Computer Science

What Is an SEO Specialist?

What Is an SEO Specialist?
SEO specialists apply multiple strategies, including analytics, to push their websites to the top of Google's search engine results pages (SERPs). Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry February 11, 2020

Hundreds of factors determine where a website shows up in search results—and those factors change frequently. SEO specialists stay on top of the trends driving page rankings to help their clients reach that coveted top spot. A capable SEO expert can transform a dead site into a virtual Grand Central Station.

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Google updates its search algorithms daily—nearly nine times per day on average, in fact. True, many of these alterations are minor, even imperceptible, tweaks. Some are significant, however, and all impact the process at the core of a search engine optimization (SEO) specialist’s business: namely, figuring out how to place their pages as the top of Google’s search results.

SEO specialists are digital marketers and trend hunters. They’re also writers, conversion specialists, and researchers. They play by the continually changing rulebook that governs search engine results, and that presents them with several challenges. SEO specialists must work hard to stay current because things can change quickly, and they must be prepared for constant surprises.

Does this sound like the career you’ve been searching for? In this article discussing what is an SEO specialist, we’ll cover:

  • What is an SEO specialist?
  • What does a search engine optimization specialist do?
  • Is an SEO specialist the same thing as an SEM specialist?
  • What skills are needed to become an SEO specialist?
  • Do SEO specialists have specialty certifications?
  • How much do search engine optimization specialists make?
  • Does SEO have a future?

What is an SEO specialist?

Search engine optimization specialists are multi-talented experts who do a lot more than tweak website content and meta tags day in and day out. They are pioneers in a new discipline that, for the time being at least, is mainly self-taught.

When the internet was young, search engine specialization was not a thing. Google wasn’t the behemoth it is now; many different search engines—e.g., Altavista, Infoseek, Lycos, and AskJeeves—delivered lots of different results. The only “experts” in search engine results were the programmers and computer engineers slowly building the world wide web. Online retail consisted of only a handful of pioneering brands.

Things are different now, to put it mildly. Today, 88 percent of search traffic comes from Google (the rest comes mostly from Bing and Yahoo, plus a few very small Chinese and Russian search engines). When people talk about optimizing search results, they’re generally talking about optimizing for Google’s algorithms. Online retailers now earn more than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. As a result, search engine results—meaning Google results—have become huge drivers of business. If a brand doesn’t appear on the coveted first page of the search engine result pages (SERPs), it will be essentially invisible to many searchers.

Over decades, SEO gradually stopped being a technical discipline and became the domain of marketers—specifically, the search engine marketers, or SEMs. Search engine optimization experts are SEM specialists who focus on maximizing organic traffic to websites by improving the SERP ranking of whole sites and individual pages. Once, that meant making sure there were a couple of keywords or keyword phrases in whatever copy was on a page, and in the page’s metadata. Now, it’s more complicated. SEO specialists have to be content producers, link builders, data analysts, and web architects.

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What does a search engine optimization specialist do?

SEO specialists do whatever it takes to get more people to a website. On any given day, a search engine optimization specialist might be:

  • Completing a thorough analysis of a client website’s rank, structure, keyword density, tags, internal linking, file names, URLs, redirects and 404 errors, user-friendliness, and conversions
  • Making sure that major search engines can crawl and index a website’s content easily
  • Creating a comprehensive SEO strategy and SEO campaigns designed to increase the SERP ranking of a page or site
  • Researching relevant short-tail and long-tail keywords and phrases
  • Developing navigation schemes to increase a site’s user-friendliness and/or conversions
  • Monitoring Google Search Console and similar webmaster tools and creating reports for stakeholders
  • Creating on-page SEO and off-page SEO strategies
  • Developing optimized on-site content like articles, subject-specific pages, blog posts, white papers, guides, and product pages
  • Identifying link-building opportunities and developing guest blogs and articles as part of a broader link-building strategy
  • Analyzing competitors’ web presence, ranking, and performance
  • Suggesting website layout and design improvements that will lead to conversions
  • Updating existing tags and content with new keywords and phrases that reflect what people are searching for
  • Updating internal links, image file names, and tags
  • Helping the marketing department’s PPC specialist with keyword research or copywriting
  • Working closely with the marketing team to ensure that social media accounts are funneling users toward the website or specific pages
  • Reviewing key analytics (visits, backlinks, conversions) to determine how current SEO strategies are performing and adjusting those strategies as necessary
  • Creating content for standalone landing pages or developing video content that will live on sites like YouTube
  • Researching the latest major and minor updates to search engine algorithms, SEO tools, and technical SEO best practices

Is an SEO specialist the same thing as an SEM specialist?

Ask two different digital marketers and you may get two different answers to what is and isn’t SEM, but most people in digital marketing treat SEO services as part of SEM. Search engine marketing is an umbrella term that covers all the internal- and external-facing paid and organic steps businesses can take to maximize online visibility. SEO is just one element of SEM, which can also include email marketing, paid advertising, influencer marketing, social media marketing, and promotions. SEO specifically refers to the strategies companies use to get higher organic rankings in the SERPs, like adding keywords to site content and making sure that content is useful to searchers.

