SEO helps businesses keep their website visible to people looking for what they offer.
It’s a technical specialty that requires understanding its foundational processes, continuously monitoring performance, and staying on top of search algorithm updates and new requirements.
The person at a business who monitors trends and helps sites remain visible is an SEO expert. In this post, we’ll discuss exactly what they do and advice from experienced HubSpotters on how to become one.
What is an SEO expert?
An SEO expert monitors search trends and uses analytics to help businesses build websites that rank highly in search engines, reach target audiences, and meet business objectives. The optimized websites they help create generate leads and drive conversions to support business growth.
A successful SEO expert:
- Has a well-rounded understanding of on-page, technical, and off-page SEO and how each impacts site performance independently and together.
- Understands how search engines and SERPs work (like indexing and crawling)
- Can do SEO-focused research (like keyword research or competitive analysis)
- Can understand, analyze, and report on SEO analytics (like clicks, conversions, etc.) to make data-driven decisions and recommendations
- Use SEO tools (like Ahrefs or Google Search Console)
- Understand how to make SEO-focused content
- Stay on top of search trends and algorithm updates that might impact site performance.
- Create SEO-focused strategies (like a keyword strategy)
How to Become an SEO Expert
- Develop your skills.
- Take a course and get certified.
- Understand how search engines crawl and index content.
- Gain perspective on what search engines value.
- Understand SEO strategies and tactics and why they matter.
- Research the field.
- Find a method/tool that works for you.
- Get familiar with data.
- Regularly test your SEO knowledge.
- Grow your network.
Some SEO specialists don’t start out with the intention of dedicating their careers to SEO.
Braden Becker, SEO Lead at Faire, along with other SEO and historical optimization experts at HubSpot Aja Frost, Victor Pan, and Amanda Sellers — offered their advice about what it takes to become an SEO expert and the paths they took to get there.
1. Develop your skills.
“Getting a job in SEO ideally requires two things: content creation skill and analytical skill. Most SEO professionals today have one of those and develop the other,” Braden says.
SEO experts are skilled writers with creative instincts, so it’s helpful to have a strong writing background to optimize content in a way searchers will comprehend. Becker noted that his writing background helped him get his start in SEO:
“My background in writing and editing helped me get my foot in the door, but a willingness to focus on the structure, mechanics, and intent behind my writing is what I think secured my role as an SEO specialist for HubSpot.”
Before Frost became an SEO strategist at HubSpot, she was the editor of HubSpot’s Sales Blog.
“I taught myself how to do keyword research and competitive analysis as the Editor for HubSpot’s Sales Blog,” Aja says. “The Sales Blog’s traffic had been flat for a year and a half — I noticed that the only posts that consistently generated views for us were getting all of those views from search. So I began looking for sales-related keywords we could rank for that would help boost organic traffic.”
So, how do you start developing your skills to be SEO-ready? Here’s what Frost did to keep her SEO skills sharp.
“To refine my SEO expertise, I constantly read. I’m really interested in technical SEO, so I look for blog posts, white papers, and research about site architecture and navigation, website speed, and everything that goes into that, including structured data,” she says. “SEO by the Sea, Sistrix, and Blind Five Year Old are all great technical SEO resources, along with (unsurprisingly) the Google Webmaster Blog. I’m a member of a few SEO subreddits (/seo and /bigseo are the most active). And I follow a ton of SEOs on Twitter — they drop random factoids or insights all the time.”
Whether you’ve got an analytical mind and want to start a blog to practice writing, or you’re a seasoned writer looking to train your technical mind, balancing both will help your SEO career.
2. Take a course and get certified.
Earning a certification ensures that you have the proper knowledge to successfully practice on your own.
It also gives you credibility when you network on professional sites such as LinkedIn. When doing initial SEO research, Aja found courses she could take in order to get a certification for SEO, which opened up more doors. “I read a ton of blog posts and eventually got my Google Analytics certification.”
If you decide to take a course, pick one that helps you build the skills to advance your SEO career. If it doesn’t go in-depth into subjects you need help with, it’s probably not the best course for you.
3. Understand how search engines crawl and index content.
SEO is meant to increase visibility in search engines so people can find your content. While it should always be created with your audience in mind, they won’t find your content if search engines don’t know what to make of it.
Search engines have three primary functions:
- Crawl – Finding new content by following links, reading sitemaps, etc.
- Index – Understanding the page and storing and organizing the content.
- Rank – Provide the best content for relevant queries.
Increasing visibility is directly tied to rankings but comes after crawling and indexing.
According to Amanda Sellers, “Becoming an expert SEO means understanding those functions and optimizing content in a way that serves users… while keeping best practices in mind for crawling and indexing.”
4. Gain perspective on what search engines value.
While the inner workings of each search engine will vary, keep in mind that each one has a single goal: Always retrieve the best results for each query.
There are many factors that can go into what makes a particular result the “best,” but for the most part, it comes down to a few key things (as of 2023):
- Meaning – the intent behind someone’s search query and how it matches the most useful content
- Relevance – if a page contains information related to the searcher’s intent (like relevant keywords)
- Quality – uses the EEAT model (experience, expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness) to assess pages and surface the most helpful, people-first content
- Usability – the page experience, like whether a site is mobile-friendly, easy to navigate, page load speed, etc.
- Context and settings – uses a searcher’s past behavior and settings (like location) to surface the most context-relevant results. Very impactful for local searchers.
“The better you understand these big ideas, the better you’ll be able to understand the role ranking factors and SEO tactics play. With this context, the more effective you’ll be at implementing SEO initiatives and diagnosing problems when they come up,” Sellers says.
