Marketing & Advertising

How to Become an SEO Specialist

How to Become an SEO Specialist
Employers of SEO specialists most want to see evidence of past successes. Online courses, certifications, and a graduate degree won't hurt your chances either. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 12, 2020

Working in search engine optimization is like playing a game where the rules are continually changing. That's why curiosity and drive tend to be more valuable than the 'right' degree or the 'right' certification in this discipline.

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When Google and other search engines show you search results, the pages you see aren’t displayed randomly. A set of rules—collectively called an algorithm—determine how search engines rank sites in their results pages.

SEO specialists are experts who understand these rules. On any given day, you might find an SEO specialist writing copy, mapping out breadcrumb trails, assessing whether off-site landing pages are delivering ROI, or analyzing a competitor’s website—all activities that contribute to maximizing a site’s visibility in the search engines.

Search engine optimization is a multifaceted discipline, and SEO specialists have to be ready to flex their creative muscles, use the latest analytics tools, and help web developers build sites that search engines can crawl and index easily. You won’t need highly developed technical skills to become an SEO specialist. Knowing some HTML is helpful, but most employers won’t expect you to create sites from the ground up. You will, however, need a high degree of flexibility (because the rules of optimization change frequently) and a willingness to explore every possible avenue—from content development to website architecture—to grow your employer’s organic traffic consistently.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. In this article about how to become an SEO specialist, we’ll cover:

  • What does an SEO specialist do?
  • What’s the difference between SEO marketing and SEM?
  • Which qualifications do you need to become an SEO specialist?
  • Are there degree programs just for SEO specialists?
  • Are there specialty certifications for search engine optimization specialists?
  • What’s the best way to become an SEO expert from a beginner in a short time?
  • What are the prospects for a career as an SEO specialist?

What does an SEO specialist do?

Once upon a time, search engine optimization was the domain of programmers and computer engineers. Not anymore: today, SEO typically falls to the marketing department—more specifically, the search engine marketing (SEM) team—rather than to the tech team. Their role is to:

  • Maximize incoming traffic to websites by improving the search engine results page (SERP) ranking of webpages
  • Increase conversions by improving the user-friendliness of webpages, a process that can involve everything from conducting in-depth website analyses to generating original content

When you become an SEO specialist, you’ll be responsible for:

  • Assessing sites’ rank, structure, keyword density, tags, internal linking, inbound links, file names, URLs, sitemap, redirects, 404 errors, and UX
  • Creating comprehensive strategies to increase the SERP ranking of entire sites, specific pages, or external landing pages
  • Reviewing key analytics (e.g., visits, conversions, backlinks, bounce rates) to determine how current SEO strategies are performing and adjusting those strategies as necessary
  • Suggesting whatever front-end and back-end changes are needed to ensure search engines can crawl and index a site’s content easily
  • Developing optimized on-page SEO content and off-page SEO content like articles, subject-specific pages, blog posts, white papers, guides, and product pages
  • Developing optimized off-site content like videos, guest blogs, and podcasts
  • Conducting keyword research using keyword tracker tools, search engine results, and user input
  • Analyzing competitors’ web presence, ranking, and site performance
  • Redesigning a site’s navigation scheme to make it easier to use for both users and search engine crawlers
  • Monitoring Google Search Console and similar webmaster tools and creating summaries for stakeholders based on reported data
  • Identifying link-building opportunities and submitting content to sites that accept articles and guest blogs
  • Suggesting and implementing website layout and design changes that will lead to conversions
  • Updating existing content with keywords and phrases that reflect what potential customers are searching for
  • Updating internal links, image file names, and meta description and tags
  • Assisting other SEM specialists with keyword research, copywriting, or SEO
  • Working closely with the SEM team to ensure that social media accounts are funneling users toward target pages
  • Researching the latest major and minor updates to search engine algorithms, SEO best practices, and SEO tools

It’s no longer enough to throw a couple of keywords or keyword phrases into a site’s copy and make sure every page has meta tags. Today’s SEO specialists are experts in content development, link building, data analysis, web architecture, and sometimes also CSS and other programming languages.

