three part series about working in SEO.
I have met a lot of people while working in this industry and asked a few of them how they would recommend starting their career in this field. If you are passionate about online marketing and want a job in SEO, read some of the tips my fellow SEO colleagues have shared.
1) How did you get into SEO?
I owned a coffee shop and didn’t have much of a marketing budget, but I did have a website. I soon realised that people weren’t searching for my coffee shop’s name, “Holbrook’s Coffee House”, because they didn’t know it existed. But I also realised that people would be searching for things like “best coffee shops in Swansea” or “best cafes in Swansea”, so I started writing content which would rank for that – and it worked. I became obsessed with ‘driving traffic’, although, I never knew of the term “SEO”, or that you could do it for a living. Many years later I worked for a relocation company in Barcelona. I wrote content about moving to the city and everything you could wish to know about living as an expat in Barcelona. The company monetised the traffic by advertising property rentals to people making the big move – it really was a dream job! Then I moved to London and started work at Verve Search, where I was soon promoted to Head of Content. The rest, as they so often say, is history.
It’s the same old story, but I got into SEO almost by accident. I was lucky enough to study the excellent Digital Marketing course at Manchester Metropolitan University conducted by David Edmunson-Bird. Being a bit of a geek anyway and seeing the clear opportunities in digital I showed real passion in the subject and David responded by helping to guide my focus, teaching me, and eventually introducing me to Simon Wharton at PushON who I went on to get my first graduate job. I have those two to thank for where I am today.
I actually got into SEO from working in-house as a marketing assistant a few years back Both the companies I worked for, the new business enquirers and sales were from about 50% SEO related. So it was really from that point, I thought let’s dig deeper and see whats it all about, and then like they say the rest is history.
Annabel Hodges, blogger at State of Search
In my previous life, I was a translator which was both quite boring and had little career prospects. I had no real calling to anything specific and was a little lost, when I saw an advert for linguists interested in learning about ‘search marketing’. The agency had recently won a couple of international clients and was faced with the issue of how best to service them. In the early 2000s, my boss was definitely ahead of his time and had the nous to bring in linguists and focus on localisation by giving us our first introduction to SEO & SEM. I was hooked from day one and have never looked back!
I was running a small design agency in London which was not going anywhere, and started reading about SEO in my spare time. We were running SEO for a small client and in 3 months they were ranking top 10 for the generic “wine tasting” (this was a while ago!). After that I was set on SEO, so got a job in a client side company and the rest is history.
Stuart P Turner, SEO Manager at Agency M
By accident. I started off my career in digital managing two ecommerce websites and taught myself SEO as I went along. Whilst I’ve worked in a variety of roles within digital marketing agencies I’ve always maintained a specialism in SEO because it’s awesome.
2) What would you recommend to someone looking to start their career in SEO?
Be prepared to work for nothing. Experience is key. Set up your own blog and play around with the different ways of driving traffic. Or even better, offer to help someone with their online marketing efforts. Once you have some experience to talk about, you’ll not find it hard to get a junior position.
This is a question that crops up often, and usually there’s some fairly bog standard responses, the likes of: ‘start blogging’, ‘get your name out there’, ‘read more’. While I do agree with these, personally I would recommend you focus on:
- Don’t be afraid to move – Bit of a controversial one this, but I believe that when you are starting your career you are at your most influenceable – use this to your advantage. Too often I see others simply ‘existing‘ in roles that don’t challenge them.
- Don’t be afraid to try new things
- Know your strengths and specialise – One thing that I would recommend any individual starting out in there career (any career in that matter) is to recognise your talents, and understand your flaws. There is no single better advice that I can give. Specifically in SEO, aim to broaden your experience, but constantly question yourself at what you like most. is it: Outreach and link development, creating content, technical SEO…? Know your strengths and play to them.
If you’re looking to get into SEO, as obvious as it sounds, start to BLOG.
Really treat your blog like a client, this would give you a good insight into the basics and you can then go from there. What is crucially important is to blog about an area you have a hobby in or passion about, otherwise you will lose steam and willingness to write for it very quickly.
Every SEO worth his/her salt is self-taught to some extent. If you expect to work a 9-5, go home and switch off then this is not the industry for you. You need to practice to learn. I don’t think paid for conferences are a necessity but I think interacting with others is definitely beneficial. There are plenty of free meetups (link to http://www.meetup.com/search-london/) (I hear there’s a good one in London organised by a certain State of Search member in fact!) where you can meet other likeminded and curious people. Be prepared to try and fail. You can’t learn what works and doesn’t work without doing it first hand.
