How non-SEO Books Have Taught me to be a Better SEO

How non-SEO Books Have Taught me to be a Better SEO

7th November 2012

I really enjoy reading books that aren’t strictly related to my job as an SEO but can be applied in some way.  The truth is that we’re often overwhelmed with the amount of SEO content that is thrown at us everyday, I purposely try to avoid a lot of it and try to do catchups at certain points of my week rather than getting distracted from the task I’m on.  Although that is easier said than done!  I do wish that there were more posts from SEOs about non-SEO elements of their job, I’m talking about things like:

  • Managing people
  • Managing projects
  • Working with clients
  • Selling projects
  • Influencing change

There are more but I’m sure you get the idea.  It is this side of the industry that I wish people wrote about more, so in the spirit of this I wanted to share some of my learnings on non-SEO issues and introduce you to the books that gave me those learnings.  This is a good time to point out this list that Sam wrote not too long ago which talks about business and marketing books that SEOs have found useful.


Please don’t skip this section if you don’t consider yourself to be a manager.  I feel that this stuff can be useful to anyone even if they technically don’t manage anyone.  In reality you probably manage people all the time without realising.  If you ask one of your colleagues to carry out a task for you, you’re managing that process.  You don’t have to be a manager to delegate stuff do you?  In fact, I really enjoy delegating upwards at Distilled and getting Will do do stuff for me 🙂

The following things that I’ve learnt were heavily influencing by First, Break all the Rules by Marcus Buckingham.  I don’t agree with everything Marcus suggests in his book, however it certainly does make you question conventional wisdom when it comes to managing people.

Every team member is different, you shouldn’t treat people equally

Taken literally, this could be somewhat controversial.  But in reality, this does make a lot of sense.  If you manage people, you should not try to manage them all in the same way.  They have different personalities and importantly, different triggers to motivate them.  Therefore using the same management styles across every individual is not likely to give you good results.  You need to get to know each of your team members (or peers) well enough to know how to approach managing them, some will respond well to pressure, some will crack.  Others will need a verbal dressing down every so often if they do something wrong, others need an arm around the shoulder.

Real tip from me on doing this: Go and have a drink with your colleagues.  I’ve learnt more about what makes my team tick outside of work in the pub over a pint than I have in any line manager meeting or team building exercise.

Focus on strengths, not weaknesses

I had a tough time accepting this one when I first read it.  The premise is that if your team member has a weakness, conventional wisdom says that you should focus on improving that weakness.  The book teaches the opposite, focus on someones strengths rather than their weaknesses.  I used to subscribe to conventional wisdom but the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that it may not be the right approach.  With new hires at Distilled, we have obviously hired them for good reasons, they have strengths that we liked and that we felt could add value to the team.  I decided to start focusing on these strengths rather than worrying about their weaknesses and something unexpected happened.  The new hire in question grew massively in confidence because they were focusing on stuff they were good at naturally.  This confidence became apparent to the rest of the team who realised they were definitely a go-to person with this particular skill.


There are loads of books about creating content, the great thing is that hardly any of these books mention links, social shares or SEO at all.  They focus on what they need to – people.  The one book that has influenced me the most has been Made to Stick by the Chip brothers.  It really made me think about content in a new way and importantly, what truly makes a person care about content.

The book is focused around a set of principles that the brothers have found makes content more sticky.  Your content doesn’t need to necessarily have all of them, but if it has one or two or none at all, it is likely to fail.  Let’s take a brief look at what they are.

Simple – the core of the idea needs to be simple and easy to grasp.  Sure there can be loads of supporting points and pieces of information, but the core of the idea needs to be simple enough for people to understand quickly.  Try to think of the one thing that you’re trying to say to people – and say it in simple terms.

Unexpected – your content needs to surprise people.  I’m going to use a direct example from the book to communicate this point.  Popcorn isn’t good for you, in fact, it is pretty unhealthy.  That isn’t unexpected, I’m sure all of you knew that.  But what if I tell you that one serving of movie theatre popcorn contains more fat than a steak meal, a Big Mac and fries and egg and bacon – combined.  That is unexpected, you may have expected one of these to have the same fat content but not all three combined.

Concrete – your content needs to be solid and leave no room for people to mis-understand what you mean.  When John F. Kennedy stated that “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”, people knew what he meant.  If he’d said “we will win the space race” then the impact of the message wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful.  It was powerful because the regular person could understand what he meant and relate to it.

Credible – your content needs to be credible and backed up with facts.  This is actually a problem that can be quite common if you are a small company with little brand presence who are publishing a big piece of content.  Many people will not take notice because they don’t see you as credible.  Whereas if McKinsey release a business report, many will believe it to be credible.

Emotional – this one is a bit more familiar to many of us who have read about creating link bait.  We’re often told that there needs to be an emotional hook to the content.  This is true and it can be summed up by asking the question – who will care about this?  If you’re finding this question hard to answer, your idea may not be that great after all.

Stories – do you tell a story?  Stories are super powerful when it comes to grabbing people’s attention.  Don’t just give people data and get them to figure out the headline and story for themselves, tell them the story.  This is also a great principle to remember if you’re a presenter, your audience naturally engage better with stories – turn your content into a story and tell it.

Project management / productivity

I’m guilty of going a little bit over the top with my project management tools.  At one point I think I had my projects split across three different tools – Trello, Omnifocus and Basecamp.  I didn’t get much done!  The thing is that project management isn’t about tools, it’s about focusing, simple processes and trusting those processes.  You can achieve this with a pen and a piece of paper.

One of the most influential books I’ve read that has helped me manage projects is Making it all work by David Allen. I actually prefer it to the more famous Getting Things Done.   I’d still recommend both though.  Here are the key learnings for me from these books.

Get everything out of your head and onto paper

If I’m talking to someone who is stressed or feels overwhelmed with work, my first response is nearly always the same – write down on a piece of paper everything you have to do.  This exercise can help because it frees up valuable headspace and allows you to think more clearly.  David Allen makes a comparison to RAM in a computer which will eventually slow down and crash if it has too much going on at once, the same applies to our brains.

This exercise also helps because I can go through the list with that person and help them prioritise.  Quite often, from their perspective, everything is important and needs to be done straight away.  In reality, it doesn’t and most things can wait.  But until someone else tells them this, it can be hard for them to see.

Set project goals then work backwards into a to-do list

This is where project management and personal productivity kick in. With any project, you should set goals at the start of where you want to be in say 3 months, 6 months etc.  These goals in themselves are not tasks, you need to work backwards and ask yourself what tasks need to be carried out in order to work towards that goal.  These tasks then go onto a to-do list which could be your own or delegated to someone else.

I’d love to hear from you about what non-SEO books have helped with your work, feel free to leave a comment and let me know!

Featured image open books source


Written By
Paddy Moogan is co-founder of Aira, a digital marketing and web development agency based in the UK. He is also the author of “The Link Building Book”.
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