How to be an expert SEO

How to be an expert SEO - from Wordtracker, the leading keyword research tool

How to become an expert SEO

An expert SEO leaves set processes behind, works fast, intuitively, delivers great results and can reap great rewards, Mark Nunney explains how you can become an expert SEO.

SEO is multi-skilled discipline.

SEO requires technical knowledge to understand how websites are built, the ability to analyze many data sources, and editorial creativity to produce quality content.

We can simplify this as (i) technical and (ii) creative skills.

Competence can be defined as being good enough to get the job done with some justifiable confidence. This is why most people don’t go beyond competence for most of what they do. There is no need.

You have to want to go further. To become an expert requires determination, the application of intelligence (just being smart is not enough) and many hours of practice. 10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers

There is no shortcut that bypasses this experience. But put the hours in and your SEO work will move to another level.

The expert SEO leaves set processes, even ‘best practice’ behind, often working intuitively with a deep understanding of how SEO works.

Using available data and often minimal clues, the expert quickly understands a website’s situation (they are all different) and sees a path to achieving its potential.

If you work with clients, as an expert SEO you’ll work faster and be more likely to achieve good results. You’ll be rewarded with longer contracts, more clients by referral and being paid more for your time.

If you’re a staffer, then as an expert SEO you’ll be able to make long term plans confident the returns will come. You’ll cope with any problems that arise with ease and a highly lucrative career will be your reward.

SEO’s core skills

SEO requires three core ways of thinking:

• Technical

• Analytical

• Creative

Technical skills are required to understand how websites are built and configured.

Analytical skills are needed to study multiple, often inconsistent and ambiguous, data sources to diagnose problems and find opportunities.

Creative skills are essential for the creation of quality content that will make users happy and other sites link to yours.

Rarely does one person possess all three of these skills. Perhaps never can one person be an expert in all three.

So to be an effective SEO, you need to know your strengths and find ways of dealing with your weaknesses and limitations.

Technical or creative?

You will likely already know if you are more of a techie than a creative.

If you think you’re both, let me clarify ...

I know there are lots of creative-techies and technical-creatives but ...

The creativity I’m referring to is writing and editing copy and thinking of great ideas for editorial content.

By ‘techie’, I mean you write computer code and are happier with the back-end of a website than the words and pictures that users see.

Few people are very good at both.

If you are one of the few then that will serve you well as an SEO.

If not, prepare for your weakness ...

If you’re the creative editorial type then:

• Learn as much as you can about how websites work.

• Maintain a detailed checklist of the technical requirements and possibilities of SEO.

• Always use the checklist and don’t trust your intuition.

• Make sure technical support is available to analyze and implement technical SEO.

• Think of SEO as a racing car. You are a driver with some fancy moves but without help from your mechanics (the techies and their technical SEO) your car is unsafe and slow.

If you’re a techie then:

• Learn as much as you can about how great editorial, link building and social marketing works.

• Maintain a detailed checklist of the requirements of editorial, link building and social media.

• Partner with or recruit the best content creation and social media team you can find.

• Think of SEO as a racing car. You are the master mechanic who builds and maintains a car capable of the highest speeds with safety. But that car is not going to win any races without drivers (the creative editorial and social media team).

• And if you’re a manager then be aware that your SEO team will require this range of skills.

Theory and practice

In SEO as in life: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. And there is a lot to not know in SEO.

The Wordtracker Academy gives you a starting point for your learning and some processes to use.

Never stop learning but be aware that those who know the most about SEO are probably not the best SEOs. This is because:

• To know the most about SEO you’ve got to read and study for many years.

• To become an expert at SEO you’ve got to practice it for many years and on many different sites.

It’s hard to do both. And practice is not the same as theory. Malcolm Gladwell puts it well:

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

He goes on to say that to become a world-class expert in almost anything takes 10,000 hours of practice.

Gary Player, the golfer, made the same point with a lighter touch:

“The more I practice the luckier I get.”

Practicing doesn’t necessarily give you more knowledge. It is not study. But it’s what makes you better.

You can learn how the different pieces of chess are allowed to move and the rules of chess. But if you’re new to the game, that won’t help you beat a ten-year-old who’s been playing for a year.

This is the difference between theory and practice.

The road to being an expert SEO

Following are six different skill levels of SEO defined by adapting the Dreyfus model of learning.

