I get asked quite often what beginning SEOs need to do to become advanced practitioners of our craft. Specifically they want to know which books to read.
There are a handful of good books about SEO out there – I recently reviewed Danny Dover’s new SEO Secrets book – but no matter how good they are, none of these books will make you an advanced SEO.
When I pondered this question in detail, I realised that the books that have shaped me the most as an SEO, and have helped bring my skills to higher levels, aren’t actually SEO books. Yet these books have been vital study material in my continued development as a SEO professional.
Here I will share the five best books for SEOs that aren’t actually about SEO.
First on my list is a book that everyone involved with websites really should read. It’s O’Reilly’s Polar Bear book, more commonly known as Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
This book explains the basic concepts of information architecture – how to label and structure information so that users can easily find and use it – and is an absolute must-read for SEOs. This book will change the way you think about websites. Everything from how internal navigation is laid out to how you structure on-page content will be influenced by what you learn from this book.
Steve Krug’s definitive work on conversion optimisation, Don’t Make Me Think is also a vital resource for SEOs. Our work is increasingly judged on tangible metrics such as increased sales, which means that an SEOs work doesn’t end at the SERP click. We also need to ensure that the extra traffic we send to a website converts in to paying customers.
That’s where Krug’s book comes in. A typical example of practice what you preach, this short but immensely powerful book is laid out in such a way that its information is easily understood, and you’ll have read it cover to cover before you’ve realised. When you’ve done that, here’s a tip: read it again.
To be honest I don’t expect you to read this next book. I myself am struggling with it, only able to come to grips with small portions of this book at a time. And even then I have to come back to it regularly to fully comprehend what’s being explained.
The book in question is a public domain work from Stanford university: Introduction to Information Retrieval.
In case you didn’t know, what search engines like Google do is actually a discipline within Computer Science, specifically the Information Retrieval (IR) discipline. By learning the basics of IR you will essentially learn about the very basic foundational aspects of search engines.
I say basic and foundational, because reading this book doesn’t teach you how Google works. This book is to Google what a toddler’s ABC book is to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
But I can guarantee you one thing: nearly all of Google’s search engineers will have read this book or something very similar to it in college. If you’re serious about becoming an advanced SEO, this is required reading.
Jonathan Zittrain’s 2008 book The Future of the Internet – And How To Stop It presents a chilling scenario for where the internet is heading. It’s steadily moving away from its free-for-all roots towards a closed, proprietary, corporate-managed collection of connected apps that can be controlled and monetised.
And that is a Very Bad Thing.
This book explains what the internet might come to look like if we don’t change things. And that future internet is one where SEO is, well, obsolete. Because SEO depends on freely accessible websites that can be crawled and indexed by search engines. And an internet of apps won’t be freely accessible, and search engines won’t be able to crawl and index it.
Zittrain’s book is a very important work that outlines a sort of doomsday scenario for the internet. But it’s also a hopeful book, telling us what we can do to ensure this bleak potential future doesn’t come to pass. Read it, and act on what you learn from it.
Lastly I want to recommend a book that will teach you about human psychology. I’m a firm believer in understanding the underpinnings of user behaviour. Not just what users do online, but also why they do it – consciously or subconsciously.
The problem here is that there isn’t one comprehensive work that I can point to. Instead there are a number of books that I’ve read over the years which have taught me things about how the human brain works, and how humans interact with the internet.
Some of the best books on this topic are only available in Dutch – Het Slimme Onderbewuste by Ap Dijksterhuis and Wij Zijn Ons Brein by Dick Swaab – and are begging for English transations which so far are not forthcoming. Which means that, unless you’re fluent in Dutch, these are pretty worthless recommendations.
Though fortunately there are some other books I can recommend you dive in to. While not as potent and insightful as the Dutch works I previously mentioned, these books will nonetheless get you started on understanding the human mind and how the internet is changing it.
First there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s popular science book Blink. Written in his typical easily digestible prose, firing supporting anecdotes at you at machine gun pace, it’ll explain how powerful the human subconscious mind is, and how it plays a much bigger part in our day to day lives than you might imagine.
Then we have Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which really should be read in tandem with Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. These two books are opposing sides of a single argument: the internet is changing the way we think.
Shirky sees this as a good thing with mostly positive effects on individuals and groups. Carr’s opposing argument is that the internet changes our mind in a negative fashion, specifically by training our brains to have short attention spans and be easily distrac-… oh, shiny!