After I’d been doing SEO for over a year, I started to get a little bored.
It was the same story every week at the churn n’ burn agency I worked at back then: get a new client site, and check off all the basics. Fix any obvious fatal errors. Submit the XML sitemap. Optimize titles and meta descriptions. Fix heading structure. Optimize content. Schema up their address. Fix up their social media presence, in a general sort of way. Etcetera.
Often, this was enough for websites to start ranking, at least on long tail terms (which would still drive value). Over a couple weeks, I’d move from the low hanging fruit to the high hanging fruit, until eventually, all the fruit I knew how to pick was gone.
No more fruit on these branches!
In our chaotic little agency, that was fine – the site was showing signs of improvement we could report to the client, and after so much change, it was best to let the site sit for a bit. Besides, I’d have two more new clients to tend to by the next day anyway.
I became an expert at this basic SEO very quickly. But I felt like I was only doing half the job. What else was I supposed to be doing? What more was there to do? What else would someone be doing at a company that wasn’t churn n’ burn? And when the odd website did NOT rank from the initial optimization alone, what more should I do?
I Wasn’t Alone
My co-workers had similar issues. We were passionate about SEO, but we didn’t know how to expand on it. Our employer was useless for further knowledge.
I have a vivid memory of my friend Jessie, who only had a couple client sites to work on, saying, “Ethan, I did everything on our checklist. And a few other things, too. But this guy still isn’t ranking. What else do I do?”
As it turns out, this is a common issue. Many people have asked me my advice on this in private, and I’ve responded in brief here and there. I wanted to write a more thoughtful reply, but figured it’d be a bit of a waste to do it where only one person could see it.
It’s time to take the next step. (cat for flavor)
But I did move past this stage and am now a respected marketer at a leading multinational agency. So hey, you can get past that block too! But it’s actually a good thing you’re even experiencing this. It shows that you have the drive and ambition to want to get better, and that you’re really concerned with the actual quality of your output. So don’t be too hard on yourself, y’know?
The purpose of this post is to show you all the things you can go into. I don’t think you’ll have the time or the need to actually go into all of them, though the more the better IMO. I’m not saying “you need to know all this to succeed.” I’m only saying that these are all many possible avenues you can take to better yourself.
Expand Your Basic Knowledge
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you have it all down. But I want you to make sure.
Go back over that Moz Beginner’s Guide↝ and make sure you understand literally every sentence. Make sure you’ve had experience doing everything, too, even if it’s just on your own properties.
Maybe you haven’t used schema before. Maybe you’ve never manually written an XML sitemap – not something you often have to do, but doing so once gives you a much better understanding.
Maybe your knowledge of marketing is lacking. I went to a local used bookstore and purchased an Intro to Marketing textbook – it wasn’t the latest edition, so it was under $5. I also took some Coursera courses. This helped immensely. SEO is a part of marketing! Learn the bigger picture of your field. This will let you talk to executives, and understand where your part fits in with a company’s broader strategy. This is vital.
Think of it like a building. Your SEO knowledge so far is the base of a skyscraper. The taller it gets, the more you know. But you can’t build it too thin. Instead of building it up, expand the base – that means learn the basics of related industries and topics too. A stronger foundation will let you eventually build that skyscraper all the more high.
Plus, if SEO ever dies, you’ve got your backup bases covered ;)
More Content, More, MORE!
I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about content. You’re not a total beginner, after all. But it’s important – the most important thing about your site!
If you’re trying to get a stubborn site to rank higher, add a thousand words of content to a page that already has content you’ve optimized.
“What? But I’ve written everything possible about this subject! There’s no way I can generate 1000 more words about it!”
You can. It’ll be a challenge, perhaps, but you can. Figure it out. Of course, not every page can or should take 1000 more words, so use this on applicable pages only, or just use it for the sake of getting better at writing like this.
