How to Become an SEO Specialist

Ryan MacKellar Blog 1 Comment

Like many more technology focused jobs, SEO offers no specific roadmap for arriving at employment. Unlike say web development or copywriting, you can’t simply take a certificate program and wind up with employed at the end.

If you are wondering if SEO is the right field to get in, I can only speak personal experience as wider data on SEO hiring trends aren’t available. I’ve noticed many companies have trouble filling SEO roles, especially more senior ones. In addition, it’s great for freelancing as many businesses don’t require a full time staff person to manage their SEO program and don’t want to pay agency prices.

In general, SEO is a good option for content writers looking to revamp their skills or people looking for a way to break into marketing for the first time. The most common path to becoming an SEO specialist is, not unlike many jobs, achieved through this combination experience, education and training:

  • Experience is gained through some exposure to SEO, often through through a marketing or web job (e.g. through researching keywords for a blog post or working on technical specifications of a site)
  • After this initial exposure normally comes education. You sign up for an online course in SEO (Marketmotive has a good one) or read educational guides available from reputable sources like Moz or Backlinko.
  • Finally, you need training. No matter how much we read or get exposed to SEO, most of us will greatly benefit from working under an SEO who can teach you everything and make sure you avoid common pitfalls.
Did you see the memo about the HTTPS report

Life as an SEO specialist isn’t as glamorous as it might seem

My own path followed this trajectory. After working in content at a non-profit, finding another job was a struggle. Fortunately, there’s a search marketing company called Search Engine People, located right next to the Pickering GO station. I got a job there because nobody wants to work in Pickering.

Content plays a critical role in any SEO program and I got to witness an SEO program in action. I also received access to educational resources that allowed me to gain a broader perspective on the subject. While I didn’t learn everything, it was enough for another marketing agency to hire me and train me in areas I had knowledge gaps (i.e. link building & technical SEO).

So at this point you may be thinking:

“Thanks for that WONDERFUL insight Ryan (insert sarcasm), but I don’t have a job in search marketing or marketing at all. How do I get there?”  

Great question! To further help you in your quest to become an SEO specialist like me, I’m going to lay out the path that I would take if I was starting from scratch.

  1. Start reading about SEO today

Since you are on this blog and probably have developed some kind of interest in the subject, the best next step is to start reading all that you can about it. While there are both in person and video based courses that can help you, I wouldn’t recommend them unless you really struggle with learning through reading.  As I mentioned early, Moz is a great knowledge hub for SEO. Same with backlinko.  Here’s a list of free online SEO courses that can help as well.

SEO can be a big subject and feel intimidating. It’s kind of hard to understand what you are doing until it all clicks. One way to help make your reading more manageable is to break it down into smaller elements. These are common aspects of SEO:

  1. Keyword research
  2. Content creation
  3. On-page optimization
  4. Link Building
  5. Technical SEO (especially using Google Search Console)
  6. Local SEO

Just gaining some experience in one or two of these is a good beginning for any aspiring SEO.

  1. Start a website

This is an especially important if you do not have access to a website for work.  While reading is nice, everyone needs hands on experience to really see in practice what SEO is all about. Having a website to test strategies on is critical.

I recommend you create a personal site and target a commercial keyword. It can be anything (e.g. Freelance web developer, SEO freelancer, or really any kind of business website). It will serve as your SEO calling card following. Just make sure to do the following:

  1. Target a keyword on the homepage
  2. Build some external links
  3. Install Google analytics

While there’s a lot more to SEO than that, this allows you to target something a keyword and get some organic traffic. It’s surprisingly easy to get people on your site. Just the ability to talk with a potential employer about this experience will impress them.

Note: If you are looking for a good overview on the subject, my 10 new tips for SEO blog gives a good idea for how to get started.

  1. Get some SEO experience at your job

My two colleagues at 9thCO both cut their teeth in SEO in much more general marketing and admin roles. Both were aided by working environments that were smaller and allowed them to pursue SEO projects. So  try to lead an SEO project connected to your job. For example:

  1. Do some keyword research to pick a target keyword for the homepage (frame it as researching your competitors)
  2. Set up your Google My Business listing (if relevant) and build get submit your website to high quality citations (tell them its free advertising)
  3. Install Google Search Console and see what keywords people are using to get onto your site in search analytics (call it market research)
  4. Implement internal links on all website pages (critical web maintenance)
  5. Reach out to partners and people your company has a relationship with for a back link (relationship strengthening)

While these are just a few ideas, they give you an idea of what to propose, even if you don’t work explicitly in marketing or web development.

  1. Get a job at a Search Agency

Search agencies are great places to work if you want to break into SEO. While you might be able to get a job as an SEO specialist at one of these places right away, marketing agencies have many other jobs that need staffing such as:

  • Content writers
  • Account managers
  • Salespeople
  • Administrative assistants
  • Social media specialists

This site offers at a decent list of agencies specializing in SEO just filter the location to Toronto. While most agencies have search programs these days, working at an agency specifically for search will make your experience look better.

After working as a content writer for Search Engine People, I only got call backs for SEO jobs, not content writing. However, you don’t need to work at one of the big shops to get what you need. Smaller can be better as you’ll get involved in more projects.

  1. Get trained as an SEO Specialist

No matter how well you performed steps 1-4, getting trained by a team of SEO specialists is ultimately the most important. All of the other steps were just a way to get you to last one.  I felt like I knew SEO pretty well before I started my SEO specialist position. I had taken a great online course, worked on the content side of SEO at a search agency and had my own website ranking for keywords. But I only realized how little I knew once I finally got trained. There’s just no substitute.

If you do have the privilege of choosing between in-house and agency side, I always recommend agency, especially for SEO. You’ll get to work on so many different kinds of sites and solve so many different problems. It will set you up for success in this field for the long run.

I hope this was helpful. Good luck, keep at it, and if you have any questions or even want to network over a coffee with me, I’m happy to help!


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