It’s important to know where you are on this scale of ability so you know what you might be able to achieve now and what you could do with more study and practice.

1) The novice SEO

The novice SEO can follow set rules and step-by-steps, to achieve set tasks. Eg:

• Include a primary and a secondary target keyword in your page title tag.

• Add a page’s target keyword to the start of your description tag.

Like the new chess player learning the rules of the game, any amount of learning of such rules of SEO makes you no more than a novice.

There is no judgement about whether or not a rule is appropriate, or about which rules are the most important in any particular set of circumstances.

2) The advanced beginner SEO

An advanced beginner SEO will start to adapt the rules they’ve learned to the situation they are working in.

Eg, it might not be appropriate to use a primary and secondary target keyword in a page’s title tag. So they don’t.

Rules are adapted. They become guidelines.

The task (eg, use a target keyword in certain positions on a page) is still more important than the goal (optimize a page for a keyword).

Be wary of this stage of learning and the first flush of confidence it brings. Like teenage drivers, advanced beginners cause accidents.

3) The competent SEO

Competent SEOs are learning to cope with the many different rules and guidelines they have learned and prioritize them according to circumstances (every site and every situation is different).

Competent SEOs are learning to study a site and the available reports to find out why a site is not performing well on search engines.

Work is now focused on goals and not the set tasks supposed to achieve those goals.

To this end, the competent SEO can devise plans of SEO actions with accompanying routines. This planning can be based on previous experience that has worked.

This experience gives a higher level of confidence.

It also acts as a limiter on further development. After all, the job can get done, goals achieved, so what need is there to get better? This is why most people get no better than competent for most tasks.

To become more than a competent SEO, you’ve got to actively try and make it happen ...

Most of all you’ve got to have experience of a wide range of different sites over time and in different circumstances. And for those sites, you have to have worked on all aspects of SEO.

4) The proficient SEO

Becoming a proficient SEO is a big step up from competence.

A proficient SEO always sees the whole picture of a site’s SEO situation. All aspects of SEO are always considered and prioritized.

With this holistic view, diagnosis and planning take place intuitively and quickly. Previously learned processes and step-by-steps might be referred to but they aren’t needed.

The answers just appear - popping out of the unconscious mind. They are based on years of previous experience of different situations.

Maxims, rather than rules, start to get used but are always adapted. An example of this is:

Single keywords are for losers.

Target the head, exploit the tail.

The best proficient SEOs are learning so much from their experience and desire to get better that they begin to realize how much they don’t know.

But others’ experience can be understood and used too. The reliable and useful being filtered from the not so. This, with their own work, accelerates further learning towards expert level.

5) The expert SEO

To progress to being an expert SEO takes many more years of experience. This is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours which might take 10 years to achieve.

And you can’t just work 10,000 hours. You have to be striving to be good and be able to apply your intelligence to your work.

An expert SEO will look at most sites and know what’s required for SEO within a few seconds. A look at some site visitor reports will add detail.

There are always tough cases though. New situations. Sites with obscure problems.

For a tough site, an expert can analyze the vast amounts of data available, searching for the report that reveals a hidden problem (it’s always problems as opportunities are easier to find).

Usually the expert can work intuitively using only ambiguous clues. Their experience is so great this is all that’s needed to be right enough.

Once work progresses, the expert SEO can tweak the balance of chosen tactics based on the smallest of clues.

The rules, the guidelines and the maxims have all gone, except when communicating with others.

The expert who teaches or explains things to clients often works in a dual world of what they do and what they say they do.

For the latter the expert must refer back to how they used to work or how they might do what they now do if they weren’t an expert.

6) The SEO Innovator

Sometimes an expert can articulate descriptions and explanations of previously unexplained ways of understanding and working.

Achieve this state and you have become an innovator.


To become an expert at the multi-skilled discipline of SEO, you have to work to (and around) your technical and creative skills. And you have to practice.

Study will get you started and can fast track you to a level of competence that will get a reasonable job done. But there is no short cut that avoids the practice required for expertise.

So is it worth 10,000 hours of hard work to become an expert SEO? I think so. Not just for the rewards (although they are real) but for the sheer joy of being expert at your craft. I don't want to get all mystic on you but any expert at their craft, sport or art will tell you there is a joy and calmness that comes from being at one with what you do.

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