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What’s the difference between SEO marketing and SEM?

Some people use these terms more or less interchangeably. More often, however, SEO is treated as a specialization within SEM, which encompasses all the internal and external, paid and organic steps a company can take to reach customers online. Search engine marketing can include social media advertising, influencer marketing, sponsored content, partnerships, promotions, and pay-per-click advertising. It comprises everything a company can do to its own content to improve its position in the SERP (search engine results pages) rankings.

SEO is a primary tool in improving SERP rankings. Search engine optimization includes:

  • Optimizing website content with strategically-chosen keywords and phrases
  • Making updates to the site’s design
  • Ensuring the backend of the site is designed with search engine crawlers in mind
  • Optimizing for users (something Google tends to reward)
  • Optimizing for mobile and answer engines

Having a comprehensive search engine marketing strategy in place is a must for any business that wants to attract customers online. Optimizing for search is probably the most critical strategy those businesses can employ to get long-lasting visibility.

Which qualifications do you need to become an SEO specialist?

Although smart companies have been investing in search engine optimization since the late ’90s, formal training in this discipline is still relatively rare. Throughout the profession, self-taught SEO specialists still rule. Some SEO specialists end up in this role not because they majored in computer science or web development, but because they can write or have a knack for online audience building.

Becoming an SEO specialist isn’t just a matter of graduating with the right degree (more on this below). The technical mechanics of search engine optimization aren’t particularly challenging or complex. There are concrete rules to follow, and plenty of easy-to-use analytics tools. SEO courses abound on sites like Udemy.

What’s harder to pick up is the art of SEO. The most successful SEO specialists are patient and have a talent for identifying trends that can be used to predict future user behavior. They’re also methodical. They don’t make guesses and throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. When they have a hypothesis about what will improve a site’s visibility, they test it and then test it again. Some are even able to get ahead of the search engine algorithm updates. How they do this isn’t always clear, but chances are they’re succeeding because they’re putting the user’s needs first.

The takeaway is that as tempting as it can be to optimize content for the search engine crawlers, you’ll be a better search engine optimization specialist if you optimize content for the people who will read, view, or listen to it.

Are there degree programs just for SEO specialists?

No colleges or universities offer an SEO degree, and there are plenty of professionals in SEM who think that no school ever should. Employers in the SEM space typically ask that applicants have a bachelor’s degree, but they don’t always specify a particular major. Earning a bachelor’s degree in digital marketing is the obvious safe bet, but SEO specialists also come into the field with such degrees as a:

  • BA in Communications
  • BS in Business Administration with a Digital Marketing Concentration
  • BS in Computer Science
  • BS in Information Technology
  • BS in Internet Marketing

Whatever your major, look for opportunities to take classes like:

  • Analysis and Optimization of Digital Media
  • Communications Strategy and New Media
  • Content Marketing
  • Digital Analytics and Marketing Metrics
  • Digital Consumer Behavior
  • Digital Consumer Search and Marketing
  • Digital Promotions
  • Direct and Interactive Marketing
  • Fundamentals of Mobile Technology
  • Interactive Marketing Technology
  • Search Engine Marketing Analytics
  • SEO Strategy
  • Social, Legal and Ethical Issues of Digital Data

Chances are that no single program, even if you choose to pursue a digital marketing degree, will cover all of those topics. No matter what, you’ll be doing some self-directed learning on the road to becoming an SEO specialist. Even if your classes touch on most of the above topics, you can’t rely on your college or university to give you the most up-to-date information about SEO best practices, because search engine algorithms change so frequently.

You won’t typically need a marketing master’s degree or an MBA with a digital marketing concentration unless your goal is to become an SEO manager, but if you have the opportunity to get a marketing master’s degree without going deep into debt, having one can only boost your employment prospects. Once again, there’s no master’s degree for SEO specialists. There are, however, plenty of digital marketing master’s degrees that can help you land a management position in SEO or SEM, like the:

  • MS in Digital Business
  • MS in Digital Communication
  • MS in Digital Marketing Communications
  • MS in Digital and Social Marketing
  • MS in Integrated Marketing Communications
  • MS in Marketing and Digital Media

For the time being, few top schools offer graduate degrees in digital marketing (that may change as the profession grows). However, many offer digital marketing certificate programs. You can find SEM certificate programs at:

  • Duke University
  • Georgetown University
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Rutgers University – New Brunswick
  • University of California – Irvine
  • University of Notre Dame

Before you choose this career, be aware that your educational journey won’t be over after you earn a master’s degree or a certificate. Search engine optimization best practices change rapidly; succeeding in this role means staying abreast of those changes. SEO specialists do a lot of reading, take courses, and attend industry conferences to keep current.

