Something I’ve been reasoning about since a long time is who can truly call themselves an SEO specialist, nowadays. I do not think it’s a sterile question for two different reasons, at least. The first one is that, not being a regulated profession, anyone can feel entitled to declare they are SEO specialists. I have earned a degree in Electronics Engineering and to be allowed to use the title of Engineer I had to take a further certification exam after my graduation. I’m entitled to claim I’m an Engineer. But on my LinkedIn profile or on my resume I say I’m an SEO specialist, since this is my actual job and the one I’ve chosen to do.
Secondly, the ease with which many people claim to be SEO specialists creates conditions to deteriorate our industry, affecting the perception of what really an SEO does, often causing damage to customers and surely to the market.
Moreover, the field is so wide that even when able to reach results, one might not be an SEO specialist yet. I mean: being able to fire up GSA Search Engine Ranker and rank a site for some keywords: is it enough?
Ranking 100 static sites and never having touched an e-commerce? Or just working on personal projects to earn money without having done any consulting job? And so on…
So my question to the pros involved in this interview is: who do you think can really call themselves SEO’s? Which are the technical skills but also the soft skills that are required, desirable and a nice plus, to deserve this title?
I’ve asked this question to a few people whose opinion I was interested in. Are you curious about their answers? Let’s start.
Due to the fact that there’s no overall certification for SEOs, it’s very difficult to weed out the ones who call themselves SEOs or SEO experts or gurus yet truly know very little and don’t have much experience. When I was a social worker, to do many jobs you had to have a BSW which was the initial college social work degree. We don’t have anything like that so it’s incredibly difficult for business owners who aren’t in the online marketing trenches every day to separate the wheat from the chaff. Certainly there are incredibly bright new SEOs and for many things they’re just fine…some on-page optimization, using tools to identify pages where you have duplicate info, etc. However for a lot of things, I wouldn’t trust any SEO who didn’t have a few years of experience at a minimum. It’s not really enough to just dive in and look a few things up. You need to have witnessed big changes in the industry and had the benefit of understanding what consistently works and what only brings short term gains. Someone who’s just entered the field isn’t equipped to do that.
I started from a technical perspective as I had been a programmer so I am a bit biased as far as thinking SEOs need a lot of technical skills. I’m not saying they need to be coders but they definitely need to be able to read code at a basic level and identify technical issues that can cause big problems. In addition, I’d say any decent SEO today needs the following soft skils:
- Ability to communicate properly, on time, with language any business owner can understand. If you can’t make your client understand what you’re doing and what’s going on, you’re a crap SEO in my opinion because if you can’t get your point across, how can you understand anyone else’s?
- Ability to say “I really don’t know but I’ll find out.” I cannot stand it when people bullshit me. I was once called out by my boss for telling a client that I didn’t have the answer to her question but would find out and it appalled me that he just expected me to lie. I was recently asked a question about mobile optimization and since it’s not my area of expertise I did reach out to a mobile expert and ask my question because I didn’t want to just assume that something was true and mislead my client. Too many SEOs are scared of losing work so they’ll say whatever it takes to keep a client.
- The desire to dig in and keep learning. The beauty of this field is that there’s always something new going on, so you never get bored. The SEOs who think they know everything and don’t keep abreast of current ideas are dangerous ones.
As far as determining whether someone actually knows any SEO I’d advise any business owner to ask a LOT of questions. We operate under a company-wide NDA so I never give client examples but you need to find a way to get some insight into this person’s skills. Do a test run with them maybe, get some client recommendations, or just grill the hell out of them on online marketing topics.
Ralph Tegtmeier (AKA fantomaster)
An SEO should know the search engines’ guidelines from scratch – but they should also understand what they imply, which opportunities they offer to improve client sites’ rankings etc. This is regardless of whether you wish to adopt a “white hat” or a “black hat” SEO approach.
The decision pro and con either should be based exclusively on the client’s specific business model and SEO targets – not on some fluffy concept of “ethics” or uninformed hearsay and prejudices like “black hat doesn’t” pay: because it does pay exceedingly well if you do it right.
And if it matches client’s aims – which more often than not it doesn’t.
Simply abiding by the search engines’ TOS and Matt Cutts’ videos and hoping for a reward isn’t SEO – a real SEO will go way beyond that.
