What’s in Your SEO Arsenal? 6 Skills All SEOs Need to Have
There’s no university degree for SEO.
Yet, you’re expected to know a lot about many different things. This is why it’s so tough to define what a great SEO is.
In most professional situations, knowing SEO alone is no longer enough. You also need to have your fair share of marketing, business, and PR skills.
While some of these skills are luxuries, I’ve identified six things that all good SEOs need to possess.
Great ones will possess all of them and more. SEO is an interesting field because it can use skills from all sorts of other fields.
So, if you’re passionate about something that doesn’t seem immediately relevant to SEO (discussed in this article), don’t just throw it away. You never know when it will come in handy.
1. Great SEOs know how to get consistent results
As an SEO you know you can’t guarantee that a specific keyword will rank #1—certainly not 100% of the time.
For some reason, statements like that have led people to think that SEO is blind luck.
This line of thinking is completely false.
Yes, there is some variance in SEO. Some content will rank better than expected. Some will rank worse.
But in the long run, the SEOs who know what they’re doing will always succeed when it comes to the only thing that matters—targeted search engine traffic.
Put an experienced SEO up against a total beginner, and I can predict with great certainty which one will have more organic search traffic in six months.
Quality SEOs don’t rely on luck.
How SEOs get consistent results
When SEOs begin working on a site, whether it’s their own or client’s, they don’t just randomly build links to it or target the first keyword they think of.
Instead, they use their own proven system.
A system is composed of processes for doing different tasks. The more defined they are, the more consistent the results are.
SEOs need to have proven systems for all aspects of SEO. That’s the only way to ensure that all important factors are considered and that the best SEO strategy is chosen for a particular site.
In addition, systems are even more important for freelance SEOs. If you have a defined strategy, it’s much easier to explain to a client what you plan to do.
You can create processes for many things, but let’s go over the essential ones for most SEO.
Key process #1: Onboarding a client
No two clients are exactly the same, but you should have a defined overall process for starting your work with a new client.
If you’re working on your own site, pretend that you are your own client.
The main thing you need to do here is find a way to set client expectations.
Studies have shown that people are terrible at predicting their own success. We habitually overestimate our own assets and abilities.
Your first job is to educate your client and tell them what to expect from your work.
If they understand that it could take months to start seeing results, they won’t get frustrated and take it out on you when the leads don’t start pouring in right away.
You also need to let the client know your general strategy and work process.
Too many SEOs ignore customer service altogether and only communicate with their clients once every month or two.
Depending on the client, this can be terrible. They just paid you a decent sum of money, and they want to know what it’s going to produce. So, tell them.
After the first few conversations, you want your client to feel confident that you will do the work you promised and keep them apprised of the results at certain time periods.
If you are your own client, the same applies to you. Make your initial predictions, and then cut them in half to keep them realistic. This will help you avoid disappointment and frustration in the future.
Additionally, just because you are working on your own site doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a defined SEO work plan. You need one to keep yourself accountable and make sure that every part of SEO is covered.
Key process #2: Asset evaluation
The first thing you should do with any new site is to evaluate what you’re dealing with.
In most cases, you should compile a complete report of all the site’s content, backlinks, search traffic, and rankings before you begin your work.
This is important for two reasons:
- It makes comparisons easy – Everyone has unreliable memories. You won’t want to claim that your work doubled your client’s traffic only to hear them say, “I don’t think so. It was always that good.”
- It will help form your strategy – You should design an SEO strategy for each individual site. Depending on the existing assets, you may have the option of using different techniques in your strategy.
You might choose to complete your asset evaluation process before fully onboarding a client. That way you could show them some of your research and give them some idea of why you’re planning to do certain things.
Key process #3: Keyword research and evaluation
While keywords may be dying a slow death, they’re still useful and relevant.
There are tons of different ways to conduct keyword research. It’s important that you break down your processes as much as possible.
Pretend that you will one day have to hand off this task to a junior intern or some other inexperienced hire. Make it as simple as possible so that you get consistent results.
A very basic keyword research process might look like this:
1. Extract keywords from competitors:
- Make a list of 10 top competitors
- Put each domain into Google’s Keyword Planner
- Download and compile all results into a spreadsheet
2. Get keyword suggestions from tools:
- Generate a list of 10 high volume (>2,000 searches per month) searches from the Keyword Planner
- Enter these keywords into (insert tool here) (e.g., Term Explorer)
- Download and record results
3. Check keyword competition:
- Compile all keywords at this stage
- Filter out any with fewer than 50 monthly searches
- Run keywords through (insert competition analyzer here)
- Remove high competition keywords
- Manually check remaining keywords and evaluate competition
That’s just a very basic hypothetical example, but it gives you an idea of what these processes should look like. Essentially, they’re detailed checklists with instructions.