Are there specialty certifications for search engine optimization specialists?

Yes, but be wary of any training programs and certifications that are not delivered by a well-known organization or company. At one time, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO) was shaping up to become the accrediting organization for search engine optimization education programs; it even offered its own certification courses for SEO specialists. Now it just points professionals toward SEM training resources created by other organizations, such as the:

Keep in mind that certifications are only as valuable as employers believe them to be, so don’t spend a lot of time and money getting certified if it won’t pay off. One way to determine whether getting certified will make it easier to get a job in SEM is to look at job listings for SEO specialists on sites like Indeed and Glassdoor. Are employers looking for SEO specialists with particular certifications? Or do they list experience as the most essential qualification?

What’s the best way to become an SEO expert from a beginner in a short time?

Earning a digital marketing degree can take four to six years, depending on whether you enroll as a full-time or part-time student and whether you choose to pursue a master’s degree in digital marketing. There are lots of good reasons to get a degree, but it is possible to become an SEO specialist without one. A lot of professionals working in SEM taught themselves the ins and outs of search engine optimization and online marketing. The resources you’ll need to become an SEO specialist are out there on the internet and in books—and inside you.

There’s the Google Webmaster Central Blog and the company’s SEO starter guide. There is Moz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO and the tips and tricks at Search Engine Land. Of course, there’s only so much you can learn by reading. One of the very best ways to get quickly up to speed when you want to become a search engine optimization specialist is to experience how Google and other search engines work by making your own niche websites. There are plenty of free and low-cost ways to build your own sites. Once you have a couple up and running, you can start optimizing them using tools like Hubspot’s Website Grader and the Screaming Frog SEO Spider.

Can you get your sites onto the first page of search results? If the answer is yes (and you can get one or more of your sites into the coveted #1 spot), that’s proof positive that you have a talent for search engine optimization. You might not have professional experience, but if you can show hiring managers how you’ve gotten your personal sites to the top of the SERPs, you probably won’t be on the job market long.

What are the prospects for a career as an SEO specialist?

SEO still isn’t dead, even though its demise is predicted regularly in the media. Does search engine optimization look the same now as it did in the year 2000? No. Has organic search become a less-important driver of traffic since ‘People Also Ask’ results, Answer Box results, shopping results, local SEO results, and video results hit the SEM scene? Maybe. But Google still fields 3.5 billion search queries every minute and companies still hire SEO professionals to figure out how to make sure those searchers see their sites.

When you become an SEO specialist, you won’t necessarily be one of the top-paid SEM professionals, but you won’t go hungry, either. According to PayScale, the average SEO specialist salary is only about $45,000. Late-career search engine optimization professionals can make $20,000 more, and SEO managers can make as much as $98,000.

You might make more, however, and be even more employable if you don’t limit yourself exclusively to search engine optimization. An SEM specialist can handle SEO, after all. Can an SEO specialist say the same about SEM? The answer is probably yes, but by attaching a limiting label to themselves, they may be missing out on opportunities at companies where hiring managers are looking for Jacks-of-all-trades.

Ross Hudgens, the founder of Siege Media, may have put it best in an interview with Link-Assistant.com when he said, “SEO is still a good career choice, but I’m not sure it’s what someone would want to do exclusively. SEO should be the skill you have as a sliver of a larger skill-set… like being a good writer, or being good with people. These are extremely valuable skills, but ones that often accompany others to truly be extremely valuable.”

In other words, your prospects when you become a search engine marketing specialist will probably be good. Your prospects as an SEM specialist might be better.

(Updated on February 20, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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