Reading between the lines is a crucial tradecraft to develop. And experimenting. Plus experimenting. In addition to experimenting. Oh, and did I mention experimenting?
Also, any SEOs worth their salt have realised that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy, that mileage not only may but actually will differ, and that “guarantees” of success are an (essentially dishonest) marketing ploy as even the most experienced and seasoned SEO cannot ever claim to be in control of all ranking factors involved. Hell, even the search engine engineers aren’t really: the entire system has become far too complex for that.
So SEO also entails never to stop learning and to be willing to toss everything over board that’s been considered established wisdom immediately as soon as things change.
We’re all dancers on shifting ground, that’s the only absolutely certain thing in SEO.
“SEO specialist” is a title for a professional who focuses on SEO, but this does not imply they’re good at it. It simply clarifies their focus area. Being an SEO professional also doesn’t mean you’re good, it means that you’ve made a career out of it and you do it for a living. The word that starts hinting at a quality or level of service is “expert” or “guru”. This is generally fine unless it’s exclusively self-labelled. What skills make somebody good in our industry? Technical, strategic and creative abilities to me stand out as most important in this job. After a decade in the industry I feel deep understanding of many aspects of search. Decisions I made are often based by intuition alone. It’s quite interesting.
I’ve spent a few days thinking about this. I don’t think being an “SEO Specialist” is an absolute, any more. You can excel in some areas but need to work harder on others to complete your knowledge.
Rand made a great point in this direction. It’s OK to not know and go find out. I agree, I expect people I work with to not always know the answer. The people I respect the most understand just how big a complex topic can be, and are happy to manage your expectations on what’s required to come up with a credible answer or a working solution.
I feel your frustration, especially as a qualified engineer – SEO is easy to get into, there are few if any barriers to entry to call yourself an SEO. I think most of the qualified SEO community agrees with you too.
So, if you’re to reach a minimum standard of expertise, you have to practice, experiment and learn from the rest of the community.
In my opinion you need to have experience of a lot of the basic to advanced elements of technical, research, outreach, analytics and creative disciplines. We (Builtvisible) promote to the Consultant role when we’re happy an Executive can demonstrate they’ve delivered to the right standard in each of those areas. So in my opinion, that’s a minimum standard to achieve along the path towards becoming an expert.
As for “expert” – I think “expert” it’s a trait more than any list of specific skills. If it’s a given that you’re highly competent in a range of “SEO skills” then to me, an expert in SEO is someone who can tackle new problems and in doing so, achieve marketing outcomes.
It’s a very good question, and it all depends on where you draw the line between competence and specialism. I’ll be entirely honest and say that I called myself a SEO ‘specialist’ and ‘expert’ before I had properly earned that badge. Precisely because of the lack of accreditation it’s very easy for someone to call themselves a specialist, and very hard for people outside the industry to differentiate the pros from the bluffers.
On top of that, it’s difficult to set a hard treshold for SEOs to call themselves specialists. SEO is a varied collection of activities, so by definition an all-round expert SEO has to be good at many different things. And I think it’s perfectly fine for an SEO to specialise in one particular area, like linkbuilding or technical SEO, and be called an expert in that field, perhaps despite a lack of skills in other areas. These sorts of people would be SEO specialists with a distinct focus on a particular aspect of SEO.
We can maybe look at a metric like how many years someone has worked in the industry before we give them a ‘specialist’ label, and it will be accurate to a degree. But it’s not an entirely fair assessment either – I know many young talents in SEO who are doing great work despite only having started their career relatively recently, and I also know some old-timers who are not particularly up to date with good SEO practices in the current era.
I think comparing SEO to an accredited role like engineering is the wrong position to take. SEO is more affiliated to marketing than it is to engineering, and a person’s value in marketing is best evaluated from the results they generate for their employers and clients. SEO is no different; in the end it’s all about the results you achieve. Anyone who’s read a Moz blog post can call themselves an SEO specialist, and yes that can hurt the reputation of the industry overall. But anyone who’s read an article on Brand Republic can also call themselves a marketing expert. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
We need more transparency in SEO, where client case studies are the foundation of reputations. When a SEO is unwilling to share what they do for their clients, it usually means they either have no success stories to share or they employ black hat methods. In the former case, you’ll want to avoid hiring them. In the latter case, you best make sure to ask the right questions and familiarise yourself familiar with the risks inherent in that approach.
