How to Become an SEO Expert: The Definitive Guide
This guide will show you exactly how to become an SEO expert.
- Learning frameworks
- Emerging trends
- Must-read resources
- Lots more
So if you want to go from SEO rookie to SEO pro, this guide is for you.
Let’s get started.
About The Author
Hi, I’m Brian Dean.
I launched my first website way back in 2009.
And I quickly realized that SEO was going to be a big part of my site’s success.
So I set out to learn as much as I could.
And thanks to years of reading and experimenting, I’ve had a ton of success with SEO…
…including #1 rankings for competitive keywords like “Google ranking factors”:
And “SEO Campaign”:
In fact, Entrepreneur recently called me an “SEO genius”.
And in today’s guide I’m going to reveal how YOU can become an SEO expert in record time.
Chapter 1:SEO Expert Fundamentals
What Is an SEO Expert?
An SEO expert (also known as an “SEO specialist”) is someone that optimizes websites in order to achieve higher search engine rankings.
Put another way:
An SEO expert is someone that knows how to get more traffic from search engines.
How Do You Become an SEO Specialist?
Because the field of search engine optimization is so new, most people don’t learn SEO from a traditional 4-year college program.
(Although those do exist)
Here are the most common ways that people become SEO specialists:
- Take an SEO course (or several SEO courses)
- Learn SEO by optimizing their own website
- Work at a marketing agency
- Take on SEO clients
- Get an online SEO certification or degree
- Work as an “in house” SEO professional
Here’s a breakdown of each of these six options:
|Approach||Learning Speed||Ease of Learning||Cost||Personal Support and Guidance||Putting SEO Into Practice|
|Your Own Site||4/5||2/5||4/5||1/5||5/5|
|Work At Marketing Agency||4/5||3/5||1/5||3/5||3/5|
|Take On SEO Clients||3/5||2/5||2/5||1/5||5/5|
What Skills Should an SEO Expert Know?
There’s a lot more to SEO than optimizing meta tags on a website.
In fact, the best SEO specialists are people that are proficient in a number of different areas of digital marketing. This includes “core” SEO skills (like title tag optimization). But it also includes other digital marketing skills, like writing and web design.
With that, here are the key skills that an SEO expert needs to have:
- Ability to find high-volume, low-competition keywords
- Basic understanding of HTML
- How and where to add keywords to a webpage
- Intermediate to advanced copywriting skills
- Proficiency in visual content, like video and infographics
- Ability to promote and build links to key pages
- Understanding of how technical SEO impacts rankings
- Knowledge of emerging SEO trends and Google algorithm changes
In the rest of this guide I’ll dive deeper into each of these. And show you real-life examples of people that have become SEO specialists.
Chapter 2:Understand the Basics of SEO
In this chapter you’ll learn the essentials that ANY legit SEO expert needs to know.
These essentials include HTML, how search engines work, and important Google ranking factors in 2020.
And once you master these SEO basics, you’ll be well on your way to mastering advanced topics (like link building and mobile optimization).
Let’s get started.
How Search Engines Work
Understanding how search engines work is a key piece of knowledge for any SEO professional.
Search engines send out search engine spiders to find pages on the internet.
Next, they crawl each page’s code.
Once the page is crawled, the page is added to the search engine’s index, which is a cached collection of pages.
In other words: when you do a Google search, you’re not getting back live results. Instead, Google is showing you pages from its index. That’s why you get Google results within milliseconds.
(Fun Fact: Google has over 130 trillion pages in its index!)
When someone searches, Google looks for pages in its index that match the person’s query.
And they rank those pages based on hundreds of factors in their algorithm.
Resources to learn about search engines
How Search Works: A very well-done visual guide to how search engines work… straight from Google.
How does Google Search work?: This video by former Googler Matt Cutts gives you an in-depth peek into Google search.
You’re probably wondering:
How do Google, Bing and other search engines figure out what to rank on the first page?
Important Search Engine Ranking Factors
Google uses 200+ ranking factors in their algorithm.
And no, you don’t need to learn them all 🙂
In fact, most of the 200 ranking factors are different ways of measuring 3 things: relevancy, authority and quality.
Relevancy is how well a page matches someone’s search.
