Become an SEO rock star: Evolve your SEO skill set

During my career, several executives have asked why so many of my search engine optimization (SEO) team members are poached by other teams in the organization.

The answer is always the same: True SEO professionals evolve quickly and are in a constant mode of progressing their skill set. Successful SEO is less about what you know and more about what you can get done.

Talented search professionals are not only experts at evolving their skill sets and adapting to the rapid changes Google makes on a recurring basis, they are also experts at understanding how an organization works across the numerous functions in their organization.

Every manager is looking for an individual that can learn quickly on the job and already knows how to work cross-functionally to achieve objectives. These are core characteristics of a rock star or a star on the rise in any company.

In this article, I am breaking out the core areas of self-improvement SEO professionals should be focused on to continue to progress in SEO and increase their value to the organization.

Most of these are not the run-of-the-mill SEO required skill sets, but obtaining these skills can place you in a different league in the search space where driving organic growth is only one value you are delivering.

The more you understand about areas outside of SEO that impact SEO, the more impact you can drive across the entire organization.

Marketing list for SEO rock stars

Marketing is a great place to start, given the common split of SEO professionals coming from either a marketing or technology background.

Below are some of the areas you should have a solid understanding about today that are marketing-centric or closely tied to the marketing function:

1. Copyright and trademark law.  No need to be a lawyer, but you should understand how copyright and trademark laws work to protect intellectual property.

SEO can provide guidance to internal or external legal teams by demonstrating how individuals are capitalizing on our intellectual assets. Demonstration of the primary rule around capitalization, as well as where a violator is creating consumer confusion, is fundamental in resolving copyright and trademark issues. Infringements occurring online are likely having an impact on our SEO traffic and/or potentially how Google evaluates our website.

2. Domain management and strategy. Building on copyright and trademark law and understanding what options are available to protect against trademark infringement and resolve trademark use issues with your legal team in the domain space can be extremely helpful in fixing traffic leaks and/or preventing these leaks from occurring.

Traffic leaks are what I define as entities that exist online that are designed to siphon traffic destined for your domain. For example:

  • What are common typos for your domain?
  • Do you own those typos?
  • Is a large portion of your affiliate revenue coming from redirected typo domains?

Every dollar spent marketing your brand either offline or online should be driving traffic to your website. When that is not the case, you have a traffic leak.

3. Affiliate networks. In a company I worked for previously, we had what we called the weekly thief report. The name of the report was a bit of a joke, but the report’s purpose was simply to identify where the affiliate channel was cannibalizing existing spend or efforts from other marketing channels.

Understanding how affiliate networks function and how affiliates utilize the system to make their money makes it much easier to identify where cannibalization is occurring, and more importantly, where the affiliate is failing to provide value in the customer journey.

A typo domain redirect, utilizing IFrames (Inline Frames) to duplicate content on their domain without bringing unique content or a value to the customer is just one trick that occurs in the affiliate space. There are numerous other tricks affiliates use to redirect traffic from your website to another website where they are being compensated for orders or leads.

A percentage of this traffic should have arrived at your website as an SEO referral source. Spend time with your affiliate manager to review the program so you can identify traffic leaks that are negatively impacting your SEO program. Use the information you obtain about how trademark and copyright law works to determine what options are available to resolve and prevent future traffic leak issues.

4. Paid search. Simply put, you should know exactly what is working in your paid search programs. For example, what products perform well in product listing ads (PLAs)? These are likely the best product page targets for SEO given these product uniform resource locators (URLs) have already demonstrated the ability to convert traffic. Understanding how paid search is driving clicks through their creative can help you rewrite titles and descriptions that will result in a higher click-through rate for SEO.

What keywords are bid to be visible versus bid to win? SEO and paid search should be aligned on keywords identified as bid to win to ensure both teams are fighting for top positions for these keywords. Aligning with paid search on brand term strategy can reduce spend on branded terms and allow paid search to go after traffic where it is more difficult for SEO to compete. 

5. Campaign calendars. Search engine optimization does not participate in every campaign the traditional or digital marketing teams launch. Depending on timing and/or how long the campaign will run, it may not make sense to focus SEO efforts on campaign support.