Of course you have a blog, and you’ve been researching keywords and writing posts for a while now. It’s time to expand your posting portfolio. Make posts in different styles. Start making (or commissioning) some infographics. Start making (or commissioning) videos. Get creative.
The goal of this – and of everything in this post, really – is to get you more diverse experience. If tomorrow a client calls up and says, “Hey, we have a huge business opportunity, we need a video, we have to start today,” are you going to say “uhhh, oh, okay, well, I’ve never done that, but let me try,” or are you going to say, “no problem – sounds good. I’ve done this before, you can trust me.”
Part of writing more also means you’ll start to be a better writer. That’s a powerful tool too. I wrote a thing about writing better blog posts for the Internet, which definitely holds true. But the best way to become a better writer is by reading. No, not reading blog posts about SEO. Read books. Real books.
Definitely a lot of Internet education in these.
Horrifying, I know.
Learn About More Platforms
You’re probably great with WordPress, right? And you know all about Google Analytics?
(If you don’t know Google Analytics in and out like a pro, well, there’s your next thing to learn.)
Well, it’s time to expand. There are many other CMS’s out there. Use some, even for little throwaway sites. Set up a Joomla site. Set up a Drupal site. You don’t even have to rank them, but use them to poke around in their back ends. Get used to different ways of doing the same tasks you’re used to.
This will prepare you for much more complicated systems that big websites use. They can be a lot different. But knowing different ways how different systems let you do the same thing – i.e. making a post in WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla – is incredibly rewarding.
It’s like being a paleontologist out digging for dinosaur bones in the field. If you find one bone, well, you know one thing about the bones in that field. But if you find three bones, all of a sudden you have a range, and you can make guesses about future discoveries. You can make educated statements about the subject in general.
So when you’re confronted with something new later, you’ll have the mental and technical framework needed to be able to deal with it easily.
Same with analytics! GA is great, but there are more out there. Get used to some other free options if it’s all you can access. Set up Piwik Analytics↝ on one of your own sites. Set up Yandex Metrica↝ (which is my personal favorite analytics service of all time) on one too.
Even better, set up multiple analytics accounts on the same site. See how they report the same information differently. See if there are differences in what they pick up. See if some offer data the others don’t. Experiment.
The World Is More Than Google
If you’re a standard SEO, you’ve been focusing all your efforts on Google. That’s probably obvious.
I hope you’ve also taken the time to submit that same XML sitemap to Bing Webmaster Center↝. It’s a great interface in itself that’s well worth spending a day poking around in. They’ve got some great tools that you should at least have basic experience with. And if someone said “we’re doing great on Google, but failing on Bing. How do we fix that?”, would you be able to answer?
Google and Bing make up most of the USA’s general search engine market. But there are other search engines in the USA too.
It’s time for you to learn YouTube optimization. It’s time for you to learn Amazon optimization. It’s time for you to learn… Etsy, maybe? DuckDuckGo↝? They’re worth at least reading a couple articles on, so you have some basic knowledge here. At least learn the basics and how they’re unique.
Don’t forget, YouTube is the second largest search engine. You should know this!
So that takes care of the US, but this subheading contained the word “World”. That’s because Google is not the world’s universal search engine. It’s the biggest, but it’s far from the only. And the others can be very different, and will definitely give you a new perspective on Google.
Go research Baidu↝ – the Chinese search engine. This is fascinating to me, because they comply with censorship, they have dedicated brand zones, and they own a lot of web property too – like if Google owned Wikipedia and more. They have their own version of webmaster tools, which you should poke around in. (Use Chrome to translate!)
Next, go research Yandex↝. I love Yandex, and they even have English versions. Sign up for their webmaster tools too. They did some innovative stuff before Google did! They have a great interface! And their analytics, mentioned above, includes free heatmaps and clickmaps and session replays! Holy crap!!
Now look into Naver↝ – the South Korean search engine. Naver revolves around South Korea in particular and is all about user generated content. The Naver SERP is a completely different beast than any other search engine, too, with different sections that may have even inspired Google a bit. Take a look.
