Whether you’re a complete beginner or need a refresher on SEO basics, this is a guide for you. Exploring the ever-changing world of SEO can seem intimidating if you're not sure where to start. We've developed this easy-to-follow guide to encourage you to take those first steps into becoming an SEO enthusiast or professional.
In this guide, we'll start with a deep dive into how SEO works in 2021, offer helpful resources to continue your training, and include tips from 10 industry experts. Let’s get started!
What Is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) refers to the strategy, techniques, and tactics necessary to get your website’s pages to the top of Google and other search engine results pages (SERPs). Getting your website to the top of the search results (often referred to as “ranking”) earns your site exposure and free website traffic.
Much work goes into getting your website to rank, but the goal isn’t to work around Google. According to expert Phil Frost, SEO “is about partnering with Google to provide the best search results for Google’s users.”
Google will only show its users websites that are useful to them. SEO isn’t about creating your website for Google; it’s about making your website for your users.
To remember this, here is one of our favorite quotes by SEO expert Wendy Piersall: “Google only loves you when everyone else loves you first.”
We explore the definition of SEO in-depth in our guide “What is SEO?”
Types Of SEO
Getting your pages to rank is a multifaceted effort. There are four common types of SEO that you may encounter in the industry. Each type requires a different skill set, but does not work in isolation.
These four common types of SEO are:
- On-Page SEO
- Technical SEO
- Off-Page SEO
- Local SEO
On-page SEO is all about the content on your web pages, including text, keywords, and images. You’ll need to focus on optimizing your content for keywords that people are searching for.
However, Google now ranks pages that fulfill the searcher’s needs and answer their questions.
When creating optimized content, you need to consider more than just the keyword. Review our guide on search intent for a more detailed look into how it works.
You’ll find that on-page SEO optimization still involves keyword research, mapping, and optimization. There are many keyword research tools out there that can help you get started with the keyword research phase, like the Keyword Magic Tool.
To learn more, check out our guide to keyword research in 2021.
Technical SEO is not about the content a user sees on your webpage. Instead, it focuses on the technical aspects of that page, including its HTML code, page speed, and much more.
Technical SEO improves how your website functions so that search engines can crawl and index it easily. You'll review website elements like site structure, internal linking, mobile responsiveness, page speed, and security.
Katherine Ong, the owner of WO Strategies LLC, recalled working with a client where "I persuaded the developers to fix one crawling issue which resulted in almost 50% more organic traffic in just over a month."
Off-page SEO is about content that is not on your website. It involves content on other websites that reference or link back to your website. A good off-page “reputation” shows search engines that you are trustworthy and reliable.
Working on your off-page SEO involves digital PR and outreach. You should identify websites related to your industry and link to your competitors and reach out to them.
According to expert Scott Wyden Kivowitz, you need to think of off-page SEO work as “building relationships, not links.” That means that you gain more than just a link to your website from another site.
Doing off-page SEO with this in mind will help to boost your EAT (Expertise, Authority, and Trust) signals. Read more about these signals and why they became a significant factor in Google’s EAT update in our algorithm guide.
Local SEO focuses on getting your website to rank for location-specific terms. Local SEO can involve a mix of on-page, off-page, and technical SEO strategies, as well as optimizations in external directories and maps.
This type of SEO is specific to businesses that offer services at a particular location or have physical stores. You should manage your reviews, keep any directory listings up-to-date and uniform, and optimize location pages.
Read more in our guide on local SEO and how to rank for local searches.
What Does SEO Involve?
Regardless of the SEO techniques or strategy you use, there are usually some specific skills you’ll need in your toolbox.
There are three fundamental tasks that are involved in all types of SEO, from off-page to technical.
- Keyword Research
- Competitor Analysis
- Reporting and Analytics
Read more about each of these tasks and how they work in our beginner’s guide to SEO.
Tips From Experts About How To Do SEO
What are the best ways for someone to learn SEO today?
Start a website using something like WordPress as a CMS and make it successful. Read Google blog posts and tweets and other SEO materials and learn from them. Read about related fields, and work for an SEO agency or in-house SEO company.