It is important to be able to review a campaign calendar and identify which campaigns are going to drive search demand and what keyword searches these campaigns are going to trigger. For long-running campaigns or where the campaign has an extended reach, SEO teams should make sure there is an effort to capitalize on increased search demand versus allowing competitors to benefit from their marketing spend.

If you are new to evaluating campaign calendars, we can improve the impact of SEO participation by working with paid search teams to learn how each campaign impacted demand in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and how the paid search teams capitalized on the increased demand.

6. Creative. While this is not always present in the marketing department, marketing personnel typically work together with the creative teams on deliverables for a campaign.

Every SEO professional should place a focus on improving their creative writing skills. Spend time with your creative teams and review what content pieces resonated with the target audience and learn from their successes. Variation in content types to drive a different consumer behavior is critical when developing a content strategy for your SEO program.

Do not forget to be a good partner. SEO has access to information and tools that help us determine what keywords and questions are trending in the search engines. Share information with the creative team so they are contributing to SEO as part of their process of developing content for the customers. Every piece of content you do not create in SEO is a win in terms of scaling your program.

7. Forecasting. We can’t create an SEO forecast without understanding the objectives and process for the entire marketing channel forecast. The desired outcome for the entire marketing mix, along with knowing the objectives around cash flow after marketing, is critical to understanding what is expected from your SEO channel.

Each quarter, the percentage of revenue contribution for your channel may need to shift to allow for the entire marketing mix to be successful. Using the information you have on how your SEO program performs as it relates to cost versus revenue, current run rate and percentage of revenue contribution, take a crack at a full marketing forecast across all channels.

To refine your forecast process, obtain the same information from the other channel managers and compare your forecast to the company’s forecast quarterly, as well as the actuals reported.

Performance trends for other channels will have a direct impact on future forecasts for SEO. Marketing is a team effort: When one channel is down, another channel must step up and pick up the slack.

Wear a lot of hats

When evaluating job opportunities, always look for a position that will allow you to grow beyond your current SEO skill set. Exposure to other functional areas in the organization, and/or even responsibilities to manage other groups as part of your role, will help build you into a well-rounded professional.

With that said, let’s take a look at the technology list of self-improvement areas. The technology areas of concern in this section are focused on deeper levels of tech that can help you mature your SEO program through enhanced training for technical personnel, a more thorough analysis of both the bot and user experience and how to leverage technology to simplify routine SEO operations.

Technology list for SEO professionals

8. Front-end development. The ability to read and audit front-end code is an essential skill for SEO. Brush up on:

  • The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance best practices.
  • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) validation.
  • Markup languages.
  • Develop in the areas of cascading style sheets (CSS), JavaScript and linked data.

My recommendation is to always have a website you own and are maintaining. Where possible, create a website and register as an affiliate through one of the affiliate networks like Commission Junction, Rakuten LinkShare or ShareaSale.

The more you explore on the marketing and tech side with your own site, the easier it will be to evaluate websites you are optimizing. The goal you should set is to reach a point of competency that allows you to speak fluently with the front end developers about code requirements and reach the level where you can conduct SEO courses for front-end development.

9. Load balancing. Business growth is a good thing, but it requires website scaling to accommodate increases in traffic. A firm grasp of how load-balancing technologies work to route traffic gives you a significant advantage in SEO.

For example, you may be looking at massive log files conducting your log file analysis to determine how crawlers are interacting with the website, issues they are encountering and visit frequency. Load balancing allows for the creation of a replicated bot farm where bot traffic is offloaded to a group of servers running the exact code base as the customer. Segmenting this traffic allows for more crawler activity without the consumption of resources used to serve the customer.

The technology team will agree to the segmentation because offloading bot activity to dedicated servers makes it much easier to achieve consistent page load times given that the random crawl activity consumes resources that could be more efficiently serving a customer.

10. Log file analysis. Why do we want bot traffic segmented from customer traffic? One advantage is the ability to analyze logs that are serving a specific need.

Analyzing logs without having to parse out non-bot user agents to get a thorough understanding of the experience a crawler encounters as part of their crawl simplifies the process immensely. Analyzing samples of logs from the farm of servers serving the customer can help you glean information about issues with the customer experience, issues that will eventually show up in the bot logs.

Start out using applications like Screaming Frog’s log analyzer and Deep Log Analyzer, and then build up to utilizing log aggregation systems or importing logs into a database that can be queried.

