Braden Becker’s journey to becoming an SEO specialist at HubSpot is a slightly unconventional one. In college, he studied Writing & Rhetoric, which helped him land his first job as a copy editor at a B2B trade publication. As he progressed through his career, Braden pivoted to content marketing, where he worked as an editor at a SaaS company and then as a content manager at the world’s largest environmental services firm.
You might think someone like Braden would continue to climb the creative career ladder in content marketing. But today he actually spends more time in Ahrefs than he does in Google Docs. As the historical optimization lead on HubSpot’s Blog Team, Braden’s main responsibility is to identify blog posts that are falling in organic traffic and optimize them for search engines to rank higher on Google. He’s even sharpened his SEO chops enough to co-create the SEO strategy for all of HubSpot’s blogs.
Traits of an SEO Expert
As a writer and editor for most of his career, SEO had always been in the periphery of Braden’s work — as it was a subject he had a solid grasp on but not necessarily a lot of expertise in.
Today, though, SEO is his central focus.
Braden, along with other SEO and historical optimization specialists 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.
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 to dedicate their careers to SEO. Some start completely by accident. Let’s go over how HubSpot experts started theirs, and what you can do to start yours.
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. It’s helpful for those in the SEO profession to have a strong writing background because it takes creativity to optimize content in a way both Google and audiences will comprehend. In fact, Becker has noted that his writing background helped him get his start in the SEO industry.
“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.”
Braden’s story of pivoting from a creative career in content marketing to an analytical one isn’t as rare as you might think. Before Aja Frost became a senior 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 Aja had to say about her strategy for keeping 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.”
Like Braden mentioned, a lot of SEOs start with one skill and start developing others. So, 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, having a balance in both will help you in your SEO career.
2. Take a course and get certified.
Earning a certification ensures that you have the proper knowledge in a certain area 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, discover which one will provide you with the skills you need to advance in your SEO career. For instance, if you find that a certain course doesn’t go in-depth about subjects you need help in, it’s probably not the course for you.
3. Understand how search engines crawl and index content.
The primary goal of SEO is to increase visibility on search engines so that search engine users can find your content. While content should always be created with those potential website visitors in mind, they won’t make it to your content if search engines don’t know what to make of them.
According to Moz, search engines have three primary functions:
- Crawl – Find and understand content.
- Index – Store and organize the content.
- Rank – Provide the best content for relevant queries.
The goal of increasing visibility is highly related to the third item on that list. But while rank is important, it comes after items #1 and #2.
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 in mind: 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 three things:
- Relevance to the searcher’s intent
- Authority the website has based on popularity signals
- Trust and confidence the search engine has that the website can provide a true and valuable answer
- Positive experience for the user as they consume the content
“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,” Amanda 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 the practice of 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)
- Keyword Research – 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 that is discoverable based on that data. (Relevance and search intent)
- 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 just how relevant the content is to the query. (Relevance and search intent)
- Link Building – Search engines use a number of factors to determine the popularity of a website, 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 about SEO, it’s essential to keep up-to-date on the latest industry changes, so you aren’t using outdated optimization techniques Google doesn’t understand.
For example, when Aja noticed the Sales Blog traffic was flat, starting SEO research helped her uncover why: she wasn’t delivering content audiences searched for.
Aja doing research about SEO led her to discovering ways to improve the blog’s performance.
SEO is always changing, so it’s crucial to keep updating your knowledge on the topic.
To build his fundamental knowledge of SEO, Victor Pan, the head of technical SEO at HubSpot, 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, it’s imperative to find an SEO routine or tool that will become your foundation. 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 SEO experts also use tools, such as SEMrush, for additional research.
You don’t have to use every single tool that exists to conduct your SEO tasks, you just have to make sure the tools are helping you accomplish your goals and giving you accurate practice with the subject.
If you don’t know where or how to start searching for tools, here’s eight you can check out. Remember, you don’t have to commit to eight, just to the one(s) that’ll get your job done. Use what will keep your research well-rounded, accurate, and easy to comprehend.
“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.”
8. Get familiar with data.
Once you start diving into your SEO tools, you’ll notice that there’s a LOT of data. Without this data, you’ll be unable to measure the performance of your initiatives 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.
According to Amanda, “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.
To stay ahead of the curve in any industry, reading the latest news and research is hugely beneficial. 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?” Victor 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’s 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 in the field.
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 get started building your network, look at the resources you have available. 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.