Start your own site about something you have a passion in and then test, learn and improve as you go along. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it helps to put the theory behind the learning into practice, to let it really sink in and figure out what works.
I think a combination of the two is always the best way to go if you can. Reading studies, blogs, and forums allow for a theoretical understanding and a deeper understanding of a lot of the practical things that you will do as part of a job.
As you consider blogs, books, webinars, social media accounts, look for content that meets two criteria:
It shows specific actions and real data: A lot of advice is simply too general and not supported by evidence. Skip it.
Look for the examples or datasets that are relevant to you: You’re looking for recommendations from the same industry, with examples from websites of similar size. If you’re a small business, technical SEO tips that worked for big websites just aren’t relevant to the little guys.
What would you advise/say to someone starting out in SEO today?
Test everything! There is so much contrasting information online that simply doesn't make sense or work, a lot of the advice given by people is often by people who don't have a lot of practical SEO experience, so experiment for yourself.
Learn the basics. I can't stress this enough. If you don't know how a search engine works, you will never understand how to rank a piece of content. I'm not saying you have to be a theory expert, but having a broad idea about things like information retrieval can be super valuable. If you're starting today, then start reading.
Listen to as many folks as possible. The last couple of years have been a bit strange but I would say surround yourself with really smart folks. [...] It is also good to meet and listen to as many voices as possible as you will find that some people, even industry leaders, have very strong views on some subjects.
I loved to go to conferences and listen to the experts debate everything from how to start a technical audit, to the strengths and limitations of the tools.
Until you can do these 3 things you are not an SEO.
Know how to identify the search intent behind the keyword phrase.
Understand how to map search intent to outcomes users want/need to achieve.
Demonstrate steps one and two by helping users achieve those outcomes or make progress towards them.
1. Don't assume that everything that you read out there is sound SEO advice: sadly there's too much misinformation or outdated advice. Always test for yourself and develop critical thinking based on the principles of how search works.
2. Be always curious and never stop learning. SEO is always changing so you should always keep updated and informed. For that, I created the #SEOFOMO weekly SEO newsletter with the latest news, updates and best resources.
3. The best SEO tool is your brain: Before trying to automate things, it is important to understand the "why" behind so you can properly use the data in a useful way in your SEO process to actually support you to achieve results/goals.
4. Remember that SEO is a means to an end: A positive business ROI due to more conversions/higher sales/more ads seen/etc. and there are multiple ways to achieve results. Make sure to understand your Website business goals so you can establish a relevant SEO strategy to achieve it, and remember strategies are not tactics.”
What is the biggest myth around what you need to succeed in SEO and/or the biggest myth(s) around how SEO works?
“The biggest myth for succeeding in SEO is to manipulate the algorithms, it's always a losing battle and even if you beat them now it doesn't mean that you will in 6 or 12 months' time. Focus on providing a strong experience for users and search engines with good technical, content, and strong credibility building backlinks.”
The biggest myth is that you need to learn how to code to be a good SEO. It's helpful to be able to speak eye-to-eye with engineers, but you don't need to solve problems for them. Instead, being able to phrase a problem well is a skill!
I believe it's around rankings factors. On one hand, I prefer to think about "success factors" as Cyrus Shepard called them, which are those areas, configurations, etc. that might or might not be taken into consideration by Google as ranking factors at the moment, but we know that will impact users' search experience and journey and will make a difference to achieve results whether directly or indirectly.
On the other, the importance of areas or configuration will also largely depend on your own website context: current optimization status, rankings for relevant queries vs. competitors, expected goals, constraints, search results features, etc.
Probably where you have a background in experience. I came from a web development background, which I've found very useful, but also with a background in business (again very helpful). But there's no single right answer, there's lots of routes that can take you into succeeding in SEO, so don't feel like you can't do it because you didn't have a background in something.
I think overall there are two big myths in SEO.
1. Everything is about rankings.
2. SEO is just about getting links.
These could not be further from the truth. When these are the barometers of success, SEO skills are judged in the wrong light. You can be great at SEO and terrible at getting specific rankings and have no idea how to build a link.”
