Are SEOs At Risk of Becoming Unconsciously Incompetent?

Are SEOs At Risk of Becoming Unconsciously Incompetent?

28th February 2019

There has been something nagging at me for a while on the state of SEO, and that is a level of arrogance which we witness from people who should know better.

Have you heard someone reflect that an individual is “effortlessly talented” at something – or they succeed at a task without looking like they’re even thinking about it? That’s unconscious competence.

To think of it another way, that person who’s “effortlessly talented” could actually be screwing things up as much as anyone else. What’s worse they are blissfully unaware of it AND assume that others are in fact wrong.

That could be unconscious incompetence. I think we’re all at risk of becoming incompetent without realising.

Skip ahead:

The Conscious Competence Matrix

What do I mean here? Time for a quick introduction to the Conscious Competence Matrix:

  1. We start unaware that we’re incompetent. I.e. we’re not very good at something, but we’re not even aware of what that thing is. In this context, explaining what SEO is for the first time.
  2. We’re taught that we’re incompetent and therefore become conscious of it. When you start to learn the different elements and then begin to feel lost/overwhelmed or unsure of how to proceed.
  3. Mindfully, we reduce incompetence through skills/teaching. We begin to grasp concepts, test, try things, Google each stage along the way. We’re learning, but it’s an effort.
  4. Through training, we hone our skills and become unconsciously good at it. We don’t have to ask someone the best way to achieve an outcome, we use our own intuition & it becomes “second nature”.

This journey can be plotted on the matrix – for those visual learners out there:

Without digging much further into the unconscious competence matrix, it’s worth getting to my point here; is too much confidence in your own skill part of the problem?

Put simply:

[Tweet “The minute you stop being aware you need to improve your knowledge, skill or understanding of SEO, is the moment you start being incompetent.”]

Let’s ignore for the moment that being aware that you’re unconsciously anything makes you conscious of it.

What is Competence in SEO?

Given that I’ve done this for the best part of 10 years now and managed/trained others to do the same, you would hope this would be an easy answer, right?

Well, not entirely wrong. There are some core competencies which we can easily see, to name a few:

  • Crawling a website
  • Optimising a Title Tag
  • Identifying a spider trap
  • Building a link
  • Conducting keyword research

Whilst these evolve & change with time, they’re staples of the SEO task list. I would argue that a conscious competence of SEO requires a knowledge of those tasks and more.

In fact, if we want to take this further, here are what I believe are the core pillars of SEO in 2019:

  1. Understanding how search engines work (crawling, indexing and serving results) and how to enable these
  2. Understanding what motivates search engines (Google) and how not to run contra to that
  3. Understanding what users want & how to satisfy this
  4. Understanding what works – i.e. how to get a website ranking

We’ll never be able to cover these points 100% – but it’s clear to me that the best (most successful) SEOs I see know how to apply their skills/knowledge to all four points.

What is Incompetence in SEO?

The easy answer here is “making rankings worse”. It’s hard to argue against that.

But it doesn’t work like that, not with a profession where we cannot possibly know everything we need to, not when Google is holding all the cards. So we accept you have to take the rough with the smooth, otherwise, you’d be driven to insanity.

Not to beat ourselves up, but it has been recognised for a while that Most SEOs Are No Better than a Coin-Flip when predicting which page will rank better when compared. So maybe the occupational hazards of working with a back box is that it’ll make a fool of you every now and then.

Leaving a sitewide meta robots tags set to “noindex” after launch is pretty incompetent. Leaving Googlebot to crawl & index hundreds of thousands of search filters is not a great idea. Copy & pasting key content across your site (or other sites) is generally a really bad.

But these are fairly obvious exceptions – everything else from here gets more grey, and harder to characterise. From my time doing SEO, there are more fundamental points of incompetence, some really destructive elements:

  • Incompetence is no longer being curious
  • Incompetence is not reviewing the outcomes of actions
  • Incompetence is not taking the opportunity to recreate results wherever possible

Another word we could use here is complacency – how complacent are you sometimes?

Making the Unconscious, Conscious

It can be tough to be curious about everything, to review every minute action and to be always recreating every test. Fundamentally these are all time-consuming and you’ve got to get the job done.

The more unthinking your actions from a day-to-day basis, the more likely you are to get caught out. You stop working as hard and, ultimately results will get worse.

Here are five questions which I believe can shake anyone from a state of unconscious incompetence and therefore getting closer to being an effective SEO.

  1. What do I hope to achieve with this change?
  2. Why do I believe my actions will lead to this outcome?
  3. What was the outcome?
  4. Why was this?
  5. What do I need to change next time OR how do I reliably recreate this success?

If you have read the above thinking that it seemed like basic, entry-level advice – you’re absolutely right!

The very point I am making here is that when you stop being aware of the basic steps & the critical thought needed to frame your actions, your knowledge is out of date and – unconsciously – you’re becoming unconscious.

Stay curious, track everything that matters – make the unconscious, conscious.


Written By
Chris Green is Head of Marketing Innovation at Footprint Digital, a digital marketing agency based in the East of England.
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