24 key skills for SEO professionals (and wannabes) in 2016

Search engine optimisation is one of the biggest games worth playing in business.

The risks and rewards are huge. There’s a lot of head-scratching, occasional sleepless nights, some incredible eureka moments, and plenty of scope for amateur soothsayers. It can be hard work and it seems to be getting ever more difficult, but it is a lot fun.

What I find amazing is that most of the people I have worked with – and also those who I respect and trust within the industry – are self-taught. They have a natural aptitude for SEO based on a number of key skills which they possess, rather than the niche academic qualifications you often need to rise to the top of the tree in other industries.

Many of these people have more than a decade of experience, and can remember when keyword stuffing actually worked. How times have changed!

There are lots of different roles within search, and as such, the industry welcomes people with a variety of different skillsets. I thought I’d explore this in a little more detail, for anybody looking to forge a career in search.

What flavour of SEO will you be?

There are various types of SEO professional, but for now let’s focus on two broad types: the all-rounder, and the specialist.

In a small business there might be one SEO bod doing all manner of things, wearing many hats, and often undertaking wider digital marketing and CRO work. The SEO all-rounder is – or certainly should be – a prized asset in these companies.

The SEO all-rounder can do everything, of course, but time is finite and some projects are absolutely massive. They’ll need help, and will probably need to work with other teams. Delegation may come into play, even if they can do it all.

In bigger companies (and agencyland) you often find specific people doing specific SEO tasks. Some projects are vast and take an age to complete, as anybody who has experience of a site migration with gazillions of web pages will tell you.

Broadly speaking, I think there are three areas of focus – technical, analytical, and creative. There is a great deal of overlap in a lot of specialist roles, whereas others are more skewed towards one or two of these areas.

The right skills for the job

I’ve put together a list of skills that I think are pretty much essential for SEO professionals. If you want to break into the industry then you’ll need some or all of the following.

The skills you have will help determine the career path you choose. For example, if you are highly creative and a great writer but don’t know how to code or understand server configuration then I doubt technical SEO is for you. Instead, you could explore roles relating to content, which plays a major part in achieving strong search positions.

In addition to the core skills, there are also a ton of softer skills. These are essential in modern marketing, and always make an appearance on the job ads I write.

I also asked the ‘skills’ question on Twitter, to mine the brains of expert practitioners. Let’s kick off with Andrew Girdwood’s reply, which I love…

The all-rounder

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That’s absolutely on the money. It’s not to say that you’ll need to do it all, but if you’re capable of building, launching and monetising a blog from scratch then you are super-employable.

I’ve always valued practical experience over academic qualifications, and I value a winning DIY-approach above all else. Gumption!

T-shaped marketers

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Dawn Anderson’s suggestion is spot on, and reflects the wider trend in hiring circles.

The vertical line in the ‘T’ represents the deep skill, while the horizontal reflects a wider knowledge of other topics and tactics. The longer the vertical line, the more skilled you are in any given area.

Or, to use a phrase Dawn coined: “Jack of all trades, master of ONE.”

T-shaped marketers have risen to prominence in recent years, not least because digital has to some degree flattened organisational structure. Teams need to talk to one another like never before. The right hand should always know what the left is doing…

Templum-shaped marketers

Jono Alderson thinks that being T-shaped isn’t enough, describing it as woefully inadequate. He says SEOs need to “master multiple pillars”.

I think there’s something in this. It certainly chimes with Andrew Girdwood’s “all rounder” comment. Maybe the ‘T’ should stand for ‘templum’…

It makes sense to have a strong understanding of other marketing disciplines, as well as business strategy more broadly. Perhaps being strong in just one area isn’t enough to stand out these days?

Technical

A huge part of SEO relates to the technical setup of your web pages (content) and your server (ability to deliver the content). Google offers many brownie points to those who make the most of technical SEO, and in a competitive sector it can make all the difference.