“There are people who claim to be SEO experts who publish clickbait on topics such as RankBrain and Hummingbird and ranking factors who may have expertise in fields such as copywriting who publish misleading information. Use critical thinking whenever you read about SEO and be skeptical.
When someone tells you that they have a "gut feeling" about how Google is using something such as machine learning, it may be a good idea to ignore them regardless of how educated or successful they might be, especially when they start asking for money for you to learn more from them.”
What are the key skills someone needs to work in SEO?
Curiosity. We're in an industry where the only constant is change. You need to strive for excellence, be prepared to fail, and always look to innovate. I think that often starts with the curiosity to learn and improve.
There is no rule book for SEO. In my opinion, it is all about experimentation and continuous learning. I think the most valuable skills in SEO are creativity and curiosity. If someone is a strict by the book operator, they might have a hard time being successful in the ambiguous world of search.
I would argue the most important skill that you can have working in an SEO environment can often be your soft skills. Being able to communicate what you are doing to seniors stakeholders, engineering, or even to fellow teammates.
1. Fact-finding skills - Puts in the time researching and experimenting.
2. Curiosity - Possess a mind that is never quite satisfied that a problem is solved.
3. Empathy - Displays a strong desire to understand a problem from a user’s perspective.
Think about the best SEO’s you know or follow. I guaranteed you that most of them will have all 3 of these skills.
There are so many skills in becoming a great SEO. The most important thing is to understand what the business needs to achieve - what is required to drive more relevant, converting traffic to the client. This takes a depth of knowledge across many areas to develop a strategy and far too many SEO people at the moment don’t take time to look at the current rankings, the opportunities, or listen when the business tells them the KPIs that are needed to deliver.
What is the hardest part about SEO today?
The hardest part of SEO today is the amount of information and misinformation about SEO that is coming out from many sources. Learn how to harvest useful information, and how to ignore misinformation, and to think critically about what you are learning.
Since there is no rule book for SEO, there is no linear path to success. When I first started in SEO, it was a lot easier to follow some basic principles and see success. Now you can do everything right and still never achieve success. You need to be far more creative and never give up.
For me, I find the hardest part about SEO is now the breadth of what is expected, and even with a team of 30+ SEO specialists, it's a lot of work to deliver.
Going through and correcting page speed, title tags, user experience optimizations, restructuring information architecture, content production, digital PR and backlink acquisition has enough sections and subsections to drive anyone that isn't passionate about it insane.
Prioritization. SEOs get lots of advice from lots of sources. We get alerts from tools and audits from experts. Some suggestions are helpful. Most are irrelevant.
The key is to know what to ignore and then focus on what really matters. Filter through all the inputs and take the actions most likely to succeed.
Should we update old posts? Or write new ones? In this report, which of these warnings are actually irrelevant?
Spend 10 hours deleting old content? 10 hours of internal linking? Which would help more? [...]
Your priorities may be unique to your situation. Best practices may not apply. 90% of the job is knowing where to focus your time, energy and budget.
There are 100 things you can do tomorrow. But probably only 3-5 of them will make a big difference.
The rise of Artificial intelligence in search. We are seeing how search engines are deploying newer and faster AIs to solve problems. It's excellent for the end-users. But, it's harder for SEOs because optimizing for AI is often impossible.
What is the future of SEO?
To optimize and maximize businesses search visibility to be easily found by their users/customers, achieve their goals and grow their profits... whatever the search algorithm, search results format and paradigm shifts, we will need to evolve accordingly, whether with an improved capacity of search engines to understand content meaning and matching it with users intent, a higher reliance on visual search as an input or output, and the emergence of query less, predictive search features.
SEO Product Managers. Having someone to go deep with engineers, designers, and writers, will be immensely helpful for shipping quickly.
In my opinion, the future of SEO has never been brighter. With so many more websites clamoring for the attention of an ever-expanding pie of users, SEO is more necessary than ever.