For example, let’s say you searched for “grey hoodies” in Google.
Well, Google is going to scan its index to find pages that are about “grey hoodies”.
And they’re REALLY good at it. Which is why you almost never see a result for “grey sneakers” when you search for “grey hoodies”.
Authority is how much Google trusts the content on a page.
And they measure authority primarily based on links.
The more links a page has pointing to it, the more authority that page has in Google’s eyes.
Quality is based on a few different factors, like your site’s online reputation, your content’s structure, and how users interact with your site in the search results.
Resources to learn about ranking factors
13 Search Engine Ranking Factors: An updated list of ranking factors that are considered (by me) to be most important right now.
The Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors: Very cool visual guide to “success factors” that can help your site rank in Google.
Google RankBrain: The Definitive Guide: Google has said that their AI-based algorithm, RankBrain, is one of their 3 most important ranking signals. Get the lowdown on RankBrain in this guide.
Now that you’ve got the basics down, it’s time for chapter 3.
Understand The Basics of HTML
Do you need to be a coding ninja to be good at SEO?
But do you need to understand the basics of HTML?
Why is this important?
Google doesn’t see your site like humans do. Instead, they look at your site’s code. And if you don’t understand that code, it’s almost impossible to optimize it the right way.
Plus, if you ever run into any technical SEO problems, you’re going to be completely lost.
But when you at least know the basics of HTML, optimizing your site gets A LOT easier.
Resources to Learn HTML
Head First HTML and CSS: A Learner’s Guide to Creating Standards-Based Web Pages: A fantastic guide that pushes you to take action after every lesson. This is how I learned HTML in an afternoon.
Introduction to HTML: An interactive HTML course from Code Academy. Great for picking up the basics.
One Month HTML: A very involved training for people that want to know everything there is to know about HTML.
Chapter 3:Master The 5 Keys of SEO
If you’re serious about becoming an SEO expert, there are 5 “Master Keys” you need to know.
These Master Keys are the 5 most important topics in the world of search engine optimization.
And the better you understand these 5 core topics, the more success you’ll have.
So without further ado, let’s dive right in.
Finding and Choosing Keywords
Keyword research should be the first step of ANY SEO campaign.
Choose the right keywords? You’ll see your site rocket to the top of Google’s first page for keywords that thousands of people search for every month.
Choose the wrong keywords? Your site will be buried at the bottom of Google’s 5th page.
Keywords really are that important.
If you want to learn more about keyword research, this guide has you covered.
No SEO training would be complete without a section on content marketing. That’s because it’s almost impossible to rank in 2020 without awesome content (even if your site is perfectly optimized for search engines).
The Beginner’s Guide to Content Marketing from Moz is a great place to start.
And if you want to see a case study of how SEO and content marketing relate to one another, I recommend reading this case study:
Back in the day you could stuff your content with keywords… and it would rank. Flash forward to today, and on-page SEO is much more sophisticated. Sure, you still want to include keywords on your page. But that’s just the beginning.
Use this video to get an understanding of basic and advanced on-page SEO strategies (including tons of real-life examples).
Technical SEO is one of the most underrated parts of SEO. It’s important for just about any website. But technical optimization is ESPECIALLY important for big websites with thousands of pages (like ecommerce and news sites).
Whether you run a small blog or a media brand with 500k pages, these resources will help you master technical SEO:
There’s no way around it: link building is a HUGE part of SEO. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon. That’s why any SEO expert (even one that specializes in technical SEO or content) needs to be good at building backlinks.
These resources will help you learn about white hat link building approaches, strategies, and techniques:
- Link Building: The Definitive Guide
- The Rules of Link Building
- Link Building Strategies: The Complete List
- How We Gained More than 100 Links for a Travel Website via Content Marketing
- How to Get High Quality Backlinks (7 New Strategies)
Which brings us to our next chapter…
Chapter 4:Put SEO Into Practice
You can read about SEO all day long.
But if you want to become an SEO specialist, you need to actually do SEO.
And when it comes to practicing your SEO skills, you’ve got three main options.
I’ll cover these options (including their pros and cons) in this chapter.
Work On Your Own Website
This is how I got started with SEO.
And it’s how I recommend that most people learn how to become an SEO expert.