There are more here, too – look up “Baidu alternatives” or “Naver competitors” etc and find search engines that I haven’t even mentioned. Get invested into this world. The discoveries you make here will shape how you view search engines in general, and give you a well-rounded knowledge base that few others in this industry have.
SEO isn’t the only acronym used in digital marketing.
Learn the basics of PPC. Spend $50 and run some little campaigns for yourself. You don’t have to drive a single click, it doesn’t matter – just be familiar with those terms and the interface.
Learn the basics of Facebook advertising. Their filtering options are truly creepy. It’s unnerving as a user, but massively fun to play around with.
Learn about CRO – conversion rate optimization. So you rank a website high, get a ton of traffic, but none of it converts. Be able to give educated advice on what to do to fix this.
Learn about UX – user experience. This relates to CRO, and to SEO, and to the entirety of digital life today. Good UX is a best practice of SEO, so get into this as deep as you can – I personally think the UX Review’s guide↝ is great for beginners.
There’s the dumb acronym SMO, which is social media optimization – honestly I think most people just call this “social” nowadays. But I hope you know how to optimize social media, even though it doesn’t relate to SEO as much as most people think. It might not be a ranking factor, but for digital marketing as a whole, it’s very important!
Oh, and learn about email marketing. Email lists are gold, but do you know how to use them? Do you know how to build them? Do you know how to drip to them? You should have a basic idea, at least.
Figure Out Who You Are
Whoa, that’s pretty deep. Don’t worry, you don’t have to go on any soul-searching peyote-fueled spirit walks. I’ll save those for the next article. But it’s time to look in the mirror.
When will my reflection show, who I am inside?
I just mean, figure out what you want to do. Where do your goals lie?
Do you want to work for a major corporation and climb the ranks? That’s working out great for me. I’m a great networker, I can deftly maneuver myself up office politics, and I enjoy getting paid, having stability, and putting big names on my resume. It’s not something I’ll do forever, but right now, it’s really working.
If this is the case for you, start applying for jobs, meeting people, and getting ready for the exciting red tape that comes with the career.
If you’re someone who wants to work for herself, doing SEO freelance or for your own affiliate products or what have you, that’s cool too! It’s a very different life. Be ready for a lot of anxiety and stress, but if you do it well, the rewards will totally make it worth it.
It’s important to know where you want to go, because once you know the basics, you’ll have to specialize. Think of your current SEO knowledge like the stuff you learned in high school. Now you’re off to college. You can’t just major in “general”. You have to pick a specialization. Do you like writing? Analytics? Management? Figure out the aspects of SEO you like best.
There’s a decent one at inbound.org↝, I know. It’s not my cup of tea personally, but it may be yours. (I should probably check it out again, tbh.)
There are forums out there too. This is usually for blackhat types and affiliate marketers, but if that’s your thing, go for it. Even if it’s not your thing, you should browse occasionally to see what’s going on.
Have a consistent profile and a personal website. Leave comments across articles on decent marketing news sites. I have absolutely gotten business based on random comments I’ve left on posts, even a year after making the comment. And other SEOs who read those articles will start recognizing your face.
Remember to have fun on these, though. It’s the Internet – don’t take anything too seriously.
Eventually, consider starting your own blog, or publishing your own original findings. If you want to do it right, it takes hard work, but you can easily become an industry leader if you put your mind to it.
It’s a big world out there, and you’re hungry for information. You want to take the next step in your career, your knowledge, your life. Well, it all comes down to learning and doing.
Learn about other fields, about related niches, about competing platforms.
Experience them yourself by making websites, testing things, running experiments. Hell, blog about your progress if you feel like it.
At some point, you need to stop following, and start leading. And that point is always before you think it is. It will never be thrust upon you. You have to let emotion follow motion and take the initiative yourself.
Be the SEO lion inside.
So go out there and do it!
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