Even with all of Google's advanced AI to rank websites, you still need someone to translate best practices into action and to own the SEO channel for a company. Assuming that search engines will just have your best interests at heart can be a fatal mistake.
I think the future of SEO will continue to follow the trends that we are already seeing, good technical fundamentals with content written for end-users, as well as eye-catching and expertise building digital PR campaigns, all based on a core of good product-market fit.
Data is increasingly becoming the backbone of smart SEO. This combined with automation and insight will be one major pillar of the SEO equation. This combined with a technical knowledge of how search engines work and creativity and imagination will be the winning result. The next generation of SEO won’t have grown up with Google being ten blue links, but with it being a results page made up of video, images and knowledge graphs, this is what you will need to optimize for on whatever device your audience will be using.
What SEO roles and skills are going to become more important / emerge over the next few years?
I feel like often the gap can be in commercial skills. As SEO has evolved, I do think there's a place to bridge that gap between marketing and product, strategic vs tactical and being able to communicate and get buy-in so that SEO is on the board agenda.
I think SEO roles are going to be more product centric and closer integrated to the core of a company rather than just a specific role on a marketing team. (I go into this in a lot more detail in my book!) With SEO becoming ever more complex, the SEO needs to be even more involved cross functionally and the days of just "doing SEO" after launch are in the past.
Understanding how SEO and search engines work, and how to develop effective SEO strategies for sites are useful skills that will remain appreciated.
With the maturity of the industry I expect more specialized roles and the need of more developed hard and soft skills:
Roles requiring strategic thinking and understanding of SEO aligned with marketing/product growth, along higher capacity to communicate/influence and lead
Roles requiring tech skills/capacity to not only analyze but to automate time-consuming, complex tasks
Roles requiring content/creativity/promotion understanding and experience to differentiate and build, rather than only "fixing" tech/content debt.
The content strategist is one of the SEO roles that will be in demand over the next few years. SEO is one component of content marketing, so the content strategist plays a critical role.
The content strategist knows which content has an SEO opportunity and which does not. They don’t target out of reach phrases and turn to other channels (social and email) when search is not an option.
The content strategist knows where a piece of content will have the greatest reach, and if it’s another website, they’re ready to pitch. But like any PR pro, they know the value of the link.
The content strategy knows which content has the greatest visibility in search, and also which posts have the best opportunity to become much more visible. They know when to prioritize updates and rewrites.
The content strategist knows how headlines affect click-through rate, and how to adapt them for title tags. They know which influencers are most likely to link back after a collaboration.
And most importantly, they know the audience. They know that quality beats quantity. It’s not about rankings, it’s about revenue. They never take their eye off the real prize: a steady stream of qualified leads.
Jobs in SEO
When on the hunt for an SEO job, you can choose to specialize in one particular type of SEO (like technical SEO or link building) or you can be a general SEO professional with skills and knowledge of all 4 types.
Regardless, you should have a broad understanding of on-page, off-page, technical, and local SEO. It could also help your career if you have an understanding of digital marketing practices and how SEO fits into an overall strategy.
There are plenty of online and free courses in digital marketing that you can take to gain qualifications or improve your overall skill.
Most jobs in the market will fall into at least one of three types of SEO jobs:
- In-house SEO
- Agency SEO
- Freelance SEO
The type you choose will depend on your skillset, specialties, and how you work best. If you want to have a career in SEO, find guides, ask questions, and join SEO communities online to start networking.
Common SEO Roles
If you decide to pursue a career in SEO, there are several roles to know about. SEO roles typically fall under agency or in-house employment but also include freelance work.
As a beginner in SEO, you will likely find yourself in a more junior role. As you gain experience and refine your skills, you can move up the career ladder to more senior roles.
When it comes to progress, performance speaks for itself. You’ll need to show data to prove your skills in improving website ranking and traffic.
Types of SEO Job Positions
- Head Of SEO: This managerial SEO role is usually responsible for overseeing the performance and structure of the SEO department. The Head of SEO keeps the clients or brand’s vision and SEO efforts are united and channeled towards the same business goals.