What skills are needed to become an SEO specialist?

The best SEO professionals bring a mix of attributes to the table. They tend to be:

  • Tech-savvy: You don’t need advanced programming chops to become an SEO strategist, though knowing some basic HTML is definitely helpful. You need a basic understanding of how the structure of a website can affect its search engine ranking, but you don’t need to be able to build a website from scratch.
  • Creative: A lot of SEO specialists start out as copywriters or even journalists and end up in search engine optimization because it’s comparatively easy work. At a big agency, an SEO specialist might focus on strategy because there are copywriters and artists handling creative. At smaller agencies, a search engine optimization specialist may also be responsible for writing and design.
  • Observant: The SEO specialist has to stay on top of how search engine algorithms are changing and, if possible, predict those changes. They need to know how people are using search engines and what they expect to see. And they need to be prepared to take advantage of emerging trends in search marketing like video SEO.
  • ROI-focused: SEO specialists can’t just optimize for search engines. They have to optimize for users, too, or risk being #1 in the SERPs but never making a single sale. It’s essential to be able to recognize and track the impact of optimization on revenue and to be able to funnel site visitors into the right silos.
  • Flexible: What works for optimization today may not be effective tomorrow. SEO specialists have to be able to stop on a dime and shift tactics at any time, whether because of a major change to Google’s algorithm or a drop in site performance with no apparent cause.
  • Patient: Optimizing a website takes time. You’re never really done because user habits change and search engines change from year to year. There’s always something else to optimize, and the impact of on-page and back-end changes you make today may not be evident for months.

What degrees do SEO specialists usually have?

The speed at which the rules around search engine optimization change make it hard to develop a formalized course of study. The best SEO specialists are experts in digital marketing, web development, and human behavior, but there are very few degrees that offer students a deep dive into all those subjects. A lot of SEO specialists have backgrounds in marketing or content development. Still, many positions in SEO come with on-the-job training, so it’s possible to enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in anything from marketing and English to programming and statistics (which comes in handy when analyzing site performance). That means there’s no best bachelor’s degree for SEO specialists. Search engine optimization professionals tend to pick up the discipline on their own.

Most SEO specialists don’t have marketing master’s degrees or any other master’s degrees, but specialists with their eye on an SEO manager position may decide to get one. The best choice is probably a master’s degrees in digital marketing. These degrees go by many names, such as MS in Integrated Marketing Communications, MS in Digital Marketing Communications, and MS in Digital and Social Marketing.

You may have noticed the conspicuous lack of degrees specifically for SEO specialists. There aren’t any, because results still matter more than education in this digital marketing discipline.

Do SEO specialists have specialty certifications?

As SEO has found its footing in the SEM landscape, more and more organizations have created search engine optimization certifications. Unfortunately, no official national certifying board for search engine optimization specialists exists, and some of the organizations offering SEO certifications are less reputable than others. Caveat emptor.

The Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (the closest thing to a centralized sanctioning body for the search engine optimization industry) used to offer certification courses but now only points professionals toward SEM training resources created by other organizations. Recommended certifications for SEO specialists include:

Having certifications might make an SEO specialist more hireable, but there’s no consensus on whether certification is valuable beyond the bullet point it adds to a professional’s resume. Because SEO is an ever-changing discipline, employers may see any certification that’s more than six months old as out-of-date.

How much do search engine optimization specialists make?

Not enough, SEO specialists will tell you. PayScale reports that the average SEO specialist salary is about $45,000—a figure that increases by only $20,000 for the most experienced late-career professionals. The best-paid search engine optimization marketers are probably those who can show they have produced dramatic results for past clients, possess additional SEM skills, or have a knack for data analytics. If an SEO specialist lands a job as SEO manager, they could make as much as $98,000 per year.

Does SEO have a future?

Although the media regularly report the imminent demise of SEO, there’s no logical reason to think search engine optimization is going anywhere. Every minute, Google fields 3.5. billion search queries;three hundred hours of video ( with optimizable descriptions) are added to YouTube; and, people and businesses create 380 new websites. When a website isn’t optimized to some degree, chances are it is not going to be found.

SEO is alive and well, but it’s definitely changing all the time. Today, sites need to be optimized for mobile or risk not showing up in the SERPs at all. Google is slowly but surely shifting from a search engine to an answer engine, which means that keyworded pages and sites that don’t answer user queries are increasingly being bumped out of top spots. And organic search includes more than just a site’s SERP ranking. There’s the ‘People Also Ask’ results, Answer Box results, shopping results, local results, video results, and more—all of which a knowledgeable SEO specialist can optimize for.

Of course, that’s now. Five years ago, an SEO specialist’s job didn’t have to take all these into consideration when developing an optimization strategy. Five years from now, the search engine optimization landscape will likely look very different, and so will the role SEO specialists play in SEM.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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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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