This is an expanded version of the post “So you want to be a SEO” from the old blog a printer friendly version will be available soon
You are not alone the Search engine optimisation industry seems to be growing at a scary rate and while there is still plenty of room for growth it is starting to burst at the seems with misinformation, conjecture and generally an overall bad public image. This is a little ironic for an industry full of marketers and PR (public relations) gurus.
So what is an SEO?
Search engine optimisers are a branch of Information Architecture within computing disciplines. In general terms they are the cousins of database analysts and brothers of web developers, what you looked surprised? Did you expect me to say the word marketing?
Many people mistake an SEO (person) for marketers this is a misconception based around the fact that as a field SEO (The science behind optimising sites for search engines) has been saturated by Internet Marketers and in recent years SMO (social media optimisers) both of these disciplines have a role to play in the field of Search engine marketing of which SEO is a part of but they are not SEOs.
The Two Ronnies and John Cleese
The Search Engine Optimiser (The SEO)
A Search engine optimiser actually optimises websites and pages on websites to make them not only “search friendly” something most Web designers and developers can do but optimised. The SEO is perhaps the most technical discipline with the SEO expected to have a good understanding of Web development, Web architecture and server side scripting.
The Social Media Optimiser (the SMO)
A social media optimiser sometimes called a Link baiter is a specialist at driving traffic to a site through use of social media sites such as Stumbleupon and Digg. SMO are probably the most diverse group of people but they excel at delivering people to sites often with the goal not to directly sell to these people but to gather and garner links helping to rank a site. Social media optimisation is an important part of any successful part of a search engine marketing strategy. With out links the SEOs work will only take the site so far you often find that many SEO’s either do the work of a SMO themselves or in fact are a SMO with some web design skills.
The Internet Marketer (the masses)
The Internet Marketers are the masses that make up the bulk of the SEM (search engine marketing) industry. They are the Ebook peddlers, the squeeze page and affiliate marketers and the PPC managers. Now none of these techniques should be under valued there are after all hundreds of exceptional Ebooks, squeeze pages and affiliate marketing is a powerful tool and the use of PPC within an “Internet marketing campaign” is often considered a vital effort. The Internet marketer is however often mistaken as being a part of the SEM industry and while their services can be seen as complimentary to an overall Internet Marketing campaign they themselves rarely provide services directly related to SEO.
These are very much stereotyping 3 main groups there are hundreds of subgroups and plenty of people who straggle across groups or simply don’t fit in. For the remainder of this article we will be following the “how tos’” of the SEO, the optimiser, the person who works on pages and sites to help them rank well for given keywords in search engines.
Still with us, excellent so it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of what SEOs do, how we do it and why. Of course to answer that completely is well beyond the scope of this post and indeed this blog! But let’s start with a semi formal definition of what SEO is;
SEO as a discipline is formed neatly into two areas “on-page” and “off-page” the SEO tends to focus on the “on-page” while the SMO is focused more on the “off-page”.
“On-page” covers all aspect of optimising a site from making it searchable, to page structure, internal navigation, server side scripting and finally content. “Off page” optimisation covers gathering external links to the site, deep linking, anchor text, and traffic generation all of this is done away from the site but effects ranking.
To rank well in a competitive niche both aspects must be covered, one without the other will have limited success. SEOs specialise in the “on-page” optimisation which means they first need to have some basic skills behind them.
Before you begin, if your serious about becoming an SEO then you should be familiar with the following if your not don’t worry all of these skills are easy to pick up and I have provided some introduction material for each;
- XHTML – Well enough to be able to understand the use of divs, headings, attributes and a fairly reasonable understanding of CSS. You don’t need to be a guru here but you will spend a lot of time staring at HTML so knowing what you’re looking at will help.
- A Server side language such as; PHP/Python/Ruby/Perl/ASP – With the rise of the CMS (content management system) a lot of time is spent working on server scripts and tools it is a lot easier to understand if you have a grasp of programming languages.
- Database design and structure – Again CMS mean SEO’s need to be familiar with databases and feel comfortable editing databases directly and often through a command line.
- Web Architecture – Understanding what HTTP stands for the difference between URI and URL, and an overview of how the web works below the browser level will become invaluable once you start working on more complicated projects.
- Web Servers – In particular a good understanding of either Apache or IIS is vital for the more technical aspects of an SEO job stabbing around blindly in a server configuration file can have disastrous results.
In addition to these 5 key areas most SEOs have some knowledge of AI in particular multi agent systems and Bot design though this is something you pick up but consequently some mathematics background is required, it’s not a massive part of an SEOs life but it will certainly help if you are not terrified of maths. The final skill that most SEOs “pick” up is statistical analysis looking at stats and understanding them again this is not a massive part of the job but an SEO needs to be able to determine success and failures on a statistical level being able to interpret stats is a useful skill just remember the adage lies, damn lies and statistics is true in any industry!
How to get started
Your still here! Awesome I expected to lose 95% of people about the time I mentioned mathematics did you perhaps fail to read that line well just in case…
This little equation is the famous PageRank algorithm or a very early version of it anyway what has this to do with being an SEO very little,I’m not going to say PR is irrelevant as that will cause people to start having panic fits but for the time being I want you to cast it from your mind the Aexa rankings too and any other metric you have heard of. I am going to now tell you the secret of SEO and why the SEOs smile in that “yes dear” manner when you mention how your site has got a PR of 4.
In Search Engine Optimisation there is only one metric worth considering and that is your site position within the SERPs for a given keyword
Now don’t tell anyone else or you will ruin it for the rest of us but your results should not be based on page ranks, Aexa rank, pigeon rank or any other metric but on your position within search engines. The job of the SEO is to help sites rank well not jumping hoops for a green bar.