SEO is all about the experiences you have with different types of websites as different industries, products, site sizes, all have their unique experiences and learnings. Working for an agency is a great way to start as you get exposed to lots of different websites. The key thing for me when starting out is being in an environment which encourages you to learn about all the core basics of online marketing (tracking and analytics, using initiative, strategic thinking, etc).
I think you definitely need a passion for the subject, experience is a plus but not essential if you are willing to keep yourself educated. There is no real formal training in SEO, so you need to be able to motivate yourself to keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry.
An analytical approach to work is also very helpful, you need to adopt a logical approach to SEO in order to understand whether your work is having an effect. And of course remembering what is pretty much the unofficial SEO mantra; correlation does not equal causation.
3) Five Reasons to start a career in SEO
1. It’s a huge part of the marketing industry’s future.
2. It’s dynamic and creative.
3. It’s not location-dependant (although most jobs are), which means you can work from anywhere.
4. It’s varied.
5. It’s ever changing, so you rarely get a chance to be bored.
1. Digital (specifically search) is ever-changing, your job will never be boring.
2. The community is incredibly close knit, you’ll feel as though even your ‘competitors’ are your friends, meet great people and have fun while working.
3. Search is ubiquitous, and it’s not going anywhere.
4. SEO is centred around learning. This means that even if you end up taking a different career path, you will have developed a broad and varied skill-set in the process.
5. There’s a growing need for talent, and there’s tons of jobs out there. Even if you learn that it’s not for you, it’s a great way to segway into any other digital discipline.
1. It’s one of the few industries that allows you to work with both the right and left sides of your brain, requiring analytical mindedness and creativity in equal measures.
2. It’s an ever evolving area meaning you’ll always have something to learn and can never be ‘at the top of your game’.
3. The SEO community is amazing, there is always someone out there willing to help answer a question or take a second look at a problem.
4. The skills you learn when practicing SEO help you in everyday life, from mastering excel to understanding how websites work. SEO is more than just focusing on organic results, it’s also learning to understand the digital world we live in.
5. As an SEO, you’re also partly a marketer, an analyst, a developer, a creative, a PR executive, a copywriter and a webmaster. When else can you say that?!
1. The flexibility and ability to have you own clients
2. The people – generally a chill-out good bunch of people!
3. The skills you learn in SEO are the core skills you need in all parts of online marketing
4. Its dynamic and always changing
5. Its emotional, if you clients have ever been affected by an update it teaches you new levels of patience!
Despite what you may have read, SEO is an industry with a lot of growth left, so I would say the top reasons for getting into it are:
1. Search is baked in to almost all technology and our collective behaviour now, so there will always be exciting changes around the corner.
2. The SEO community is amazing; there is a collective of really positive, collaborative people who are (mostly) all willing to share thoughts experiences and theories with each other.
3. The SEO community is as close as Google get to regulation; so you can (sort of) feel like you’re doing so good as well as building a career.
4. The variety, there is always a different way to approach the ‘marketing’ side of SEO, which makes for some really interesting and inspiring campaign work.
5. If you’re really lucky you might get to work with me. That should have been number one
4) How can you start learning about SEO?
Set up your own blog and every time you have a problem, use Google! Blogs such as State of Search, or agency blogs such as the Verve Search blog, will answer your questions.
1. Read everything and anything you can get your hands on
2. Sign up to DistilledU
3. Break things
4. Critique things – begin forming an opinion on websites, what do you like? What don’t you like?
I would definitely start by reading about it online, resources that I would start from would be these two sources:
There is enough information there anyone, so learn it, develop, execute and refine!
Start your own WordPress site, stick Google Analytics on it and you no longer have an excuse! You need very little to learn. There are so many good blogs and sites out there with great people helping you to get going. All it requires is curiosity.
I really liked www.highrankings.com when I started. It has a good helpful forum for newbies. Generally its just about being passionate and reading and testing loads!
I started on a combination of SEOmoz as it was then, learning how search engines actually operate (Google and Bing have plenty of information on this) and speaking to other SEOs in various online forums. I also started a couple of my own sites in addition to the ones I ran for work, and just started playing around. The key thing is to test yourself – read as much as you want but without trying things out you will never learn much or progress your career.
Practical resource wise, I’d suggest;
- reading something like The Art of SEO which is a good all round introduction to the subject (I know, a book, on paper, crazy)
- start reading Google and Bing’s blogs (the search blogs (Google, Bing) and the webmaster (Google, Bing) blogs are good to keep an eye on)
- keep an eye on what patents Google are registering for a good idea of what’s coming in the future
- get your hands on as many whitepapers and studies as you can; moz release their ‘Search Ranking Factors’ every year (though this is opinion poll stuff, not technically a study), and companies like Search Metrics and Bright Edge release studies based on their own data, but you usually need to subscribe to the tool to get hold of these (or make friends with someone who does).