- SEO Manager: This SEO role oversees SEO campaigns and strategy, usually in-house An SEO Manager supports the rest of the SEO team by optimizing and improving website rankings while assisting or leading digital marketing activity.
- SEO Account Manager: In an agency, the SEO account manager is responsible for client communication and reporting. An SEO account manager is a link between internal teams and external stakeholders.
- SEO Strategist: In this role, you’d be responsible for auditing and developing a strategy that works with the brand or client’s larger digital marketing strategy. An SEO strategist usually works with a team of SEO executives or Junior SEOs to roll out their strategy.
- SEO Analyst: This is a data-based role that involves the analysis of data from a range of different sources. An SEO monitors and interprets ranking data, on-site metrics, CTR, and more across multiple clients or websites. Their work supports the SEO strategist and junior SEO teams.
- Junior SEO/SEO Executive: Junior SEO team members are usually responsible for implementing changes based on an SEO strategy. A Junior SEO or SEO executive is usually a less experienced role that assists with all aspects including keyword research, on-page, and off-page SEO, and technical optimizations.
- Content Writer: Content writers work with SEO teams to produce content that supports both SEO and general marketing strategy. A content writer should work with and understand keyword research and how to produce SEO-optimized content.
If you are a freelance SEO professional or looking to hire an SEO professional, you will usually interact with:
- SEO Specialists are responsible for planning and executing your SEO strategy. An SEO specialist will usually audit your site and suggest improvements.
- SEO Consultants: This is an advisory role that supports and guides you in growing your organic performance. An SEO consultant will usually audit your site and provide a list of actions for you to implement. They are on hand to guide, advise and support you.
All SEO roles require skills that can take time to develop. Even a senior SEO professional is likely to still be learning and refining their skills, because SEO is always evolving and developing with technological advancements and algorithm updates.
In fact, the most successful SEOs are constantly learning and staying up-to-date. They network, read SEO blogs, engage in the community, and attend conferences.
How Long Does It Take To Learn SEO?
SEO isn’t a skill that one can ever fully learn. However, learning the basics of SEO can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on your learning methods and resources.
Ways To Learn SEO
There are different ways that people usually learn to do SEO. Learning SEO doesn’t require a one-size-fits-all approach.
Academic Degrees: You can earn formal qualifications in SEO from some universities. Universities will often offer a module or course as part of a marketing degree plan. Other universities do offer a degree in SEO, including:
Online Courses: If formal education isn’t for you or isn’t affordable, there are plenty of free and low-cost online courses in SEO. Most are in-depth, written by experts, and offer some form of recognition or certification at the end.
- Semrush Academy
- 45-day SEO Challenge Course by Kristina Azarenko
- Click Minded
- Google Analytics Academy
Online Resources: The SEO community is large and produces diverse online content. A big part of SEO is about producing quality content, so it’s not surprising that many SEO experts have their own blogs and channels.
There are also online communities that you can join to learn SEO. In addition to Facebook, Slack, and Clubhouse groups, there are online communities to join for free including:
On The Job: Of course, you’ll learn about SEO while on the job. There are no mandatory knowledge requirements across SEO roles. The main criteria for a junior SEO job are a basic understanding of SEO and a willingness to learn.
A more senior SEO role will require proven experience and performance data.
How SEO Experts Learned SEO
To prove that there really is no one-size-fits-all method to learning SEO, here are a few ways that industry-leading SEO experts have started their SEO careers:
Natalie Arney, SEO Consultant & Speaker – “I started working in SEO after a 7-year teaching career! I taught Business Studies and ICT, and was looking for something I could transfer my skills and knowledge over to.”
Rebecca Todd, Speaker & Owner of Honeypot Marketing UK– “ An algorithm update changed my life. Literally. I was just a junior brand exec, but it became my job to recover organic visibility. So I learned fast, using blogs, conferences, and networking.”
Brian Dean, Entrepreneur & Owner of Backlino – “I remember when I first tried to learn SEO on my own…It was REALLY frustrating. Conflicting information. Confusing terms. And techniques that didn’t work.”