So let’s look at the areas SEOs cover with my 5 key pillars;
- Keyword research – I’m going to put this as the first thing the SEOs do it’s very much a bread and butter part of our day to day lives, most clients are unaware of what keywords they should be targeting the company name is always the obvious one. Keyword research is a three pronged affair the object is to find a keyword or keyword pair which has a volume of traffic behind after all there is no point ranking for a keyword if no one is searching for it. The second is to determine how competitive a keyword is do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or the big fish in a small pond. Finally and this is an often forgotten step relevancy is the product or service directly related to that keyword.
- Site structure – As I stated in the introduction SEO’s are very much information architects and this is probably where it is most notable an SEO should be involved with all aspect of site structure from designing navigation through to directory structure. The SEOs goal to make the site searchable, intuitive and keyword rich the site structure is one of the most over looked tools. From the domain name through to the sitemap the whole site can be tweaked to provide keywords with small boosts. The SEO is also responsible with making sure the site structure is searchable and that large sites do not have orphaned pages. Getting all pages ranking well on large sites can be a very challenging experience.
- On page coding – The web designers makes it pretty, the web developers functional and the SEO make it search friendly again you will see an overlap with Information architects and in particular usability experts. Indeed accessibility and on page coding SEO are very close that they can often be done by the same person and you will find many SEOs offering accessibility and usability services as well. On page coding covers everything from code structure to heading hierarchy to making sure alt attributes are used in images. This is a very diverse part of the job there are many “tricks” which can be employed.
- Meta Engineering - This is perhaps the only unique discipline that SEOs don’t overlap with other disciplines and even that is not true many web developers will stray into Meta Engineering. Meta engineering covers everything from meta tags in pages, to sending of headers from htaccess and server side scripting to robots.txt any aspect of directing and passing information to robots and in particular search crawlers that are visiting. While most people have come across meta tags in web pages and robots.txt files this is just scratching the surface of the number of ways and methods SEOs have to control the way bots interact with the site.
- External tools – I have included this here because while SEOs are primarily interested in “on-page” optimisation that does not mean they do not use or interact with external tools these can be anything from stats packages and heat maps to the Google webmaster tools all of which can provide an immense amount of data and information. The Google webmaster tools in particular are becoming more and more a part of an SEOs routine providing methods to exclude pages that creped in to helping to select site links (the sub links you sometimes see in search results)
With all these areas it can perhaps be hard to see where to begin and while each aspect on their own is very simple taken as a whole the subject can seem daunting to say the least.
Order of attack
I’m going to suggest a priority order a learning sheet if you like once you feel comfortable with the first art you move on to the next by the time you reached the bottom you will have a good grasp of what it means to be an SEO and capable of making your own sheet as to where to go from there.
- Accessibility, usability and code SEO
- Robots.txt, meta tags
- Site structure, page structure, linking patterns
- Google Webmaster Tools, stats packages
- Keyword research
- Programming and scripting
- Htaccess, server status, error codes
That’s a pretty neat list I think each subject is easy to research and I think builds neatly on top of each other. You may have noticed I have split some issues and moved some others around from my key pillars but this is a list to aid those learning not those already working in this field, I think its better to build on the knowledge you already have before introducing new concepts. It’s also better to beat any bad habits out before they become routine.
So what practical resources would I suggest you invest in if you wish to become an SEO, well I’m afraid a few financial outlays will be needed so credit card or Paypal accounts at the ready:
- Hosting – If you’re starting out you need to get some hosting, even if just a place to play with scripts or ideas a show case for clients or even a blog hosting is an essential. The good news is that when you first start out there is no need to be looking at VPS or dedicated solutions though after a while you may find the need for such things initially something like Dreamhost (promo code TIMSEO) will be fine.
- Reading – There are a few things I will recommend buying or reading, I think that with so many free resources out there that spending money on such material is only worth it for decent products. That said if you are starting out then I really do recommend SEO Fast Start Free Ebook & Aaron Wall SEO Book it costs but is one of the few products that is genuinely worth the price tag at least in terms of word count. I would also recommend two reads from SEOMoz the “Search Engine Ranking factors” which is free and the “Illustrated guide to web friendly sites” which costs a few dollars there are other guides on SEOMoz and if you’re interested in them then perhaps you should look at their premium membership (Update: This has become silly money so think carefully).
- Keyword research – This is one of those huge questions there are loads of resources out there including Wordtracker which is a great product and has a handy free keyword tool.
You can be an SEO
I know this has been a slog your head is filled with new ideas nothing has been truly explained its like being in the theatre you had the warm up act and now all you can here is the banging behind the curtain but this is where I leave you. I hope I have inspired you to join us and take your place as an SEO it is one of the most demanding and challenging jobs in the web. Being an SEO is a totally thankless job like most of computing, yet perhaps one of the most enjoyable and friendly industry. Where to next that’s up to you keep reading and learning, you could always take a course on search engine optimisation as a route or you can go down the self taught route either way I wish you luck.
These are my thoughts and feelings in an industry with no professional body many “SEOs” will argue with some of the skill requirements or the stereotyping but then that’s probably because I just labelled them the masses and their sulking. On a serious note I have always held the belief an optimiser has to actually touch the thing they are optimiser. There at least in my mind no such thing as an “off-page” SEO, what they mean is they don’t really understand how search engines work but they buy/sell links and submit sites to directories this is not SEO. That said this is a disclaimer not a rant, so all information here is the opinion of Tim Nash a self stated SEO consultant and should be taken as that. May the whining begin!