Log aggregation systems may become more critical if traffic is not segmented by a user agent. Larger websites do not always create separate resource pools for customers versus crawler, but log aggregation systems allow for advanced exports where specific user agents from the logs can be targeted for export.

11. Linked data. This is an area where you can leapfrog over SEO professionals that have “rested on their laurels” while the web was moving forward.

Today, most SEO professionals fully understand how webpage linking works to provide value for a visitor and how it impacts SEO. Linked data is the next step, where data can be aggregated from multiple sources into a single resource for the customer.

Most of us are aware of linked data technologies like JavaScript Object Notation for Linked Data (JSON-LD) because Google has been clear that it’s a preferred markup language for providing additional descriptive data around elements in our websites.

Spin up on linked data to understand the end game: a connected web where information sharing is much more fluid for the customer. Instead of providing a single content page that links to other pages presenting useful information on the same topic, you can use linked data to bring that content into your page.  It will also acknowledge the creator and build a more useful page for your visitor.

Beware of building pages where you have not provided added value and are just aggregating other sources. If you are an Excel user, imagine being able to perform a VLOOKUP across the web to create a single data set from numerous data sources.

Linked data is powerful, and we are only beginning to see propagation of use.

12. DNS and content delivery networks (CDNs). I am combining these two tech areas because they overlap.

For example, nearly all websites today have access to content delivery networks that help scale the website to handle more traffic. CloudFlare, Fastly, Instart Logic, Amazon S3 and Akamai are just a handful of CDNs that are in use today that have an impact on SEO.

Leveraging these resources for SEO purposes can ease the work placed on internal technology partners and allow for faster execution for the customer.

One example would be redirects. Certainly, you want to be fully aware of any domain level redirects that are set in DNS. Typo domains are a great example where domain name systems (DNS) should be used at domain level to redirect traffic, as long as the appropriate 301 response code is returned to the crawler.

Other redirects we work with for platform migrations, hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) migrations and the handling of routine redirects to accommodate discontinued content are handled much more easily at the CDN than by the internal servers.

Every task your internal servers do not have to handle makes room for the efficient execution of tasks it must handle. Offloading redirects to CDN partners eliminates bloat in configuration files, and the right CDN partners make mass redirects a breeze.

Best of all, consolidating redirects at the CDN allows both tech and SEO access to the redirect rules.

13. Website performance. I hammer home website performance in nearly every article I write because Google is always going to consider speed as a critical component of the user experience.

Focus on learning how to identify performance issues, find out who to work within your organization to resolve performance issues and learn about the performance tools of the trade. If you are working for an online retailer, and you do not know the service level agreements (SLAs) assigned to your technology team for page load times and page types, you are already behind the curve.

If your technology team does not have assigned SLAs, they are behind the curve. Work with your tech teams to track core metrics like:

Once core metrics are set, be sure to set goals that can be converted to SLAs. While performance is essential to SEO success in a mobile-first world, driving performance forward is a customer win regardless of traffic source.

Homework

Working in SEO always comes with significant homework.

The challenging part of SEO has always been adapting to changes and the ability to envision where Google is going next. Certainly, if we are focusing on improving the experience from the search engine to the fulfillment of the user’s intent, we are already working ahead of the Google algorithm.

Understanding where Google is heading next in their endeavor to measure the user experience can help us to prioritize improvements in those areas ahead of where Google will be heading later.

Find a good teacher

Keep in mind learning on the job works very well when you have the right teacher. If you do not have the right teacher, there are many resources online to help you develop your skill sets.

I frequently find myself switching from iTunes to Lynda.com to listen to a course while I’m working. If I’m focusing on a tech skill improvement, I often use the resources at O’Reilly, as the monthly cost is very reasonable and the technology areas are covered in more detail. Lynda.com’s cost is also very reasonable, but I have found it more useful for diving into the areas of marketing and analytics.

Conclusion

Regardless of your source of learning, make self-education a priority. Keep on top of the articles on Search Engine Land, and stay up to date on what is happening in SEO today to help inform your curriculum decisions. Never stop learning.

SEO revolves around change, and change always has a learning component. Embrace the journey, set personal development goals, and if you work in a company where a teacher does not exist, become the teacher.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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