Amy Leach, SEO Manager, MAGO – “I was going to work in TV & Film. Although when I arrived and learned a little more about SEO, I was in fact joining a marketing agency as a search executive, as part of an apprenticeship. I’ve never looked back”
Learn More About SEO
SEO is a journey - never stop learning and trying new ideas or techniques. For some inspiration, education, and motivation, here are some top online resources:
Best 5 SEO Podcasts
- Webcology: Jim Hedger and Dave Davies’ podcast, Webcology, explores the latest news and developments in the world of SEO. They also have some notable guests with opinions and tips.
- SEO 101: Ross Dunn and John Carcutt’s podcast, SEO 101, is focuses on the world of search. They start with information for beginners and give some really useful SEO tips for you to try.
- Voice Of Search: Benjamin Shapiro’s podcast, Voice Of Search, offers strategic insights and actionable tips. He also talks about how to get and use SEO data.
- Marketing O’Clock: Greg Finn, Jessica Budde, Christine ‘Shep’ Zirnheld, and Mark Saltarelli’s podcast covers digital marketing. Their humorous discussions of important marketing trends and news target SEO, PPC, email marketing, and more.
- Edge of the Web: Erin Spark’s podcast, Edge Of The Web, is all about the serious side of SEO. Past guests have included Google’s John Mueller and Will Critchlow.
Top 10 SEO Experts To Follow
- John Mueller: John Mueller is Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst. He gives actionable tips and insights on Twitter and regularly engages with the SEO community.
- Barry Schwartz: Barry is a self-confessed search geek and seasoned SEO. He’s also the executive editor of Search Engine Roundtable and tweets about industry news.
- Aleyda Solis: Aleyda Solis is an international, award-winning SEO specialist. She writes for lots of big SEO blogs including Search Engine Land and gives lots of free advice and resources in her tweets.
- Orit Mutznik: Orit is at the center of the SEO community. She works as Head of SEO at Silk Fred, and regularly tweets helpful studies, news, tools, and upcoming experts to follow.
- Danny Sullivan: Danny is Google’s public search liaison, listening to the SEO community and helping people to understand search. He regularly tweets Google updates you should know about.
- Areej AbuAli: Areej is the founder of Women In Tech SEO and an SEO expert in her own right. She regularly speaks all over the world and tweets resources, tips, and events.
- Suganthan Mohanadasan: Suganthan is co-founder of Snippet Digital. He tweets about technical SEO, structured data, and sometimes free SEO tools!
- Mordy Oberstein: Mordy Oberstein works at Wix as the SEO Liaison. He interacts with the SEO community and tweets out helpful insights in the SEO strategy and implementation.
- Maret Reutelingsperger: Maret Reutelingsperger is a Marketing Consultant at Mobe Digital. She speaks at big SEO events and tweets tips, tricks, and ideas about SEO strategy.
- Ruth Everett: Ruth Everett is the technical SEO at Deepcrawl and instructor at Code First Girls. She is an advocate of women in more technical roles and has created a beginners SEO guide told by dogs.
Best 5 SEO Blogs
- Search Engine Journal: As one of the most popular SEO blogs, Search engine Journal (SEJ) gives you the latest search news, guides, webinars and how-tos in SEO.
- Aleyda Solis: Avoid FOMO with Aleyda’s SEO blog and highly popular email newsletter. Aleyda Solis has in-depth discussions and case studies about both complex and basic SEO techniques. Her weekly emails are also a great way to keep on top of the SEO industry and what’s going on in the community.
- Search Engine Land: Search Engine Land also provides how-to guides on different aspects of SEO, PPC, and SEM. Their newsletters are also useful snapshots of the latest industry developments.
- Search Engine Roundtable: Publishing news and information for all SEM, Search Engine Roundtable is one of the best SEO blogs. They write about the latest algorithm updates, technology, and industry developments.
- Semrush: The Semrush blog also keeps you up-to-date with the latest news, industry developments, and strategy tricks for SEO, PPC, and SEM. Follow along for more information about the Semrush tools and how to incorporate them into your SEO strategy.