When you run your own website, you can make changes FAST.
No need to ping your boss on Slack to see if it’s OK to change a title tag.
No need to email your client’s web designer to add an image to a page.
See something that needs to be changed. Change it. See the results.
The cycle of test→learn→improve moves 10x faster with your own property than with someone else’s website.
Plus, when you work on your own stuff you get to see the 100+ of factors that go into a successful website (beyond straight-up SEO). I’m talking about things like design, copywriting, email list building, social media, outreach.
In other words, running your own site helps you become a well-rounded “T-Shaped Marketer”.
For example, Jerryll Noorden applied what he learned from his time as a former NASA scientist to SEO.
Which helped him take his side hustle into a highly profitable real estate business.
Here’s how Jeryll described how his experience shaped his approach to SEO today.
“As an (ex) IHMC/NASA robotics scientist. I am used to figuring things out, analyzing it dissect it and make it better, 10X. My SEO strategies are in house developed and they work better than anything I have seen thus far. My secret is to bypass Google, by figuring out what Google looks for.”
And Jerryll isn’t alone. A few years back, Maaike de Boer’s daughter was struggling with math at school.
And when Maaike looked for resources to help her daughter, she came up empty.
That’s when Maaike decided to launch a website that now gets 200k visits per month.
(Which is even more impressive if you consider that The Netherlands only has about 17 million people).
How did Maaike get so good at SEO? She learned as much as she could about SEO (from blog posts, online courses and SEO conferences). Then, she applied what she learned to her website.
And this fast process made Maaike go from SEO newbie to SEO expert in record time.
Or as Maaike told me:
“From the beginning of the business, I trained myself in SEO. I soon discovered that the main competitors focused more on television commercials and social media. I made a difference with in-depth articles with valuable information for involved parents. By constantly optimizing the website and the articles the results got better each year.”
That said, running your own website isn’t the only way to learn SEO. You can also…
Take On Clients
The idea of cutting your teeth on SEO with a client’s site might sound weird. After all: if you’re not an SEO expert yet, why would someone hire you?
It’s a good question. Here’s the answer:
1. The fact that you’ve read about SEO puts you ahead of 90% of small business owners out there.
2. SEO is a lot of work. So even if a client knows more about online marketing than you do, they probably don’t have time to do SEO on their own.
3. Your first SEO client should pay you pretty much nothing (or, some cases, actually nothing). Think of it as an apprenticeship. That way, there’s no pressure to perform miracles.
As Felix puts it:
“I worked on clients sites, testing out strategies, testing different markets and using their existing sites as a foundation to see what works and what doesn’t.
When I found things that worked I built them into my agencies standard operating procedures, so I could replicate them on future client sites and on my own.”
Today, Felix runs a WordPress development agency. And that opportunity wouldn’t have opened up if he didn’t kick things off with client work.
Working at an agency or as an in-house SEO is a great way to become an SEO specialist.
The big plus here is that you’re surrounded by people that already know SEO. And it’s their job to help you get up to speed.
So you tend to learn FAST.
In fact, that’s how Backlinko reader Ryan Merabet got his start. Ryan was interested in SEO. And he wanted an environment where he could learn more. So he worked as an entry-level SEO at a big agency.
And the SEO knowledge that Ryan picked up helped him grow his travel blog to one of the most popular in France.
As Ryan explained to me:
“Naturally, I applied everything I learned about SEO from the agency to my travel blog. But I kept learning on the way and always keep myself updated. That’s how I maintain my top positions.”
Chapter 5:Test and Learn
The best SEO professionals I know all have one thing in common:
They’re ALWAYS testing.
In fact, I’d say that “testing” is the one thing that ultimately pushes people to the top of the field.
That said: SEO is a tricky thing to test. So if you’re going to run SEO experiments, here are a few key frameworks to follow.
“Your Change Isn’t Always the Cause”
Put another way:
Correlation doesn’t always mean causation.
Google is constantly tweaking their algorithm. In fact, according to Google, they make approximately 3,000 changes to the algorithm every year.
As you can you can see in this shot of my Google Analytics organic traffic report, variations in your organic traffic happens all the time… even if you haven’t touched your site.