In the end, only informed clients can properly judge when someone is bluffing or not. So the best thing we as SEOs can do to improve the industry is to educate our clients. Show them what we do and how we do it, so that they can assess for themselves whether you are delivering value for them.
It’s very difficult to say. In my experience and in the everyday SEO chatter I still see enormous basic mistakes spreading and cyclically getting new life even from well experienced search engine marketers. This probably means that the more our job is perceived from an higher level, the more it will drive people to think less about its technical basics.
There are tons of tools promising to do SEO for you and lots of people in this field think this is enough to be an SEO. Well, it’s not true. The main problem is about understanding and not only executing what other ones said or wrote.
Back to school: “Is it better to remember the proof of a theorem or to undestrand how to prove it?”
To be an SEO you need to be able to choose what is better in each situation, evaluating all the possible variables (budget, resources, coding, content, marketing, politics, opportunity, etc etc…). To be an SEO you must be able to solve problems and to adapt the solution in each case. To be an SEO you must aspire to continuous improvement.
Some of the main characteristics of a good search professional:
– Problem solving
– Critical thinking
– Open minded
– Attention to detail
– Greedy to learn
– Technical and Analytical skills
Some of the above characteristics can be trained, but others not.
I don’t want to make a list of technical stuff (that are obviously necessary ones like HTML, HTTP, Statistic etc..) and I don’t want to focus on the kind of job (consultant, in-house, hobby, e-commerce, editorial…), but for sure a lot of people that offer SEO services are not SEOs at all. Lots of them in the last few years moved away from SEO to embrace the Social Media Wagon or the Inbound Marketing buzzword.
A good SEO to me is a professional who puts all his energy into doing (web)things right.
And remember. Is not important to do it alone or to do it as part of a team, the main point is to do the things right.
Anyone can call themeselves an SEO, just like anyone can call themselves a writer or a marketer. I don’t see this stopping anytime soon, so saying “who should be able to say they are an SEO?” wont be much help since it’s something we can’t actually control. Here’s a better question to ask, do you really want to call yourself an SEO?
I’m not trying to put down SEO, quite the opposite, it’s super valuable and needed! But think about the type of career you are setting yourself up for with a hardcore focus on SEO: ecommerce, multi-location businesses, enterprise publishers and extremely competitive lead gen all tend to focus on SEO, pay their SEO people well and value search as a channel internally.
It’s important to know where a career in SEO will go. Before you start calling yourself an SEO, think about what your are getting into. If you want a decent salary and for your work to be valued by your organization – you’re going to need to work in a difficult and challenging vertical and specialize in a particular skill set. I would never want to be an “SEO generalist” I think that’s setting you up a lot of random freelance work and no chance for specialization or career growth. Even if you work in an agency, having a highly refined niche skill set is what separates the decent SEOs from the exceptional ones.
During the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of job interview, looking for junior and senior SEO consultants so I got a few moments to think about this in detail. For me the main difference between a SEO specialist and a SEO consultant are the skills needed to deal with clients. The difference between junior and senior consultant can be defined by the level of experience with dealing with a range of clients, varying between small business and big international corporate organisations. This has nothing to do with SEO at all, but for me the most important difference that can be found between people calling themselves a SEO specialist.
Building a WordPress website, getting some links and getting some rankings in a specific niche is something of less value for me. If you are not stupid, have some decent education and technical skills or interest, basically anyone can do this. Calling yourself a specialist creates specific expectations. For me, you can call yourself a specialist if you have experience with all kinds of projects, blackhat / white hat, competitive niches, finding query spaces nobody cares about. That is not something you will have after doing some side projects during your study or working inhouse focusing on a predefined set of domains.
Looking to the requirements, for me the most important one is experience. As a university drop out myself, I know that degrees can be beneficial to your overall skills, but being a good SEO consultant isn’t taught in schools. Engineering, physics or mathematics can help you understand search engines better, but aren’t necessary required. With SEO becoming a real marketing channel during the past three years, a background in marketing can help you, but will challenge a person in the technical field. Again, this can be taught during the years, HTML and basic programming isn’t rocket science. Having a university degree is definitely a plus, since it requires a certain level of thinking, analysis methodology etcetera that can come in handy when analysing certain SEO quests.