5) Three Things You Like/Dislike about SEO and Why
1. The fact that clients are so singularly focused on the ranking positions of “big money” keywords.
2. The fact that SEOs have a reputation for being spammers – even though many of them actually are.
3. The fact that most SEOs and self-proclaimed content marketers can’t even spell or use grammar properly.
4. I could go on, but I won’t.
1. The community – Over a few years I have built up a large network of people across the world, made genuine friends and regularly meet up with them. SEO is very active in it’s social events.
2. The ability to make real difference in companies – I have spent most of my career assisting campaigns that span social media, content creation, PPC, understanding of analytics, conversion rate optimisation, and much much more. But SEO continues to amaze me with the results that you can make, often with no physical investment (like a PPC budget).
3. Varying nature of the discipline – As I have mentioned above, SEO is a large and complex discipline. That doesn’t mean you have to try and do everything, in fact, one of the great things is that you can develop a multitude of skills, and get involved in many conversations, technical, creative, or otherwise.
If you’re attending BrightonSEO this week and you’re interested in getting one-on-one advice from Ned himself, he will be taking part in the speed mentoring sessions at BrightonSEO week, Tweet to Ned and meet him face to face.
Three Things I love about SEO:
1. Constantly evolving, meaning you always having to be ahead of the game
2. The area itself is a small part of any large organisations overall marketing mix, yet there is so much to learn and immerse yourself.
3. Lastly the people – everyone online is really helpful, so if your ever stuck you can be sure that you will find the answer from someone which is strange seeing how competitive the landscape is!
I’m only including dislikes here as I think my 5 reasons to start a career pretty much sum up all my likes!
1. The constant dread of Google’s next ‘crackdown’ is definitely a lowlight of this industry, we are marketers just like anyone else selling paid for media but we are often made to feel like our work is invalid and ‘punished’ for it.
2. Although I have a lot of respect for many big names in the industry, I’m not a fan of the obsession with ‘SEO Superstars’ and fame. I think it can get out of hand and focus too much on big names rather than great work.
3. Sometimes SEOs can become so focused on the granular details that we can’t see the wood for the trees. I’m a big advocate of understanding the wider digital marketing industry we work in, as it can only help us to better understand business objects, holistic campaigns and improved SEO. We need to remind ourselves to take a step back from htaccess files and GA data once in a while to keep moving forward.
Three Things I like about SEO:
1. The amazing amount of misinformation in SEO
2. The cool smart people I have met
3. Working in product niches I never thought existed or were profitable
Three Things I dislike about SEO:
1. The amazing amount of misinformation in SEO
2. That you can’t create affiliate websites like 2001 anymore
3. The monopoly Google has, although it doesn’t keep me up at night (much)
1. The community; by and large friendly, lovely people.
2. The challenge; there is always something new to do, which is what’s kept me in SEO for so long.
3. Reading another ‘SEO is dead’ post and having a quiet chuckle to myself about it.
Thank you to everyone who answered my questions, there is a lot to take in for anyone new to SEO. Lets recap what was recommended:
SEO is a hands on job. It is important to have experience to be able to really understand SEO. The best way to do this is to build your own site or blog. This does not mean you have to start coding a website from the ground up, but it is a good idea to at least start working on a wordpress blog. WordPress is one of the most well known content management systems. There are lots of different plugins, such as Yoast. You will also understand the importance of basis SEO through implementation.
2) Read, read and more reading
SEO is constantly changing. There are lots of different opinions, it is important to have your own opinion. But this can only be done if you have read and understand what is taking place in the industry. State of Search of course has a lot of information about SEO, as does SEOMoz. It is always really good to read Matt Cutt’s blog and watch his videos which area also on Search Engine Land . The beginners guide to SEO is one of my favorite reads.
3) Go to Conferences
There are some great conferences to attend and if money is an issue some of these are free. There are also free meetups to go to. Here people learn about many different elements of SEO, PPC and Social. The conferences have some great people in the industry speaking about the latest news in SEO. BrightonSEO is one of the best free conferences that I have been attended. This was also where I met many others in the industry.
SEO is a great area to begin your career in, the perquisite is to have passion, have an open mind and want to learn. For those just starting out, decide on where you would prefer to work – either agency side or client side. Working in house or client side means working on one client, getting to know the business well and the competitors the industry. Working agency side, involves working across a wide range of clients, gaining experience in different industries which can be both challenging and rewarding. I will be going into more detail in my next post on working in SEO.
If you have any additional tips, please let me know, always welcome to hear more.