This is a mistake I made early on. I’d assume that a rankings improvement (or drop) was due to a change I made.
For example, I’d add a few keywords to a page. See my rankings go from #7 to #5. And assume my keyword optimization caused the bump.
It might have. But it could also be Google’s algorithm doing its thing.
So how do you know if your change did anything? Well, that leads us to…
Look For Big, Consistent Results
The bigger the result, the more likely your change was behind it.
I’ll explain with an example…
Look at the organic traffic stats for this page on my site over a 30-day period:
I didn’t touch the page. But you can see that there are quite a few spikes and dips throughout the month.
If that’s the type of change you’re seeing, it’s probably Google’s normal fluctuations at work.
On the other hand, look at the organic traffic to that same page AFTER I made a significant change to that page’s content:
Is it possible that Google made a major change to their algorithm that day? Yes. But it’s much more likely that my change caused the traffic to improve.
And if you want to be sure, roll out the same change across different pages. If they all react the same way, you can be pretty sure that whatever you did is behind the improvement.
Things You Can Test
In theory, you can test just about anything.
But here are some relatively easy SEO experiments to run:
- Title tags (keyword optimization)
- Title tags (organic CTR optimization)
- Content formats (list posts vs. how-to posts)
- Content lengths
- Internal linking
- External linking
And if you want to get more advanced, you can start testing different link building strategies, search intents, and paid social media promotion.
For example, a while back I wanted to see if interactive content would decrease my bounce rate and improve my time on site.
(Which I believe to be an important Google ranking signal)
So when I launched this mega list of SEO tools, I added an interactive filter to the top of the page:
As it turned out, user interaction stats on that page were higher than other similar content on my site:
So I decided to use this same interactive element to all of my long list posts:
And the results were similar:
This experience taught me: “Interactive filters is one way to maximize user experience signals on super long content.”
This is something that I could have NEVER learned from reading blog posts or watching YouTube videos.
It had to come from experimenting.
Chapter 6:Implement Advanced SEO Strategies
Now it’s time to take your SEO game to the next level.
In fact, if you want to be considered an “SEO Expert” you should learn about the topics I’m going to cover in this chapter.
For example, you don’t need to be the world’s foremost guru on International SEO. But you should at least know what an Hreflang tag is.
And in this chapter I’m going to outline a number of advanced SEO skills… and resources to learn more about them.
When I say “Analytics”, I’m mostly talking about Google Analytics.
Understanding Analytics is important for two main reasons:
- Analytics is how you measure the success or failure of an SEO campaign.
- Analytics can help you find SEO opportunities that are impossible to find any other way.
Here are a few resources to help you:
In a perfect world you’d work on sites that are almost perfectly optimized. They just need your magic touch to push it over the edge.
But we don’t live in a perfect world 🙂
In the real world you’ll find yourself battling duplicate content, Google penalties, horrible UX, and lots more.
Enter: SEO Audits.
SEO auditing is important because it helps you break down a site’s SEO in a systematic way.
If you want to learn more about SEO audits, I recommend checking out this SEO audit tutorial.
Is User Experience a direct ranking signal?
But user experience indirectly impacts SEO in a major way.
For example, let’s say your site is hard to use. Well, Google searchers are going to “Pogostick” back to the search results, which can hurt your rankings.
With that, here are some resources that will help you get started learning UX.
SEO Tools and Software
If you want to be an SEO specialist, you MUST know how to use tools.
In fact, experience with tools is so important that most SEO specialist job postings list “experience with SEO tools” as a requirement:
If you want a crash course on SEO software, this section from the SEO Marketing Hub has you covered.
If you plan to run (or work at) an SEO agency, local SEO will take up a big part of your day. That’s because the vast majority of SEO clients tend to be local businesses, like dentists and lawyers.
This video by Sam Oh is a great intro to local SEO.
In other words: reverse engineering how your competitor is getting their links. This includes looking at the content that’s working best for them and WHERE they get their links from.
Here’s a starter guide to reverse engineering that I recommend checking out.
Chapter 7:Scale Your SEO Efforts
It’s one thing to know how to optimize a title tag.
But how do you optimize 50,000 title tags on an ecommerce site?
That’s where scaling comes into play.