There are so many foundational things that you need to get right, from a technical perspective. No amount of link-building is going to sustain prominent search rankings if your web pages take 10 minutes to load.

In addition, there’s often a massive gulf between marketing and technology teams, so tech-savvy SEOs can play a vital role in making things happen. They are ambassadors that sit between these two teams, and play a vital role in making websites work effectively for the business.

You will waltz into a technical SEO role if you develop a strong understanding of HTML, schema markup, canonicals, server configuration, and mobile optimisation, among other things.

Content

I’ve always believed that producing quality content is the best hope you have of achieving high rankings on the search engines. Yes, you need the basics in place, but from a standing start a strong piece of content will stand a good chance of attracting links, shares and traffic.

Content comes in many different shapes and sizes. If you’re a great writer then copywriting or blogging might be the place to start. If you are a design whizz who can work with data then producing visualisations could be the thing to do. But these jobs might be better positioned under the ‘content marketing’ banner, rather than SEO.

I think content-focused SEO is rather more strategic. It should be based around detailed research and analysis, and there should be a grand plan, when it comes to content creation…

  • What terms are you chasing down, and why?
  • What does your information architecture look like, and is it fit for purpose?
  • Where are those hero and hub pages that you need to point all those internal links at?
  • Why is your on-page content not converting?
  • How should micro content – such as button labels – be optimised?

These are the kinds of questions that content strategists need to explore, and SEO should occupy a large chunk of their headspace when doing so.

Analytical

If you have an aptitude for working with a lot of data then SEO might be a great career choice for you, because there is a hell of a lot to process, and to make sense of.

Your peers in SEO respect people with analytical brains, especially if they possess the ability to work with multiple spreadsheets, databases and APIs to discover errors, patterns, and opportunities.

Performance analysis, competitor benchmarking, technical audits, traffic analysis, keyword research… all of these things may become a regular part of your working life, and require a lot of left-brained thinking.

Strategic

It’s essential to look at search through a wide-angled lens. For many businesses it is the number one source of web traffic, leads and sales. That is a position that needs to be protected, and optimised (hence the ‘O’ in SEO)

There are many strategic risks and rewards to be aware of, and to explore. Google makes countless changes to its algorithm and user interfaces every year, and it is tempting to narrow your eyes and focus on the tactical. Wading into the reeds of search can be a dangerous distraction.

It’s important to know what’s going on, and certainly to be aware of major updates, but it’s also crucial to take a long-term view. Taking shortcuts with SEO tends to be akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

As such, a strategic mindset is vital. You have to be able to look beyond the horizon, to be patient, and to explain long-term strategy to senior stakeholders/clients.

Project management

Or should that be process management? SEO is a constant undertaking for a lot of web-focused businesses, though some tasks seem to be ‘projects’ rather than ‘processes’.

In any event, Ingo Bousa has done a good job of summing things up…

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You will have many plates spinning at any given time. Making sure they don’t break is part art, part science.

Client management

You should be able to communicate ideas and approaches to internal stakeholders, for in-house SEOs, or external clients, for agency-side professionals.

Clients may think they know best, but they probably don’t. That’s why they hired an agency. Just because they’re paying you doesn’t mean that you should become one of those nodding dogs.

Meanwhile, agencies sometimes promise more than they can realistically deliver. In some cases they will implement quick but sketchy wins, which almost certainly paves the way to a shitty future. Bad news for both client and agency, amid much head shaking.

Managing expectations and making people aware of the risks (and rewards) is par for the course.

User experience

Google has clearly stated that user experience is of increasing importance for achieving and maintaining strong rankings.

I don’t actually know how much of this has been put into practice, given the high rankings of websites I’ve stopped visiting on the grounds that they appear to hate me, but I suspect UX factors will become a key ranking criteria in the years to come.

You don’t need a HCI degree, though if you’ve got one and fancy a career in SEO then don’t be shy. But an understanding of user flows and intent is crucial. We’re talking about optimisation more broadly now, but knowing about these things is always a good sign to recruiters and interviewers.

