Ask any number of kids what they want to be when they grow up, and at least one will point out an obvious answer: astronaut. Actually, it’s pretty likely at some point most kids wanted to be astronauts. And yet we don’t see many roaming around. Why? Because becoming one is notoriously difficult.
First, you need a degree in engineering, math, or science. It would also help your cause to have either a military background or to a piloting license. Add an avid interest in mountain climbing, scuba diving, or skiing while you’re at it. Then, make sure you can pass a rigorous set of physical and psychological exams. Oh, and be the best at something else other than all that previous stuff. Congratulations! You might get a chance to go to an interview. Maybe that’s one reason we don’t see that many astronauts.
But the idea of a generalist background extends to more than the exotic job of being an astronaut. Many other professions are similar. To attend law school in the US, you need to already have a bachelor’s degree. A significant number of film schools offer formal training for film directors, but only as a master’s degree.
Job specialization has been the default framework for the past few decades, but today you can also notice a subtle shift towards a combination of general and specialized knowledge. One such area of intersection seems to be the SEO field, where marketing meets programming. They don’t have to meet, of course, but their interaction is what really makes you an SEO professional.
So what is expected of you in order to be considered a true SEO “expert”?
1. An Analytical Mind
The most fundamental requirement is actually not a technical one. You can learn to code and be fairly good at it, and you can get used to all the tech talk, but at the end of the day it’s not about the syntax or about the libraries, it’s about being able to solve problems. Knowing what information is necessary and how to gather it, being able to understand it, map it in the context of a larger framework, noticing patterns, understanding long-term effects of particular decisions, having a knack for solving puzzles…the list goes on and on. These skills (some come naturally, but most can also be developed and nurtured) come into play at each and every step of the SEO process. Technical SEO skills will allow you to make ideas come to life; an analytical mind will help you come up with those ideas in the first place.
You don’t necessarily need to switch jobs or focus entirely on programming, or assume that there’s no such thing as a marketer anymore. In fact, original ideas are still your best asset in the online world. But while a creative mind can be a wonderful spring of ideas, what you’re really looking for is a sustainable system of irrigation.
And only analytical thinking skills can give you that. Focus on short-term gains and build your strategy around passing fads and you will find yourself working more than you should every time Google rolls out an update to one of its algorithms. Ignore the signals in the sea of information noise and you will miss out on tremendous opportunities to grow and thrive. Run away from mazes and puzzles and you will have a horrible time every time you have to debug or optimize your site architecture. The best way to excel at what you do is to like what you do.
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2. HTML Coding
Most articles about what tech skills SEO experts should have agree HTML coding is one of the very basic prerequisites. While this is by no means enough, it is pretty much indispensable to your job. SEO is a whole new beast nowadays, not just about keywords or linking. But in a deeper sense, it hasn’t changed much, as it has always been about the same thing: building sought after web sites.
And the best sites, more often than not, are built in a certain way: they are accessible, they are easy to follow, and they are well-organized. In order to efficiently deliver content to your audience, you need to know how to create and manage said content in a way that is in tune with the environment it resides in.
Perhaps nowhere in the modern media landscape is Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase truer than on the World Wide Web: “The medium is the message.”
Of course, nowadays there are quite a few HTML editors, and a handful of them have a graphic user interface so what you see is what you get (Adobe Dreamweaver being probably the most recognized, with some other big names such as Google and Microsoft providing their own versions, along with a myriad of others). This type of software makes website building extremely user-friendly, to the point where anyone with minimal PC knowledge can produce site. But we’re not talking about your high school class Internet project here and you’re not in the business of creating web sites.
You’re in the business of creating marketable web sites, and for that you actually have to know the code and understand the syntax when you see it.
3. Web Hosting Experience
Choosing a quality web hosting provider is an important factor building a high-ranking website. Beyond that, though, there are other factors to consider. Web hosting choices must consider downtime, which refers to the amount of time your website is inaccessible due to problems with the hosting server. If one of Google’s spiders tries to visit your site and it’s down, it will record it as such and move on.
There’s no such thing as 100% uptime, but you want to get as close to that as possible. It is your responsibility to monitor your site’s downtime/uptime and make changes when you notice significant drops in percentages.
The second important element is speed. While Google’s algorithms take into account a staggering number of factors (over 200 by some accounts), the loading speed of your website is likely one of them. Of course, the loading speed itself depends on many things (configuration and coding for instance), but significant drops in speed might just be the fault of your hosting server.
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Additionally, you should be familiar with other, simple things related to web hosting: uploading files, modifying content, changing settings, configuring accessibility, etc. This doesn’t mean you should fully assume web site maintenance duties. But there will be times when you’ll need to make changes quickly to fix an urgent matter. If your site gets penalized and receives a lower rating as a consequence, it might be something that you could fix by simply modifying or deleting content or files. Why rely on someone else for things that you can do on your own?
4. Excel Know-How
There’s a lot of data to be analyzed once you start treating SEO as a long-term strategic endeavor. And there are a lot of useful tools out there to help you make sense of the information you gather, but at a minimum you should be familiar with Microsoft Excel. In fact, you should be more than familiar with it: you should know it at least at a medium level. You don’t necessarily have to get to the level of using VBA macros, but knowing a little bit about search functions pivot tables, lookup functions, logical functions (if, and, or), and graphic objects will take you a long way.
You probably associate Excel with accounting, creating budgets and project plans, managing databases or tracking expenses/finance, but there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this tool and learning how to use it will pay off.
When it comes to the SEO-related business, you can use Excel to sort, filter and group data to find specific information, look up specific information in large data streams, graph or chart data to identify trends and exceptions, manipulate text (format, collate), compare data strings and so on. All of these can come in handy when analyzing data.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that it allows you to serve different content to users based on their browser, IP address, date and time, and numerous other characteristics. These are tools that help make your site more creative, more useful and more accessible.
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6. Server Side Configuration (Optional but Great Skill)
Server-side refers to the server that runs the site. So a visitor’s request doesn’t get executed on their computer, but on the computer they requested the page from. The main advantage in using server-side scripts is the ability to highly customize the response based on the user’s requirements, access rights, or queries into data stores. You can use server-side scripts to enable automatic redirects from certain pages, or optimize MySQL so your database information can be accessed easily and quickly.
Server side configuration is really helpful in the diagnosis of different problems (like Google bot crawling), gives you a better understanding of your site’s security, helps you track the broken pages, and even fix “log in” problems your user might encounter.
There’s a lot you can do in terms of SEO without getting too technical. But there’s so much more you can do with some technical knowledge. If you have a car, is indispensable to know how to drive but a really good driver knows all the intricacies of his vehicle. You need to understand and even know how to write a bit of code. Get familiar with the engine (or, in your case, the server), the transmission (programming languages) and even the small nuts and bolts that keep it all together. In the long run, it will pay off. You will get more mileage, better speed, and you will attract more visits.