Unfortunately, scaling SEO can be tricky.
That’s why, in this chapter, I’m going to show you three real-life examples of SEO tasks done at scale.
Scaling SEO Site Audits
Like I mentioned in the last chapter, audits are a big part of an SEO specialist’s job.
Without a system, you’re going to have to start from scratch whenever you run into a new project.
For example, SEO consultant Felix (who we met earlier) does TONS of audits for his clients.
And to scale up, he created dedicated systems and processes to make the audits faster and more efficient.
Specifically, Felix documented EVERY step of the process.
That way, his team can execute audits without him.
For example, he has an Asana board that outlines every step (with a timeline):
And team members collaborate on each task using Slack.
All of which has helped Felix scale up this time-consuming process:
“The hard part has been in figuring out a way to scale this and transfer the knowledge and processes to colleagues. Creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) has been critical to delegating and tracking work.”
Scaling content is easy:
Just hire a bunch of random freelancers on UpWork and hope for the best.
But scaling GOOD content? That’s a different story.
For that, you need a system for coming up with blog post topics, keyword research, writing, outlining, editing and design.
His secret? Bob and his team follow a repeatable blueprint for creating high-quality content:
- Find keywords that customers search for (using KWFinder and Ahrefs).
- Sort keywords by search volume. Download the list to Excel.
- Toss out any keywords with a keyword difficulty of 30 or more.
- Use The Skyscraper Technique model to create content.
- Optimize the content for SEO.
Here’s a screenshot of Bob’s spreadsheet:
As Bob puts it:
“Once you get used to it, the articles almost write themselves. And I have successfully tested the method on folks that have no knowledge of my niche at all. My daughter wrote a series of posts for me one summer that did well.”
Scaling Link Building and Outreach
Scaling white hat link building is no easy task.
In fact, there’s a fine line between scalable link building and straight up spam.
Well, according to SEO consultant Calin Yablonski, you can scale outreach without being spammy.
The secret isn’t necessarily the process (although his SEO company does have a detailed process using Basecamp).
Instead, it’s about guidelines that ensure your SEO team personalizes each and every email that goes out.
And what’s interesting about Calin’s approach is that he actually involves his client in the entire process.
For example, he asks new clients to fill out a brief intake form to get an insider’s look of their industry.
Which helps them:
- Find untapped link opportunities
- Write scripts that fit the language of that space
- Understand the types of content bloggers and journalists already link to
As Calin told me:
“Link builders are the air traffic controllers of the SEO industry. Using scalable link building processes is absolutely critical to organizing and implementing a campaign effectively.”
Chapter 8:Stay Current With Emerging Trends
The SEO industry is ALWAYS changing.
Which means there’s always something new to learn about.
So if you want to stay ahead of the curve, I recommend reading up on these 5 emerging SEO trends.
This chart (based on data from Kleiner Perkins) shows you pretty much everything you need to know about the growth of voice search:
As you can see, the number of voice searches is growing VERY quickly.
In fact, I’d say that voice search optimization is one of the most important skills that modern-day SEOs need to have.
It’s still early. So it’s not 100% clear how you should optimize for voice searches.
That said, there are already some voice search best practices out there, which I cover in this guide.
Google recently reported that Google Lens can identify 1 billion objects.
(Thanks to AI)
And as AI improves, image search is set to become even better.
How do you optimize a page when the “keyword” is a picture of a cat? Who knows. But it’s an emerging trend to keep an eye on.
Featured Snippet Optimization
According to the latest data from SEMRush, about 13% of the SERPs have a Featured Snippet:
Which is a BIG opportunity for most websites. That’s because Featured Snippets take up A TON of real estate:
Here’s a great video that outlines a handful of best practice for ranking in the Featured Snippet box.
User intent is basically what someone wants when they do a Google search.
Do they want information? Or to buy something?
The better your content matches someone’s user intent, the higher it will rank.
Check out this case study to see how optimizing for User Intent boosted organic traffic to one of my pages by 600%.
I hope this guide helped show you how to become an SEO expert.
And now I’d like to hear what you have to say:
Which area of SEO do you specialize in?
Or what part of SEO do you want to get good at?
Let me know by leaving a quick comment below right now.