As with a lot of things in digital marketing, there’s a lot of crossover. It seems reasonable to me that SEO professionals might be the ones driving that user journey mapping project, or looking at the most common sources of friction on a website.

Skill up in this area to stand out from the pack.

Soft skills

There are a bunch of softer skills that you’ll need to work in digital, and that apply to SEO. Most of these are essential, and reflect the right kind of mindset that you need.

I actually think that most of them cannot be taught… you either have them, or you don’t.

Curiosity

This is massively important, and is something I look for when hiring across all areas of digital marketing. To be blunt: if you’re not that curious, you’re not that interesting.

Skepticism

This is something Ammon Johns mentioned, and it is genuinely essential. In the world of SEO there is no shortage of opinions and statements. It’s a bit like journalism, where you are taught to look well beyond the press release – or the obvious – for the true story.

It is important to have a healthy degree of skepticism, and a few spare wheelbarrows of salt. Narrow your eyes.

Critical and whole-brained thinking

This was suggested by Dan Shure and follows on nicely from skepticism. The whole-brained thinking methodology helps to remove bias and blind spots. The ability to think laterally and to find creative solutions to entrenched problems is a valuable talent to possess.

Competitive nature

SEO is a big game, after all. You should want to win, consistently, and with one eye on the rules and the other on what goes on under the table.

Passion

The best people I’ve ever worked with have a real passion for digital, and are effective operators because of it. They are constantly interested in many different things and have an ongoing desire to learn. If your heart isn’t in it, then why not do something else?

Goal-orientated

You should want to set and achieve goals, objectives and targets. Goals should drive you forward, and you should take great pleasure in smashing through them.

Collaborative

Lots of organisations are still full of silos and glass walls, with people not talking to one another and teams working independently. People with collaborative mindsets tend to be more effective in getting things done, and thrive when working on projects with others of a similar nature.

Adaptability

Alex Jones flagged this up. Search is an ever-changing landscape, given the changes to algorithms, search positions, your web assets, and by the competition. It’s really interesting, but you need to be able to adapt and react quickly.

What you thought was right today might prove to be wrong tomorrow. Big deal. Adjust your thinking and move forwards.

Empathy

Filip Matous suggests that you’re not going to get any quality links unless you understand what gives real value to the places you link prospect. You need to understand a little psychology, and to figure out what makes people tick.

This also chimes well with Chris Lee’s comment about PR acumen, which is a real bonus in SEO if your job involves building relationships.

Entrepreneurial spark

Working in SEO normally means that you’re close to the money, and that’s something that should give you a thrill. If you have past entrepreneurial experience it will go a long way, and most interviewers will be interested in exploring that side of your personality.

We’re not talking about a multi-million dollar conglomerate here… a small affiliate-based side project will be enough to spark a discussion. How did you build the website? Did you implement Google Analytics? What were your main sources of traffic? How much revenue did you make?

All of this shows that you have plenty of gumption, passion, and drive. Bravo.

Negotiation/persuasion

Ever seen a “dear blogger” letter, in search of a link? I could show you so many horrific examples. There is a better way…

Endurance

A lot of SEO work is manual. It’s certainly not coal mining, but it can be a slog. There are tools and processes that can help you, in terms of identifying links to disavow, or opportunities to secure some new inbound action.

If you have ample reserves of persistence and a tolerance for repetition then it will help with some of the tasks you may take on.

Reading

Yes, you need to be able to read (and write) but what’s key is the desire to read, read, read. I often tell people that it accounts for about 20% of most jobs in digital. There is much to learn, and the environment is constantly changing. You have to stay on top of things.

Attention to detail

Just massive. I look for it, I test for it, and I rarely hire if you haven’t got it. Moreover, I don’t think you can learn it.

What did I miss? Leave a comment below…

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