5. Understand SEO strategies and tactics and why they matter.
“Once a search engine can crawl and index a website, it then uses ranking factors and signals to gauge relevance, authority, trust, and experience. These then translate to the strategies SEOs can use to improve their content,” Amanda adds.
These strategies and disciplines help inform SEO tactics:
- Technical SEO – This refers to optimizing the technical aspects of a website for search engines. This may include rectifying sitemap and linking errors found in technical site audits. (Indexability and crawlability)
- On-Page SEO – Content that provides the searcher with valuable information while going above and beyond what’s already out there is more likely to rank. In addition, following on-page SEO best practices can help the search engine determine how relevant the content is to the query. (Relevance and search intent)
- Keyword Research (part of on-page SEO) – By analyzing keyword data, you can get a better idea of what your audience wants to discover, which can then inform your strategy as you create content discoverable based on that data. (Relevance and search intent)
- Off-Page SEO (Link Building) – Search engines use several factors to determine a website’s popularity, one of which, and one of those is the number and quality of the external links pointing to its content, also known as backlinks. (Authority and Trust)
- Other Ranking Factors – Factors such as mobile usability, page speed, etc., are important to search engines as they deliver the best results possible. (Experience)
“Knowing the basics of each is important in determining whether you want to be an SEO generalist or an SEO specialist in one of these disciplines, and they can also increase the effectiveness of your efforts.”
6. Research the field.
In addition to initial research into SEO, it’s also essential to keep up with Google’s SEO updates and changes so you’re employing the latest optimization techniques that search engines require.
For example, when Frost noticed the Sales Blog traffic was flat, starting SEO research helped her uncover why: she wasn’t delivering the content audiences searched for.
SEO is always changing, so staying on top of it is crucial.
To build his fundamental knowledge of SEO, Victor Pan cites reading as one of the best habits he’s gotten into.
“I used to be a voracious reader on all publicly available information on SEO. I had an RSS feed of search-related blogs and news websites I would go through for a whole hour every day,” he says. “Mere exposure to ideas makes unknown problems in SEO easier to tackle when you have other people’s experiences or frameworks to build from.”
7. Find a method/tool that works for you.
Similar to finding resources that work for you and your skill set, finding an SEO routine or tool that will become your foundation is imperative. For keyword research, SEOs like to reference their personal arsenal of tools.
For example, in addition to HubSpot’s SEO tools, some of HubSpot’s experts also use SEMrush, Ahrefs, and Google Console for additional research. Find a tool that works for you and make sure it helps you accomplish your goals.
“My reading led me to experiment with SEMrush, AnswerThePublic, Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and of course, HubSpot’s own SEO tools. I read a ton of blog posts and eventually got my Google Analytics certification.”
If you need help finding tools, here are eight you can check out. In addition:
8. Get familiar with data.
You’ll notice a lot of data when you dive into your SEO tools. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to measure performance and know exactly where and how to improve.
Some (but definitely not all) important SEO metrics include:
- Positioning – How close to the top your page shows up on the SERPs.
- Impressions – How many times your page was seen on the SERPs.
- Clicks – How many times your page was clicked on from the SERPs.
- CTR – The percentage of impressions that resulted in a click.
- Organic Sessions – The number of times the page was viewed in a browser.
- Conversion Rate – The percentage of users who clicked and took an action (like downloading your offer)
According to Sellers, “Because each of these things measures a different aspect of search behavior, you can use them to gain valuable insights that can drive your strategy. In addition, it’s important to drill down and filter so that your data tells a more complete story.”
9. Regularly test your SEO knowledge.
Putting theory into practice gives you the practical knowledge and experience needed to level up as an SEO. In this way, SEO is kind of like playing a sport. You can read all about hitting a baseball or throwing a football, but if you never practice, you’ll never reach your full potential.
Reading the latest news and research is hugely beneficial to stay ahead of the curve in any industry. But as an SEO, when everything is constantly changing, reading isn’t enough. To gain the practical experience that’ll truly take your SEO skills to the next level, you need to constantly test industry assumptions and your new ideas.
“I test a lot of things to refine my SEO expertise. Should your brand be in your title tags? Is internal anchor text worthwhile to still do in 2020 to move rankings? What happens when you purchase fake social “signals” — do you see an increase in organic traffic?” Pan says.
“Failed experiments taught me just as much as successful ones, and it made me a much more confident SEO whenever I would make any improvements to content. Just because, in one instance, making a change resulted in an improvement, doesn’t mean that change in another place will also result in an improvement— which is why we have to test and grasp causation over just correlation.”
10. Grow your network.
Becoming an expert in SEO also means growing your network of fellow SEO professionals. There are SEO groups on LinkedIn you can join, subreddits Aja mentioned, like SEO, and conferences you can attend. Broadening your circle of SEO experts grows your knowledge and credibility.
If you become enough of an expert, you can also speak at conferences in the industry. For example, Braden and Victor led a session at INBOUND — their presentation, “How to Grow (Your Organic Traffic) Better” introduces SEO changes, how to adapt to them, and how to use some basic SEO methods to optimize content.
To start building your network, look at your available resources. If you have a LinkedIn account, you can start making those industry connections. You can also watch YouTube videos for quick SEO tips and engage with other learners in the comments to pick up tips from peers.
Based on the stories and tips from these HubSpot professionals, becoming an SEO expert doesn’t mean you have to start and finish your career as an SEO. Pivoting from one role to an SEO role and developing your expertise from then on is entirely possible — you just need to be willing to learn and adapt.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.