Key process #4: Link building tactics
You will need processes for all the main areas of SEO.
This includes on-page SEO, technical SEO, and off-page SEO (link building).
One of the easiest ways to evaluate SEO’s experience is to ask them how many tactics they have tested.
Not all SEO tactics are created equal. Some are better than others.
Some improve rankings more than others, and some apply to more industries than others.
However, no SEO tactic is perfect.
Many beginner SEOs will find one SEO tactic that works for their own site in a particular niche and immediately think that they are an expert in SEO.
However, not all tactics work in all industries. In addition, as tactics become more popular, they lose effectiveness. Infographics as a link building technique is about half as effective as it used to be a few years ago.
Think of tactics as tools.
A master carpenter doesn’t use the blueprints for a chair to build a table. He has a variety of blueprints for different situations.
A great SEO is always testing different SEO tactics to find out which ones are effective and when to use them for best results (niche and situation).
Key process #5: Reporting procedures
A final process that all SEOs should create, in one form or another, is a process for reporting results. Again, this is still important even if you’re working on your own site.
The first thing that a report does is it sums up your work in a concise, easy-to-understand format.
If you’re working for a client, it’s important for them to know that they can expect a report every so often (usually once or twice a month).
Don’t change the format and layout often. You want them to know what to expect in your report.
That’s the main reason for creating a report, but it has a useful secondary function.
By its nature, a report will require you to quantify your results:
- what work was done
- how many links were obtained
- how much search traffic grew
- user metrics
- and so on…
Although you shouldn’t be testing tactics for the first time when working on a client’s site, that doesn’t mean you can’t refine your techniques.
Results are your opportunity to determine your return on investment (ROI) and to look for ways to improve the effectiveness of your techniques.
2. At the top level, tools matter
Most SEOs approach tools all wrong.
Most beginner SEOs look for tools that will do all the work for them. (Hint: that’s never going to happen.)
Tools can make your life easier, but their effectiveness depends on who’s using them.
And as a beginner, you don’t know enough for tools to be useful.
However, as you get more experienced, you will recognize situations where tools can save you time and money. And the better you get, the more your time is worth, and the more important tools become.
Eventually, you may build your own custom tools because none of the public tools are quite good enough.
But let’s slow down for a second. You don’t need to be an expert for tools to be useful as long as you have some experience with SEO and you have a strategy. Then, you can find tools that can help you accomplish that strategy.
Since SEOs need to do many different things, you will eventually compile an arsenal of different tools.
It will likely include tools for:
- comprehensive keyword research and competition analysis
- influencer outreach
- social media
- sales (possibly)
- reporting to client
- email marketing
Typically, modern SEOs do more than just straight SEO. Most SEO firms have rebranded themselves as marketing firms with an emphasis on SEO.
In this section, I’ll go over a few tools in each area that are good for beginner to intermediate SEOs.
Keyword research and competition analysis tools
These tools will help you automate finding keywords and evaluating their competition.
I’ve already mentioned Term Explorer, but there are many other great options such as SEMrush and Moz’s keyword difficulty tool.
Modern SEO involves a lot of relationship building. Reaching out to site owners and contributors is a necessary part of building relationships and eventually getting links.
Outreach tools such as BuzzStream will help you find email contacts more efficiently, saving you several hours per month.
In addition, you can use free Gmail plugins, such as Streak and ProsperWorks, built specifically for outreach.
Social media marketing tools
Most marketing plans (which SEOs may be involved in) now include social media marketing.
There are many social media marketing tools that will shave hours off your work per week.
Tools such as Buffer and Edgar can let you schedule posts in advance and in bulk as well as provide analytics.
SEO reporting tools
I’ve already mentioned the importance of having a process for reporting SEO results.
The good news is that you can generate SEO reports, or parts of them, using SEO reporting tools such as Raven Tools and Moz Analytics.
Email marketing tools
Another area of marketing that has crept into the SEO domain is email marketing.
It is by far the best way to convert your search traffic into eventual customers. You will need some sort of basic tool such as Aweber, MailChimp, or Infusionsoft.
3. Sandboxes are where magic begins
Architects that design giant skyscrapers don’t begin with skyscrapers.
They practice their craft on smaller, simpler buildings first.
And way before that, they build castles in sandboxes as children.
As an SEO, you don’t just start working on a site that gets hundreds of thousands of visitors per month right away. You start with smaller sites and work your way up.
In most cases, these are your own sites—your own “sandboxes” to play in.
Since we lack modeling software that architects have, the only way to see what does and doesn’t work in SEO is to test.
All good SEOs routinely test what is and isn’t working, or they have someone that does it for them (an individual or a private community).
Once you get a good grip on basic SEO (i.e., which factors really matter), you can start testing individual techniques.
