Three Essential Skills for Beginning SEOs

There have been a few blog posts doing the rounds recently about what makes a good SEO, and what needs to be done to ensure new entrants in to the industry pick up the required skills and know-how quickly and accurately.

I’m not shy about jumping on bandwagons (nor falling off of them for that matter), so allow me to add my own insights as to what I believe make a good set of foundational skills every (beginning) SEO should possess:

1. Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically – to question what you read and hear, to make up your own mind based on the best available evidence, and to put everything in the right context – is not just essential for every SEO, it’s an essential skill of life itself.

Too often people swallow dogma whole, never taking the effort to think for themselves. When a person who is perceived as an authority speaks, too many listen and accept unquestioningly. In SEO this is just as true as in everything else.

Critical thinking doesn’t mean you discard what others say and just do your own thing. Your own judgment and authority is just as flawed as those of others. No, critical thinking means you use the tools of reason and rationality, of insight and experience, to make up your own mind. Adhering to a flawed belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is just as stupid as blindly following others.

One last thing I want to emphasize about critical thinking is that you must always realise that anecdote does not constitute evidence. It takes more, a lot more, than a single anomalous effect on a single website to reveal a profound insight in to the inner workings of search engines.

2. Understand Mark-up Language

Mark-up is what the web is made of. Literally. A web page is, in its essence, a document marked up with HTML. Most data interchange happening on the web nowadays occurs in XML – another mark-up language. Mark-up is the oxygen that fuels the web.

Search engines mostly see mark-up. When a search engine spiders the web and indexes the content it finds, nearly all of what it finds is mark-up. Scripting languages like PHP and ASP generate mark-up.

There are a few exceptions of course, such as images and JavaScript, but generally speaking we can say that knowing a mark-up language or two – preferably the aforementioned HTML and XML – is an essential skill for any SEO to possess. Without understanding mark-up, your on-site auditing will be lacking and you might not be able to properly appreciate and implement mark-up enhancements such as semantic code.

Note that mark-up and code are different things. Mark-up is a way to enhance static content to make it readable and interpretable by browsers. Code, on the other hand, is what happens behind the scenes to dynamically generate that mark-up (and much more besides).

But contrary to some, I don’t believe a good SEO needs to be able to code. I couldn’t write more than a simple piece of “Hello, World” code if my life depended on it, but I do kick ass at SEO.

3. The Basics of Information Retrieval

This one harps back to an argument I’ve been putting forth for quite a while, such as in my SEO Nurses and Doctors post. Information Retrieval (IR) is what search engines do. Modern search engines are highly sophisticated IR machines, way beyond the basic Boolean or Vector Space models, but at their core they are still driven by the same basic IR principles of precision and recall.

Understanding these basics of IR will help you in all kinds of different ways, from diagnosing on-site issues to piercing the various hypes that tend to take over the SEO world from time to time. With a good grasp of basic IR concepts and terminology, your critical thinking skills will be further enhanced, as you will have a wider pool of relevant knowledge to draw from.

My Ideal SEO Education

If you have any experience with SEO education, either as a student or a teacher, you’ll know these three skills have one thing in common: they’re not taught in any SEO lecture or workshop.

I’m guilty of this as well. In my SEO trainingsĀ I focus on the Nurses-approach: teaching the students to treat the symptoms. This tends to be the most efficient way to make sure new entrants in to the SEO industry come to grips with what works and what doesn’t.

But if there was ever such a thing as a university course in SEO that could span weeks, or even months, I know how I would set it up. It would start with these three lessons. After that, the rest is simple.

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.

6 thoughts on “Three Essential Skills for Beginning SEOs

  1. I especially agree with your first one, critical thinking. If we reacted to each new “must do or don’t” that gets published, we’d all be completely screwing up everything that we touch. I am also quite glad that you point out how poor an idea it is to accept one occurrence of something as evidence that it’s always the case. I’ve seen a few posts recently where people are writing about one test they’ve run and expanding the results to other cases, and it’s worrisome.

  2. Hi Barry,

    thanks for a good and inspirational post.

    Let’s say that SEO is a masters education program. From what eduacational backgrounds would be most eligable to be accepted to the masters course? Would it be people from a marketing education, nurse education, hardcore IT education etc. (just to name a few).

    What I’m trying to get at, is that I’m educated within marketing and there are some learnings with servers and someother hardcore programming stuff which doesn’t come naturally, but which is valuable to know. These traits I pick up when incountering them through experience. Where as a person with and IT degree would spot them instantly and solve them easy but for them basic marketing stuff (In my eyes) would they never know how to handle unless being told. I am of course generalizing with that statement but never the less, I see it as an interesting challenge facing when hirering SEO personas.

    Wauw it turned out to be a loooong chain of thought, but maybe you can put some light on the subject?

    Best Regards

    1. Hi Michael,

      I’m probably biased here, coming from a technical background, but I feel SEO is a mostly technical discipline and as such affinity with the technical side of things is a big plus.

      That doesn’t mean someone who comes from a marketing background can’t be an effective SEO – on the contrary, some of the best SEOs I know are marketing people first and foremost – but I do believe they tend to linger in the Nurses-approach to SEO.

      The best SEOs are those that combine technical prowess with marketing savvy. Which is probably why I’m doing a university diploma in Marketing right now. šŸ™‚


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