If you pursue a career in SEO, be patient since it simply requires experience. Start building basic skills, like programming and front end development. Understand the basics of information retrieval & parsing, iterative algorithms (like PageRank) and search engine architectures. People start reading the major SEO blogs, do some online training but always forget to understand the systems behind things. How can you determine if a link is worth something if you don’t understand how Google works? Launch some testing websites next to your current activities. Test all the tools in the market. Built a crawler yourself. The more experience you gain, the more easy you can analyse client cases. Next to the SEO specific knowledge, improve your consultancy and presentation skills. SEO is still undervalued by a lot of companies, we are still fighting against the bad name SEO has due to all the black hat cases and results. Be able to deal with big corporate organisations. That will make you a good SEO consultant.
This isn’t an industry where you need a recognized certification (like a lawyers, architects, real estate brokers, etc.), so it gets a little fuzzy at times, but I’m not big on titles and classifications anyway. Here’s my opinion – I’ve said, “SEO has many definitions, all of them accurate,” because I’ve yet to see a definition that didn’t include the main goal – driving website performance through organic search. If you’re a content marketer who understands the signals Google looks for, but can’t fix an .htaccess file, you can call yourself an SEO in my book. If you’re a new-age PR expert who understands PageRank and Google guidelines, you can call yourself an SEO. If you’re a website developer who knows how to make a website 100% readable/crawlable/indexable, then you can call yourself an SEO. You’re simply less holistic.
I only see a problem when you’re really just an segment-specialized SEO but you sell services like you’re more well rounded. If you make websites, have a fair understanding of technical SEO, and post “SEO services” on your company page, just make sure you inform the client of how much you really know. It may be enough, and it might actually help validate the SEO industry in the eyes of more businesses.
There are many industries that ask the same question about their titles. Are you a “construction worker” if you’re only the guy sweeping up? Are you a “chef” if you work at Applebees? Are you an “actor” if you are in porn? I really only concern myself more with the intention of the job.
I believe to call yourself and SEO you need to understand and have hands-on experience with a few basic building blocks of search engines.
And in my opinion those are 1) understand how search engines work, namely the idea behind contextual relevancy, search intent, the different search results interfaces, and the known signaling attributes to influence rankings 2) understand how search engine spiders see the internet and more specifically your pages. Know how to write a website from scratch in html and css, and understand how semantic mark-up influences crawlability. Lastly, be well versed in the language your are optimizing for, OR, hire native speakers. At the end of the day SEO is all about natural language, you don’t necessarily need to speak the language of the people your optimizing for, but you sure as hell need to be working with someone who does – translation engines alone are not enough.
Which are the technical skills but also the soft skills that are required, desirable and a nice plus, to deserve this title?
I look for people who have at least cut their teeth on HTML. More than anything though, I want someone who has built at least one website before – regardless of what platform. Someone who has physically spent the time to make a page that is live on the internet. This important for their confidence as an SEO. The soft skills would be writing, editing, and understanding how to conduct and cite research. A nice plus is someone who has actually done some 3rd party publishing, i.e. written content that someone else had to vet and approve and done some promotion/link building for their own pages.
There’s no precise definition of an SEO specialist but some characteristics seem to be more important than others, according to the pros that have accepted to answer my questions.
Experience is the main one: having passed through several SEO ages, algo updates (or earthquakes sometimes) and worked on a good number of projects is something that makes a difference in our field like in many others. I’m in the industry since 8 years, more or less, and even if I can’t say I’ve been here since the “old days” I think have seen and tried enough along the years and I can’t agree more on this: experience counts.
Also, Experimenting is important: you can’t know what really works and where’s the limit if you just do what everyone does. And if you don’t perform tests on your own websites, you’re missing a good part of fun, in my opinion.
You should master technical topics, at least the very basic ones, without lacking in creativity.
Anyway, as far as you’re able to produce concrete results for your clients (without putting them at risk, unless they agree to), you can say you’re an SEO. Maybe not able to work on every kind of projects, I’d add, but you can still find your expertise area and do well.
Do you agree? Speak your mind in the comments…