And when you find techniques that work, you can keep tweaking and testing them to make them even better. Then, you’ll have something to use that no one else does.
If you’re brand new to testing, here’s a basic overview of what you need to do…
Step #1 – Pick a factor to test: All tests begin with a hypothesis. You should be able to say:
I think, if I do X, it will result in Y.
For example, you may want to determine if Google+ shares have an effect on rankings for new sites.
Your hypothesis is:
I think more Google+ shares will increase my site’s rankings.
Step #2 – Determine a significant sample size: In a controlled test, like split-testing an offer to visitors, you can easily calculate what sample size you will need (how many visitors will need to visit each version).
If your sample isn’t big enough, from a statistical standpoint, you can’t be confident that the conclusions you are drawing are correct.
However, search engine results operate in a very different environment.
In theory, if more shares improve rankings, it should work every single time. There might be some variance in how fast Google picks them up, but for the most part, rankings should increase.
So, while you definitely need a sample size of more than one page or one site, and more is better, most of the time you only need two to four sites to get a reasonable result.
The more important the factor is, the bigger the sample size should be.
Step #3 – Break your sample size into a control group and a test group: The difficult aspect to account for in your testing is the fact that there are many different ranking factors.
You could test a factor on two different sites and get totally different results because the sites have different SEO metrics.
The more sites you add to your test, the less likely this will matter.
That being said, try to run the test on sites that are as similar as possible (same domain authorities, same internal links to test page, etc.).
You’ll need to have a control group (no Google+ shares) and a test group (with Google+ shares).
In this case, you’ll create a new page targeting a keyword (lower competition will make the results clearer later on) on all sites in the experiment.
In phase 1, you’ll just have to wait. See where the rankings initially pop up and settle after a few weeks.
Once they have, you’d get your Google+ shares to your test group pages (however you planned to do that).
Step #4 – Analyze the results and draw conclusions: After giving the test enough time to run, which can be anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on what you’re testing, you can look at the results.
If you see that results in both groups slowly crept up a bit or stayed the same, you can conclude that the shares had no significant effect on the rankings.
However, if you see that most of your test pages increased their rankings much more than those in the control group, you could conclude that the shares you got did in fact improve the rankings.
As you start testing, you’ll understand why my example was a bit simplistic. But once you get the basics, you can learn how to set up better tests.
4. Learn, or get left behind
If you weren’t around in the field of SEO 10 years ago, you missed out on some things.
Those were the times when keyword stuffing, along with basic blog comment links and forum links, could make sites rank for competitive terms.
If you used any of those tactics now, you’d be penalized in a heartbeat.
Like most fields, SEO is always evolving.
Which means that SEOs should also always be improving their knowledge and skillset.
But they don’t always. You occasionally come across an SEO who is still talking about Page Rank and building forum links as if it’s some kind of a secret.
SEO is a fast moving industry, and you can easily fall behind if you’re not careful.
Testing, like I outlined above, will go a long way to keep you ahead of the curve. In addition, you can learn about how the field is advancing through other sources.
I’ll outline the main areas that you should stay updated on.
Area #1 – SEO news
SEO changes in a few different ways. One of the driving forces of the SEO evolution is search engines. As they get better at providing results to searchers, it gets more difficult to manipulate those results.
Any major search engine change is reported on the main SEO news sites.
If you’re not up to date, you might get caught off guard by something like the mobile-friendly update.
If your client calls you panicking about something, you need to know why it happened and how to fix it beforehand.
Even if your current clients aren’t affected, a change to the search engine results could impact future clients.
The main sites that you should follow (at least one or two of them) are:
Area #2 – SEO tactics
Link building has undergone one of the biggest transformations in SEO. Instead of using automated tools to create thousands of low-quality backlinks for you, you have to earn your backlinks these days.
That being said, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to earn links. Here is a list of just some of them.
As I mentioned before, new tactics are always the most effective. As more and more people start using them, they become less effective.
For example, when infographics were new, everyone was blown away by them (“They’re so pretty!”). But now, everyone who owns a site receives several infographics with requests for links every week. The novelty has worn off.
New tactics, or improvements to old ones, are typically created in private. Then, they make their way through forums and blogs.
So, while you should keep testing things on your own, your time and resources are limited. That’s why you should follow blogs that focus on SEO tactics. Here are a few to get started:
- Quick Sprout (duh!)
- Rand Fishkin’s blog
- Copyblogger (some SEO content)
- Authority Hacker
- Matthew Barby
Area #3 – Marketing education
I told you earlier that most SEO agencies have turned towards digital marketing, which is actually a pretty exciting change in my opinion.
Instead of just working off-site, modern SEOs get to be involved with marketing strategies and other parts of the business.
Digital marketing is a big topic, which can be split into two main types of marketing:
- Inbound marketing – You create content that will attract links and visitors.
- Outbound marketing – You use advertising to get people to your site.
And within those two types of marketing, there are many other types of marketing.
There are too many good marketing blogs for me to list here. But here are a few from different areas to get you started:
- Content marketing – Content Marketing Institute
- Inbound marketing – HubSpot blog
- Social media marketing – Social Media Examiner
- Conversion rate optimization – Crazy Egg blog, ConversionXL
- Paid advertising – PPC Hero
5. Don’t ignore the human element of SEO
Depending on how old you are, you might already know the importance of networking.
This is most evident in colleges and universities.
Some students don’t get high grades but still end up with great jobs when they graduate because they know the right people, and those people like them.
Alternatively, some students ace every course but have terrible people skills and end up with mediocre jobs upon graduation.
Having all the SEO knowledge and knowing SEO tactics isn’t enough. You also need to have a minimum degree of “people skills.”
It comes up all the time in SEO:
- when you’re asking influencers and site owners for links
- when you’re interacting with your readers
- when you’re training interns, freelancers, or support staff on what you need done
I’m not saying that you need to be extremely outgoing and likeable to be a successful SEO, but you can’t be completely unlikeable either.
If speaking isn’t your strong suit, that’s not a problem. Most SEO work is done online, in text.
For example, if you’re training someone to write guest posts for you or a client, you need to be able to communicate your ideas clearly in a guide.
A great example of that is Boost Blog Traffic’s guest posting guidelines:
They spell out what they’re looking for, and they tell you how you can make it work for both you and them.
There are a variety of ways to learn communication and social skills, but here are three books that are must reads for people in just about any field.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book, written by Dale Carnegie, should be mandatory reading in all schools. He breaks down how to connect with people and often does it in the context of sales, which is particularly useful in many aspects of SEO.
- Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion. This legendary book is all about persuasion. It addresses the question: how do you get people to do what you want them to do? There are obvious implications for SEO. When you’re asking for a link, guest posting opportunity, or any other favor, you want to be as persuasive as possible. In addition, if you’re helping with sales, knowing how to influence buyers is necessary. While there are some quick “hacks” in the book, it’s not really about tricking people. It’s about framing your request in such a way that it would make sense for someone to want to help you.
- The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism: Almost all leaders are charismatic. While most think that charisma is something people are born with, this book proves that it is a learned trait.
Being charismatic will help you acquire clients and will help you feel more comfortable in a variety of social settings.
Finally, in case you’re not a fan of reading books, here’s a great post by Ramit Sethi on how to make small talk and advanced social skills. He breaks down a video interview to show you how you can learn to be more skilled in social situations.
6. Code isn’t just for nerds
This last skill—coding—is arguably the most intimidating.
HTML and CSS: By far the simplest place to start, if you haven’t already, is HTML and CSS.
HTML contains all the structure of every web page, while CSS applies styling (formatting) to the page to make it look nice.
As a modern SEO, you will inevitably need to edit webpages on a regular basis, and HTML and CSS is how you do that.
You could, of course, hire someone to do it for you, but you’ll waste a ton of time waiting around for them to do it if it’s something very simple that you could do yourself.
Start learning HTML and CSS with these resources:
PHP: The final piece of the puzzle is PHP. This is a back-end programming language widely used on the web, even if it might not be the best language.
In particular, you might recognize PHP because it forms the back-end of WordPress. It’s the language used to automatically add new posts to your blog pages, for example.
When you’re looking to modify a theme or fix an issue with a plugin, knowing some PHP will come in handy. Instead of waiting around for a developer, you can make the necessary simple fixes.
Here are two good resources for learning PHP:
Keep in mind that you don’t need to be an expert with these four types of code—I’m not.
What is important is that you understand where and how each of them is used on a basic level. It only takes a few days (or a few weeks/month if you do it only in your spare time) to get to this level.
Here is one more resource that has tutorials on all four of these: HTML.net.
Being an SEO doesn’t just mean knowing that backlinks are important.
As you can see, a good SEO needs to know all sorts of things, including technical SEO, marketing, and coding.
Determine how good of an SEO you want to be, and then work to build the skills to match.
If you want to be a great SEO, a highly-paid one and in high demand, you need to be more knowledgeable and up-to-date than almost all other SEOs.
It’s not easy, but it’s possible if you’re passionate enough.
I’ve included a lot of beginner resources in this article, but don’t stop there. Keep stretching yourself to expand your skillset.
Finally, don’t try to learn everything at once. Work on your skills one at a time so you can see your progress and stay motivated.
I’m really curious to see which skills most SEOs need to work on the most. Please, leave me a comment below, and let me know which part of your SEO arsenal you will be working on first.
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